Regional teamwork drives farewell to arms

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 October, 2009, 12:00am

For decades, Indian rebels in the northeast of the country have waged a low-level separatist war. Their troop numbers are relatively small, but what they lack in strength they have made up for in persistence and evasiveness, seeking refuge across the porous national borders that cross the region whenever Indian troops closed in.

But all that is changing. The rebels have become the target of an intense multinational crackdown, as sympathetic neighbouring governments join forces with New Delhi to flush out the embattled fighters.

Now facing pressure in Bangladesh and Bhutan, many have apparently been left with no option - except returning to India and surrendering to Indian authorities. And with the Indian home ministry hinting at a major domestic crackdown on the northeast rebels if they fail to surrender soon, other separatist groups hiding inside India have also shown interest in giving up arms.

This month about 400 guerillas surrendered to Indian authorities in Assam state, ending an insurgency that weaved back and forth over the borders separating India, Bangladesh and Bhutan, depending on the tendencies of various administrations. Although the exact number of Indian rebels hiding in Bangladesh and Bhutan is not known, Indian security officials believe it to be somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500.

'In Bangladesh the pressure on the Indian rebels began mounting right from the beginning of this year. Including their top leaders, up to 1,500 rebels from half a dozen Indian separatist groups could be hiding there right now, we guess,' an Indian army major engaged in counter-insurgency operations in Assam said.

'In Bhutan's forests they could number up to 2,000 now and according to our intelligence, the rebels were crossing over to Bhutan from Assam and West Bengal [state] even in recent weeks.'

The troop movements reflect recent events in Bangladesh, once the main external base for the rebels.

When Indian army, police and paramilitaries launched a huge anti-separatist campaign in 1991, Operation Rhino, many members of the banned groups simply melted over the border to Bangladesh.

That was until 1996, when India-friendly Sheikh Hasina Wajed became prime minister and ordered her army to dismantle the rebel bases, at the behest of New Delhi.

Many of the rebels fled to Bhutan's forests and built their bases there. When Begum Khaleda Zia took power from Hasina in 2001, some of the rebels returned to Bangladesh in the expectation of more sympathetic treatment. Their return to Bangladesh was hastened in 2003, when Bhutan flushed out about 3,000 fighters from the United Assam Liberation Front (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and other Indian rebel groups. Again, Bangladesh was the most popular base for the separatists.

But there are few certainties in South Asian politics. In January, Hasina became prime minister for a second term after her triumphant return from medical exile in the US, and one of her first acts was to announce that she would not to allow Bangladesh's territory to be used for anti-Indian activities - signalling the rebels to leave the country where they had run their bases and even owned businesses for years.

As pressure began mounting on the rebels in Bangladesh, and with Indian home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram hinting at a stronger counter-insurgency crackdown on home territory, many of the northeastern rebels sneaked back into Bhutan and the Himalayan kingdom's southern forests.

The movements did not go unnoticed. In August, Chidambaram raised New Delhi's concerns about the rebels in a meeting with King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, who assured him that Bhutan would take action.

Bhutan now says the Indian rebels pose a security threat to its own internal security.

'[Bhutanese] anti-national groups such as the Maoists, Bhutan Tiger Force and the Revolutionary Youth of Bhutan are receiving guerilla, sabotage and other military training from the ULFA and Bodo militants,' said Bhutan's joint secretary of the law and order bureau, Karma Namgyal, adding that his country would flush out the foreign rebels.

While the planned crackdown is yet to begin, pressure in Bangladesh has already borne results.

Since Hasina returned to power, about 600 rebels have surrendered to authorities in Assam and neighbouring Tripura state. At the biggest mass surrender, about 400 Assamese separatists, members of the Dima Halam Daogah group, handed over their weapons and pledged to lead a peaceful life.

An Assam-based intelligence officer said teams comprising intelligence officers and former rebels have been working for years to bring 'misguided' rebels back to the mainstream and have recently had 'good success'. But some former cadres have reportedly become involved in extortion and other crimes.

While 30 different separatist groups are still active across seven northeast Indian states, Assam, a state rich in oil, tea and gas, is the worst hit by separatist violence.

The ULFA is considered the deadliest, having carried out about two dozen attacks in northeast India over the past eight years. Indian authorities suspect the ULFA engineered 13 synchronised blasts in Assam on October 30 last year, which killed more than 85 people.

Established in 1979, the ULFA seeks a separate homeland for Assamese people and demands non-indigenous Hindi-speaking migrants leave Assam. The ULFA says it will give up arms only if New Delhi meets its core demand of a sovereign and independent Assam.

Indian officers said they expected the crackdown in Bangladesh and Bhutan to lead to more surrenders.

'With the king himself giving the assurance, we hope Bhutan will begin the crackdown soon, with India's logistical and other support,' Suresh Yadav, a battalion commander of India's Border Security Force in West Bengal, said. 'In the past, whenever the rebels faced pressure in Bangladesh and Bhutan we saw an increase in the number of surrenders by the rebels. This time too both countries appear serious in their commitment. We hope a big number of the rebels will be forced to surrender here.'