It was probably in Autumn of 1993 when I made a trip to my house in the uplands of Kalikhola, subdivision of the Dagana district, lying on the Indo-Bhutan border at the fringes of the Kumargram tea garden of West Bengal. It was a risky journey through thickets of Assam along the trails used by Asiatic elephants and traditional herders.
I had one night’s stop in a herder’s shack (goth), one of five huddled amidst the vast expanse of the subtropical forest of Assam on India-Bhutan border. My own father was one of the herdsmen. He had a cattle farm of about 40 local cows and bulls. Cattle rearing supported the family’s subsistence economy, a traditional occupation the villagers had not abandoned.
The next day, I yearned to be at home. My brother and I started our journey after having had a breakfast of rice pudding. Not far on, the height of Dudhe (the herders’ seasonal station), we met some men carrying loads of bundled timber. The wood was old and smoke stained in places. They looked at us suspiciously and we did not dare stare at them.
Descending the ridge towards the Nichula river, we passed another three or four men staggering as they carried their loads of tin sheets rolled to bundles. Muscular, stout and well built, the Bodo people from Assam took out the planks and beams of abandoned houses in the village and carried the wood across thickets. The houses belonged to those who had fled the village after the government crackdown following a pro-democratic protest in the early 1990s.
During the night spent in my house, I heard a pounding noise throughout. The men were working with hammers, crowbars and saws to unscrew the galvanized tin roofing and remove the hardwood timber from the houses. By daybreak they set off with the stolen prize. The villagers didn’t have the courage to resist, nor were they willing to report the vandalism to the administration.
Interestingly, the Meche- as the people were commonly known, salvaged items from Gup Sanman Gurung’s house while the family was living in a second house they owned on the other side.
In those days Indian separatist groups found sanctuary in the evacuated villages and settlements of Bhutan’s subtropical forest.
Later around 1996, I learned from talking to my family that the King, disguised and travelling with an ordinary army patrol, passed by the village unnoticed and hurried up the trail that the militants used to commute in and out of their hideouts in the deep jungle of upper Nichula. However there was no way to confirm the visit of the King to the militant’s camp.
One another occasion in 1997 I walked up to the village like a detective. On the way I saw the Indian militants walking in a single file with arms, but I did not encounter them. When I got home, I learned they had been shopping for village products of meat, poultry and vegetables, scantily grown by the villagers that were still living in the area.
“They buy from us, paying worth the price”, a relative told me.
There was no market for any of the farm produce from the villages in Nichula gewog at that time (none at this time too), so they had limited cash and a dwindling economy. The only cash they could earn was by selling their cattle to the few Assamese people or by selling their milk and butter to one unreliable carrier from Bongaon. The militants provided a temporary source of cash for them.
I also learned that the militants used one Durga Mishra’s house as their make-shift casino where they stopped, ate, and played games when they had the time. They even patrolled the village providing a sense of security against any robbers or unknown visitors. We were taught to be wary of them.
“They can round you up if they find you and you cannot prove that you are from the village,” my father warned me.
It is probably a way to show benevolence or social harmony when one is taking refuge in another’s property.
In one instance, they assaulted Surabir Basnet of Bichgaon after suspecting him of reporting their activities to the army base in Kalikhola. He was rescued from their bullets by the local leaders, the Gup and others who promised that he would not be spying on them again.
The militants had built a raft to ferry goods across the Sunkosh river at a point of low water between Kerabari and Alay Kataharay (villages on either side of the river Sunkosh). The villagers on both sides obviously took advantage of this crude transportation in the absence of a bridge.
In 2004, soldiers from the military base in Kalikhola rounded up 13 people from that subdivision on the pretext that they had been assisting the militants. However, these groups had walked openly with their arms along the main route to Kalikhola market, not to be missed by the army patrol.
Bhim Prasad Dulal (name changed) of Kataharay village was accused of providing storage facilities for the militants’ food and other supplies. He served four years in Samdrupjongkhar jail. Kaldan Gurung (name changed) admitted to using horses to transport their supplies for which the militants paid him a handsome wage.
The late Pushpa Lal Subedi, another villager apprehended and jailed, claimed he had been unjustly arrested, and his plea fell on deaf ears. The separatists had used one Adhikari’s house for the wedding ceremony among the cadres. Luckily the Adhikari family was spared from arrest by the Bhutan army.
The gullible villagers that I talked to knew of the group as ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam), but they didn’t know how to distinguish them as either the KLO (Kamtapuri Liberation Organization), the NDFB (National Democratic Front of Bodoland), or the ULFA.
The ULFA was the oldest and most vibrant separatist organization of Assam, so they knew it well.
Researching the articles about Operation All Clear – the term used for the military action – I came upon one side of the story: the Bhutanese version spoken and written by the Indian researchers and journalists. No independent researchers have probed into the circumstances leading to the flushing out of these Indian separatist groups from Bhutan.
One that I like to quote is from IPCS vol.18, January 2004, which states:
It soon became clear that Operation All Clear was a resounding success. By day one, the RBA had inflicted heavy casualties on the militants including the life of an ULFA commander, Rahul Datta. Attacks were launched on all camps in turn. By 5 January, 2004, the RBA declared that the last of the 30 camps were burnt down. The Kuensel reported that more than 500 AK 47/56 assault rifles, an anti-aircraft gun, 328 other assorted weapons including rocket launchers and mortars as well as 100,000 rounds of ammunition were confiscated.
The authors, Dipankar Banerjee and Bidhan S Laishra, just reported the official Bhutan version of the military operation without touching on what really happened in those campsites and the villages nearby.
In retrospect, I feel it was an act of shame by the 78th session of the National Assembly of Bhutan to punish those who “helped” the militants. When the security bases on the border didn’t bother to check the free and open movement of militants, why then criminalize the innocent folk’s friendly attitude for an existential relationship?
The author is one of the contributing editors of BNS.