Wednesday, Dec 24, 2003
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CORNERED BY BHUTAN, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) is threatening to hit back in the manner it knows best vent its anger on ordinary, defenceless people. Its threat to issue "quit notices" to Bhutanese living in the Northeast and its order to Assamese to sever their links with Bhutanese traders who do business in the region to avenge the military operation against it in Bhutan are entirely in keeping with its track record of terrorism against civilians in the name of liberation. One of the reasons Bhutan did not act before this forcibly to eject various Northeast insurgent groups that had established comfortable bases in its territory was the fear of a backlash. Bhutan is considerably dependent on the infrastructure of the Northeast for its links with the outside world. Its people, who have traditional economic networks in the Northeast, travel freely in the area. Hit hard by the current operation and failing to touch a chord in Thimpu with its appeal for a ceasefire on the ground of a "historical bond" between the Bhutanese and the Assamese, ULFA evidently hopes that intimidatory tactics might work better. In this context, the ULFA leadership's complaint that Bhutan is not complying with the Geneva Convention provisions on civilians in warfare is particularly disingenuous.
Having finally decided to clean up southern Bhutan of the insurgents, the Bhutanese authorities are unlikely to submit to such bullying. For its part, India must make it clear that it will not tolerate any anti-Bhutanese activities on its soil by ULFA or the other affected extremist groups, the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). As with the attacks on Hindi-speaking "outsiders" in Assam last month, ULFA, banned by India as a terrorist organisation, sees in the Bhutanese crackdown an opportunity to regain popular sympathy among the Assamese who have been repelled by its extreme brutality and violence. The ULFA-sponsored 48-hour general strike in Assam over the weekend provided only an ambiguous indication of where the extremist organisation stands in the State. The moderate response could have been as much out of a fear of reprisal for non-compliance as an expression of solidarity with ULFA. As the outcome of the Bhutanese action for Assam becomes clearer in the coming days, the Indian authorities need to be extra-vigilant to ensure that ULFA does not carry out revenge attacks in the Northeast. Crucially, the Centre and the Assam Government must be careful not to provide any opportunity to ULFA to turn the present situation into an emotional lightning rod in Assam.
The consequences of Bhutan's action for the rest of the Northeast will also bear watching. The NDFB and the KLO are much smaller than ULFA but by virtue of being thrown together in their present crisis, the chances of the three joining hands to create trouble cannot be ruled out. Equally important is the reaction of other militant groups in the region. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), which is in talks and a ceasefire with the Indian Government, was one of the groups in the region to issue a strike call in solidarity with ULFA, the NDFB and the KLO. India can thank Bhutan for the long-awaited action against insurgents using its territory but must now be prepared for the possible fallout.
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