KOLKATA: Almost 10 years after joint operations along the Indo-Bhutanese border to flush out militant groups from the northeast taking shelter in the Himalayan kingdom, Bhutan is feeling confident enough again to increase its exchanges with Assam in education, health and business, Bhutan government sources said on Monday. With the improvement in the security scenario in Assam, "the confidence level has gone up," they added.
Last week, Bhutan government officials met Assam authorities in Dispur and discussed the possibility of sending students from Bhutan to medical and engineering colleges in Assam under the "foreign students quota." Initially, the possibility of sending two students to Guwahati Medical College and two to any of the government engineering colleges was discussed. Later, Bhutan could send students also to private engineering colleges in the state. But Bhutan would still like its students to be placed in places like Guwahati and Silchar, and not in upper Assam towns like Dibrugarh where the anti-talks faction of Ulfa was active.
Since the launch of "Operation Flushout" in December, 2003, in which the Royal Bhutan Army had taken a leading role in dismantling camps of Ulfa, NDFB and KLO in Bhutan, a sense of uncertainty had prevailed on the Assam-Bhutan border for fear of retaliation. Under advice of Indian authorities, all vehicles with Bhutanese registration number plates used to be escorted by Indian security force vehicles on the Indian side of the border. "Not 10, but for 20 years we did not send Bhutanese students for studying in Assam for security reasons," said a source.
For students of Bhutan, Assam was the natural destination as 70 per cent of the southern border of Bhutan was with Assam, it was pointed out. Border towns in Bhutan like Gelephu and Samdrupjonkkhar were only a few hours drive from Guwahati. But a disproportionately larger number of Bhutanese students were studying in places like Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Bhutanese consul general in Kolkata Tsering Wangda estimated that about 1,400 students were studying in Darjeeling, Siliguri, Cooch Behar and Kolkata in West Bengal.
"While the arrangement for escorting vehicles from Bhutan on the Assam border is still on, some Bhutanese, in their private vehicles are now driving to the Indian side of the border on their own," a source said. A few patients from Samdrup Jongkhar in Bhutan were also being sent to Guwahati now for treatment in hospitals. It was believed that the security situation had improved because people in the Bodoland Terriitorial Autonomous District, too, had understood that normalization of relations with Bhutan would help the Bodo population economically.
Nearly 1,000 people from BTAD area, mainly electricians, carpenters and plumbers, travel to the border towns of Bhutan daily for work, it was estimated. Bhutan depended for much of its supply of meat, too, on the BTAD area and Jaigaon in Bengal, as there is a ban on animal slaughter in Bhutan.