Millennium Post

Wringing the chicken’s neck

The centre’s recent decision to arrange for special citizenship documents for the people living in the Siliguri chicken’s neck corridor areas does not come a moment too soon, according to Kolkata-based analysts.

Large scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh, the unfettered movement of armed Nepali refugees from Bhutan and a palpable demographic change in the North Bengal-Bihar areas were causes enough for concern in New Delhi. Recent ongoing negotiations between Bhutan and China with a bid to work out new border arrangements proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, as far as Indian interests were concerned. With China set to secures a presence in the Chumbi valley area in Bhutan, 500 kms to the north of Siliguri, as has been agreed in the bilateral talks, regional security defence implications for India have acquired a critical dimension.

Over the decades, there has been a neglect of national security considerations in the East. What is astonishing, in retrospect, is the centre’s inaction in the face of pro-Pak forces within Bangladesh, clearly inimical to India, encouraging illegal infiltration into the northeast states, West Bengal and parts of Bihar, altering the demographic patterns of many areas dramatically. As the decadal census figures show, the percentage of Muslim population in the 11 West Bengal districts rose by 25 to 35 per cent during 1981-1991, whereas similar increase for other communities was only half as much. No wonder many observers have described the phenomenon as a ‘soft, silent invasion.’

The outcome has been devastating for the region, as evident from the recent riots between illegal Muslim settlers and the indigenous Bodo tribesmen in Assam. For the first time, the northeast riots led to widespread unrest and a panicky exodus within India on an unprecedented scale. Worse, it is by no means as though the situation is under control, because similar riots have been occurring periodically over the years.

Political parties ruling at the centre and in the states of East and northeast India have been the major culprits responsible for allowing things to run out of control. Agitations, both nonviolent and otherwise, to help the ‘locals’ protect their rights, identity, security and property, were derailed by political parties that sought to perpetuate their own dominance by encouraging cynical vote bank politicking. The interests of indigenous Muslims too, were ignored.

The demographics of Assam have changed over the years. Reports have appeared about the mushrooming of mosques and madrasas in the eight border districts of West Bengal, from around 300 or so along the line of the border, to over 900 within two decades.

In the belt surrounding the narrow Siliguri corridor [about 200 kms long and only 20 to 60 kms wide], there has occurred a dramatic increase in the number of madrasas in recent years. Interestingly, the unregistered ‘schools’ continue to flourish and grow, without any kind of official monitoring as to their syllabus, methods of education or financial sourcing.

Problems posed by a flourishing illegal arms trade, gunrunning, smuggling, drugs and women trafficking have compounded the scenario. Security watchers do not rule out a situation where the local population may fall prey to hostile anti-national propaganda and run out of control in times of any conflict along the lines of the 1962 war, for instance. There have been reports of regular meetings between the Tablig-e-Jamat of Bangladesh and the Harkat-ul-Ansar group of Nepal in the area. Activists of the ULFA, the NSCN and the KLO are also present here. These organisations are known to have links with the Pakistan intelligence agency ISI. ‘In the event of an armed conflict with any country in this region, it would be relatively easy for a strong attacker to cut off the 20 kms narrow corridor and isolate mainland India from its Eastern states and northeast peripheries,’ says a defence analyst.

While Siliguri is the gateway to Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh as a major trading and business centre, not to mention as the entrance to the northeast and beyond, the recent dialogue between China and Bhutan suggest that India would do well to prepare for potential hostilities, in the light of the 1962 war. China has a direct interest in Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh, and past territorial claims over some regions.

The insistence on setting up their presence in the Chumbi valley indicates long-term defence strategy planning by China. By establishing strong road and rail links from Tibet to close to the Indian border and increasing connectivity with Nepal and Bhutan, China seeks to carry its defence preparedness to the point where India might become vulnerable. [IPA]
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