That the situation in the two Indian states of Assam and West Bengal, bordering the southern foothills, is likely to get more disruptive is not good news for Bhutan. At a time, when it looked like things had calmed down to a quite an extent, the mood to agitate and disrupt normal life in the two bordering states has been sparked again by the Indian government agreeing to the creation of the Republic&’s 29th state, Telangana.
As soon as word was out last week that the ruling coalition had decided on Telangana, the Bodos in Assam and the GJMM in Darjeeling district began agitating for separate states they have been demanding for years now. The first unsuspecting victims of the situation have been several hundred students in West Bengal&’s Darjeeling district, who were asked to return home earlier this week, before the start of an indefinite strike or bandh in the neighbouring hills.
Many Bhutanese parents are not sure what to do because, if things get worse, their child could lose a year waiting for the situation to sort itself out. While those in private boarding schools could perhaps continue within Bhutan or elsewhere, those attending colleges in the hills, because they could not qualify for admissions within the country, will be most affected.
Although security forces have been sent into the hills to keep the situation calm and ensure government offices are at least functioning, there have been incidents on the highway, like burning of vehicles, that makes travelling to the hills risky.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Assam, the situation has been unpredictable for quite some time, and the security escort provided by the government of India, now lifted, has allowed Bhutanese to travel through the state to reach south central and eastern parts of the country. Now the Bodo region has all the more reason to agitate even more aggressively. Some of the biggest losers of the unrest have been arrested development in the bordering districts of Sarpang and Samdrupjongkhar.
The district towns have barely changed in the past two and a half decades, and those with money and ideas long moved elsewhere to invest and start businesses. In recent years, the regular strikes have significantly delayed the completion of the Dungsam cement project in Nganglam by more than a year, and led to a cost overrun of Nu 3B.
The disruptive situation in the border areas has once again raised the need to have an internal southern highway as soon as possible. Work on building such a highway has already started in sections. The Gelephu-Tsirang highway is being widened and strengthened, so that heavy hydropower equipment can be transported quickly from the nearest railway stations in Assam. This could also be affected. Besides significant impact on business and economy since India is our largest trading partner, a disruptive border also raises concerns of internal security.