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Border bazaar buzzing again


BACK IN BUSINESS: Bhutanese wine and oranges are sold along with Indian textiles

After two decades of militancy, historic trading points between Bhutan and Assam are active again.

Every Thursday, along the Gelephu-Dadgiri border point in Chirang district, Assam, the markets come alive with a different kind of trade. The Bhutanese side of the divide is packed with crates of oranges, wine and beer;on the Indian side, handloom textiles are piled up in inviting stacks.

This border trade between Bhutan and India has been alive for centuries. History texts talk of how the Bhutanese came down to the plains of Bodo villages to procure eri silk and cocoons. Bodo villagers in turn would barter these for items they required from the Bhutanese.

But this flourishing exchange stopped when militancy made inroads into the area. Militants took over the densely forested 267-km long unfenced Assam-Bhutan border for almost two decades. They had a free run of this thinly-populated strip of land, with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and Kamatapur Liberation Organisation militants shuttling between their camps in Bhutan and their base in Assam. Fleeing from Indian security forces, ULFA and NDFB militants set up camps in the forests of southern Bhutan. From here, they conducted covert operations. It was only in 1995 that the Bhutan government acknowledged the presence of these terror camps. Even after, it took two years for the scale of the threat to sink in and for the Bhutan government to impose restrictions on border exchanges.

The situation worsened in 2001 when Bhutanese citizens travelling through Assam were targeted by militants. Militants would also hide their kidnap victims in shelters across the border in Bhutan.

In 2003, the Royal Bhutan Army retaliated and flushed out all Indian militants from its soil. But border trade activities only returned a few years ago when the peace process started in Assam.

Today, most of the militant outfits have joined the peace process and the once dreaded border is buzzing with activity. Bhutanese wine, beer, oranges, Indian clothes, mobile phones and food items are being sold and bought at numerous informal trade points.

Puru Gupta, deputy commissioner of the district, spoke to TOI-Crest about the revival of border trade. "This place has a big market and it is very vibrant. One can see hordes of people from both countries gathering here for trade. A lot of people from Bhutan also drive down further south across Chirang district to the neighbouring towns of Bongaigaon and Kajalgaon to shop for items. "

The area also boasts a large number of picnic spots close to the border - Khanamakra-Kalamati, Kwila-Mwila, Datgiri-Hatisar in Chirang district, Sarpang, Saralpara, Jomduar in Kokrajhar district, and Darangajuli, Bogamati and Lakhibazar in Baksa district, for instance. These are frequented by quite a few Indian travellers. "The security situation is still a concern but, yes, things have improved a lot, " says Gupta. The Centre provides security to all Bhutanese vehicles that pass through Assam to ferry essential commodities or travel from the eastern part of Bhutan to the western part. Bhutanese vehicles are not allowed to move without a security convoy.

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