A spurt in activities in Buddhist monasteries and caves strung along India’s border with Nepal and Bhutan has of late aroused suspicion and prompted a greater vigil.
Such has been the buzz around these monasteries in recent times that a new powder keg of espionage could be simmering in the corridor. Understandably, the suspected Chinese activity in these borderlands – camouflaged in spirituality, Mandarin studies, free FM radio sets and food-for-work aid – is not exactly inspiring confidence in New Delhi.
So, just as the Chinese officials here are working to ensure that new Chinese President Li Keqiang’s visit next month will take Sino-Indian ties to the next level, India’s internal security bosses have ordered an audit on the border monasteries, aiming to monitor the toing and froing and who is funding it.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) border security management wing has shot off “confidential” notes to its departments in West Bengal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh to keep it in the loop on the intelligence gathered with the assistance of the Sashastra Seema Bal and BSF. The state governments too have been asked to give reports.
In the last three years, numerous Buddhist cave monasteries have sprung up, reinforcing India’s fears of Chinese espionage. Especially at a time when Chinese spy agencies seem to have focused on the sector after a period of lull.
Sources say Nepal has flatly refused to monitor these “suspicious” activities. In January, a team of officials sent to Kathmandu to seek help in restraining China’s food-for-work aid in the border areas was actuallty snubbed. Often, high-level intervention from New Delhi has turned counter-productive for the unstable political dispensation in Kathmandu.
One spur for the audit, sources say, was an intelligence input on the sudden influx of 400-500 Tibetan refugees from Nepal in the last two quarters. This happened despite a crackdown on Tibetan refugees entering Nepal through the remote Mustang sector, north-west of Kathmandu.
Since the border monasteries work as stopover points for all Tibetan refugees coming into India, the detection of dubious elements among them is near-impossible. Intelligence reports hint at low-ranking Chinese army personnel and pro-China monks mingling with the refugees.
In 2012, the Uttar Pradesh SSB chief had alerted the Centre about Chinese-funded Mandarin learning centres in Nepal’s Terai districts bordering UP–Kailali, Bardiya, Banke, Dang and Surkhet. Security fears have risen about the uptick in the Chinese presence in Nepal’s easternmost Mechi zone too, where the districts of Jhapa, Ilam and Panchthar flank Bihar, north Bengal’s Siliguri and Sikkim. Around 2002, senior lamas had sought New Delhi’s support to introduce Mandarin in monastery-run schools. India, hoping for a beneficial spin-off, was well disposed towards the idea.
At least 17 monasteries on the Indo-Bhutan border offer Mandarin as a course. “Indian agencies don’t extend any financial help to these schools. There are credible inputs that the money for salary, books and infrastructure comes from China,” said an MHA source.
A recent intelligence report suggests these easily available camouflages are being used by both Chinese and Pakistani espionage networks to set up shops in this region, which hosts the 33 Corps headquarters at Sukna in north Bengal and has potential supply routes for Indian Maoists. Bhutan, with its 699 km border with India, has a proximal presence in all these areas.
India sees Chinese FM radio stations airing from across the border as potential carriers of propaganda. The MHA note mentions the distribution of free radio sets among villagers on the Indian side. “From spirituality to entertainment, everything is being scanned under orders from New Delhi,” a top MHA official posted in West Bengal quipped.