Tezpur, Oct. 24: Arunachal Pradesh police have advised against travelling after sunset in a pocket where Bodo militants are active, in a warning that could hit flow of tourists to the monastery town of Tawang that draws thousands from across the country.
A signboard at a checkpoint in Bhalukpong in West Kameng district, over 280km from Tawang, says: “People are advised to avoid travel in the area after sunset.”
Arunachal director-general of police K.K. Maheswari said threats from rebels had necessitated the advisory.
The warning follows the abduction of a senior official of the Centre-run National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) on September 21 by suspected Bodo militants. Anil Agarwal has not been released yet.
The Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) had kidnapped Agarwal, a general manager at the NHPC’s 600MW Tawang Chu-I project, from Assam’s Sonitpur district that borders Bhalukpong.
In 2010, NDFB militants had abducted an Indian Forest Service officer from the area. V.S. Bardekar, a well-known butterfly expert, was released after three months of negotiations.
Police chief Maheswari, however, said the abductions were not the only reason for the advisory. “It will be wrong to say that only the (Agarwal) kidnapping case forced us to take this step. There have been law-and-order issues in the area from before.”
The officer-in-charge of Bhalukpong police station, Mipak Riba, said some local businessmen had been receiving extortion calls from militant groups and had been advised not to take calls from unknown numbers. “We are taking all kinds of preventive security measures. The warning to commuters is part of these measures.”
Bhalukpong, around 228km from state capital Itanagar and 240km from Guwahati, has a population of around 4,000, mostly indigenous people who are dependent on agriculture.
More than 400 vehicles, excluding those of the army and the police, ply daily on National Highway 229 that passes through Bhalukpong.
But commuters aren’t the only ones inconvenienced by the travel warning, which is set to impact visitors to Tawang, home to Asia’s second-largest monastery.
According to the state government, Tawang received 21,648 tourists last year, 273 of them foreigners.
This year, the footfall was a little over 2,000 in May and 760 in June. Officials expect lower figures in the second half compared with the same period last year, the decline blamed partly on the poor condition of roads.
The night travel advisory could make things worse. “The move will affect us heavily,” said taxi driver Jiban Das from Assam’s Tezpur, one of the gateways to Arunachal that borders China.
“It takes 15 hours to reach Tezpur from Tawang. We cannot reach before sunset. It will be a big loss in terms of hours and money. Travelling to and from Bhalukpong will become very expensive.”
Mausam Pratim Dutta, a businessman, said: “What will happen to people if they have medical emergencies? Does this mean the government is not equipped to provide security? The move will only embolden the militants.”
Rituraj Gayan, a contractor who often travels through the area, said he would have to rework his schedule. “I will have to try to complete my work before 4pm.”
Arunachal IGP Satyendra Garg said the warning was a precautionary measure and not a “ban” on travelling after sunset.
“The presence of the police is less in the area, so it is not exactly safe to travel on the stretch after sunset. However, we will not stop anybody who wants to travel after sunset. The precautionary measure will continue till the law-and-order situation improves in the area,” Garg told The Telegraph from Itanagar.
Across the border in Assam’s Sonitpur, local authorities ruled out such travel restrictions.
“We have not taken this type of measure as tourists are regular travellers on this stretch,” superintendent of police Arabinda Kalita said.
Official sources said work on alternative roads, which would allow commuters to bypass Bhalukpong, was expected to be over by December.