The main problem in the North East remains. In spite of the Central Government’s efforts, alienation of the people and perceived grievances still continue. These get multiplied many times as and when reports of molestation and rape of girls from the region and humiliation to North East youth in other parts of the country are reported. These incidents get more than due publicity in electronic and print media of the North East. Such incidents make the North Easterners feel that they are still discriminated against – economically, politically and socially. But all the allegations are not true. The Central Government has provided crores of rupees to all the North East states for development projects. Some of these states survive only on Central Government largesse. The slow implementation of projects cannot be blamed on the Centre alone. Problems such as corruption, bureaucratic delays, power shortages and poor work culture delay completion of projects. Besides, the activities of militants, extremists and Anti-National Elements (ANE) further complicate the situation.
North East India, sharing boundaries with five countries, has tremendous strategic significance for the nation…
North East India, sharing boundaries with five countries, some of them not friendly with India, has tremendous strategic significance for the nation. This coupled with prevailing insurgency, terrorism as well as ethnic conflicts in some areas of the region as well as being the fulcrum for India’s “Look East” Policy (or “Act East” Policy as enunciated by Prime Minister Modi) deserves special attention from the Centre as well as from civil society.
However, there have been distinct changes in the pattern of unrest and conflicts since 1956 when the first armed struggle in the North East by the Naga rebels commenced in the Naga Hill district of erstwhile Assam. Some of the changes are positive but many are negative. The region which consisted of only one state Assam and two Union territories Tripura and Manipur in the 1950s now comprises seven states known as “The Seven Sisters”. The Seven Sisters unfortunately do not have the best of relations due to mutually conflicting interests.
If one goes by the classical definition of insurgency as an armed struggle by a section of people against the lawfully constituted government, it can be concluded that classical insurgency has almost ceased to exist in the region. The most important element of an insurgent movement is the popular support which has greatly eroded in the recent past.
The situation has been brought under control by coordinated efforts of the Indian Army, Paramilitary Forces, State Police and Intelligence Agencies. Unfortunately, the political leadership at the Centre as well as the state though could have provided much better vision and direction. The contribution of civil society, student organisations, NGOs, intellectuals and media cannot be over emphasized. But much is needed to be done for sustainable peace in this strategic region. The fissiparous tendencies exhibited by some tribes as well as multi-directional aspiration of various ethnic groups have added new dimensions to the internal security situation.
In Manipur, of the more than 50 small or big extremist groups, many are in Suspension of Operations (SoO) with the Central Government.
Extremism, terrorism, gun-running and other forms of criminal activities have over taken classical insurgency. Insurgents in earlier decades followed an established code of conduct. Strictly speaking, the situation is under control in most parts of the region, except for in Manipur, parts of Northern Assam and some areas around the Assam-Arunachal and Assam-Meghalaya borders.
Yet it will not be correct to state that the overall situation in the region has dramatically improved in the recent past. The population especially in the remote areas has not yet gained requisite confidence in the administration as well as law enforcing agencies. In fact, extortion, kidnapping, killing, intimidation and gun-running have increased many times. Militants, terrorists, surrendered militants and disgruntled youth are indulging in nefarious activities. Unfortunately, many of these activities are mostly in the domain of “Law and Order” and beyond the purview of the Army. The army is deployed in some states for carrying out Counter Insurgency operations
On paper, things look much better. In Nagaland, all the three major insurgent groups are in Ceasefire with the Government of India. The mother of all groups NSCN (IM) was the first to join the Ceasefire process in 1997. In Manipur, of the more than 50 small or big extremist groups, many are in Suspension of Operations (SoO) with the Central Government. But the most dominant groups i.e. the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) still retain sufficient potency to carry out violent activities. In Assam, except the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) (NDFB (S)) and the United Liberation Front of Assam – Anti Talk (ULFA (AT)), most of the smaller groups are dormant. Even ULFA (AT) has not been able to show its presence.
Of course, the group led by Paresh Baruah, does draw the attention of the media and Government by killing unarmed and innocent civilians. They are also involved in extortion, particularly in Upper Assam. The strength of the group is now under 300 and many of the members are reluctant foot soldiers, who, given a suitable opportunity, are likely to surrender and join the mainstream. Similarly, Mizoram, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh are relatively peaceful. In Meghalaya, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) has been indulging in terror activities in some areas.
Extremism, terrorism, gun-running and other forms of criminal activities have over taken classical insurgency…
But the main problem in the North East remains. In spite of the Central Government’s efforts, alienation of the people and perceived grievances still continue. These get multiplied many times as and when reports of molestation and rape of girls from the region and humiliation to North East youth in other parts of the country are reported. These incidents get more than due publicity in electronic and print media of the North East. Such incidents make the North Easterners feel that they are still discriminated against – economically, politically and socially. But all the allegations are not true. The Central Government has provided crores of rupees to all the North East states for development projects. Some of these states survive only on Central Government largesse. The slow, implementation of projects cannot be blamed on the Centre alone. Problems such as corruption, bureaucratic delays, power shortages and poor work culture delay implementation of projects. Besides, the activities of militants, extremists and Anti-National Elements (ANE) further complicate the situation.
The Naga militant groups have taken full advantage of the Ceasefire. All the Naga groups, primarily the NSCN (IM) are running parallel Governments in the state and are trying to increase their area of influence. The annual budget of the underground groups keeps increasing every year. The NSCN (IM) budget for 2013-2014 was pegged at Rs 113 crore of which Rs 57 crore was earmarked for the Naga Army, the military wing of NSCN (IM). What is the need for fresh recruitment, arms procurement while the talks reportedly are progressing towards a final solution?
All of the three militant groups namely NSCN (K), NSCN (KK) and NSCN (M) are trying to enhance their area of influence and also dominate towns like Dimapur where ‘funds’ are available. Thus, Inter-Factional Clashes (IFC) among the insurgent groups are quite common although there has been some reduction during 2014.
Myanmar continues to be the main base of all North East insurgent groups…
The situation in Manipur is extremely complex. The Meities, who constitute 56 per cent of the state’s population of almost thirty lakh, occupy only ten per cent of the geographical area particularly the valley region. The Nagas, with a population of approximately seven lakh, reside in the hilly areas of the State and are deeply suspicious of the Meities. The Kukis who are sandwiched between the Nagas and the Meities constitute 7.5 per cent of the population and are demanding a separate Kuki State.
Myanmar continues to be the main base for all North East insurgent groups particularly of the Valley Based Insurgent Groups (VBIGs). Taking advantage of their nexus with low level Myanmar Army (MA) and Intelligence personnel, the VBIGS operate with immunity inside Myanmar. Secondly, the area in Myanmar adjacent to Arunachal and Nagaland hardly has any presence of Security Forces. Most of major militant groups (ULFA, NDFB, VBIG, NSCN (K)) are based in these remote and inaccessible areas. These areas are the stronghold of the NSCN (K) supremo Khaplang who is a Hemi Naga from Myanmar. Khaplang, over 80 years of age, is still a dominant force to reckon with.
In May 2012, the Myanmar Government had granted autonomy to NSCN (K) in three districts of Sagaging division which has further bolstered the militant groups having nexus with the NSCN (K) and made it difficult for MA to operate against Indian insurgent groups. Moreover, in spite of the pressure exerted by the Indian Government, the Myanmar Government has not shown the requisite seriousness in dealing with Indian insurgent groups located at Myanmar. Many of these militant groups have close nexus with Kachin Independence Army (KIA) who are fighting for a homeland in Myanmar.
What is greatly worrying is the fact that almost all sophisticated arms being used by insurgent groups are of Chinese origin…
The sincerity of Bangladesh as well as the Bhutan Government in dealing with Indian insurgent groups must be appreciated. These two countries have taken strong action to evict Indian militants from their soil. The ‘All Clear’ operations carried out by the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) in 2003 had given a serious blow to ULFA, NDFB and KLO. It is extremely unlikely that militants will again find sanctuary in Bhutan. Similarly, Sheikh Hasina’s Government has gone out of its way to take action against Indian militants operating from Bangladesh. Nepal has also cooperated with India in this regard. Many important leaders including UNLF supremo R.K Meghan were arrested because of cooperation from the Nepal Government. Thus, except in Myanmar, militants’ support base in foreign countries has greatly reduced.
However, the disturbing input is that the Chinese Intelligence Agency are now reportedly in contact with NE insurgent leaders particularly with the Manipuri as well as with Paresh Baruah of ULFA. Baruah who is on the ‘Wanted List’ of the Bangladesh Government for the Chittagong arms haul case of 2002, reportedly frequents between Myanmar and Yunnan province of China. It is pertinent to note that China had supported the NE groups with arms and training since the 1950s. The last visit of Muviah of NSCN (IM) to China was in 1977.
However, since the 1980s, the Chinese have stopped their support to NE militant groups. Inputs now indicate that there is a reversal of policy. The Chinese Intelligence Agency has reportedly asked the NE militant groups to form a single entity to enable them to get support from China. Moreover, Chinese intelligence personnel have tasked some NE militant leaders to acquire tactical as well as strategic inputs regarding Indian Defence Forces. But what is greatly worrying is the fact that almost all sophisticated arms being used by insurgent groups are of Chinese origin. Whether or not the Chinese government is involved in the supply of arms to insurgent groups, is debatable.
Probably, middle-ranking PLA leaders as well as international smugglers are involved in such arms deals with the North East insurgent groups. These arms not only find their way to various militant groups but also to anti-national elements. Reportedly, Paresh Baruah is the main gun-runner. That is one of the reasons that in spite of depleted strength and support base of ULFA, Paresh Baruah still has relevance. One should not forget that the Chittagong arms seizure in 2002, where seven truck loads of arms and ammunitions seized by Bangladesh Rapid Action Forces, were for ULFA and other North East insurgent groups. All these arms were of Chinese origin. Moreover, it has been reported that Paresh Baruah is attempting to unite the NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K) at the behest of Chinese Intelligence Agency
The disturbing input is that the Chinese intelligence Agency is now reportedly in contact with NE insurgent leaders…
The NE people also feel betrayed that the Centre instead of planning holistic solutions to the problems of North East, always get involved in quick-fix solutions. Moreover, many bureaucrats and politicians involved in the dialogue with militant groups are not well aware of the complexities of the region. Hence, most of the accords and deals have ended in failure.
It should not be forgotten that the NE which has eight per cent of the total Indian landmass and about four per cent of the people is full of diversity. There are more than 75 tribes in the region speaking more than 400 dialects and languages. Quick-fix solutions to appease one group do not provide long term solutions. Another very pertinent issue is that tribal affiliations spill across the geographical borders of the states. For example, the Nagas live in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Myanmar besides Nagaland. Exactly for this reason, the NSCN (IM) is demanding for Greater Nagaland (Nagalim), which will include areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh as well as Manipur. The present area of Nagaland is 16,500 sq.km. However, if their demand for Greater Nagaland is accepted, the area will become 120,000 sq.km. Obviously, no state will like to give up territory. Hence, a permanent solution is not very easy.
Another very important issue to be noted is that the NE people are extremely sensitive and emotional. The psyche of the people needs to be appreciated before making political statements. There are many instances when a casual statement or even a well-meaning policy has been resented since people have not been taken into confidence. The ‘emotional barrier’ with Delhi is much more than the physical barrier which needs to be factored in before major policies can be formulated.
To quote one instance, during the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Prime Minister Nehru while speaking on All India Radio on 20 November 1962 said, “Huge Chinese armies have been marching in the Northern part of NEFA. We have had reverses at Walong, Sela and today Bomdila.A small town of NEFA has also fallen. We should not rest till the invader goes out of India or is pushed out. I want to make that clear to all of you and specially our countrymen in Assam, to whom our heart goes out at this moment.” Probably, Nehru had conveyed his sincere feelings for the people of Assam for their suffering but the Assamese may have felt that Nehru had bid farewell to the people of Assam and some still feel hurt by this statement of Nehru.
Mizoram is the only successful model of any accord signed in the NE Region… >
Even good intention has been misunderstood since the Central Government has not been able to interact adequately with people on sensitive issues. The latest being the land swapping agreement between India and Bangladesh. This deal is advantageous to both the countries especially for the people living in the remote areas. The boundary between India and Bangladesh will be settled once and for all, as and when this agreement is implemented. The people however feel that their land will be given to Bangladesh without any corresponding gain. Many political parties also take advantage of such issues.
Another similar issue was the extension of ceasefire with NSCN (IM) in Manipur. The ceasefire was extended in 2001 to the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur without analysing the likely implications on the Meitie population. This led to large scale violence in Manipur and the Central Government had to reverse this decision. This also widened the gap between Meities and Nagas.
The insurgency problem in Tripura is due to the demographic inversion of the population. The tribal population which was 70 per cent in 1931 declined to 28 per cent in 2001. The tribals operating from the safe sanctuaries in Bangladesh, had taken up arms. However the situation is now well under control. Due credit must be given to the State Government which has instituted a number of measures for the upliftment of the tribals.
Mizoram is the only successful model of any accord signed in the NE Region. Laldenga, former Mizo National Front leader, signed the historic Mizo Accord with the Central Government in 1986. However, of late, the gap between Mizos and non-Mizos has been widening. Besides, Mizoram is used for smuggling of arms and drugs. The smaller ethnic population like Brus and Hmars are uncomfortable in the state. Socially, the drug culture has affected the youth of the state.
The greatest threat is the emergence of Jihadi elements in Assam…
Although, one can be happy with the overall improvement of the situation in the North East, the way the Central Government has been handling such issues reflects some sort of ‘Divide and Rule’ policy, though this may not be true. The NSCN is divided into three major factions. The ULFA is divided into pro-talk and anti-tlk factions and each faction is gunning for the other. The ULFA, which in its formative years, got cadres from all tribes, caste and religion does not get such volunteers these days. They are now motivating immigrant Muslims to join the organisation. The Bodo terrorist group, NDFB is also divided into three factions.
Similar is the case with many other militant outfits. The Kuki militant group now has fourteen groups. Attempting to divide militant groups on religion, tribal loyalty as well as ethnic loyalties indicates a short term policy on the part of the Government. It is common knowledge that in the early 1990s, RAW had supported the Khaplang faction of the NSCN to counter the NSCN (IM) which had the blessings of another intelligence agency.
Another important aspect is that all the warring groups are not asking for Independence from India. While ULFA wants at least on paper, cessation from India, some groups like KPLT (Karbi groups operating in Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council of Assam), Dima Hasao Daroga (Dimasa group operating in Dima Hasao Autonomous Council) and Kamatapur Liberations Organisation (KLO) active in lower Assam as well as North Bengal are demanding separate states, but within the Indian constitution. Then, there are some Adivasi groups five of whom ar active in the state of Assam, who are only demanding Schedule Tribe status.
The insurgency problem in Tripura is due to the demographic inversion of the population…
Similarly, the Kukis in Manipur are demanding a separate entity within Manipur. To appease such ethnic groups and sub-groups and meet their aspirations, the State Government particularly in Assam has created Autonomous Councils or Development Councils such as Tiwa Autonomous Council for the Tiwa community and Mishing Autonomous Council for the Mishing community. But these councils have not been able to meet the aspirations of the people and have created further ‘emotional divide’ within the greater Assamese community.
However, the most important issue in the North East particularly in Assam, is the illegal infiltration from Bangladesh. This has far reaching consequences not only for the North East but for the entire country. At least ten districts in Assam have more than 30 per cent immigrant Muslim population. These constitute the vote banks of political parties some of which are fundamentalist in nature. Though, the Assam Accord was signed in 1985 after a historic movement led by young student leaders of All Assam Students’ Union, detection and deportation of illegal migrants post March 1971, is still a far cry.
Illegal migration has affected Assamese society economically, sociologically and politically. The greatest threat is the emergence of Jihadi elements in Assam. The recent apprehensions of six Jihadi cadres in Assam consequent to the October 02, 2014, Burdwan blast has altogether brought out a different scenario in the state. The arrested elements were members of Jammat-ul-Hind of Bangladesh (JMB), an outfit that has been banned there. Only detailed investigation and follow up will establish the exhaustive network of the Jihadis in the NE region. The recent video circulated by Al Qaeda which has declared the formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) has caused considerable concern in the minds of security agencies as well as the Government. Is this propaganda or a gimmick to counter the growing influence of the ISIS?
In the name of insurgency and law and order problems, the State Governments receive huge financial aid from the Centre…
There is no denying of the fact that subversion of some sections of the Muslim population, especially from the Char area, the riverine areas of Brahmaputra, has commenced. The ‘foot soldiers’ are likely to be available to fight for ISIS, Al Qaeda or other subversive organisations such as JMB unless the Government takes strong measures at this stage.
Even during the riots in Gujarat riots in 2002 or the Babri Masjid demolition in 1993, it is pertinent to note that the Muslims in this region were not involved in any communal clashes. However, of late, especially due to frequent ethnic clashes, particularly in 2012, in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District Council (BTAD), where religious communities have been targeted by Bodo extremists, there is now determination on the part of minority communities to retaliate. Some of the youth of the minority communities are also exploited by political as well as religious leaders. Moreover, with the growth of social network, communication has increased manifold and is being extensively used by ANE.
It is a known fact that the ISI has been trying to destabilise India including the North East Region since the 1950s. While we are aware of Pakistan’s proxy war on India particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, we need to remember that Phizo, the Naga underground leader had fled to East Pakistan in 1956. Similarly, Laldenga, the MNF leader had fled to East Pakistan in 1961 and organised an arms resurrection from East Pakistan. During the 1990s, more than 150 ULFA and cadres from other militant groups during Operations BAJRANG and RHINO, were taken to Pakistan on fake Pakistani passports provided by Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and were imparted arms and subversive training.
The ISI is still using its bases in Nepal and Bangladesh to create problems in the NE region. Thus, the ISI’s attempts to exploit the illegal Muslims population are very real. Most of the migrant Muslims are poor and can easily be subverted. The ISI had used the ULFA to acquire tactical information during the period of the Kargil Conflict. While Sheikh Hasina’s Government has instituted a number of measures to crack down on Indian terrorist groups operating from Bangladesh, there are large sections of people specially those linked to Jel and other fundamentalist organisations who continue with their anti India Policy.
Another important aspect is that all the warring groups are not asking for Independence from India…
The Pakistan Army and the ISI have not been able to reconcile with India’s role in the liberation of East Pakistan. The approximately 4,000-kilometre Indo-Bangladesh border has not yet been properly fenced and manned. Movement of illegal migrants thus continues. This border needs to get the same priority as the Western border. It is heartening to note that the Supreme Court has decided to monitor the progress on the fencing along Indo-Bangladesh border.
There are many in the NE who believe that keeping militancy alive benefits everyone. The terrorists and militants continue with extortion and other nefarious activities. In the name of insurgency and law and order problems, the State Governments receive huge financial aid from the Centre for development and modernisation of the police force. The Security Forces get dividends in the form of rewards and career progression. The politician’s nexus with militants helps both. Thus, there is a feeling that no one is seriously interested in arriving at a long term permanent solution. While, it may not be entirely true, all reports on the ground suggest this.
Another aspect is that there are no uniform ‘Surrender and Rehabilitation’ policies. In fact, many join militant groups only to surrender and get consequential benefits in terms of soft loan, government job or government contracts. For example, the ULFA during its inception in 1979 to 1985, had a strength of approximate 5,000 cadres which included both the political and military wing. There has been some recruitment since then. But till April 2014, more than 25,000 cadres have been arrested, about 3,000 killed and more than 16,000 had surrendered. These are indeed very high numbers which shows that all these militants may not be genuine.
Similar is the case with other militant groups. Without an effective ‘Rehabilitation and Surrender’ policy, the cycle of joining militant groups and then surrendering to get benefits will continue. This alienates the common people who feel that youth who have joined militancy and are involved in criminal activities get benefits while common youth are deprived of the same. It is most pertinent to mention that unemployment is the root cause of youth taking up arms.
The North East Region must continue to receive special attention from the Centre…
If the situation has improved in the North Eastern states, is there any requirement for army to continue with their Counter Insurgency operations? Many opined that the state police supported by Para Military Forces have developed the capability to take on the extremists. While this is true in certain areas, total withdrawal of the army at this juncture is not recommended. Although not strictly in the purview of Counter Insurgency operations, the army’s presence to prevent ethnic clashes, particularly in sensitive areas such as Bodoland Autonomous Council Districts (BTAD), is a must, at least for the foreseeable period. Moreover, the minority community especially those living in BTAD areas of Assam feel safe only when Indian army units are deployed close by.
Similarly, many police officers feel that while they have the capability to deal with the militants, the presence of the army gives them added confidence. Probably it will be appropriate for the army to opt for selective disengagement and concentrate on its primary task. However if the army is employed for Counter Insurgency operations, the necessary legal cover in the form of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) must continue. It is really gratifying that none of the states in the North East Region has asked for a repealing of AFSPA, though many NGOs, political parties as well as intellectuals have been strongly advocating for repealing of the Act.
There are many in the NE who believe that keeping militancy alive benefits everyone…
There is also considerable apprehension that the Maoists are trying to develop bases in the region. Already, in many areas of upper Assam, Maoists have become active, especially in areas which were hitherto the stronghold of the ULFA. There are definite and confirmed inputs to indicate that the Maoists have ideological linkages with many NE-based insurgent groups. The PLA militants have trained the Maoists in the jungles of Chhattisgarh. Although Maoist activities in the North East Region are at a nascent stage, they need careful monitoring.
Thus, the North East Region must continue to receive special attention from the Centre. The recently held DGP conference in Guwahati for the first time outside New Delhi, indicates that the Modi Government has taken the Region seriously. A long term holistic policy with strong support from the Centre and implemented by committed bureaucrats and politicians is the only solution. Sensitivities of the people in the North East Region must be kept in mind otherwise the problems there will continue to exist in one form or other.