Homeland Security

Internal Security Scenario of North East India
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Issue Vol. 30.1 Jan-Mar 2015 | Date : 12 Jun , 2015

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.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig R Borthakur

Former Military  Intelligence Corps Officer who has intimate knowledge of the North-East and CI environment.

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