Recent attacks by armed rebels put the spotlight yet again on the Indian State’s failure to engage the people of the Northeast in an inclusive way, writes NK Bhoopesh, Tehelka
Connected to the rest of India by a narrow 22-km strip of land aptly called ‘chicken’s neck’ (also known as the Siliguri Corridor), the Northeast has long had a precarious connect with the collective consciousness of the mainland. To the average man on the street in New Delhi, for instance, the region is first and foremost an “integral part of India” — the phrase he hears repeated ad nauseam every time a major militant attack on the security forces or a massive protest against army atrocities hits the national headlines. He believes in it despite the numerous instances of racist attacks on migrants from the Northeastern states in several parts of the country, including the national capital. This paradox throws light on the unfinished business of integrating the people of the Northeast into the idea of India over the decades and through umpteen policy flip-flops between “win hearts and minds” and “hit them hard where it hurts”. And it was brought back spectacularly — and brutally — into the public imagination by the 4 June ambush on an army convoy by a band of insurgents in Manipur’s Chandel district bordering Myanmar. Eighteen personnel of the 6 Dogra Regiment were killed in the attack.
This remoteness of the Northeast from the national consciousness, however, is not in sync with the way the New Delhi establishment views its strategic and economic importance. The “seven sisters”, a popular epithet for the states comprising the Northeast, is seen as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia, and therefore, quite significant for India’s Look East policy. Interestingly, this policy has been the central motif of the country’s diplomatic and trade relations with Southeast Asian countries since 1991 when the then Congress regime at the Centre announced pathbreaking economic measures that set the course for what came to be known as “liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation”.
As a foreign policy initiative, the Look East policy was a success thanks to the economic resilience the Southeast Asian economies exhibited during the financial crisis in the first decade of the 21st century. Trade with these countries has touched $70 billion and is expected to cross $100 billion by the end of this year. But the robust trade stats have not translated into economic development for the Northeast as the bulk of the transactions were routed through the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Little effort has been made to remove the bottlenecks in the way of trade-based connectivity between the region and the Southeast Asian countries.
So, have the governments at the Centre since then been pursuing the Look East policy without giving sufficient thought to the geographical region that could have been key to its success and, in turn, benefitted from it? For had it been otherwise, the root causes of the alienation of diverse ethnic groups in the Northeast from the people of the rest of India would have been addressed, bringing the curtains down on the insurgency that has plagued the region since it was declared a part of independent India in 1947. The recent resurrection of insurgent groups brings into sharp focus this persistent blind spot in New Delhi’s Northeast policy. In April, the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-K) walked out of a 14-year ceasefire with the Indian government and launched a series of attacks on the security forces culminating in the 4 July ambush. The attack triggered calls for vengeance from the establishment leading to the cross-border army raid in Myanmar that reportedly ended with what sections of the media and human rights activists have called a “massacre” of the militants allegedly involved in the ambush. Reportedly, not a single shot was fired at the armed personnel who carried out the raid inside the neighbouring country.
Re-emergence and Regrouping
The Chandel ambush has an interesting backdrop: the coming together of an array of insurgent groups in the Northeast on a common platform, which has been christened the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA). The platform was floated reportedly after four years of consultations that started in 2011 and comprises four insurgent groups — the NSCN-K, the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) (ULFA– I), the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLP) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) (NDFB-S). Twelve groups had participated in the initial discussions, but most of them pulled out later citing one or the other reason.
Formed on 17 April, the UNLFWSEA is headed by NSCN-K chief SS Khaplang andULFA-I chief Paresh Baruah is said to have played a key role in the process of its formation. A press statement released soon after stated that the platform would lead a “united struggle” for the “liberation of the ancestral homes”. A few days later, the Manipur-based groups declared the formation of a separate platform called CorCom (Coordination Committee).
Namrata Goswami, research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, tells TEHELKA that these moves by the Northeastern rebel groups would significantly impact the course of the insurgency. The common platforms would help groups that represent diverse ethnic groups and do not necessarily agree on all their aims and methods to share intelligence and plan joint operations against the security forces stationed in the Northeast. “This will help them to extend their footprint beyond their current areas of influence,” she says.
This, however, is not the first time that various insurgent groups have come together. Way back in 1986, the ULFA, the Manipur-based United National Liberation Front (UNLF, whose armed wing is called the Manipur People’s Army) and the NSCN tried to forge a common platform but the efforts fizzled out soon. Again, in 1990, the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF, the political wing of the People’s Liberation Army) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), two other insurgent groups based in Manipur, formed a joint committee. A year later, the UNLF and the NSCN-K (which split from the NSCN in 1988) joined hands to form the Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front.
The next attempt to bring all the insurgent groups under one umbrella was made in 1994 with the floating of the Self-Defence United Front of South East Himalayan Region. Then, in 2011, the Manipur-based KCP, RPF, Kanglei Yaol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) formed a coordination committee.
With the insurgent groups joining hands against the Indian State, can it be said that they have buried the differences over ideology, politics and tactics that had so far been preventing them from putting up a united front? Maleem Ningthouja, who heads the Campaign for Peace and Democracy in Manipur, does not think so. “This is just a defensive move in the face of intense repression by the State forces and meant to serve the purpose of propaganda,” he says. “The protracted guerrilla campaign has been sectarian so far. Since each group has a different idea of the ‘nation’ they are fighting for and its boundaries, there is little scope for a radical programme cutting across ethnic groups that would appeal to people across the Northeast.”
Guwahati-based journalist Rajeev Bhattacharyya, who authored Rendezvous with Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men, writes in a recent article that the UNLFWSEA’s formation might grow into a cause of serious concern for India and “a safe sanctuary in Myanmar for [the rebel] outfits means that the government’s efforts to put an end to the separatist campaign may not bear results immediately”.
Another twist to the regrouping tale is the suspected role of China that the Indian intelligence agencies have drawn attention to. Media reports have quoted intelligence officials saying that the NSCN-K walked out of the ceasefire at China’s behest. “China has strong connections with the Myanmar-based outfits and clandestinely supports them despite knowing that they trade in illegal weapons and contraband drugs,” says Namrata.
Protracted campaign for self-determination
The insurgency in the Northeast has been raging since the early years after independence and has so far defied both a political and a military solution. The accession of a vast array of diverse tribal communities into the Indian nation-state bred intense discontent that New Delhi is yet to come to terms with. The Naga National Council formed in 1946 was the first group that started a “war of independence” from “Indian subjugation”. Over the years, the insurgent groups have proliferated in the Northeast partly because it is ethnically, linguistically and culturally quite distinct from the rest of the India and appears to be connected better with Southeast Asia than the Indian mainland. Mass protests and armed campaigns against the security forces have led to a heavy-handed military response from the State, which has fuelled further discontent in a vicious cycle.
The division of the Northeast into various states without looking into the cultural and ethnic diversities of areas exacerbated the “cultural alienation”, many insurgent groups have alleged. Many experts on the Northeast have also pointed out that since the British colonial rulers administered the region in a decentralised manner, the people knew no central administration before they were brought under the Indian federal structure. The locals, therefore, did not take kindly to the alleged homogenising approach of the Centre, which alienated them from the Indian State and led to the emergence of numerous insurgent groups.
Insurgency reared its head in Manipur with the formation of the UNLF in 1964, followed by the RPF, KYKL and PREPAK. In neighbouring Assam, the insurgency started as “resistance” against “Indian colonisation” with the formation of ULFAin 1979 and several other ethnicity-based organisations in the later years. There are more than 50 rebel groups in the Northeast according to some estimates. While some groups demand complete secession from India, others fight for redrawing of the state boundaries in the region on the basis of ethnicity. The assertion of identity involves staking claim on land not just under different states but even in a foreign country. The Naga insurgents, for instance, are fighting for a separate homeland comprising areas inhabited by them in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh as well as Myanmar. This has created a complex tangle in which rebel groups are often found fighting each other rather than the Indian State with greater zeal.
Indeed, land and demographics are central to the ongoing conflict in the Northeast. Indigenous people consider immigration from rest of the country to their homeland as a threat as they fear being turned into a minority in their own homeland. This has often pitted them against poor migrants from mainland India (or Bangladesh refugees, in the case of Assam) who are seen as “outsiders”. For instance, immigration from Bengal and other parts of the country into Tripura during and after Partition is seen to have altered the demography of the state in the 1960s, making the Bengalis a powerful majority. The widespread scare among the indigenous population that other parts of the Northeast will also go the Tripura way contributed to the formation of identity-based insurgent groups.
A Security Fix for a Political Problem
Largely ignoring the root causes underlying the insurgency, the Indian government has viewed it almost exclusively from the security angle and tried to deal with it through military means by relying on the army. As the armed forces are trained to fight wars and not operate under a civilian administration, their deployment in the conflict zones has required the suspension of the civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution by declaring the region as a “disturbed area” and imposing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).
The Act, as the name suggests, gives the army extraordinary powers in dealing with the insurgents and their mass base, which translates into impunity for any action carried out in the line of duty even if it violates the “ordinary” law of the land: “Any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces may, in a disturbed area, (a) if he is of opinion that it is necessary to do so for the maintenance of public order, after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary, fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons or the carrying of weapons or of things capable of being used as weapons or of fire-arms, ammunition or explosive substances; (b) if he is of opinion that it is necessary to do so, destroy any arms dump, prepared or fortified position or shelter from which armed attacks are made or are likely to be made or are attempted to be made or any structure used as a training camp for armed volunteers or utilised as a hideout by armed gangs or absconders wanted for any offence; and (c) arrest without warrant any person who has committed a cognisable offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed or is about to commit a cognisable offence and may use such force as may be necessary to effect the arrest.”
Introduced in 1954 as a short-term measure to counter the Naga insurgency,AFSPA was later extended to the rest of the Northeast. “AFSPA is an effective political tool that enables the armed forces to torture and kill people with impunity,” says Maleem. “The State has given the army these special powers in order to put an end to the resistance by the people by extreme force and allows no space for addressing the real causes behind the unrest.”
Maleem goes on to denounce AFSPA as an “anti-national” Act for “it threatens the safety and security of the people who constitute the nation”. “The struggle against AFSPA, therefore, is a fight against anti-national elements who commit heinous crimes under its garb by citing ‘national security’,” he says.
Many human rights organisations echo Maleem’s sentiment and have identifiedAFSPA as one of the main reasons for the continued alienation of the people in the region. “The Act violates provisions of international human rights law, including the right to life, the right to be protected from arbitrary arrest and detention, and the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It also denies the victims of the abuses the right to a remedy,” notes a 2008 Human Rights Watch report titled Getting Away with Murder: 50 Years of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
While the government has rigorously pursued the military option, sporadic efforts to bring the insurgents to the table for negotiations have not seen much success. There have been exceptions, though, with several groups agreeing to occasional ceasefires and some even giving up the demand for secession and joining mainstream politics (e.g., the Mizo National Front, which fought the Indian State for two decades since 1966 and eventually signed the Mizo Accord in 1986, contested elections and formed the state government).
Though some Naga groups, for instance, have given up on sovereignty, their demand to integrate all the Naga-inhabited lands cutting across states has further complicated the possibility of a solution that would satisfy the other ethnic groups too. Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of Imphal Free Press, tells TEHELKA that redrawing the state boundaries along ethnic lines could create more problems than it would solve given the sheer complexity of the geographical distribution of various ethnicities.
No wonder Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recently announced promise to find a political solution to the Naga issue was taken with a pinch of salt by various political parties in Manipur. Reacting to Modi’s statement, Manipur People’s Party leader N Sovakiran asked the state government to ensure that any peace deal with the Naga insurgents should not be at the cost of Manipur’s territorial integrity.
The racial distance between mainland India and the Northeast has a long history going back to ancient times as the indigenous people of the region could not be sorted within the Aryan-Dravidian binary that is often used to explain the diversity within the mainland. Geography adds to the alienating mix with the region forming part of a block that is more closely integrated with Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh than with the rest of India.
The killing of 20-year-old Nido Taniam two years ago in New Delhi in a racist attack brought to the fore the prejudice that much of mainland India harbours against people of the Northeast. That was just one of several such incidents across the country that gave rise to serious doubts over whether India is yet to make the Northeasterners its own.
In 2007, the Delhi Police had published a booklet advising migrants from the Northeast to avoid wearing “revealing clothes” and cooking native recipes (e.g., those including bamboo shoots) because it might annoy their Indian neighbours with unfamiliar smells.
Assam-based author Mitra Phukan tells TEHELKA that racial prejudice against people from hilly and densely forested regions such as the Northeast is deeply ingrained in the mind of a large section of Indians. Others like Maleem look at the alienation and prejudice as a reflection of “the structural constraints of the political economy in India”.
Economic backwardness intertwined with issues of identity and ethnicity has turned the problems of Northeast into a knotted tangle that has so far proved nearly impossible to unravel. Attempts to solve the complex crisis by crushing the resistance through military means have only added to the alienation and the consequent rage against the organs of the Indian State. In the bargain, a region with a high concentration of indigenous people and an amazing diversity of ethnicity and language continues to remain largely outside the ambit of Indian democracy.
United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)
Formed on 7 April 1979; Outlawed in 1990.
Area of Operation: Assam
Stated Goal: To liberate Assam through the armed national liberation struggle from the clutches of the illegal occupation of India
Major counterinsurgency operations: Operation Bajrang (November 1990-June 1991), Operation Rhino (September 1991-January 1992)
♦ In the initial years, ULFA raised the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh and it helped the organisation to gain popular support. It allegedly received assistance from Pakistan’s ISI (Inter Services Intelligence), Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence and China’s People’s Liberation Army
♦ In 2003, a military operation in Bhutan dislodged many ULFA camps
♦ In December 2009, ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah were arrested in Bangladesh and handed over to India
♦ In 2010, a section of ULFA under Rajkhowa dropped the demand for Independence, paving the way for the talks with the Centre
♦ The first formal meeting between the government and ULFA took place in 2011
♦ O n 3 September 2011, a tripartite agreement for suspension of operations was reached between ULFA, the Assam government and the Centre
National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB)
Formed in 1986 as the Bodo Security Force; was renamed after rejecting the Bodoland agreement with the Centre, signed by the All Bodo Students’ Union and the Bodo People’s Action Committee.
Area of Operation: Assam
Stated Goal: A sovereign nation for the Bodos
♦ The 2003 crackdown on its camps in Bhutan forced the organisation to give up its demand for Independence and agree to peace talks with the Centre within the ambit of the Indian Constitution
♦ The decision to hold talks with the government led to a split in the NDFB
♦ NDFB-R leader Ranjan Daimari was arrested in 2010 in Bangladesh and handed over to India; Daimari was released on bail after his faction agreed to drop the demand for Independence
♦ The first round of talks with the pro-talk faction was held on 29 September 2009, leading to a ceasefire that has been extended several times
♦ The last round of talks was held in November 2013
National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN)
Formed in January 1980.
Area of Operation: Nagaland and Manipur
Stated Goal: Establishing a sovereign nation by unifying all Naga-inhabited regions in the Northeast and Myanmar
♦ The NSCN was formed in protest against the Naga National Council’s decision to accept the Indian Constitution
♦ Divisions among the Nagas led to a split in the NSCN. The Konvaks clan broke away under the leadership of the Khole Konyak and SS Khaplang, leading to the formation of the NSCN (Khaplang) in 1988, while the Tangkhul clan formed the NSCN (Isak-Muivah). Each organisation accused the other of working for the Indian government
♦ The NSCN-IM started peace talks with the Centre in 1997. Both sides agreed to an indefinite ceasefire
♦ The NSCN-K began negotiating with the Centre after “modifying” its demand for sovereignty even as it opposed the dialogue between the NSCN-IM and the government. The Khaplang group agreed to a ceasefire in 2001 and stuck to it until April 2015
United National Liberation Front (UNLF)
Formed in 1964.
Area of Operation : Manipur
Stated Goal: A sovereign, socialist Manipur
♦ The first insurgent organisation to be formed in Manipur, its armed wing is called the Manipur People’s Army
♦ It was initially said to be patronised by Pakistan, which allegedly provided military training to many of its cadre. There were also reports of China extending it help
♦ In 2006, the UNLF came out with a four-point charter of demands, included a plebiscite under UN supervision on the question of Manipur’s Independence and withdrawal of Indian troops from the state. It also offered to surrender its arsenal to a UN peacekeeping force, but the Manipur government and the Centre rejected the proposal
People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK)
Formed in 1977.
Area of Operation: Manipur
Stated Goal: A sovereign Manipur
♦ The organisation split in the 1980s due to factionalism. Some of the splinter groups merged with other insurgent outfits
♦ PREPAK later engaged in campaigns against “social evils” such as alcoholism, and drug addiction
♦ In 2007, the organisation set itself the deadline of 2015 to achieve its objective, failing which it claimed it would leave the path of armed revolution
♦ PREPAK has strategic relations with the UNLF
Kangeli Yaol Kanna Lup (KYKL)
Formed in 1994.
Area of Operation: Manipur
Stated Goal: A utopian Manipuri society “free of all vices”
♦ The organisation split in 1996 into two factions, one led by Noonikam Oken and the other by Achu Toijamaba, and reunited in 2002
♦ It is believed that it runs several camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar
Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC)
Formed in 1995; Outlawed in 2000.
Area of Operation: Meghalaya (Garo Hills) and Assam (Kamrup and Goalpara districts)
Stated Goal: A sovereign homeland for the Garo tribe
♦ In 2004 the outfit signed a ceasefire agreement with the Centre, which was extended indefinitely in 2008
(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 12 Issue 26, Dated 27 June 2015) the author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org