The current approach to end conflicts in north-eastern India is deeply flawed. Instead, there is need for a democratic, decentralised, and transparent approach involving all stakeholders.
Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist and author who has widely written on Asian affairs, was probably underlining this when he said in his book Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier that a “proper understanding of the complex histories of the north-eastern peoples and the evolution of their fractious rebel movements and fragile alliances’ is needed to achieve progress towards peace in the region.
This view will help one while examining the recent attack by militants of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-Khaplang) and others on a leaderless army convoy in a border district of Manipur state killing 18 army men and injuring several others. The attack, one of the biggest such incidents in the history of insurgency in northeastern India, was followed by a massive retaliation on June 9 by the Special Forces of the Indian army who intruded into the neighboring Myanmar to eliminate militant camps, which threatened India’s national security and integrity.

Northeast India rebels
Northeast India rebels

The Special Forces, however, did not report to the unified command consisting of local armed and civilian authorities headed by the Manipur state chief minister to examine such actions. This was noted by the local civil society.

The strategic north-eastern region of India is surrounded by China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Till recently, seven Indian states comprised the region: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. The state of Sikkim, a border state, was brought later as a measure of administrative and political convenience.

The ‘Siliguri corridor’ or the so-called ‘Chicken neck’, a narrow corridor of a few miles in length and breadth in the north of the Indian state of West Bengal, connects India to the northeast going round Bangladesh. This vulnerable corridor is patrolled by the Indian army, the Border Security Force, the Assam Rifles and the West Bengal police. India’s spy agency the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) too keeps a careful watch in addition to foreign intelligence agencies. The strategic McMahon Line, the subject of dispute between India and China, is located in Arunachal Pradesh (earlier North Eastern Frontier Agency) and it has led to massive militarisation of the region.

The terms ‘insurgency’ and ‘security forces’ used in the context of the northeast can be misleading and reflect the standpoint of the rulers, which hinders conflict resolution. The Indian scholar BK Roy Burman pointed out in his Insurgency: Its Dynamics and Vision for the Northeast that ‘insurgency is a cycle of reciprocal violence in which the players are the state establishment and the challengers of the same’.  The leaders of insurgent movements do not look at themselves as ‘insurgents’ but rather as patriots, freedom fighters or defenders of the people. The term ‘insurgents’ is not a self-designation but is used by others who prejudge the legitimacy of their case. They see ‘security forces’ as agents of gratuitous institutional violence, not as providing them physical safety.
The insurgency in Nagaland, the ‘mother of all insurgencies’ in the region, was the outcome of misconceived military intervention in 1955 ignoring the advice of the Governor of Assam, the ministry of external affairs (then in charge of the region) and even the Indian army itself. BN Mullik, then director of the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB), in his autobiographical volume My Years with Nehru, provides a graphic account of how he persuaded the prime minister of the time Jawaharlal Nehru to induct the army into the then Naga Hills. The brutal military action induced insurgency in other states of the region.
Roughly 30, if not more, militant groups are active here, most of them just names and sign boards engaged mainly in extortion and racketeering. Some have a demonstrated capacity for violence, which alternates with negotiations with officials. About a dozen, while engaging in extortion, carry out ‘armed propaganda’ and ‘armed struggle’ in pursuit of autonomy or sovereignty agendas. While differing in objectives, they often possess common features and claim to represent the people with varying degrees of separatism or secessionism in pursuit of independence.
The two factions of the United Liberation front of Assam (ULFA); the two factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN); and the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) of Manipur are the important militant groups. In all, about half a dozen groups in the states of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland are seriously in business fighting for sovereignty through armed struggle. The June 4 ambush of the army convoy in Manipur was a major action by the newly formed United National Liberation Front of the Western Southeast Asia (UNLFWSA) led by S S Khaplang, which seeks to attain freedom for the all the indigenous peoples of the region in India and Myanmar. The other UNLF group led by Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah has entered into peace talks with India. Khaplang has repudiated them for giving up the struggle. Similarly, the Assamese rebel leader Paresh Baruah-led group of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) has opted to continue struggle for the independence of Assam while its rival the Rajkhowa group has opted for peace talks.

Irrespective of ideologies, motives and methods, the violence of the rebel groups and the concomitant violence of the state machinery have created a crisis of governance in the region. In 2004, following the rape and murder of Manorama Devi by the Assam Rifles personnel, the government of India set up the five- member (no woman) Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee in 2005, which reported that the repressive colonial legislation the Armed Forces (Special Powers) 1958, widely used in the Northeast, had become ‘a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high handedness’. Its abolition of the Act was opposed by the Indian army.

In 2007, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission made a sensitive appraisal of the conflict scenario in the region. Earlier in 1997, the development-oriented SP Shukla Commission noted the deficits confronting the region: a basic needs deficit; an infrastructure deficit; and a two-way deficit of understanding. Local corruption and inefficiency have prevented proper implementation of the recommendations. The Look East Policy of 1990 and the North East India: Vision 2020 documents examined the challenge of a Far East policy, which, however, may not succeed in the absence of rectification of repressive military and paramilitary arrangements that exist in the region to overcome local resistance. The crisis of governance persists.

(The author was Director General of Police in Northeastern India. He was Director of the Research and Policy Division of the Government of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs. He is an author and writer).

Lintner, Bertil, ‘The Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier’ (Harper Collins), New Delhi, 2012

Mullik BN ‘My Years with Nehru’ (Allied Publishers) New Delhi, 1972

Roy Burman, BK ‘Insurgency: Its Dynamics and Vision for the Northeast’ in B Pakem’s ‘Insurgency in Northeast India’ (Omsons Publishers), New Delhi, 1997

KS Subramanian was Director General of Police in the strategic Northeastern region of India. He is an author and writer and was Director of the Research and Policy Division of the government of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs. His book ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’ is being published by Routledge.

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