Insurgency in the North-East: A Beginner’s Guide

by Adhiraj Mukerji

 

Overview

The north-eastern region has been a breeding ground for local insurgent groups for several decades. Several armed insurgent groups operate in the region and are involved in long-running armed campaigns against the Indian state. The trans-border linkages of such outfits with foreign militant groups have compounded the situation and acted as a force multiplier in the region.

While several groups operate in the region, their demands are not identical. Groups such as the United Liberation Front for Assam (ULFA) and the NSCN-IM (National Socialist Council of Nagaland: Isak-Muivah faction) are fighting for complete secession from India. Others such as the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) which operated in Assam prior to a 2003 peace-deal demanded a separate state for its tribal constituency. The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) groups in Tripura champion the cause of the indigenous tribals who they claim are increasingly being alienated due to the influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Similarly the ULFA alleges violation of the rights of the indigenous population by Bangladeshi immigrants. This has over the years given the conflict communal overtones as well. In 2014, acts of violence in Assam against Bengali-speaking immigrants resulted in several fatalities. Elsewhere, multiple groups operating in the valley areas of Manipur persist with the campaign against the state’s accession to the Indian union.

Force-multipliers

The location of the insurgency-affected states has exacerbated the problem. The Indian government has alleged that insurgent groups use bases located in neighbouring countries as safe havens as well as transit routes for arms and other supplies. Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar have all been used as bases by the insurgent groups to sustain themselves. However, in 2008 the Awami League government in Bangladesh initiated a crackdown on the Indian insurgent outfits. Several top leaders of these outfits fled and set up bases elsewhere. Operation All Clear which was a joint task force set up by the Bhutanese and Indian authorities in December 2003, conducted attacks on militants seeking shelter in Bhutan, the operation ended in January 2004. Traditional ease of access to arms from countries like Myanmar has also contributed to the spread of insurgency in the region.  The Myanmar connect has been significantly used with the attack in Chandel on on Army personnel by the NSCN-K (National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang) which led to a retaliatory Indian military strike on their bases in Myanmar. That operation of course has been praised by some for its efficiency and derided for its lack of transparency with regards to the Myanmar government being informed. However, that is a different debate and not one to be entered here.

State specific Conflict Profiles

Arunachal Pradesh: The state has remained relatively peaceful following the signing of cease-fire in 2001 which was subsequently renewed every year, with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang which was active in Tirap district. The group however refused to re-sign the agreement in March 2015 and subsequently carried out one of the most devastating attacks in Manipur on the Army. Economic disparity, lack of employment opportunities and limited industrial development act as a potential source of conflict in the future. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) have used the state as a transit route to funnel fighters and arms. Following the crackdown by the Bhutanese authorities, the routes doubled in importance for the group as it allowed them access to their bases and safe houses in Myanmar.

Assam:  The state has been one of the most affected by insurgent groups.  Assam (Asom) has several insurgent groups, with the most prominent among them being the ULFA. The ULFA was particularly active in the 1990’s. However, support for the group waned subsequently due to perceptions that it was being dominated by foreign agencies as well as a loss of control over the cadre by its leadership. This loss of control resulted in unsanctioned actions being carried out by cadres targeting civilian interests. While the group’s operational capabilities have declined over the years, it continues to undertake kidnappings, low level bombings and attack on migrant works.

Ethnic conflict

There are several other factors for insurgency in the state, which include the influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and the perceived inability to address the issue, as well as tensions between religious and linguistic groups that sustain campaign by local tribal communities for greater autonomy within the state. However the main conflict is over the issue of illegal immigration. As immigration increased over the years the response from domestic insurgent groups became increasingly violent, including several fatal and targeted attacks on Bengali-speaking immigrants. The issue continues to simmer, with the indigenous population alleging that ‘vote-bank’ politics is the reason for successive governments not deporting the immigrants while the latter claim continued harassment and targeting in attacks.

Manipur:  In addition to Asom, Manipur is currently the most affected by insurgency-related violence in the region. There are multiple insurgent groups operating in the state, with many accused of running parallel administrative systems and collecting taxes.

The historical background of violence in Manipur stems from tensions between various tribal groups as well as spill-over of unrest from the neighbouring states of Nagaland and Mizoram.

Resentment against perceived annexation of Manipur to India has sustained the insurgency over the decades. There have been allegations of sections of local administration working in collusion with the insurgent groups, allowing the latter to run parallel systems of governance. The lack of economic development has allowed such outfits to project themselves as a viable source for income for disgruntled youth, ensuring a steady supply of militant recruits.

Meghalaya: The state is relatively free from widespread insurgency though sporadic violence against migrants continues to be reported. Some areas of concern include-

  1. Increasing rivalries between the Garo, Khasi and non-tribals have the potential to transform into a major insurgency. Some small groups fighting for tribal autonomy, who mainly operate in the rural areas, are already in existence. However the state has not seen the same level of ethnic tension as Assam.
  2. The Sixth Schedule District Councils allow for some levels of autonomy with regards to tribal self- administration. Increasing tensions between the state authorities and tribes over balance of power is an area of concern.

Mizoram: The state is a success story in the region for resolving a long-running insurgency and fostering development subsequently. The government and the separatist Mizo National Front in 1986 signed a peace-deal. This was followed by the granting of statehood and ensured stability in Mizoram. The authorities have since substantially increased developmental activities particularly in of agriculture. However, potential areas of conflict include growing economic disparity and resentment among some tribes over identity and recognition as Scheduled Tribes to allow them benefits of reservation in government jobs.

Nagaland:  A hot-spot for insurgency, a cease-fire agreement, renewed every year, signed between the authorities and the NSCN-IM faction, led to a reduction in rebel violence in the state. The NSCN-K however is still a force in the region and interestingly has not signed the latest accord with the government. Ironically enough, the NSCN-K was one of two factions (the other being the NSCN-IM) who split from the original Naga National Council in 1988 as they disagreed over the signing of the Shillong Accord. The Indian intelligence authorities have played the groups off each other, fostering the rivalries leading to the NSCN splitting further into its “K” and “IM” factions.

Sikkim: The state has a comparatively higher rate of development as compared to the region and has also been particularly successful in striking a balance between various ethnic groups (mainly the Lepchas, Bhutiyas and Nepalis). The rate of development and relatively higher rates of employment have led to sustained stability in the state.

Tripura: The demographic composition of the state was altered following partition when an influx of refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) occurred. The resultant tensions gave rise to the Tripura National Volunteers’ extremist outfit. However government intervention and the setting up of a Schedule Council which brought tribal areas under land reform and other such programmes have reduced the appeal of such groups .Nevertheless tribal resentment over perceived superimposition  of perceived modern ideas over local customs continue to be a source of concern. The proximity of the state to the Bangladeshi border makes it a convenient route for the smuggling of weapons and supplies by militant groups operating in the region. Furthermore, a sense of resentment against Bengali-speaking “outsiders” also exists while tribal clashes from neighbouring states such as Mizoram have led to an influx of refugees.

The way forward

While insurgent groups operating in the region remain a persistent security threat, it would be presumptuous to assume they are the only one. As elucidated above, there are multiple factors influencing the security environment in the north-east. Resentment against non-locals, ethnic and tribal rivalries and economic stagnation all contribute to not just the support bases of insurgent groups but also sustain the prevailing insecurity in the region. The region is rich in natural resources and investments in this sector, which in turn leads to more employment and development, could be one of the most effective ways to counter various insurgencies. The refusal of the NSCN-K to further the ceasefire is particularly dangerous. Following the Chandel attack, the outfit announced the formation of an umbrella group with several other North Eastern militant groups called the National Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia (UNLFW). While the Myanmar government may seek to pledge support to ending these groups who operate of out of their territory, their ability to do so is extremely impaired by issues like widespread corruption in the its security forces at the lower levels as well as its own infighting with the Kachin and Karen people. The government needs to introduce far more pro-active polices in the region aside from merely increasing security in the area. The lack of attention to the development of the North-East and its subsequent alienation by successive governments has greatly increased the problem of the militancy. It would be a dangerous path to continue to charge down. The current administration must do more than merely “Look East” if it wishes to end the insurgency and bring stability and peace to a region that for the greater part has unduly paid the price of other’s incompetence. The recent peace accord reached, which contains a draft accord agreed upon by both sides with the final signing in about three months, between the NSCN-IM and the government could be the starting point of a change in how New Delhi is looking to solve the problem. However, peace accords have been signed and broken repeatedly. Only time will tell if this one is different and more enduring.

 

(Adhiraj Mukerji is a graduate in History from Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi. He is a decorated debater and incredibly well read in international relations, military history, and military tactics. He is currently a political risk and intelligence analyst at International SOS.)

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