India, Uncertain relief in Northeast :: By Veronica Khangchian
India’s troubled Northeast continues to witness varying levels of insurgency related violence, as well as tensions between various ethnic groups, with troubles further compounded by external agencies and a proliferation of new rebel formations. Nevertheless, insurgency-related fatalities in the region have seen sustained and dramatic improvements, from a recent peak of 1,051 in 2008, collapsing to 246 fatalities in 2011. Though 2012 saw a reversal of this trend, with 316 killed, the region saw a significant improvement in 2013, with 252 killed. A multiplicity of enduring insurgencies has weakened considerably, either disintegrating or seeking peace through negotiated settlements with the Government. However, the mushrooming of new militant outfits and splinter groups in the region, the worst of which is witnessed in Garo Hills of Meghalaya, continues to renew the menace in the region.
The two States worst afflicted by insurgency in 2012, Nagaland and Manipur, recorded dramatic declines in insurgency related fatalities. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database, Nagaland dropped dramatically from 61 [six civilians and 55 militants] in 2012 to just 32 [11 civilians and 21 militants] in 2013. Internecine clashes within the State also declined from 43 incidents in 2012, resulting in 53 persons killed and 23 injured, to 18 incidents in 2013, resulting in 12 killed and 11 injured. 2012 had witnessed intense factional killing between Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland–Khaplang (NSCN-K) and NSCN-Khole-Kitovi (NSCN-KK), which visibly slowed down in 2013. Factional killings amongst the Nagas had spiked after the formation of NSCN-KK on June 7, 2011, and the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF), a Manipur based outfit, on February 25, 2011. Further, seven incidents of fratricidal clashes [resulting in nine killed and two injured] between Naga militant groups were recorded outside Nagaland in 2013, as against such 13 such incidents [resulting in 27 killed and 10 injured] in 2012. Fatalities in Nagaland had registered an upward trend, till they peaked at 145 in 2008, but fell drastically in 2009 and 2010, in the aftermath of the signing of the Covenant of Reconciliation in mid-2009. However, this emerging trend saw a reversal after the emergence of ZUF and NSCN-KK in 2011. Nagaland faces fresh challenges in 2014, carrying forward tensions from the December 2013 incidents between the Rengma Nagas and Karbis of Assam. 2014 has already recorded 11 fatalities, including 10 civilians and one militant.
In Manipur, according to the SATP database, total fatalities, at 110 [25 civilians, 12 Security Forces-SFs, 73 militants] in 2012, reduced to just half, at 55 in 2013 [21 civilians, six SFs and 28 militants killed in 10 incidents]. 2013 recorded 76 incidents of bomb blast, in which 24 people were killed and 103 were injured; 107 incidents of explosion had been recorded in 2012, though the total fatalities were nine, and 90 persons were injured. Of the 107 blasts in 2012, Corcom (the Coordination Committee of six Valley-based groups) was responsible for 33; 28 of the 76 incidents in 2013 were attributed to CorCom. 2013 data also demonstrates the greater lethality of bomb attacks, despite the reduction in incidence. Fratricidal clashes between Naga militants also declined in frequency. There were at least 10 clashes between the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) – at times a combined force of ZUF and NSCN-K – and the NSCN-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), which resulted in 25 fatalities in 2012. There were just seven such incidents and nine fatalities through 2013. 2014 has already recorded 10 fatalities [two civilians, three SFs and five militants]. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a member of Corcom, was involved in the three SF killings.
According to SATP, 101 persons, including 60 militants, 35 civilians and six Security Force (SF) personnel, were killed in 71 incidents of killing through 2013 in Assam. There were 91 killings in 2012, including 45 militants, 31 civilians and 15 SF personnel, in 64 incidents of killing. This marginally reversed a continuously declining trend since 2009, when fatalities were 392 (158 in 2010, 94 in 2011). The current scale of violence is far below its peak in 1998, when the State recorded 783 terrorism-related fatalities. Ingti Kathar Songbijit faction of National democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-IKS) emerged as the most lethal group in the State, with a confirmed involvement in 19 fatal incidents, resulting in 25 deaths; followed by Karbi People’s Liberation Tiger (KPLT), involved in 11 incidents of killing, resulting in 16 fatalities. The Anti-Talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-ATF), which rechristened itself ULFA-Independent (ULFA-I) continued to maintain its strike capability, and was involved in at least 12 killing incidents resulting in 14 deaths. On March 16, 2014 [the party’s ‘Army Day’], ULFA-I asked its members to re-strengthen the outfit, fearing that certain members had a nexus with the SFs. At least eight ULFA-I cadres, including its ‘operational commander’ Pramod Gogoi alias Partha Pratim Asom, were executed on the instructions of the ULFA-I’s ‘commander-in-chief’, Paresh Baruah, for ‘conspiring with Police and Security Forces to engineer a mass surrender of cadres over the past four months. Seven cadres were executed in December, 2013, while they were trying to flee the Myanmar base to surrender to police. ‘Operational commander’ Partha Pratim Asom was executed on January 15, 2014 in Mon district of Nagaland. The State has already recorded a total of 38 fatalities in 2014 [15 civilians, one SF, 22 militants]. NDFB-IKS was involved in 11 of the 14 civilians killed and in the killing of SF personnel. Of the 22 militants killed, five were known to belong to NDFB-IKS, three ULFA-I and three KPLT. Worryingly, on March 13, 2014, NDFB-IKS released a video-clipping to announce the launch of an ‘operation’ to assassinate State politicians, Director General of Police (DGP) and Superintendents of Police (SPs). The video-clipping revealed that NDFB-IKS has sent its 35-member “Iragdao Brigade” to launch the “2nd Urailang Operation.” Sources said the militants have been asked to sacrifice their lives if need be to accomplish the mission. A March 17, 2014, report observed that, according to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) the NDFB has killed as many as 70 people in Assam during through 2010-14. In January 2014, State Police Headquarters declared 15 members of the NDFB-IKS, including its chief Songbijit Ingti Kathar (IK Songbijit), as ‘most wanted’. Assam Police said valuable information leading to the arrest of these 15 NDFB-IKS militants would be worth INR 9.5 million. In a significant development, 2,009 cadres of the Dilip Nunisa faction of Dima Halam Daogah (DHD-N), surrendered en masse on March 9, 2013. The outfit had signed a Memorandum of Settlement [MoS] with the Government on October 8, 2012. In another positive development, a six months long tripartite Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement was signed between the Ranjan Daimary faction of NDFB (NDFB-RD), the Central Government and the State Government, on November 29, 2013.
In Meghalaya, according to the SATP database, insurgency related fatalities increased from 48 in 2012, to 60 in 2013. After dramatic declines between 2004 and 2008, there has been a continuous year on year increase in fatalities in the State. Worryingly, SF fatalities have spiked from just two in 2012 to nine in 2013. 2013 also recorded six major incidents (each resulting in 3 or more fatalities) in which 22 persons were killed [9 militants, 5 SF personnel and 8 civilians].Insurgent violence had declined after the signing of a ceasefire agreement with Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) on July 23, 2004, but resurfaced again with the formation of the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), followed by the emergence of various new and splinter groups. The GNLA continues to be responsible for the largest proportion of violent activities in the State. On January 5, 2013, a draft agreement was signed between the ANVC and ANVC-B with the government. During 2013, the State also saw several agitations relating to demands relating to statehood and Inner Line Permit (ILP) arrangements. 2014 has already recorded 15 fatalities [six civilians and nine militants].
In Arunachal Pradesh, at least four militants [three from NSCN and one from ULFA-I)] were killed in the State in three encounters through 2013. Three militants [two from NSCN-K and one from NSCN-IM] were killed in 2012 in factional clashes between NSCN-IM and NSCN-K. Significantly, there were no civilian or SF fatalities, and no factional killings, in 2013. Worryingly, however, 2014 has already recorded five fatalities in the State, with two civilians and three militants killed. Outgoing Arunachal Pradesh Governor, General (Retired) J.J. Singh, on May 23, 2013, observed that the insurgency in the eastern Arunachal Districts -Tirap, Changlang and Longding – could be solved only after a permanent solution to the vexed Naga issue was reached.
The stabilisation process in Tripura gained further momentum through 2013, without a single terrorism-related fatality through the year – a signal achievement secured for the first time since 1992. 2012 had recorded two fatalities, both militants, in two separate incidents. Significantly, at its peak in 2004, the militancy had claimed as many as 514 lives, including 453 civilians, 45 militants and 16 SF personnel. Of all the factions of the NLFT, Biswamohan Debbarma faction of National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT-BM) alone remains active, though mounting pressure by the SFs resulted in the surrender of 14 of its cadres in 2013 alone. In a further setback, NLFT-BM ‘Chief of Army Staff’, Pasaram Tripura alias Parshuram alias T. Thomas alias Wathak (51) surrendered in Agartala in West Tripura District on January 10, 2014. Further, NLFT-BM ‘second-in-command’ Panther Debbarma alias Pandit surrendered before the Police along with his wife and an associate at Kanchanpur under North Tripura District on March 13, 2014, after they escaped from the NLFT’s base camp in the Jupui area of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in Bangladesh. Debbarma disclosed that NLFT had few weapons and the outfit had been marginalised due to continuous surrenders and desertions among members over the past three years.
In Mizoram, unresolved challenges including talks between the Mizoram Government and the insurgent Hmar People’s Convention – Democracy (HPC-D), as well as the unfinished repatriation of Bru (Reang) refugees from neighbouring Tripura were further compounded by occasional activities of militant groups from adjoining States engaging in abduction and arms smuggling. Despite an enduring peace after an agonizing twenty years of insurgency, a variety of issues, principally the result of ethnic tensions and overflows of insurgency from the neighbourhood, continue to rankle in Mizoram.
The Northeast had also witnessed several agitations demanding the creation of new States through 2013, particularly following the resolution of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), on July 30, 2013, to sanction statehood to Telengana by bifurcating Andhra Pradesh in South India. In Assam, statehood demands include agitations by the Bodos for Bodoland; Koch-Rajbongshis for Kamatapur; Karbis and the Dimasas for an autonomous or full-fledged State. In Meghalaya, the Garos renewed their stir for Garoland; and tribals in Tripura, under the banner of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), demanded a separate state. In Manipur, the Kuki State Demand Committee (KSDC) revived its demand for a ‘Kuki State’, even as the Eastern Naga Peoples Organization (ENPO) in Nagaland resumed its demands for a ‘Frontier Nagaland’ State.
Other concerns also persisted. According to April 18, 2013 report, the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) was planning to strengthen its base in the Northeast. A six page letter sent to 13 States, by the UMHA on CPI-Maoist efforts to expand to new areas, noted that the Maoists planned to strengthen their Eastern Regional Bureau: “The North-East is another region where the CPI (Maoist) is trying to spread its wings … with the objectives that include strengthening the outfit’s Eastern Regional Bureau, procurement of arms/ammunition/communication equipment.” The Maoist efforts to increase bases in the North East region are now directly supervised by Prashant Bose, Politburo Member and ‘second in command’ of the CPI-Maoist.
In November 2013 UMHA declared Assam a Maoist afflicted State, with the Joint Secretary (Northeast) Shambhu Singh noting that a review of law and order indicated that “Maoist presence in Assam and border areas of Arunachal Pradesh has been noticed and hence their activities were noticed in Golaghat, Dhemaji, Lakhimpur and Tinsukia Districts of Assam and Namsai area of Lohit District in Arunachal Pradesh.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while addressing a conference of State Governors in New Delhi on February 12, 2013, noted that Left Wing Extremism’s (LWE) geographical spread in the country was showing a shrinking trend, though it was expanding in Assam, which was “worrisome”. On February 5, 2014, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi disclosed that CPI-Maoist had entered into an understanding with militants based in the Northeastern region as well as with Pakistan’s external intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to spread its network in his State.
Meanwhile, on March 14, 2014, the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), the political body of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which had signed an agreement with the CPI-Maoist in 2008, congratulated CPI-Maoist for their successful strike against Security Forces (SFs) in Sukma District of Chhattisgarh on March 11, and declared that RPF and CPI-Maoist were ‘strategic partners’.
There were also reports of Northeast militant groups forming a common platform to fight the ‘enemy’. This was disclosed by Paresh Baruah, ‘commander in chief’ of ULFA-I, who declared that all the groups have realized the fact that there is need for fighting the “common enemy” together and after a series of talks among the various outfits, the decision was taken to form the proposed common platform. He said that the move in this regard started three to four years earlier and final shape had been given recently: “More than 90 per cent of the work of forming the common platform has been completed and only the name of the platform has to be declared… Though the name of the platform is yet to be announced, the words ‘west-south east Asia’ would be included in the name.” Baruah added that outfits that had started “so-called talks” with the Government would not be included in the platform.
Significantly, on January 19, 2014, Assam DGP, Khagen Sarma stated that the ISI was behind the unification bid of Northeastern militants: “It is the Pakistani ISI and other external forces that are behind the fresh initiative taken by ‘commander in chief’ of ULFA-I to form a common force on all the insurgent groups based in Northeast to fight Indian security forces.” Earlier, in 2012, there had also been reports of China encouraging the CPI-Maoist, militant groups from Jammu & Kashmir and from the North East region to unite to form a single ‘united strategic front’ against the Indian State.
In March 2013, Minister of State for Home Affairs M. Ramachandran stated that insurgent groups in the Northeastern region were getting arms and ammunition from China. Subsequently, Union Home Minister (UHM) Sushilkumar Shinde disclosed, “There are reports that the insurgent groups operating in the north eastern states of India have been augmenting their armoury by acquiring arms from China and Sino-Myanmar border towns and routing them through Myanmar. Significantly, India and Myanmar have agreed to cooperate to prevent cross border movement of armed groups, share information on seizure of arms and check arms smuggling/drug trafficking”. Shinde added that the agreement was reached during the 20th Sectoral Level (Joint Working Group) Meeting between Myanmar and India held in Bagan, Myanmar, from June 19-20, 2013. The UMHA has described the 1,643-kilometre-long India-Myanmar border – the locus of cross-border movement of militants, illegal arms and drugs – as ‘extremely porous’.
In a significant breakthrough, on August 30, 2013, the NSCN-IM arms supplier, identified as Wuthikorn Naruenartwanich alias Willy Narue, was arrested by Bangkok Police on India’s request. He had brokered a USD 1 million deal involving supply of some 1,000 firearms, including 600 AK-47s and ammunition, with Chinese arms dealers.
On March 7 and 8, 2013, in the biggest arms haul in Mizoram thus far and one of the biggest in the Northeast, Mizoram Police and Assam Rifles seized 31 AK-47 assault rifles, one Singapore-made Light Machine Gun (LMG), one US-made Browning automatic rifle, 809 rounds of ammunition, and 32 magazines, from a farmhouse near the Lengpui Airport, on the outskirts of State capital, Aizawl. The arms were smuggled from Myanmar and were meant to be delivered to the Parbotia Chatagram Jana Sangata Samiti (PCJSS), a group claiming to fight for the rights of the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) tribes of Bangladesh.
Militant groups operating in Northeast continues to maintain camps in neighboring countries. Significantly, the Border Security Force (BSF) submitted a list of 66 militant camps operating from Bangladesh, to the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), during a three-day bi-annual border coordination meeting [March 7-9, 2014] between the BSF inspector-generals and BGB’s region commanders held in Shillong (Meghalaya). The Venkaiah Naidu-led department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee had recommended, in March 2013, increasing pressure on countries bordering the Northeastern region during trade discussions to close down Indian rebel training camps operating on their soil.
The North East Students Organisation (NESO), on March 25, 2013, asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to expedite the ongoing peace process with various rebel groups in India’s Northeastern states and reverse the “unabated influx of illegal migrants from neighbouring countries”, which had brought a serious demographic change in the North East. NESO urged the Prime Minister to extend the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, to the entire Northeastern region. Worryingly, United Nation Department of Economic and Social Affairs data indicated that, in 2013, India was home to 3.2 million Bangladeshi residents. India remained the favourite destination for Bangladeshi migrants in 2013, the UN report added.
Delays in bringing negotiations with various militant formations to a conclusion, irreconcilable ‘settlements’ with different ethnic groupings, the mushrooming of splinter insurgent formations, a continuing politics relying excessively on ethnic identity mobilisation, and poor governance have combined to keep insurgencies and disorders alive across the Indian Northeast, with both the regional States and the Indian Government displaying little sagacity in their approach to the region’s enduring problems. However, exhaustion, disintegration and the loss of ideological motivation have undermined most insurgent organisations in the Northeast, giving its people some relief, though the threat of insurgent violence remains a permanent sceptre hanging over their heads.
(Veronica Khangchian :: Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)