Insurgencies of the North East (Part II)

Updated: November 18, 2021 12:58 PM

The Naga tribes always had socio-economic and political links with tribes in Assam and Myanmar

north eastThe current situation is complex and uncertain, with each group tangentially pursuing their agendas.

By Lt Gen Shokin Chauhan, 

Nagaland

It borders the State of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Burma, inhabited by 16 major tribes and various sub-tribes. The Naga tribes always had socio-economic and political links with tribes in Assam and Myanmar. The British East India Company took control of Assam in 1826. By 1892, all of Nagaland except the Tuensang area was governed by the British. It was politically amalgamated into Assam, which was a part of the province of Bengal for long periods. In 1957, the Naga Hills became a district of Assam. Statehood was officially granted in 1963 and the first state-level democratic elections were held in 1964.

Nagaland is home to the oldest insurgency in the North East. The idea of a sovereign nation was conceived by the Nagas even before the independence of India. Nagaland attained statehood in 1963 and today comprises 18 districts divided based on Tribal affinities. The Naga insurgency commenced with the formation of Naga National Congress (NNC) in 1946. The entry of the Indian army in 1953 to prevent armed rebellion resulted in the party forming an armed wing called the Naga Federal Army (NFA). An underground government called Naga Federal Government (NFG) was also formed. The first major effort towards peace was the signing of the Shillong Accord in 1975. However, the peace accord led to rebellion within the NNC which led to the creation of the NSCN in 1980. The difference of ideologies between the top leaders of the NSCN led to the split in the group in 1988, resulting in the formation of NSCN(IM) and NSCN(K). Both groups pursued the objective of creating a sovereign Nagalim encompassing the area of the present Nagaland state and Naga inhabited areas of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar. NSCN (K) further split in 2011 to form a splinter group called NSCN {Khole-Khitovi (KK) which further split into NSCN (Khitovi-Neokpao) [NSCN(KN)]. All these groups less the NSCN IM function under the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) umbrella.

Also read| Insurgencies of the Northeast explained (Part I)

In the same year, a split by the Zeliangs in NSCN (IM) resulted in the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) formation. Prolonged violence gave way to hope for peace when NSCN (IM) entered into a Cease-Fire with the Government of India in 1997, followed by NSCN (K) in 2001. NSCN (KK) on formation also signed a Cease-Fire with the government. In 2012, NSCN (K) further entered into a Cease-Fire agreement with the Government of Myanmar. This agreement granted NSCN (K) autonomy in the districts of Lahe, Leshi and Nanyun in the Sagaing province of Myanmar. Civil society also played a significant role in the peace efforts. The progress of talks between UG groups and the Government of India suffered a setback in 2015, when NSCN (K) unilaterally abrogated the Cease Fire Agreement. This group’s decision led to another split and resulted in the formation of NSCN(Reformation). NSCN (K) further went on to join hands with ULFA (I), NDFB (S) and KYKL to form the United National Liberation Front of Western SE Asia (UNLFW). Since formation, the group has been involved in several incidents of violence in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur. NSCN (IM) meanwhile went on to sign a ‘peace accord’ with the Government of India, which apparently lays down the ‘framework’ for future talks/ resolution. Peripheral issues associated with the Naga insurgent include the Eastern Naga People’s Organisation (ENPO) demand for a separate ‘Frontier Nagaland’ State and the Naga Rengma Hill Protection Force (NRHPF) in ethnic clashes with the Karbis in 2013.

The current situation is complex and uncertain, with each group tangentially pursuing their agendas. The NSCN (K) unilaterally abrogated the CF in March 2015. This was followed by a series of violent incidents in Kohima, Tuengsang and Manipur. Security Forces retaliated with a daring cross-border raid on two Camps simultaneously in Myanmar in June 2015. Other actions by SF led to the neutralisation of several NSCN(K) cadres in Nagaland, with a consequent decrease in the combat potential of the groups. The group later shifted to Myanmar and joined NDFB(S)/ ULFA(I) to form the UNLFW. After the cross-border raids on June 15, the camps of NSCN(K) were pushed further in-depth, thus creating a geographical buffer and reducing their potential to execute violent actions against SF. Khaplang, the Chairman of the group, died on June 20, 2017 and Khango Konyak, a western Naga and an Indian national, was appointed the Chairman of the outfit, after Khaplang’s death. However, Khango was removed as the Chairman of the NSCN (K) in August 2018. Aung replaced him, a nephew of NSCN (K) ‘s founder S.S. Khaplang. The NSCN (K) is now divided into two groups, led by Aung andKhango Konyak. Khango after several months of hesitation, finally agreed to indicate that he was not averse to signing a ceasefire with the GOI and now is fully integrated into the peace talks with his group formally joining the NNPGs in their ongoing peace talks with the GOI. The balance of the group under Aung signed a ceasefire with the Myanmar Government. However, on sustained pressure by the GOI, recently in February, 2019, their main camp located at Taga village, in the Sagaing province of Myanmar, was raided and occupied by the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar army.

The NSCN(IM) is under cease fire with the GOI and still remains the most dominant group in Nagaland. The group has signed a ‘Framework Agreement’ with GOI on August 03 15 and has emerged as the harbinger of a renewed peace process in Nagaland. Since the signing of this historic agreement, the group has been actively involved in organising meetings with various stakeholders and garnering their consensus for their perception of the ongoing peace process. Although contents of the agreement have not been de-classified by the GOI, the NSCN IM post a disagreement with the interlocutor Mr RN Ravi, discontinued talks with him. With the appointment of a new interlocutor, Mr Mishra, the future holds fresh hope for a permanent solution to this protracted Naga insurgency that has been lingering on for almost 68 years.

Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs)

With the NSCN (IM) having taken the lead in the peace process, the other UG groups like the NSCN(KN), NSCN R, NSCN (Niky) under the umbrella of the NNPG, have all signed similar agreements with the GOI. Meanwhile, though under ceasefire with the GOI, all these groups continue with rampant extortion in the State.

Arunachal Pradesh

The Arunachali tribes of Tibeto-Burman origin point towards a northern connection in Tibet. The recorded history of this area is available only in the Ahom and Sutiya chronicles. This region then came under the loose control of Tibet and Bhutan, especially in the Northern regions. Thus, a Buddhist connection with Lhasa, also the sixth Dalai Lama is believed to be from Tawang. Ahoms held the areas until the annexation of India by the British in 1858. In 1938, the Survey of India published a detailed map showing Tawang as part of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). Finally, NEFA was created in 1954 and renamed as Arunachal Pradesh on January 20 1972, and it became a Union Territory with statehood coming on February 20 1987.The South Western districts of Tirap and Changlang, sharing boundaries with Nagaland, have been subjected to Naga insurgency since the early nineties. Tribal similarities have favored sustenance of insurgency by both the factions of NSCN in these two districts. Post abrogation of Cease Fire by NSCN (K) in Nagaland and the UNLFW to jointly fight the Indian State has led to a spurt in insurgent violence in the region. ULFA has been traditionally using these areas for transit to its Saigang Division in Myanmar. Alliances between the NSCN (K) and ULFA (I) have also come to light in this area in the recent past.

Districts of South Arunachal have been used for the transit of Assam based insurgent groups to Myanmar and back. The Abrogation of ceasefire by NSCN (K) on March 26 15 has increased the threat dynamics in these districts. The region has witnessed several violent incidents in the recent past. Most of these incidents are attributable to the UNLFW group comprising mainly of NSCN (K), ULFA (I) and NDFB (S). These districts share a boundary with Myanmar and are therefore often subjected to insurgent actions from Camps close to the IB. The area is one of the most underdeveloped and is reeling under a severe lack of basic amenities. A porous border and unmonitored movement across the IB have been the main hurdles in preventing the movement of cadres in the area.

Tripura is the third-smallest State in the country, and is bordered by Bangladesh, Assam and Mizoram. The Bengali Hindus form the ethno-linguistic majority in Tripura, with indigenous communities (scheduled tribes) forming more than 30% of Tripura’s population. In 1970, Tripura suffered a major influx of Bangladeshi’s, leading to population inversion. The princely State of Tripura was merged with the Union of India in 1949. Tripura became a Union Territory on July 01, 1963, and attained the status of a full-fledged state on January 21; 1972. Major demographic change in the State due to unhindered migration from East Pakistan/ Bangladesh is the root cause of discontentment amongst the ethnic locals of Tripura.

Consequently, the Tribals were pushed to the hills while the Bengali speaking people took over the plains. Gradually, the political and administrative space was also dominated by the Bengalis. Years of deprivation, lack of opportunities for the ethnic people and government inaction to prevent immigration is the main causes of insurgency in the State. Insurgency commenced with the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), the first armed insurgent group in Tripura founded in 1989 by Dhananjoy Reang. All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) was formed in 1990 by Ranjit Debbarman due to the difference of ideologies with the NLTF. However, both groups perpetuated the objectives of an ‘independent’ Tripura State and expulsion of Bengali speaking people. Borok National Council of Tripura (BNCT) was formed in 1997 due to split in NLTF. Protracted operations by security forces, stable governments and reforms in social system have brought the situation in Tripura under control.

Most of the insurgent leaders had taken shelter in Bangladesh to evade apprehension. Since 2009, insurgent activities in the State have considerably reduced. This has manifested into development and improvement in living/ economic standards of locals. The MHA report of 2009 placed Tripura as third lowest in insurgent activities in NE after Mizoram and Meghalaya. Recently, the government of Tripura has revoked AFSPA in the State, which is indicative of sustained peace and resolution of issues that had haunted the State in past. A stable government with effective governance, civil administration, law and order system, have contributed immensely towards peace in the region. Although, the three major groups of the State i.e. NLFT, ATTF and BNCT still exist, their combat potential has been substantially reduced due to protracted operations by Security Forces, apprehension of top leaders in Bangladesh and mass surrender of its cadres. The subdued limited spatial influence of these groups is confined to Dhalai, West Tripura, and North Tripura districts, including minor extortion attempts. The situation is in absolute control and threat levels are under acceptable limits.

Mizoram

The State lies in the remotest part of North East India and has larger borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh than with the Indian states of Tripura, Assam and Manipur. The word ‘Mizo’ means highlander. Maximum population of the State is tribal belonging to seven major tribes. Punitive British military expeditions in 1871 and 1889 forced the annexation of the entire Lushai Hills. After 1947, the land became Lushai Hills district under the Government of Assam. The inadequate action by Assam Government during Mautum Famine of 1959 lead to emergence of Mizo National Front (MNF).The district was declared a union territory in 1972& a federal state of Indian Union in 1986.

The Mizo National Front (MNF) led a protracted insurgency movement in Mizoram till the Mizo Peace Accord was signed in 1986. This also resulted in the territory attaining statehood in 1987 and so far remains the only successful Peace Accord of its kind in independent India’s history. The genesis of insurgency in the State dates back to the infamous Mautam Famine in the 1960. Inadequate action by the central/ state governments was the cause of discontent among the locals, which thereafter graduated to other issues concerning employment opportunities, economy and social reforms. Three Autonomous District Councils administer Mizoram. Insurgency in Mizoram, at present, is peripheral in nature and comprises of the agitations by the Brus or Reangs and the Hmars. Brus were forced out of Mizoram in 1997, following atrocities on them. Approximately 35,000 Bru refugees are presently lodged in temporary camps in Kanchanpur sub-division of North Tripura. Due to delays in settlement of their issues by the Mizoram government, militant outfits like the Bru Liberation Front of Mizoram (BLFM) and Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) emerged. Repatriation of the refugees is presently in progress in a phased manner. Efforts are under way to make the insurgent surrender for peaceful resolution of the issue.The insurgent movement of Hmars was aimed to defend the rights of their community, having bases in the border areas of Mizoram, Manipur and Assam. Two insurgent outfits were formed in 2007, namely the Hmar People’s Convention – Democratic {HPC (D)} and the Singlung People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). In 2009, most of the cadres of the SPLA surrendered and the group thereafter became dormant. Proactive efforts by the State government/ SecurityForceshave prevented resurgence of violence.The Bru insurgent groups are in tripartite talks with the State governments of Mizoram/Tripura. However, little headway has been made towards the return/ settlement of Bru families. The Mizo government has, however, managed to keep the insurgent factions engaged in negotiations and has prevented escalation of the situation.Similarly, though dormant, the Hmar insurgent groups resort to sporadic acts of violence to voice their concerns about the government inaction towards their demands. Illegal transit of arms through the State is another issue that merits concern.

Epilogue

Indian leaders need to exercise pragmatism while dealing with these vexed issues. In the final analysis, the imperatives of permanent peace must demand that the ultimate aim of a lasting agreement should not be derailed again. In fact, the need for showing this sagacity and circumspection is greater now than ever before. The current phase of peace parleys should not be left half-way for yet another future futile attempt. There’s no doubt that an end to these insurgencies will have an enormous impact on the prevailing peace within tribal north-eastern societies. The success of India’s Act East policy too will depend, almost entirely, on this resolution.

Mainstream Tribal Societies of the NE and its youth have undergone a huge transformation over the last 30 years, and today’s youth identify with the idea of India and fully accept the economic and political advantages of being part of the larger federal democratic system of India.

What is essential is that regardless of a political solution, New Delhi along with Tribal elders, must find a way to re-assign and convince the approximately 6000 armed cadres of the various groups to lay down their weapons and accept a handsome stipend and vocational training instead. This will go a long way in accelerating the peace process that will hopefully lead to an enduring political solution.

What also is abundantly clear is that the current threat from China has affected and altered the external and internal environment in the north eastern parts of India. The possibility of China renewing its interference in the north east using its version of the “grey zone warfare” and renewing the supplies of arms to these groups through proxies cannot be ruled out. When one adds the increasing cross-border terrorism, the growth of Islamic extremism, the narcotics-arms nexus, illegal migration and left-wing extremism, the situation could gravely impact the security of our already fragile North East. Permanent peace in this region is necessary and cannot be delayed any further.

(The author, a veteran soldier, is a second generation officer of the 11th Gorkha Rifles, and has served in the Indian Army for almost 40 years. He was later appointed the Chairman of the Cease Fire Monitoring Group located in Kohima where he was chartered to bring the various insurgent groups to accept an ongoing Ceasefire with the GOI. He also had the distinction of serving as the Indian Defence Attache at the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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