Insurgencies of the Northeast explained (Part I)

Updated: November 18, 2021 1:00 PM

Northeast India is the easternmost region of India and comprises eight states, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram Manipur, Meghalaya, Sikkim, and Tripura.

indian armyThe reasons for insurgency differ from State to State.

By Lt Gen Shokin Chauhan, 

The recent ambush and killing of Colonel Viplav Tripathi along with his wife, son and four other soldiers of 46 AR in Churachandpur, Manipur, has once again brought the continuing insurgencies in the Northeast to the fore.

Northeast India is the easternmost region of India and comprises eight states, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram Manipur, Meghalaya, Sikkim, and Tripura. The Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal, with a width of 21 to 40 km, connects the North Eastern Region with Mainland India and is critical to India. The region shares an international border of 5,182 km, with the neighbouring countries, 1,395 km, with Tibet Autonomous Region, in the north, 1,643 km, with Myanmar in the east, 1,596 km with Bangladesh in the south-west, 97 km with Nepal in the west and 455 km with Bhutan in the north-west. It comprises an area of 262,230 square km, almost 8 percent of that of India.

Also read| Insurgencies of the North East (Part II)

What distinguishes these states from the rest of the country is the sensitive geopolitical location with diverse ethnic groups with different historical backgrounds. The North East as a whole is not a single entity with a common political identity. Instead, it comprises many other tribes, each with their vision of their political future. The NE region of India is of immense geopolitical importance to the sub-continent due to its terrain, location and peculiar demographic dynamics. It is one of the most challenging regions to govern and is the gateway to Southeast Asia as it is bordered by Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and China. The Tribal communities in Northeast India live on the fringe of three great political communities, India, China and Burma. Some of them played roles of buffer communities, and others as bridge communities between these three great political communities.

Post-independence, the history of this region has been marred with bloodshed, tribal feuds and under development. Protracted deployment and operations by the army and the Assam Rifles have been instrumental in diminishing violence and restoring the security situation to ensure civil governance elements can function.

Genesis & Evolution of Insurgency in North East India

North East India has been in turmoil since independence. The oldest insurgency dates back to 1947, with the Nagas raising the issue of their sovereignty. Since then, insurgent movements have sprung up in most parts of the constituent states of the region. Due to several expected and specific abetting factors, violence mushroomed in different areas and during varied periods. At present, a delicate uneasy peace prevails in the region.

The reasons for insurgency differ from State to State. Several factors like common ethnic stock, similar historical background and comparable geo-politics are responsible for abetting insurgency in the region. In addition, certain other factors specific to states, regions or tribes also acted as abetting factors for insurgency in the NE. The physiographic constraints, the geographical isolation of the region and the wide communication gap are the primary geopolitical factors responsible for mushrooming insurgent groups and their prolonged struggle against the Indian government.

Spatial Spread of Insurgency. Protracted efforts by the Security Forces, involvement of interlocutors, participation of social groups and reconciliation by various insurgent groups has ensured the emergence of near normalcy in most parts of the region in the past two decades. With most groups under Cease Fire or Suspension of Operations and being engaged in negotiations with GoI, the spatial spread of insurgency in the NE is now reduced to a few districts/ areas. The spectrum of insurgency also varies from intense in certain areas to mild/dormant in most areas of the NE. The state-wise spread of insurgency is given in the succeeding paras.

Assam.

In 1947, large parts of Bengal Province were merged into Assam, which started slow immigration into Assam, initially Bengali Hindus. However, there was a major influx of Bengali Hindus after the massacre in East Pakistan. Assam and Tripura bore the brunt of this influx. By the 1970s, Bangladeshi Muslims started emigrating as well. Consequently, agitations commenced in 1979 over illegal immigration. Assam could not bear the massive strain of additional population and things began to crack. Anti-Foreigner agitation of 1980 & Assamese- Bodo tensions further aggravated the situation. Anger & rage amongst the Assamese population crept in as others claimed their land. The area is marred with insurgencies due to a clash of interests & territorial claims. Potential of communal tension due to rapid increase in the population of immigrants & overlapping areas of interest exist and need to be monitored closely.

The roots of insurgency in Assam began with the protests/ agitations of the All-Assam Students Union (AASU) against the illegal influx of Bangladeshi immigrants. A breakaway faction of the AASU formed the ULFA in 1979 to create a ‘sovereign socialist Assam’. With the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, the AASU ended its agitation and constituted the AsomGana Parishad (AGP). This regional political party participated in elections and subsequently formed the government. However, ULFA continued with its struggle, with sovereignty as the prime motive. Apart from ULFA and Bodo insurgents, the Dimasa groups of North Cachar Hills (now Dima Hasao District) had been claiming ‘Dimaraji’, a Dimasa state based on historical records and the presence of Dimasas in the majority. These demands were in direct conflict with the interests of Nagas, who claimed the overlapping areas as parts of ‘Greater Nagaland/ Nagalim’. Dimasa insurgency was brought under control with the signing of the Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) in 2012, with the consequent formation of the North Cachar Hill Autonomous Council (NCHAC). However, splinter Dimasa groups continue to venture out and carry out kidnapping and extortion. Most of these groups have been neutralised; however, minor cases of extortion & kidnapping continue. The ex-cadre continue to resort to such activities to sustain themselves in the absence of any rehabilitation programme.

Transient Presence of NSCN (IM) & (K)

Cadres from both groups frequent the districts of Dima Hasao and Cachar to carry out extortion/ rest & recoup or escape action by Security Forces in Manipur. However, with reducing support of locals, common apprehensions are made.

Islamic Groups

The radical Islamist groups are demanding security for the Muslims in Assam. The influence of these groups is yet to fructify in the districts of Karimganj, Hailakandi & Cachar. However, initial traces of the same are visible. The infiltration of Rohingyas is a matter of concern.

Manipur.

In 1824, the King of Manipur, Gambhir Singh, asked the British for help, and Manipur became a British protectorate. In 1826, peace was concluded with Burma. Manipur became a princely state under British rule in 1891. In 1949, Maharaja Budhachandra was summoned to Shillong, capital of the Indian province of Meghalaya, where he signed a Treaty of Accession, merging the kingdom into India. After that, the legislative assembly was dissolved, and Manipur became part of the Republic of India in October 1949 and a full-fledged state in 1972. Manipur. The roots of insurgency in the State date back to 1964 with the creation of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF). The discontentment was for the alleged forced merger of Manipur and delay in conferring statehood. Subsequently, groups like the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) in 1977, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1978,Kangleipak Communist Party in 1980 and KangleiYawolKannaLup (KYKL) in 1994 emerged in Manipur. All insurgent groups propagated the idea of an independent Manipur with minor variations in ideologies. In the Hill districts, contiguity with Nagaland and inhabitation by Naga Tribes enabled spillover of Naga insurgents into the State. NSCN (IM) has laid claim over these hill districts in the scheme of ‘Nagalim’ or Greater Nagaland. Kuki- Naga clashes in the Hill districts of Manipur in the early nineties instigated the creation of several Kuki groups in the State. The groups which were initially formed to resist oppression by Nagas subsequently started the demand for a separate ‘Kukiland’ State encompassing the Kuki inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam, Mizoram and even parts of Myanmar. However, most of these groups are now under SoO with GOI. Islamist groups like the People’s United Liberation Front (PULF) has also been founded to protect the interests of the ‘Pangal Muslims’. Links with other insurgent groups of the NE and camps in Myanmar have been corroborated. The insurgents have been broadly divided into Valley Based Insurgent Groups (VBIGs)and others comprising the Nagas, Kukis, Muslims and those representing minor tribes.

The main protagonist of this ambush, the PLA, has formed a ‘govt in exile in Bangladesh. The group is active and has been involved in acts of violence/ extortion. The group enjoys widespread support and has established linkages with the NSCN(K) in Myanmar responsible for the dreadful attack on 6 DOGRA on June 03 15 in Manipur. PREPAK is also active in Manipur Valley with strategic links with UNLF/PLA. All these groups maintain joint Camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar. KYKL operates in the valley districts of Manipur and shares a close nexus with NSCN (IM). Other groups like the UPPK, UNPC and KCP are generally dormant and have been involved in sporadic incidents of extortion/ violence. Most of the VBIGs are not under SoO/ negotiations with the State Government/ GoI and have stuck to their un-constitutional demands, thus continuing unrest in the region. These groups possess the potential to create periodic limited violence.

PULF. The only Muslim group of Pangal Muslims is active in Manipur Valley and Thoubal district. The group is active and shares solidarity with Islamic Radical groups in Assam. The group possesses potential to flare communal clashes with support from other Islamic groups in the NE. Linkages with the ISI are also suspected.

Kuki Insurgent Groups. All 18 Kuki insurgent groups in Manipur are under SoO with the Govt and negotiate a separate state encompassing areas inhabited by their tribe. The groups have their influence in parts of Senapati, Tamenglong, Chandel and Churachandpurdists. The dialogue process of these groups is under the banners of United People’s Front (UPF) and Kuki National Org (KNO).

Hill Districts. The hill districts are under the influence of the Naga insurgent groups. Successful State elections are indicative of the yearning of locals for normalcy and peace. The region has witnessed sporadic violence in the recent past. With the signing the ‘Framework Agreement’ by NSCN (IM) with the Government of India, the region has witnessed an increase in the group’s influence in the Hill districts. After the Abrogation of ceasefire by NSCN (K), a reduction in the presence of their cadres in the hill districts has been observed. Most of the cadres are believed to have shifted base to Myanmar.

TO BE CONTINUED…

(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 the former Director General of Assam Rifles and 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. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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