May 25, 2006

Militancy in India's Northeast

India's northeast is a geopolitically strategic region. It comprises eight states -- Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Sikkim -- and is spread over a 262,179 square kilometer (101,201 square miles) area. The eight states contain a total population of 39 million. India's northeast connects with five countries -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, China and Nepal -- by a 4,500 kilometer (2,796 miles) international border; the region, however, connects to India only through a narrow and tenuous land corridor measuring merely 22 kilometers (14 miles).

A fact that further jeopardizes mainland India's links with the region is the thriving militancy in most of the northeast states. The demands of the different militant groups range from autonomy within the provisions of the Indian constitution to outright secession. Such militant movements started early with India's independence in 1947. At one point, more than 120 militant groups operated in India's northeast. In recent years, the Indian government has had some success in achieving stability in the region, using tactics from negotiations to military operations to root out militants. Nevertheless, the region remains a potential tinderbox.

Militants in India's northeast once enjoyed vast popular support since they, in their formative years, voiced genuine grievances of the people such as poor governance, alienation, lack of development and an apathetic attitude from the central government in New Delhi; in recent years, however, this influence has been reduced. Nevertheless, in most of the states in the northeast, anti-government militants retain significant nuisance value and often indulge in successful strikes against government interests.

Militancy: An Early Beginning

Nagaland, then part of the larger state of Assam, was the first to experience militancy. Long before the British left India, Nagas considered themselves to be independent and petitioned the British to declare them as an independent country. After being snubbed by both the British and the new regime in New Delhi, Nagas, under the leadership of the Naga National Council (N.N.C.), headed by A.Z. Phizo, declared independence. In his declaration, Phizo argued that in a plebiscite held in Nagaland in May 1951, more than 99 percent of voters favored independence. The veracity of the plebiscite remains debatable.

Subsequently, the N.N.C. split into different factions and its breakaway faction, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (N.S.C.N.) also broke into two factions; those factions were the Isak-Muivah faction (N.S.C.N.-I.M.) and the Khaplang faction (N.S.C.N.-K.). These organizations have continued separate violent struggles for Nagaland's independence.

Similarly, in Mizoram, which was a part of the state of Assam before it was granted statehood in 1987, experienced militancy after the Union government failed to respond positively to its demand for assistance during the massive "Mautam famine." The Mizo National Front (M.N.F.), led by the legendary leader Laldenga, launched the movement on February 28, 1966 and demanded independence for Mizoram.

In Tripura, the smallest of the northeastern states, migration of Hindus from the British-ruled East Bengal, which subsequently became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, is believed to have been responsible for reducing the indigenous tribal people in the state to minority status; this development sparked a violent backlash among the indigenous people. Starting in 1970, militant groups sprang up in the state demanding the restoration of the tribal rights from the Bengali population, who are accused of dominating the political and economic affairs of Tripura state.

Migration from Bangladesh, a fact that is refuted by that country, was the source of militancy in the state of Assam as well. A movement that started demanding the deportation of the illegal migrants also witnessed the birth of the militant outfit the United Liberation Front of Asom (U.L.F.A.) in 1979. Following U.L.F.A.'s example, a number of militant groups, each claiming to represent the aspirations of different tribal communities in the state, formed. Prominent among these groups are the Bodo Liberation Tigers, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (N.D.F.B.), the United People's Democratic Solidarity (U.P.D.S.) and the Dima Halim Daogah.

In the state of Manipur, militancy originated in protest against the forcible merger of the former Manipur Kingdom with India. In 1964, the United National Liberation Front formed with an avowed objective of ending the discrimination against Manipur, which was accorded statehood only in 1972 nearly 23 years after its merger. Subsequently, a number of militant organizations have formed with each representing the cause of different tribes, sometimes more than one outfit espousing the same cause.

Transformation of Militancy

Analysts indicate that most of the militant outfits in the region have been quick to transform themselves into purely terrorist entities, bereft of their original objectives and ideology. For example, U.L.F.A. in Assam, which originated as a reaction to Bangladeshi migration into the state, has found shelter in Bangladesh and through a publication in the 1990s has repudiated its earlier anti-Bangladeshi position. Militant outfits in Tripura, the National Liberation Front of Tripura (N.L.F.T.) and the All Tripura Tiger Force espousing the tribal cause have indulged in a number of attacks on the tribal population. Militant groups in certain states also have clashed among themselves. For example, in Nagaland, most fatalities are recorded as a result of the infighting between the two factions of the N.S.C.N., rather than from government forces.

With small arms being easily available in the region and the neighboring countries, capabilities of even relatively smaller groups to challenge state authority have dramatically grown over the years. As a result, militant groups have successfully transformed themselves into huge abduction and extortion rackets collecting regular contributions from the public, government servants and the business houses. With little protection available from the state government, people have often found it convenient to bribe the militant groups for peace, rather than risk death and abduction.

Military Operations

Security force operations using the army, state police forces and the paramilitary forces remain the preferred mode of official response to contain militancy. A strong military presence has been the feature of all the militancy-affected states in the region. The Union government, as a matter of policy, reimburses security-related expenditure incurred by the states. It also has an ongoing program for the modernization of the state police forces that sometimes possess weapons of lesser sophistication than the militants. Interestingly, in all of the northeastern states, the ratio of policemen per 10,000 people is far above the national average.

Military operations in Mizoram, where the army reportedly launched air strikes to neutralize the M.N.F. cadres, resulted in several fatalities and displacement among the civilian population. Military operations in Nagaland, too, resulted in civilian fatalities and large-scale displacement. In Assam, in the beginning of the 1990s, two military operations, Operation Rhino and Operation Bajrang, were launched against U.L.F.A. militants. These forced U.L.F.A. to move out of the state and locate itself in areas outside the country. However, such operations have not been able to post conclusive gains against militancy in any of the states. In states like Manipur, militants have been able to carve out vast stretches of "liberated zones" where only their laws and dictates hold sway.

Dialogue for Peace

While military operations have achieved only limited results, it is the dialogue for peace with the militant outfits that has brought some order to the northeastern region. Dialogue with the M.N.F. remains the only example of the culmination of a successful peace process that ended militancy in Mizoram in 1986. Experiences such as the Mizo Peace Accord, however, have not been replicated. Other peace deals such as the Shillong Accord in 1975 with the N.N.C. in Nagaland, the 1988 agreement with the Tripura National Volunteers in Tripura, the Bodoland Autonomous Council agreement of 1993 with the Bodo militants in Assam have all fallen through as new factions, dissatisfied with the terms of the agreement, have resumed hostilities under new leaderships.

At present, the Union government has ongoing ceasefire agreements with six militant groups in different states. The oldest one with the N.S.C.N.-I.M. dates back to July 25, 1997 and the other one with its rival outfit the N.S.C.N.-K. has lasted since April 28, 2001. In Assam, the following organizations have ceasefire agreements with the government: U.P.D.S. since January 1, 2004, the U.P.D.S. since May 23, 2002 and the N.D.F.B. since May 25, 2005. Similarly, in the state of Meghalaya, the Achik National Volunteer Council has had a ceasefire agreement with the government since July 23, 2004. U.L.F.A. in Assam in 2005, too, has appointed a People's Consultative Group to prepare the groundwork for eventual dialogue with the government.

Whereas ceasefire agreements with different groups have led to a reduction in the militancy-related fatalities in their respective states, the Union government has not been able to carve out a road map toward a situation of permanent agreement. In many cases, the process of dialogue is yet to formally start with the outfits. Militant groups, on the other hand, have taken advantage of the protracted peace processes and continued with their activities such as extortion and abduction with impunity. In Nagaland, fratricidal clashes between militant groups have remained a major issue of concern. In Assam, even after its moves for peace, U.L.F.A. continues to indulge in sporadic acts of violence.

Foreign Hand

Although most militant outfits have originated within their respective states and have operated with relative ease in their homelands, the Indian government has accused neighboring Bangladesh and Pakistan of promoting insurgency in the region. The Border Security Force -- the paramilitary force guarding India's borders -- has furnished the details of the militant camps that function in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi authorities have refuted Indian claims and have refused permission for a joint operation by forces of both countries against such camps.

Similarly, Pakistan, through its intelligence agency the I.S.I., is believed to have assisted the militant groups in terms of training and finance. Photographic evidence, passports seized from the arrested militants and the confessional statements by the arrested and surrendered militants has been provided as evidence behind the Indian claim. Pakistan, however, refutes such claims.

China, too, is believed to have provided some assistance to groups such as the N.S.C.N. in the 1980s. The militant leaders have on record confessed to have traveled to China and secured help for their movements. However, such a nexus, if any, does not exist today.

Besides, militant camps in Nagaland as well as Manipur militant groups exist in the bordering areas of Myanmar. Outfits like U.L.F.A. and the N.D.F.B. have reportedly used the facilities. The Myanmar army, starting from mid-1990s, launched several operations against the organizations, although successes in such operations have been temporary. Militant groups reestablish their camps after the army withdraws.

Bhutan remains the only country that successfully dislodged several militant camps of the northeastern groups through a military operation launched in December 2003. A number of cadres of U.L.F.A., N.D.F.B. and the Kamatapur Liberation Organization, an outfit operating in the North Bengal area, stationed in the country since the early 1990s, were either arrested or were forced to flee following the operation launched after several reminders by the Bhutanese authorities failed to force the militants exit.

Costs of Militancy

No estimates exist regarding the fatalities in militancy-related violence during the pre-1992 period in the northeast. According to the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, between 1992 and 2005 over 15,600 fatalities have been reported from each of these states, though the actual number is believed to be much more. Civilians account for more than 50 percent of the total fatalities.

Apart from the body count, the development of the region has been a sheer casualty of the raging militancy. Recently, on April 23, 2006, the chief minister of Manipur said that all development projects have been stalled due to interference by militant groups. He said, "Militants are extorting money from each and every one, including barbers, small-time traders and low-ranking government employees. This has become unbearable for the people." Prevalence of militancy ensures that a large chunk of the development fund passes on to the coffers of the militant organizations. In the oil-rich Assam, militants have periodically targeted oil and gas pipelines for sabotage, alleging that India is exploiting the natural resources of the state. In Tripura, national projects -- such as the extension of the rail lines -- have either been stalled or have moved with a tardy pace after militants attacked the construction sites and abducted workers. Militancy has also stalled the prospect of linking the economy of the northeast with the neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

Tourism, which could have flourished in the scenic northeast, has suffered. Although no foreign tourist has been abducted by the militants, an atmosphere of fear and trepidation has prevented national as well as international tourists from choosing the region as their destination. The education sector too has been affected by militancy. A number of schools in states like Tripura's interior areas have been shut as teachers avoid the areas due to fear of militant strikes. Extortion by the militant groups on the national highways that connect the different states with mainland India has shot up the prices of essential commodities. Trucks and buses have been burned and destroyed for non-payment of "taxes."

The Way Forward

In 2005, with 410 militancy-related deaths, Manipur was the second most violent state in the country behind Jammu and Kashmir. Still, neither Manipur, nor the northeast, has figured prominently in the policymaking of the national leaders. For instance, fencing the 4,095 kilometer (2,545 miles) long Indo-Bangladesh border, pitted as the solution to the problems of cross-border militancy as well as illegal migration, has progressed at a tardy pace.

While the government's military options have achieved only minimal results, lack of development continues to alienate the people of the region further from the mainstream. The region has also received little attention from either the national or the international media. Achievements by a separate ministry created by the Indian government for the development of the region remain minimal. With the current trend, the region is expected to remain volatile for the foreseeable future.

Report Drafted By:
Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray



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