By M.A. Athul*
On June 28, 2018, Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) militants shot dead a civilian, identified as Lanshinthui Kamei, at Gairilong Luangrang village in the Noney District of Manipur. The militants alleged that Kamei was an informer for the Security Forces (SFs).
On May 3, 2018, two ZUF militants were killed in an internecine clash in the jungle area between Khamnang and Douban villages under the jurisdiction of the Mahur Police Station in the Dima Hasao District of Assam. According to reports, the clash was between two factions of ZUF, one led by S. Kamson and the other by Jenchui Kamei.
On March 15, 2018, another ZUF militant, identified as ‘sergeant major’ Gonbi Gonmei, was killed in an internecine clash between the two factions at Dauban in Dima Hasao District. It was not known which of the two factions the victim belonged to.
On March 21, 2018, the body of a former ZUF militant, who was abducted from Longreijang Khun in the Jiribam District of Manipur by unidentified assailants, was recovered from under a bridge adjoining Digli and Ramgaizang in the Cachar District of Assam.
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), at least five (two civilians and three militants) ZUF-linked fatalities have been reported from two States, Assam and Manipur, in the current year (data till July 8, 2018). Since February 25, 2011, the number of such fatalities stands at 54 (six civilians, three SF personnel, and 45 militants). These fatalities have been reported from two states: Assam (three) and Manipur (51). Significantly, no ZUF linked incident has been reported from Nagaland thus far.
ZUF was formed on February 25, 2011, with the proclaimed objective of protecting the interests of the Zeliangrong tribe (a Naga sub-group). The ZUF founding ‘chairman’ S. Kamson, at the time of formation, had stated, “we will defend the land and resources of the Zeliangrong people, our culture, our historical values, traditional and customary habitats of the Zeliangrong community.” He had declared that that ZUF’s ‘jurisdiction’ falls over the ‘Zeliangrong Naga’ inhabited areas of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. According to an April 2017 report, ZUF had a cadre strength of around 300. The Zeliangrong Tiger Force (ZTF) is the military wing of ZUF.
The internal split within ZUF reportedly occurred in April 2017. In a Press Release issued on April 5, 2017, the outfit’s ‘information and publicity secretary’ Hemsin Kamson had stated that ZUF ‘commander-in-chief’ Jenchui Kamei and ‘finance secretary’ Benjamin aka Gaichampou Pamei, were ‘expelled from the party for their anti-party activities’ in accordance to a decision of ZUF’s ‘central executive council’.
However, in a statement on April 6, 2017, the faction led by Jenchui Kamei refuted the reports of the ‘expulsion’ and instead claimed that, in a joint meeting, the ‘central executive council’ and ‘military council’, held on April 3, 2017, Jenchui Kamei was elected ‘chairman’ of ZUF. The statement alleged that ‘chairman’ S. Kamson, Hemsin Kamson, and ‘finance secretary’ A. Longmei aka Dihem Longmei deliberately avoided the joint meeting. This release further asserted that the trio stood expelled from the outfit.
Since the reported split, according to ICM data, two incidents of internecine clashes have resulted in three militant deaths. Meanwhile, on May 7, 2018, the two ZUF factions arrived at a ‘cease fire agreement’ with each other. According to a joint press release by the two groups, the development was a step paving the way for ‘reconciliation and to come together as one’. The press release also stated that the development was a move ‘on the path towards achieving the aspiration of the Zeliangrong people’.
ZUF comprises breakaway elements from the Isak Muivah and the Khaplang factions of the National (NSCN-IM and NSCN-K). Factional clashes with these formations are, consequently, a regular feature in the areas of contestation between the three groups. According to ICM data, since its formation in 2011, ZUF has been involved in at least 24 incidents of clashes with NSCN factions, resulting in 37 fatalities [34 militants (three NSCN-K, 12 ZUF, 12 NSCN-IM; affiliation of seven militants not ascertained) and three civilians].
Two of the most prominent factional clashes (in terms of fatalities) include:
September 25, 2012: Six militants were killed and one civilian was wounded in a clash between NSCN-IM and ZUF militants in the Tamenglong District of Manipur. The identities and factional affiliation of the slain militants were unconfirmed
October 7, 2011: Six NSCN-IM militants were killed and five wounded in a clash with the ZUF at Leishok village in Tamenglong District.
In the most recent factional clash, on March 3, 2018, NSCN-IM and ZUF exchanged fire near Nungadang in Tamenglong District. No fatalities were reported.
ZUF has also been found involved in at least nine attacks on SFs. Two of these resulted in fatalities, with six killed (two SF personnel, three militants, and one civilian). Further, seven ZUF militants have been killed in six SF initiated operations. Moreover, at least 33 ZUF militants have been arrested by SFs till date.
ZUF has also been involved in six attacks specifically targeting civilians, resulting in five civilian deaths.
In the most prominent attack till date, on February 21, 2017, ZUF militants attacked the convoy of the then Deputy Chief Minister of Manipur, Gaikhangam Gangmei, first at the Lubanglong Khunou (Namkaolong) Part II area in Noney District, and again near the Irang River in Noney District. Later, the militants launched the third attack targeting the convoy at Lubanglong Khunou Part II (Noney District), when the Deputy CM was at his residence. One Policeman was injured in this attack. The fourth and final attack on the same day took place along the Old Cachar Road (Noney District), near the spot where the first attack was carried out. One Policeman was injured.
Four days later, on February 25, 2017, ZUF’s ‘chairman’ Kamson on the occasion of the outfit’s 6th raising day stated,
Our present struggle is not seeking secession from India but we are demanding a common homeland within the Union of India for the fragmented Zeliangrong territory which was divided by the British rulers and continues in independent India.
The ‘commander-in-chief’ Jenchui added,
The Zeliangrong United Front is ready for talks with the Government of India provided it recognizes the demand for bringing together the Zeliangrong community scattered across the Northeastern States under a single administrative unit.
This demand for separate statehood has put the group in conflict with NSCN-IM. One of the main demands of the latter, which has been negotiating with the Government of India (GoI), is the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas under one administrative unit. These include the Districts of Ukhrul, Chandel, Tamenglong and Senapati in Manipur; some areas of Assam; and some areas of Arunachal Pradesh. When ZUF was formed in 2011, NSCN-IM had alleged that creation of ZUF was a result of direct manipulation by Government agencies, including Tamenglong-based politicians and Assam Rifles (AR). Later, on September 29, 2012, ZUF had alleged that NSCN-IM was an irresponsible outfit, which had failed to protect the Zeliangrong.
Internecine and factional clashes among various Naga militant formations continues to remain a source of concern in an otherwise dramatically improved security scenario in these areas. Despite these ‘turf wars’, the Northeast Region has, according to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, seen a reduction of violence by 36 per cent between 2016 and 2017. Despite the rapidly improving security scenario and a potential peace accord between NSCN-IM and GoI, internecine hostilities are a continuing impediment to establishing a permanent peace in Naga inhabited areas of the Northeast.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
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