By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
The Union Government is considering the partial removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA)-1958 from the States of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Media reports cited an unnamed Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) official as stating, “The notification extending AFSPA in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh is issued for six months after a review twice a year. We have reduced this duration to three months and see if it could be withdrawn completely from certain areas. For the time being, the proposal is only for the two States but we are also looking for a similar solution in Manipur.”
The development can be seen in the context of continuous improvement in the security situation in India’s North Eastern Region (NER). According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), NER has recorded over 21,514 insurgency-linked fatalities (10,272 civilians, 2,473 Security Force (SF) personnel and 8,499 militants) since 1992. By 2016, however, the combined annual fatalities for all the States in the region stood at 160 (61 civilians, 17 SF personnel and 82 militants), as against 273 such fatalities (62 civilians, 49 SF personnel, 162 militants) in 2015. Significantly, this was the lowest figure for overall in the region since 1992. In 2017, the region has, so far, seen 67 insurgency-related fatalities (22 civilians, nine SF personnel, 36 militants, data till July 2, 2017).
India’s NER covers 3,287,263 square kilometers, 7.98 per cent of the country’s landmass. It comprises eight States: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. NER shares India’s international boundaries with Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. With the exception of Sikkim, all other States have a history of violent insurgencies of varying proportion.
Among various factors contributing to the present improvement in the situation, the most prominent is the ongoing peace talks with several insurgent formations. It is pertinent to recall, however, that these peace talks were preceded by sustained and successful counter insurgency (CI) operations against these groups. These operations were backed by generous surrender-cum-rehabilitation policies, losses of ‘safe havens’ in Bhutan and Bangladesh, the death, arrest or surrender of top insurgent leaders, fatigue and disillusionment with violence, and loss of the limited popular support and legitimacy that many insurgent groups had in the past.
According to the SATP database, at least 158 insurgent groups operated in the region at one point or the other. Currently, however, the total number of proscribed militant formations in the region stands at a modest 13: Assam (3), Manipur (6), Meghalaya (1), Nagaland (1), and Tripura (2). Apart from these, there are 23 active militant groups operating in NER: Assam (4), Manipur (6), Meghalaya (7), Nagaland (4), and Arunachal Pradesh (2). Mizoram and Sikkim have no proscribed or active militant groups. Thus, a total of 36 out of 158 insurgent formations are still operational. The Government is, however, in talks with one of the proscribed groups, the Tripura based Biswamohan Debbarma faction of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT-BM).
Of the remaining 122 outfits which are neither active nor proscribed, 82 have become defunct. The Union Government and State Government have, meanwhile, entered into dialogue with 40 of the remaining groups, which are willing to abjure the path of violence and pursue their demands within the framework of the Indian Constitution. The status of talks with various insurgent formations is:
The Human Rights Council
Assam units of Hmar People’s Conference-Democratic (HPC-D), Kuki Liberation Army (KLA), Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA), and United Kukigram Defence Army (UKDA), surrendered on January 24, 2012. All these groups are in dialogue with the Government.
Five Assam based Adivasi (tribal groups from Central India brought in as indentured workers in the Tea gardens during British rule) insurgent outfits – Adivasi People’s Army (APA), All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA), Santhal Tiger Force (STF), Birsa Commando Force (BCF) and the Adivasi Cobra Military of Assam (ACMA) – are negotiating under the banner of Adivasi National Convention Committee (ANCC). They all surrendered on January 24, 2012.
Assam based Karbi Longri NC Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF) is under a Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with the Government of Assam since February 11, 2010. The SoO agreement was valid upto June 30, 2017. No further open source information is available on the current status.
On an unspecified date, the SoO agreement with Assam based Pro-Talks Faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-PTF) and NDFB-Ranjan Daimairy (NDFB-RD) was extended for another six months. The SoO with both these outfits was valid till June 30, 2017. No further information is available in the open media. The undivided NDFB [later NDFB-PTF] first signed the SoO agreement on June 1, 2005. Similarly, NDFB-Ranjan Daimairy (NDFB-RD), an NDFB splinter, signed the SoO agreement on November 29, 2013.
A SoO agreement was signed with the Pro-Talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA-PTF) on September 3, 2011, and is continuing indefinitely. However, talks between the Centre and ULFA-PTF were on hold for a while due to the impending Supreme Court judgment on petitions seeking 1951 as the cut-off year for citizenship of people residing in Assam, instead of 1971 as per the Assam Accord of 1985. The last meeting was held on June 8, 2017, after retired Intelligence Bureau Director Dineshwar Sharma was appointed as an interlocutor.
The Mizoram unit of HPC-D is involved in peace talks with the Mizoram Government. The upcoming fifth round of peace talks between the State Government and HPC-D militants is scheduled to be held sometime in July 2017 and is likely to be elevated to the political level.
The Manipur based United Progressive Front (UPF), a conglomeration of eight outfits (that also included HPC-D and KLO), and the Kuki National Organisation (KNO), a conglomeration of 15 outfits, (that also includes KRA) are currently under SoO with the Government. The SoO agreement with UPF was valid up to June 8, 2017. No further information is available in the open media. SoO agreement with KNO exists since August 2008 and is valid up to July 21, 2017. Political dialogue with both these grouping commenced on June 15, 2016.
The periodic extension of SoO was done away with in the case of the Nagaland based National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) which had signed the Agreement on July 25, 1997, and which came into effect on August 1, 1997. A Framework Agreement, outlining the fundamentals of the eventual settlement of issues, was signed with NSCN-IM on August 3, 2015. Union Further, on April 18, 2017, the Union Government disclosed that ‘a ceasefire is in operation’ between itself and another two National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) factions based in Nagaland – NSCN-Neopao Konyak-Kitovi (NSCN-NK) and NSCN-Reformation (NSCN-R) – and had been extended up to April 27, 2018. NSCN-NK entered into the ceasefire agreement on April 27, 2012, and NSCN-R on April 27, 2015.
For the Assam and Nagaland insurgent groups, interlocutors have been appointed by the Union Government. On February 2, 2017, former Director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Dineshwar Sharma, was appointed as the new interlocutor for talks with the insurgent groups of Assam, taking over from P.C. Haldar, another former IB Director, who served till December 31, 2016. Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) Chairman R.N. Ravi was appointed as the interlocutor for talks with NSCN-IM on August 29, 2014. In other instances, State Government officials along with officials from UMHA were engaged in deliberations.
However, the system of prolonged talks along with poor mechanisms for rehabilitation and poor oversight over the implementation of ground rules have been responsible for many instances of deviance. Indeed, some of these groups under various ceasefire/SoO agreements continued to engage in abduction, extortion and killing, and thus continued to constitute an ongoing security challenge. On June 18, 2017, for instance, Assam’s Additional Director General of Police (ADGP-Special Branch) Pallab Bhattacharya disclosed, “Recently we arrested seven person engaged in decoity case. These person were surrender cadres of NDFB”.
Similarly, news reports indicate that on June 12, 2017, the newly elected Manipur Government had raised the issue of SoO violations with the Union Government. A source close to the Chief Minister was reported to have state, “The Chief Minister will raise the issue of ground rules violations by the cadres of militant groups that have tripartite Suspension of Operation agreement with the State and the Centre.” Chief Minister Biren Singh had earlier, on May 20, 2017, criticized the SoO, observing, “It is like having no government at all. There is no meaning of the truce. There is no seriousness in the dialogue with armed groups.”
Across Nagaland, moreover, NSCN-IM and other factions systematically violate ground rules, run a parallel administration, impose ‘taxes’ (extortion) on the public, and engage in continuous and fratricidal turf wars.
The active and proscribed groups, moreover, continue to throw up challenges. The most prominent among these is the Khaplang faction of NSCN (NSCN-K). NSCN-K’s Myanmar based leadership had on March 27, 2015, unilaterally abrogated a ceasefire that had endured since April 2001. Subsequently, the Union Government also called off its agreement with NSCN-K through a statement released on April 28, 2015. NSCN-K had signed the ceasefire agreement with the Central Government on April 28, 2001, and this had since been extended annually.
Other militant formations such as the Saoraigwra faction of NDFB (NDFB-Saoraigwra) [earlier known as NDFB-IKS], the Independent faction of ULFA (ULFA-I), Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT), United People’s Liberation Army (UPLA), Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Helem Tiger Force (HTF), National Santhal Liberation Army (NSLA), Liberation of Achik Elite Force (LAEF), Achick Songa An’pachakgipa Kotok (ASAK), Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) Manipur Naga Revolutionary Front (MNRF), Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) and the newly formed People’s Democratic Council of Karbi-Longri (PDCK), remain outside the purview of peace talks. Further, there are two umbrella militant organisations in the Northeast – both operating out of Myanmar – continue to engage in violence, particularly attacks against SFs. The United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWESA) is a united front of rebel groups such as the NSCN-K, ULFA-I, NDFB-Saoraigwra, KLO, PDCK. The other is Coordination Committee (CorCom), which comprises some insurgent groups of Manipur. The activities of these groups operating across the Indo-Myanmar border have raised concerns within Security agencies .
The very significant improvements in the security situation in India’s Northeast need a vigorous effort of political consolidation. Taking peace talks with various militant groups under ceasefire and SoO agreements forward in a time bound manner is one critical avenue of progress, absent which frustration, ongoing or escalating criminality, splits and internecine clashes can only mount, making a mockery of various ground rules established under the various transient agreements. At the same time, sustained counterinsurgency operations against those groups that remain outside the talks are an imperative.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management