By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On March 22, 2021, unidentified gunman in camouflage killed three Zeliang tribesmen – Itingwangbe Haikam, Hangyi and Asiambo – in an area between the Peren and Dimapur Districts of Nagaland.
On March 20, 2021, a Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA) militant was killed in an encounter with Security Forces (SFs) at Purana Hajong village in the Dima Hasao District of Assam.
On March 16, 2021, SFs killed a militant belonging to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Reformation (NSCN-R) in an encounter at Motong under the Yatdam circle of Changlang District, Arunachal Pradesh.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 10 insurgency-linked fatalities (five civilians and five militants) have been recorded in the northeast region of India in 2021 (data till April 11, 2021). In addition to the five fatalities in the incidents above, the remaining five fatalities were reported from Assam (two civilian fatalities), Arunachal Pradesh (one militant fatality) and Manipur (one fatality each in the civilian and militant categories).
Through 2020, a total of 27 fatalities (five civilians, five SF personnel and 17 militants) were recorded. 10 of these fatalities were reported from Arunachal Pradesh (one civilian, two SF personnel and seven militants); eight from Assam (three civilians and five militants); seven from Manipur (one civilian, three SF personnel and three militants); and two from Nagaland (both militants).
In 2019, the region recorded 34 fatalities (18 civilians, five SF personnel, and 11 insurgents). 17 of these fatalities were reported from Arunachal Pradesh (11 civilians, three SF personnel and three militants); three from Assam (one civilian and two militants; nine from Manipur (four civilians and five militants); one (civilian) from Meghalaya; and four from Nagaland (one civilian, two SF personnel and one militant).
The northeast region comprises eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura. Of these, except for Sikkim, the remaining seven have witnessed varying degrees of insurgency. The last fatality in Mizoram was reported on March 28, 2015 and in Tripura on November 17, 2014.
Though Arunachal Pradesh doesn’t have any active indigenous terrorist group, it has recorded highest number of fatalities because Naga groups seek dominance in the Tirap, Longding and Changlang (TLC) Districts, part of their projected ‘Nagalim (Greater Nagaland)’. This has led to clashes between the SFs and the Naga groups, as well as factional clashes between Naga terror outfits.
Meanwhile, the 27 overall fatalities recorded in 2020 were the lowest recorded in a year since 1992. The previous low of 34 was recorded in 2019. Fatalities in the region have been on decline since 2015, when fatalities came down to 269 from 469 in 2014. There were 168 fatalities in 2016, 107 in 2017, and 73 in 2018.
Like overall fatalities, civilian fatalities have been on decline since 2015, when fatalities in this category declined to 64 from 243 in 2014. There were 63 fatalities in 2016, 35 in 2017, 20 in 2018, 18 in 2019 and five in 2020. Thus 2020 recorded the lowest number of civilian fatalities in the region since 1992.
2020 saw five fatalities in the SF category, the same as in 2019, and the lowest recorded in this category since 1992. A previous low of 13 in this category was recorded in 2017, which increased marginally to 15 in 2018. However, terrorist fatalities, which were also on a constant decline since 2015 – 204 in 2014, 163 in 2015, 85 in 2016, 58 in 2017, 38 in 2018 and 11 in 2019 – increased to 17 in 2020. According to the latest data provided by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), SFs arrested 646 insurgents in the region in 2020, in addition to 936 arrested in 2019. There were also 202 incidents of arms recovery in 2020, in addition 219 in 2019.
Other parameters of violence also indicate diminishing capabilities of insurgents in the region. The number of terrorism-linked incidents came down from 640 in 2019 to 389 in 2010, the lowest since March 6, 2000. Incidents of killing dropped from 20 in 2019 to 18 in 2020, again the lowest since March 6, 2000.
Indeed, the overall security situation has improved in the region. One of the primary reasons of the downturn in insurgency is direct engagement with several of the insurgent outfits, who have joined negotiations with the Government under pressure of sustained and effective Counter Insurgency operations. On September 27, 2020, Union Home Minister Amit Shah thus observed,
Several peace initiatives in the northeast were taken in the past six years under [Narendra] Modiji’s government. Hundreds of extremists laid down arms after agreements with eight groups…
The Suspension of Operations (SoO)/peace talks with the insurgent groups based in northeast have long been in place. Different Governments have successfully concluded negotiations with several of them leading to agreement and surrender of prominent groups like Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) [Link: SAIR-1.31], United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), Dima Halam Daogah (DHD), National Liberation Front of Tripura-Nyanbashi faction (NLFT-NB), etc.
However, several challenges to peace remain unaddressed.
Though the Union Home Minister claimed that “the issues of the remaining groups will be settled by 2024 by taking along the Chief Ministers of the region”, this is easier said than done. Indeed, the Naga peace talks continue to linger despite several claims of a comprehensive resolution on several occasions since the signing of the Framework Agreement on August 3, 2015. Indeed, on March 3, 2021, National Socialist Council of Nagaland—Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) declared that it would not sign any agreement that is “short of mutual standards agreed upon.” NSCN-IM is emphasizing an ‘honourable and acceptable’ solution that incudes a separate Naga flag and constitution, based on a ‘unique Naga History.’
Incidents of extortion, one of the major remaining security issues, continue unabated. Nagaland Governor R. N. Ravi, in his Republic day (January 26, 2021) speech, highlighted the problem, observing:
The menace of rampant extortion, under the guise of illegal taxation by anti-social elements, has not yet been fully curbed despite best efforts by the police and security forces. It has created a sense of fear among businesses and entrepreneurs which severely undermines the economy and growth of the state.
Earlier, on June 26, 2020, Limasunep Jamir, Inspector General-Range (IGP-Range), Nagaland, disclosed more than 95 per cent of that extortion cases were registered suo-motu, as no formal complaint was lodged by the aggrieved party against the extortionists.
Worryingly, both the groups that remain engaged in peace talks and those who are still outside the gambit of peace talks, are part of these extortion drives. The money generated through extortion is used to sustain their ‘movements’.
Apart from the Naga peace talks, talks with other prominent groups such as United liberation Front of Assam-Pro Talks faction (ULFA-PTF), Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and the United People’s Front (UPF) are yet to reach a conclusion.
While focused efforts to contain and neutralize armed violence have continued over decades, the base issue of ethnic polarisation has never been addressed and has, in fact, gained further momentum during anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)/ Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) agitation. The CAA 2019 seeks to help illegal non-Muslim immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to secure citizenship by naturalisation. The issue of non-locals is highly emotive in the region and has often led to violence in the past.
There are other state specific ethnic issues which need to be addressed to consolidate an enduring peace. These primarily include:
Arunachal Pradesh: the demand of a Permanent Resident Certificate (PRC) by six communities (Ahom, Deoris, Sonowal-Kacharis,, Morans, Adivasis and Mishing) living in the Lohit, Namsai and Changlang Districts of the State; the objections by local Arunachali tribes on giving citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong refuges settled in Arunachal Pradesh; and opposition by a section of the Yobin community on the renewal of lease agreements for ex-servicemen’s families (mostly Gorkha), settled in the Vijaynagar area of Changlang District.Assam: friction between the claimants of Scheduled Tribe status from six major communities [Moran, Matak, Tai Ahom, Chutia, Koch Rajbongshi and the tea tribes] and the tribes presently in this category [Bodos, Mishings Rabha, Karbi etc.].Manipur: the dominant Naga and Kuki Hill tribes are at loggerheads on the issue of ‘ancestral land’, especially in Districts with mixed populations.Meghalaya: the issue of implementation of the Inner Line Permit to regulate entry and stay of non-locals.Mizoram: tension between Mizos and Non-Mizos over opportunities for employment and education.Tripura: the issue of the settlement of displaced Brus from Mizoram in Tripura.Nagaland: the implementation of the Register of Indigenous Citizens of Nagaland exercise, based on the Banuo Commission report, with December 1, 1963, as the cut-off date.
Cooperation from neighbouring countries, including Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, played a significant role in the improvement of overall situation. Underlining the fact, the Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) General Manoj Mukund Naravane, stated, on February 12, 2021,
While relentless operations by the security forces and proactive government policies have laid the foundation, favourable external environment with Myanmar and Bangladesh has struck at the roots of the insurgent organizations… a series of operations under Operation Sunrise with Myanmar Army has witnessed growing cooperation and synergy between the soldiers on ground with reasonable operational dividends.
The ongoing turmoil in Myanmar and Bangladesh may change the situation on ground. Violent protests by Islamic hardliners in Bangladesh masquerading as dissent against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Awami League in Bangladesh, work to promote an ‘Islamic system’ over democracy. Civil societies mobilization and protests in Myanmar to restore democracy may also create an environment of instability. In both countries, this is likely to create opportunities for Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) to regroup.
More worryingly, there are apprehensions of direct Chinese intervention. In an article published on April 6, 2021, the Communist Party of China-backed Global Times warned that “if India supports China’s separatist forces, it means that it has undermined the principle of establishing diplomatic relations, and China will not respect India’s sovereignty or territorial integrity.” Long Xingchun, President of the Chengdu Institute of World Afifairs, asserted that many ‘armed forces’ in India, especially in the northeast, had demanded China’s support.
There have long been reports indicating a Chinese role in the multiple insurgencies of India’s Northeast. Many of the top insurgent leaders are/were reported to have taken shelter inside China. These currently include, inter alia, top NSCN-IM leaders, including former ‘chief’ of the Naga Army, Phungting Shimrang; ‘deputy commander’ Hanshi Ramson Tangkhul; ‘major general’ Absalom Assissi; and United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) chief Paresh Baruah.
Meanwhile, inter-state border disputes between Mizoram and Tripura and Assam and Mizoram flared up in 2020, and continue to simmer. In the latest of a series of clashes reported from these borders, six persons [three each from Assam and Mizoram] were injured in a clash reported from Kachurtal in the Hailakandi District of Assam on February 9, 2021.
The consolidation of peace in India’s Northeast is facing challenges in the form of existing ethnic tensions in the constituent States and increased polarisation within States due to an increasingly strident and divisive political discourse. Moreover, turmoil in the wider regional neighbourhood is another worrying development that could undermine the fragile stability that has been established after decades of violence. There is real apprehension that a few of the active terrorist groups as well as some of the dormant groups may try to exploit the environment of uncertainty and rising tension to their advantage, creating new crises in this long-troubled region.
Meaningful engagement of the Centre, the States, civil society and ethnic groups, to narrow the differences amongst citizens is thus an urgent imperative. Constructive and continued engagement with Myanmar and Bangladesh are also an imperative, even as security operations continue to hold down the residual threat of armed violence.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management