By M.A. Athul*
On March 30, 2019, a former District Council member, identified as Seliam Wangsa, who was campaigning for a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, Honchun Ngandam, was killed by suspected militants at Nginu village in the Longding District of Arunachal Pradesh. Ngandam is the BJP candidate for the Arunachal Pradesh East parliamentary seat.
On March 29, 2019, suspected cadres of the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) shot dead Jaley Anna, a National People’s Party (NPP) worker, at Kheti village in the Tirap District of Arunachal Pradesh.
Seven-phase general elections are in the process across the country, scheduled to be over by May 19, with counting of votes scheduled on May 23. Polling in eight States of the Northeast is scheduled in three phases, between April 11 and May 19.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), these are the only two incidents of killing reported from the region in the current year (data till April 11, 2019). During the corresponding period of 2018, such fatalities stood at 22 (seven civilians, five Security Force (SF) personnel and 10 militants. Through 2018, there was 71 such fatalities (18 civilians, 15 SF personnel and 38 militants). In comparison, 2017 witnessed 107 fatalities (35 civilians, 13 SF personnel and 58 militants). Significantly, overall fatalities, on year on year basis, have witnessed declining trend since 2015. There were a total of 469 fatalities (243 civilians, 22 SF personnel and 204 militants) in 2014; 278 (63 civilians, 49 SF personnel and 163 militants) in 2015; and 168 (63 civilians, 20 SF personnel and 85 militants) in 2016.
Significantly, overall fatalities (71) recorded in the Northeast in 2018 were the lowest since 1992. At peak, the Northeast registered 1,696 fatalities (946 civilians, 151 SF personnel and 599 militants) in 2000.
Civilian fatalities declined for the fourth consecutive year and stood at 18, in 2018, the lowest in this category since 1992. The previous low of 34 civilian fatalities was recorded in 2017. At peak, the Northeast recorded 946 civilian fatalities in 2000.
Though the SFs managed to maintain a positive kill ratio in 2018 as well, a trend well-established since 2000, the ratio declined from 1:4.46 in 2017 to 1:2.53 in 2018.
SFs, however, arrested 605 insurgents in 2018 in addition to 726 insurgents in 2017. Mounting pressure also led to the surrender of 48 insurgents, in addition to the 131 in 2017. 2019 has already recorded 162 arrests and 19 surrenders (data till April 11, 2019).
Incidentally, except for Arunachal Pradesh, all the other six insurgency affected states – Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura – registered a declining trend in fatalities. Arunachal Pradesh saw 14 fatalities (one civilian, two SF personnel and 11 militants) in 2018, as compared to six fatalities (all militants) in 2017. Although the State has no indigenous militant movement, groups operating in Nagaland and Assam uses its territories to transit to Myanmar, and some Nagaland based groups have established operational capabilities in Naga inhabited areas of the State as well. Tripura has only recorded one insurgency-related fatality since 2015, in year 2017. Mizoram last recorded an insurgency-related fatality in 2015 (three fatalities in one incident). The eighth State in the Northeast, Sikkim, has always remained insurgency free.
Unsurprisingly, other parameters of violence in the region also recorded remarkable improvement.
For instance, the number of major incidents (each involving three fatalities or more) continued to decline, with only five incidents (resulting in 18 fatalities) reported in 2018. In 2017, the region had seen six major incidents resulting in 24 fatalities. There were 10 such incidents in 2016, resulting in 50 fatalities. No such incident has been reported in 2019, thus far.
Incidents of killing also saw a significant drop, with 52 such incidents, as compared to 73 in 2017 and 107 in 2016.
Varied factors, particularly the loss of safe havens in Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, have played a significant role in the decline of the insurgencies in the Northeast. In the latest incident of such cooperation, Tatmadaw (the Myanmar Army) targeted camps of Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) based in Myanmar. At least 20 Indian insurgents were killed in the operations between February 17 and March 2. The operations also resulted in the surrender of at least 11 militants. In a significant surrender, the ‘foreign secretary’ of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Saraigowra (NDFB-S), Evangel Narjary aka Ne Esera, surrendered in the Mon District of Nagaland on March 24, 2019, along with his bodyguard.
Meanwhile, peace talks with various insurgent groups continued through 2018, impacting directly on the levels of violence in the region. According to the SATP database, only 12 insurgent groups were found involved in incidents of killing in the entire Northeast through 2018. These groups included NSCN-IM, NSCN-Unification (NSCN-U), People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Coordination Committee (CorCom), NSCN-Khaplang (NSCN-K), United National Liberation Front (UNLF), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), Dimasa National Army (DNA), NDFB-S, Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), Hmar Peoples Convention-Democracy (HPC-D) and United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I). It is pertinent to recall here that Northeast had over 125 active insurgent groups, at different times, since the Naga insurgency began in 1956.
Worryingly, the Naga insurgency remains unresolved. On March 13, 2019, NSCN-IM reiterated its demand of a separate flag and constitution. V. Horam a member of the NSCN-IM steering committee stated,
|They (Government) can’t flee from the Framework Agreement, where the issues of shared sovereignty are clearly mentioned. We will start negotiation from the Framework Agreement and its development with the next government. It’s not our issue to think on about the Lok Sabha (lower house of Indian Parliament) polls. It’s their election, not ours.|
Separately, on March 22, 2019 NSCN-IM ‘general secretary’ Thuingaleng Muivah reiterated the demand of a ‘greater Nagaland’ declaring, “There has to be a national flag, not symbolic cultural flag, and own constitution”.
These statements clearly demonstrate that the Union Government’s claims in 2015, while signing the Framework Agreement, and on several occasions thereafter, that the Naga insurgency is all but over, is misleading.
Indeed, a report by a Rajya Sabha panel, submitted to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) on February 7, 2019, observed,
|The Committee, keeping in view the historical dynamics of insurgency, wishes to remind the Government that the most important aspect of any agreement with insurgents is the adequate rehabilitation and settlement programme for the cadres of the insurgent outfits. NSCN-IM, being the largest group in the entire region, would have thousands of cadres who must be adequately settled to make the agreement successful and to prevent the emergence of any splinter groups… the Government should, nevertheless, stay prepared for any scenario that may emerge in the aftermath of this agreement, and keep security forces on the alert.|
The Committee also urged GoI to conclude the Naga peace talks, which started more than two decades ago, and come to an agreement with stakeholders soon:
|The Committee apprehends that any further delay may harm the progress achieved during the last few years. The Committee, therefore, strongly recommends that the Government should conclude the peace talks, at the earliest, based on a broad understanding over the most contentious issues.|
Signficantly, the region saw multiple and widespread agitations and tendency to increasing polarisation through 2018 and thereafter. One of the primary issues was the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), 2016, (subsequently introduced as the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019) which was passed in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of India’s Parliament) on January 8, 2019. The Bill was not presented to the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the Parliament) owing to tremendous pressure by the people across States in the region. The agitations even jeopardised ongoing peace talks with the ULFA-Pro Talks Faction (ULFA-PTF), with the group’s leader Mrinal Hazarika stating,
|We will never allow the passing of the Bill. If the Bill is passed, Assam must be ready to revisit the era of 1983. The Government must be ready to face massacre-like situations.|
The insurgent violence in the Northeast, which was primarily founded on ethno-nationalist sentiments, has seen a continuous downward trajectory, creating opportunities to bring a lasting peace in the region. However, the gains which have been painstakingly consolidated by the security agencies, are being put at risk due to the myopic and polarizing policies of the political dispensations – at respective State as well as the Central level – with transient and narrow electoral calculations trumping the national interest. Such opportunistic and vote bank driven policies are likely feed ethno-nationalistic and separatist sentiments and narratives in the region, and have the potential to ramp up insurgent ideologies and identity-based agitations and movements.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management