India: Worrying Spike In Northeast – Analysis
By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
The Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM), in a statement, on the Naga political issue, asserted on April 14 that it “cannot be a part of the Naga National Pollical Groups (NNPGs) solution.” NSCN-IM reiterated its claim as the ‘sole upholder’ of the Naga cause, arguing that “Nagas who are working as Indian mercenaries” were “going through sleepless nights to wreck the Naga issue and destroy the Naga national identity which the Nagas have shed blood, tears and sweat for over six decades”.
It claimed, “We fought single-handedly against the mighty Indian security forces and also against the misguided Nagas (mercenaries) that were given shelter and made to operate from the Indian Army camps.”
Evidently, the threat from the mother of all insurgencies in the Northeast, the Naga insurgency, still persists, as talks between the Government and Naga groups drag on, with no signs of any foreseeable resolution.
Interestingly, while signing the much-publicized Framework Agreement on August 3, 2015, with NSCN-IM, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said, “Today, we mark not merely the end of a problem, but the beginning of a new future… We will not only try to heal wounds and resolve problems, but also be your partner as you restore your pride and prestige.”
NSCN-IM had issued a statement after signing the Agreement,
We praise the Naga people and the people of India for exercising unprecedented patience in supporting the Indo-Naga peace process. With all faith and confidence, we believe that an honourable peaceful political solution will be worked out before long.
Meanwhile, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the Northeast has accounted for 10 fatalities (four civilians, one trooper and five terrorists) in the current year, thus far (data till April 17, 2022). During the corresponding period of 2021 as well, the region had recorded 10 fatalities (five civilians and five terrorists).
The region registered 72 fatalities through 2021, as against 27 in 2020, a more than two-and-a-half-fold increase. More worryingly, civilian fatalities recorded a four-fold increase, from five to 21; while Security Force (SF) fatalities increased from five to eight. Terrorist fatalities more than doubled as well, from 17 to 43.
Significantly, the overall tally and also, separately, fatalities in the civilian, SF and terrorist categories, were at their lowest in 2020, since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on insurgencies in the Northeast.
The sudden spike in violence is a matter of urgent concern. Indeed, overall fatalities as well as civilian fatalities were on a continuous decline since 2015. Despite the spike, however, the level of violence in 2021 remains very low as compared to the peak of 2003, when total fatalities in the region stood at 1,165.
The state-wise breakup shows that 29 of the 72 fatalities in 2021 were reported from Assam (10 civilians and 19 militants), 27 from Manipur (eight civilians, five SF personnel, and 14 militants), eight from Arunachal Pradesh (one trooper and seven militants), four from Nagaland (three civilians and one militant) and two each from Tripura (both SF personnel) and Meghalaya (both militants).
In 2020, of 27 fatalities, 10 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).
The geographical spread of violence also increased. While fatalities were reported from four States in 2020, the number increased to six States in 2021. Even in the four states which recorded fatalities in both 2020 and 2021, fatalities increased in three in 2021, as compared to 2020.
Meanwhile, according to the latest data provided by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), SFs arrested 686 insurgents in the region in 2021, in addition to 646 arrested in 2020. There were also 367 incidents of arms recovery in 2021 as compared to 466 incidents of arms recovery in 2020.
Other elements of concern have also emerged.
Though there has been no insurgency-related violence since 2015 in Mizoram, the State has been disturbed by rising incidents of weapons and explosives smuggling. The State has also been burdened with 20,000 refugees from Myanmar, including lawmakers and policemen, fleeing violence from the neighboring country since the February 1, 2021, military coup. Moreover, the unresolved Assam-Mizoram boundary issue led to violence in 2021, when at least seven persons (six policemen and one civilian) were killed in clashes between the Police forces of the two States along the interstate boundary.
The strife between the Chakmas, who are predominantly settled in the Subansiri, Lohit, and Tirap Districts of Arunachal Pradesh since the 1960s, after migrating from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in erstwhile East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), and the local Arunachali tribes, continues to trigger incidents. On June 16, 2021, tensions arose over a land dispute in Kathan village in the Wakro circle of Lohit District, when hundreds of Chakma settlers came to the village and allegedly resorted to ‘blank firing’ to threaten the local residents, mostly Mishmi tribals.
In Tripura, the demand of ‘Greater Tipraland’ for indigenous tribes can create a situation of violent ethnic mobilization between local tribes and the Bengalis at any stage. The past insurgencies in the State that lasted for more than a decade-and-a-half, and of which some stragglers remain active, were rooted in this ethnic conflict.
The Naga talks, moreover, have a direct impact on peace and stability in Nagaland and large parts of Manipur (Hills) and Arunachal Pradesh (Tirap-Longding-Changlang). The negotiations/peace process with Hill-based groups in Manipur – the Kuki militant conglomerates [Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and United People’s Front (UPF)] – are yet to see a conclusion. Dialogue with the KNO and UPF began in 2008. These Hill-based groups were involved in 18 out of 27 attributable killings in Manipur in 2021.
Further, the security situation in Myanmar after the February 1, 2021, coup d’état, has altered dramatically, and this has impacted significantly across the border as well. Intelligence reports indicate that nearly 300 insurgent cadres of Manipur’s Imphal Valley-based groups are currently stationed across in Myanmar and are fighting anti-coup forces on behalf of Tatmadaw (the Myanmar Army). Local reports indicate that, from September 2021 to March 11, 2022, around 204 Assamese youth have also joined ULFA-I in Myanmar.
Surprisingly, however, even as the manifestation of armed violence in the region saw an uptick, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), on mere partisan political considerations, announced on March 31, 2022, the dilution of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) with effect from April 1, 2022. The act was removed completely from 23 districts and partially from 1 district of Assam; 15 police station areas of 6 districts in Manipur; and from 15 police stations in 7 districts in Nagaland. While a rationalization of areas under AFSPA was certainly due, the current decision appears to have been more a knee jerk reaction to the botched Army operation of December 4, 2021, and its aftermath, where 14 persons (13 civilians and one Army trooper) were killed in the Mon District of Nagaland. Later on, December 5, two more civilians succumbed to their injuries sustained during the previous night incident.
However, there were signs of relief as well. On October 28, 2021, an agreement for a six-month-long ceasefire was signed between the Union and State Government, on the one hand, and the Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA), on the other. DNLA had been responsible for the adverse figures in Assam – accounting for 55.17 percent of total fatalities and 80 percent of total civilian fatalities in the State between January 27, 2021-December 5, 2021.
Meanwhile, the signing of the Memorandum of Settlement (MoS), with Karbi Anglong based militant groups in Assam is also likely to improve prospects of peace in Assam. On September 4, 2021, the Union Government and the State Government of Assam signed an MoS in New Delhi with six Karbi militant formations: Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), People’s Democratic Council of Karbi-Longri (PDCK), United People’s Liberation Army (UPLA), Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers-Mensing Kramsa (KPLT-M), KPLT-Ceasefire (KPLT-C) and KPLT-Run Rongpi (KPLT-R).
Later, on November 14, 2021, the United Liberation Front of Asom–Independent (ULFA-I) extended its unilateral ceasefire for another three months. Paresh Baruah, ‘president’ of ULFA-I’s ‘Supreme Council,’ had stated that the outfit would not engage in any kind of ‘military operations’ during these three months. ULFA-I had first declared a unilateral ceasefire on May 15, 2021, which was again extended for three months given the COVID-19 situation in Assam. Then, on August 14, 2021, the ceasefire was extended for another three months. However, on March 4, 2022, Baruah decided no to extend the ceasefire. Since then, one ULFA-I Over Ground Worker, identified as Suraj Gogoi, has been killed.
In Meghalaya, the State Government, following the Government of India’s permission, on March 11, 2022, initiated the process to hold formal talks with the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC). One militant killed in 2021 was from HNLC.
Indeed, the ceasefire/peace talks/dialogues with several of the insurgent outfits, under the pressure of sustained and effective Counter Insurgency operations, have led to substantial improvement in the security scenario of the region.
Further, the phase-wise resolution of the Assam-Meghalaya boundary dispute is also in sight. On March 14, 2022, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma announced that a tripartite agreement between the Centre and the State Governments of Assam and Meghalaya to resolve disputes between the two States in six areas was signed on March 29, 2022. Six of the 12 areas of difference have been taken up for resolution in the “first phase.” According to the agreement, Assam will get 18.51 square kilometers of the 36.79 square kilometers disputed area, while Meghalaya will get the remaining 18.28 square kilometers. No further details are available.
In Tripura, elections for the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) were successfully held on April 6, 2021. No militancy-linked violence was reported during the polls. TTAADC covers 7,132.56 square kilometers of the total 10,300 square kilometers area of the State, nearly 70 per cent. Also, the first phase of Bru settlement in Tripura has been completed. Over 30,000 Bru tribesmen from Mizoram took shelter in Tripura in 1997 following the killing of a Mizo Forest guard, allegedly by Brus, and subsequent violence. Subsequently many efforts to resettle them in Mizoram failed. Finally, a solution to the issue was reached with the signing of the January 16, 2020, Bru-Reang agreement, between the Governments of India, Tripura and Mizoram, and Bru-Reang representatives. In the agreement it was decided to settle the families permanently in Tripura.
According to a February 10, 2022, report, 1,454 Bru families were settled permanently in Tripura. The work on the next two phases is under process.
Yet, as several challenges persist the Government would need to initiate swift corrective measures to resolve issues which have the potential of derailing peace in the region, and some of which have been neglected or have been allowed to drag on for long.
In particular, the 1,643-kilometer-long Indo-Myanmar international boundary needs to be better guarded. The Director-General of Assam Rifles, Lt. Gen. Pradeep Chandran Nair, in an interview on January 1, 2022, disclosed,
Currently, 19 battalions are engaged in the border-guarding roles, and they cover 26,000 sq km [square kilometers] of a total of 46,000 sq km being taken care of by the 46 battalions. Counter insurgency role for us is in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Tirap, Changlang, and Longding (TCL) areas of Arunachal. So, please understand the enormity of the task at hand.
Further, amicable resolution of boundary disputes and a structure to integrate responses across the military, civil and political spectrum needs to be established to deal with region-wide threats and problems, including inter-State cross-border insurgent or human movement, and drug and wildlife trafficking. Urgent efforts are also necessary to make the protracted peace talks with various armed groups to a logical conclusion.
The SFs and the people of the Northeast have paid a terrible price for the relative peace that now prevails. Despite dramatic improvements in the security situation across the region, as compared to the early 2000s, the political dispensation of the country has displayed a great lack of wisdom in its inability to bring permanent solutions to the residual challenges of the region. The SFs have more than done their job; it is now the politicians and the civil administration that continue to fail the people.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management