By Wasbir Hussain*
2016 brings both hope as well as challenges for the government in dealing with insurgency in Northeast India. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in New Delhi is continuing with the traditional carrot-and-stick policy in dealing with insurgency in the region but a definite strategy or policy to deal with the insurgent groups does not seem to be in place as yet.
Among others, the major positives for the government in 2015 with regard to insurgency in Northeast India include: the significant signing of the ‘Framework Agreement’ with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) for an eventual resolution of the problem; and getting the jailed General Secretary of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Anup Chetia, back to India from Bangladesh. Strong military action against the trigger-happy National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Songbijit faction (NDFB-S) has rendered the outfit weak and incapable of any major attacks. Efforts for peace with insurgent groups of the region have also been started by spiritual guru and the founder of the Art of Living, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, apparently at the behest of the highest levels in the Union Government.
Setbacks have, of course, kept the challenges alive. The NSCN- Khaplang (NSCN-K) abrogated its 14 year-long truce with New Delhi. In fact, in April 2015, the NSCN-K formed the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW). The UNLFW has already carried out several attacks on the security forces. The Maoists too have been trying to consolidate their position in the Northeast, but arrests of some of their leaders and members have hurt their plans. The foothold of Islamist fundamentalist groups seems to be increasing in the region, and if not curtailed, may cause a serious headache for the security forces in the future.
2016 may actually be quite unpredictable, and the following scenarios may emerge:
A. Signing of Peace Accords with Major Insurgent Groups
On 03 August 2015, the 18-year long negotiation with the NSCN-IM led to the signing of a ‘framework agreement’ between the government and the former. Details of the agreement were not disclosed during its signing. Finally, on 25 December 2015, the NSCN-IM issued a statement in which it said the agreement looks at a final solution in which Nagas will have the right to exercise their ‘sovereign powers’ over their ‘territories.’ However, with a view to solving the Naga-related political problem, the statement said both parties agreed to share sovereign power for an enduring and peaceful co-existence of the two entities. Thus, in 2016, we may witness a Peace Accord signed between the government and NSCN-IM.
A similar accord may be signed with the ULFA too. The ULFA had signed a tripartite agreement for Suspension of Operations (SoO) with the government on 03 September 2011. Since then there has been a series of talks between them. Now that their General Secretary Anup Chetia, who was in prison in Bangladesh, has been brought back and has since obtained bail, he will participate and lead the talks with New Delhi. Chetia’s joining in peace talks is a positive sign and an accord with the ULFA may soon turn into a reality.
With Chetia siding in favour of the pro-talk faction of the ULFA, Paresh Barua remains the only top ULFA leader against talks. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is now informally talking to Barua and trying to persuade him to come for talks. But with Barua still refusing to talk without the issue of ‘sovereignty’ being discussed, it is difficult to foresee him being engaged in a dialogue. Some glimmer of hope in improving the insurgency scenario in Manipur has been witnessed after Sri Sri Ravi Shankar met Rajkumar Meghen alias Sanayaima, the detained leader of Manipur’s oldest insurgent group, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), at the Guwahati Central Jail, on 17 December 2015.
The response of the jailed leader has been good. This is the first major mediatory effort by anyone with the Meitei insurgent groups in Manipur, and, therefore, can be termed as a significant move towards achieving peace in the state.
B. Sporadic Incidents of Insurgent Violence
The formation of the UNLFW to jointly fight the Indian state has led to a spurt in insurgent violence in the region. The decision to float this new front was taken during a meeting on 17 April 2015, held, perhaps, at the headquarters of the NSCN-K in Myanmar.
The NSCN-K, a constituent of the UNLFW, began hitting at security forces in quick succession. The first attack was carried out on 26 March 2015 (a day before the NSCN-K called off its truce) on the outskirts of Kohima, where four Assam Rifles troopers were injured. On 04 June 2015, after few more attacks in between, the rebels launched a massive raid on the Indian Army, killing 18 soldiers and injuring at least 11 others.
On 07 August 2015, the NSCN-K announced that the ‘framework agreement’ signed with NSCN-IM is intended exclusively for that group alone, and asserted that it is under no obligation to either agree or disagree with the accord. In September 2015, government declared NSCN-K a terrorist organisation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
Apart from increased violence by the NSCN-K, other outfits too are active, especially in Meghalaya and Manipur, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) in particular.
C. Tough Posture of the Government against Insurgency
In 2016, the government would surely continue with its tough stance against the region’s insurgent groups like the ULFA-I, the GNLA and the NDFB-S. Successful counter-insurgency measures have since weakened the NDFB-S significantly. Another tough stance of the government was noticed after the 04 June 2015 ambush of the security forces in Manipur. Immediately after this incident, the Indian government followed it up with a surgical strike on insurgent camps inside Myanmar’s territory on 09 June 2015, in which approximately 50 rebels were reportedly killed.
D. Efforts of Civil Society Groups to Gain Momentum
Efforts from the civil society groups to broker peace with the region’s insurgent groups may gather momentum in 2016. In Nagaland, the civil society is trying to bring the NSCN-K back to the negotiating table. In August 2015, a four-member delegation of the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), a frontline Naga women’s group, walked across to Myanmar and held talks with the NSCN-K leaders. After the meeting, the delegation informed that the NSCN-K was not averse to reconsidering its decision. However, soon after the NMA team returned, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) announced a reward on Khaplang’s head, hurting the efforts of the Naga civil society.
E. Maoist Consolidation in Northeast India
With most major insurgent groups in the region signing ceasefire agreements or peace accords with the government, the space left vacant is slowly being filled up by the Maoists. The Maoists are now planning to make fresh recruitments in Assam. In the rural areas of eastern Assam, short documentary films are being shown to young boys aged between 12 to 13 years, to brainwash them to join the Maoist movement. Details of such youths are being shared through WhatsApp. These include details about the youth’s education, family background and location.
Therefore, if their activities are not curtailed soon, Northeast India is in danger of a full blown Maoist insurgency.
F. Rise of Islamic Militancy
In 2016, there may be increased penetration of Islamic fundamentalist elements in the region, especially in Assam. Though radical Islam is not practiced by the region’s Muslim population, chances of radicalisation of a section of the youth in the near future, cannot be denied. The November-December 2014 arrests in Assam, of twelve persons with links with the Islamist terror outfit Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) shows that there is an attempt at radicalising a section of Muslim population in the state, a development that cannot be brushed aside as a minor security matter.
Overview and Projections
2016 can well witness the signing of two major peace accords with two of the front-line insurgent groups of the region – a Naga peace accord with NSCN-IM and an accord with the pro-talk faction of the ULFA, headed by Arabinda Rajkhowa and Anup Chetia. Civil society initiatives to broker peace with some of the recalcitrant northeastern rebel groups and factions like the NSCN-K; ULFA-Independent (led by Paresh Barua); and moves to try and convince some of the leading Meitei insurgent groups in Manipur to agree to a dialogue with the government, is likely to gather momentum.
Simultaneously, as part of New Delhi’s current stance of not going for talks with those outfits who believe in nothing but violence, tough counter-measures will continue during the year against groups like the GNLA and NDFB-S. On the whole, it will be a mixed bag insofar as the government’s achievement in tackling insurgency in the Northeast is concerned.
However, the security establishment cannot afford to be complacent, because groups like the NSCN-K, the ULFA-I, the NDFB-S and the GNLA, in addition to the assortment of the Meitei outfits in Manipur, can continue to keep the region on the boil.
* Wasbir Hussain
Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS