Are Gun days gone in Northeast India

The Northeast has been relatively peaceful this year with significant drop in insurgency related fatalities and activities. With this changing scenario, there is a voice in support of paradigm shift in the Northeastern region’s security policy which has been largely defined or modeled along anti-insurgency. Northeast Today reports

During his address in the inaugural session of the 26th conference of the police chiefs of the north-eastern states of India which took off in Dimapur, Governor of Nagaland, RN Ravi called for a paradigm shift in the Northeastern region’s security policy which has been largely defined or modeled along anti-insurgency. “The paradigm of security in the north-east is changing and we can see the change. Till some years back insurgency was the core theme. Now, things have improved considerably,” he said while adding that the consolidation of the improvement in security has begun already. RN Ravi’s remarks is significant not because he is the current Governor of Nagaland, but because of his past engagement with Nagaland peace process. Ravi who retired as special director of the Intelligence Bureau in 2012, was the Centre’s interlocutor in 2015, when the government signed a framework agreement for a settlement of the Naga question with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah), the largest of the Naga armed groups.

RN Ravi’s remark came in just few days after the extension of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSA) in Assam in the pretext of Assam being a disturbed state. In the end of August, in an official communique, Assam state government stated, “Consequent upon review of law and order situation in Assam, in the past six months, the State Government vide a Notification issued to this effect by the Home & Political Department, Assam and as per Section 3 of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, has declared the entire State of Assam as “Disturbed Area” w.e.f 28-08-2019 upto six months unless withdrawn earlier”. Continuation of AFSA in Northeast India actually contradicts what RN Ravi’s stated, but at the same time it cannot be denied that there is significant drop in insurgency activities in the Northeast.

Data does not lie

According to data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), in 2019 (till September) insurgency related fatalities in Northeast India is 26, which can be termed as significantly low compared to past years. Among this 26, 17 are civilians, 5 Security Force (SF) personals and 4 militants. Surprisingly, fatalities is highest at 15 in Arunachal Pradesh, which is mostly considered peaceful and only 1 in Assam which is still a complex region in terms of insurgency. In 2019, so far fatalities in Nagaland is 4, in Manipur it is 5, Meghalaya only 1 and Tripura without any fatalities.

Interestingly, such fatalities were more than double in Northeast in the year 2018. In 2018, such fatalities stood at 73 (20 civilians, 15 Security Force (SF) personnel and 38 militants. It should be mentioned here that in 2018, Manipur had the highest fatalities with 23 (7 civilians, 7 SF and 9 militants). Next to Manipur was Assam with 22 fatalities (10 civilians, 71SF and 11 militants). Surprisingly, such fatalities were high Arunachal Pradesh in 2018 compared to Nagaland, which is known for its insurgency past and present. It was 14 in Arunachal, but only 7 in Nagaland. However, the death civilians was lowest in Arunachal (only 1) and highest in Assam (10 such fatalities). It is Manipur where highest number of SF personal died (7 SF Personals) and it is Arunachal Pradesh where highest number of Militant were killed (11 militants) . There were no fatalities in Mizoram in the year 2018.

In comparison, 2017 witnessed 106 fatalities (34 civilians, 13 SF personnel 58 militants and 1 not specified) in Northeast. In 2017 Manipur had the highest fatalities at 55 (23 civilians, 9 SF personnel, 22 militants and 1 not specified). Though half in numbers in, next to Manipur was Assam with 29 fatalities which include 6 civilians, 3 SF personnel and 20 Militants. Compared to Assam and Manipur, fatalities in Nagaland and Arunachal were low, 8 and 6 respectively.

It is important to note that overall fatalities, on yearly basis, have witnessed declining trend since 2015 in Northeast India. 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 (26) recorded in the Northeast in 2019 (up to September) were the lowest since 1992. At peak, the Northeast registered 1,696 fatalities (946 civilians, 151 SF personnel and 599 militants) in 2000.

The shift in policies

Over the past years in Northeast, most of the insurgent groups have opted for negotiated settlement of their grievances with the government, except few like Kamatapur Liberation Organization (KLO), which operates both in Assam and Bengal. This step was mostly resulted not for the aspiration for peace but for the lost of shelter in neighbouring countries. Traditionally both Bhutan and Bangladesh provided shelter and infrastructure to a numbers of Northeast Rebel groups. However, since 2003 this model has been discouraged by both the countries and rebels taking shelter in these countries faced arrest and handing over to India. Leaders and members of insurgency groups who were handed over to Indian authority faced long prison term. This indeed created frustration among insurgency groups, what was easy in the 90s i.e. taking shelter in neighbouring Country is no more an easy task. However, Bhutan and Bangladesh was replaced by Myanmar which provided shelter to Northeast Insurgency groups till recently.

The drop in insurgency activities in Northeast is mainly due to the changing behaviour of host countries. The Myanmar army has taken tough action against the ULFA and NSCN (K), recently killing a senior ULFA leader, Jyotirmoy Asom, during an attack on an ULFA base in Myanmar. Likewise, armed members of NSCN (K), based near Myanmar’s borders with India, have been moved away from the border and confined to camps. Myanmar is acting strongly to cooperate with India, thereby facilitating New Delhi’s peace process in Nagaland. Besides, Changing economic policies with neighbouring countries has too affected insurgency groups.

A major strategic project called “Kaladan Corridor,” linking Mizoram and other landlocked North-Eastern States to Myanmar’s port of Sittwe, located in the Bay of Bengal, is being built through it, with India’s assistance. This “corridor” provides India’s northeastern States direct access to the Bay of Bengal, at the Sittwe port. Apart from the economic benefits to India’s north-east for moving goods to and from the rest of India, the Kaladan Corridor would also provide continued access to our north-east, if the train route across Siliguri is disrupted. Such development will left little space for rebel groups to operate smoothly.

Not over yet

If we take the case of ULFA, who has been fighting for a sovereign Assam for almost forty decades has lost its emotional support in Assam. Large faction of the ULFA, known as ULFA-Pro talks has come over ground and is currently negotiating with the government. However, Paresh Baruah, the C-in C of ULFA- Independence continues to defy appeals of peace by the government and heads the anti-talks faction.
Baruah is one of the founding members of the ULFA born in 1979. Although Indian intelligence organisations believe that Baruah is currently based in Ruili, a Chinese town in Yunnan province and operates with help from the Chinese authorities. Most of the ULFA cadres are based in the China-Myanmar border areas and Myanmar’s Sagaing division. Occasional media reports point at the ULFA-Independence which Baruah heads attempting to carry out acts of sabotage within Assam. Although its strength has declined, ULFA-I continues to recruit within Assam and indulge in acts such as extortion and abduction.
The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), headed by I K Songbijit remains another potent insurgent organisation in Assam. Although it has been specifically targeted by the security forces leading to a severe depletion in its cadre strength, the outfit continues to remain operate in districts like Chirang, Sonitpur, Udalguri, and Kokrajhar district.
The CorCom in Manipur remains another militant formation indulging in periodic acts of violence. It consists of four insurgent outfits and is also known to be operating out of Myanmar. Similarly, the NSCN-K in Nagaland continues to defy onslaughts of the security forces and operates out of its traditional bases in Myanmar.

Conclusion:

As discussed above, it is true that the insurgency scenario has changed in Northeast India, with the dropping of insurgency related incidents. This changing scenario surely demands change in policy related to insurgency. In this context, RN Ravi is right when he said there is a need for paradigm shift in the Northeastern region’s security policy. One important thing Ravi has pointed out is that waning of armed insurgency gives rise to a period of criminal activities due to easy availability of illicit weapons. Ravi’s observation is correct, as we had seen criminal activities in BTAD, when Bodo insurgency was fading away after Militant outfit BLT came to mainstream politics by forming BPF.

Considering North East India’s insurgency past it is difficult to believe that there is a paradigm is shift in insurgency as pointed out by RN Ravi. It may not be a shift but a vacuum created by various factors mostly resulted by India’s diplomatic relation with its neigbouring counties like Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. These are the countries where insurgency groups took shelter earlier. However, with changing relationship with India and global pressure, Bhutan and Bangladesh stop providing shelter to Northeastern insurgency groups long back. Myanmar, whose internal political scenario is different and difficult is still a safe place for insurgents. It has to be noted that insurgency groups in Northeast India have received support and help from foreign countries in most of the cases not only in the form of shelter, but also in terms receiving arms and ammunitions.

The challenges lie in developing an effective policy to address the current insurgency scenario. Though overall insurgency scenario looks under control, there are issues which needed to be handled carefully. We have to remember that insurgency related fatalities and other activities are low, but it has not disappeared. Many of the political crisis which resulted in armed movements have not been resolved. The Naga issue, despite remarkable development seems to unresolved in few fronts. It should be mentioned here that the Union home ministry has rejected the demand of a separate flag and constitution for Nagaland and has decided to conclude the ongoing peace talks with the Naga rebel groups soon, by the end of this year. However, this has not been agreed by Naga Civil society groups who have strongly come out in support of National Socialist Council of Nagaland Isak-Muivah faction’s (NSCN-IM) demand for a separate “National” flag and Constitution.
In a region, where identify and idea of self determination plays vital role in politics, understanding of such issues with respect is very important. Government has to be careful while dealing with sensitive issues. The drop in insurgency activities is not a sign of merging regional political aspirations with national political aspiration but a desire for peaceful Northeast.