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Insurgency Related Violence in NE Has Dropped, But Is This a Sign of Chapter Closing or Calm Before Storm?

Since independent India in 1947, Northeast India has witnessed a bewildering line-up of insurgencies spreading across all the Northeast states with the exception of Sikkim. These are, Nagaland, Mizoram Manipur, Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, as well as the upper Sagaing region of Myanmar. The Naga insurgency which took birth and was initially referred to as ‘Naga Hostiles’ by the Indian establishment, is without a doubt, the ‘mother’ of insurgencies in the region considering its military and political strength.

Recruits at RPF PLA military training camp somewhere along Indo-Myanmar border. Pic: Bona Meisnam

Fortunately for India, the hostilities with major Naga armed groups ended since 1997 through Ceasefire Agreements and dug-in on a seemingly never-ending spree of peace negotiations. It is another matter that the negotiation with the Nagas is hampered by ambiguous ceasefire rules and the complex questions surrounding the fate of the ethnic Nagas beyond Nagaland itself and the perceived fear of fragmentation of the existing political borders of neighbouring states like Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

It is a fact that many viewed the on-going ‘Indo-Naga Political Peace Talks’ as the forerunner to resolving all of the divisive armed movement going on in the region. On the positive side, the Indo-Naga Talks has yielded at least a ‘Framework of Agreement’ and just when words were doing the rounds that the ‘talks’ is coming close to culminating into an accord, the tone and substance of a statement made by the peace talks interlocutor-turned Nagaland Governor R.N. Ravi, revealed the fragility of the talks. The Former deputy National Security Advisor (NSA) to the Modi government has accused the NSCN(IM) of “mischievously” delaying the peace pact “under the shadow of guns” and stated categorically that the Centre would drop the outfit – the principal signatory of the agreement – and proceed to deliver the accord with other stakeholders if required.  This meant that the Centre is ready to set aside the framework agreement – once termed as “historic” by Prime Minister, Modi himself. Apparently, the top leaders of the NSCN (IM) have been insisting on concepts mentioned in the framework agreement, such as ‘shared sovereignty’ and ‘unique history’ of the Nagas. Anthony Shimray, the military chief of the NSCN (IM) was quoted saying that the government of India had conceded that the history of the Nagas was ‘unique’ and that there would be ‘shared sovereignty’ with the rest of India.

Allegedly, the Centre and the armed group are not on the same page while interpreting framework of agreement. Governor Ravi had stated categorically that there would be no separate flag and constitution for the Nagas under the peace deal. Ravi stated that the NSCN-IM has “adopted a procrastinating attitude to delay the settlement raising the contentious symbolic issues of separate Naga national flag and constitution on which they are fully aware of the Government of India’s position.” Significantly, the Centre’s stalemate with the NSCN-IM reached its zenith after the abolition of Article 370 of Jammu and Kashmir. In one stroke, the Modi government abolished the provision under which the state had a separate flag and a constitution. This swift move of the centre has added an air of apprehension in Nagaland about the possibilities of a similar action against the special provisions that are enshrined in Article 371A for the Nagas. Article 371A states that no act of Parliament — with respect to religious or social practices of the Nagas, their customary law and procedure, administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law, ownership and transfer of land and its resources — shall apply to the state unless the Assembly decides by a resolution.

UNLF cadres at one of their base camp sometime along Indo-Myanmar border

Achumbemo Kikon, spokesperson of the Naga People’s Front (NPF) said, “As an Opposition party, we are confident that the central government will not dare to take the Jammu and Kashmir path in Nagaland, lest the sentiments of Naga people are hurt and the consequences would be severe.” Even with the central government of India clarifying has said that it has no plans to scrap Article 371A.

Notwithstanding the decline of violent activities in the last one decade and several ‘political talks’ between a number of armed ethnic groups who are on ‘Suspension of Operation Agreements with the government, the on-going Indo-Naga talks seems to be giving the wrong signals, specially to the Manipur insurgents who seemed to have hardened their stance by indicating that there are no other options other than to endure on the armed struggle against India, a conflict characterized as low-level violence, militarisation and civilian insecurity.

Lt. Gen Anil Chauhan, the Eastern Army Commander while commenting on the current status of the armed conflict in the region said, “Insurgency is on a decline in the Northeast. Overall militancy-related incidents have declined by about 12% and the arc of violence in the entire North East has shrunk primarily to an area which is the tri-junction between Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and north Nagaland.”

Terming the recent agreements between factions of the NDFB, the ABSU, the Assam government and the Centre as a welcome step and a precursor to a lasting solution in the region, the India Army Commander said that the focus of the Eastern Command has shifted towards non-combat operations with the level of insurgency having gone down in the North East. He said that a large number of civil-military projects have been taken up by the Army, which includes infrastructure development, setting up of medical camps and national integration. He further added that with the improvement in the situation, troops are being sent to barracks in Karbi Anglong and the Army is also contemplating withdrawing some of its forces from the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts in Assam.

Paresh Baruah at a strategic meeting in Sagaing region, Mynamar

Even as the law and order situation in Manipur has showed signs of improvement, the border state still remains the most violent state, accounting for 50% of the total violent incidents reported across the Northeastern region. Primarily, Manipur is affected by activities of the Meitei, Naga, Kuki, Zomi, Hmar and Muslim armed groups with the Meitei insurgents accounting for about 57% of insurgency related incidents.

Irengbam Chaoren, the elusive guerrilla leader who leads  one of Manipur’s most potent armed outfit, the Revolutionary Peoples’ Front, RPF, in a press release, emailed to mark the outfit’s 41st Rising Day, ruled out getting into any peace parley with the government India, saying his party will never compromise on the question of Manipur’s freedom.

In his press communique, Chaoren said that “under the current situation it will be impossible to come to any form of agreement on liberation of Manipur through dialogue between the Government of India and the revolutionary groups of Manipur.” Explaining his position, the rebel leader termed “India’s initiative for dialogue is basically about merging the revolutionaries into the Indian mainstream, make them real Indians; disarm the revolutionary groups and bring a solution within the constitution of India.”

 

Giving reference to the NSCN IM and Government of India peace-talk, Chaoren said that India’s approach has been “testified repeatedly by the accords signed earlier and the on-going political dialogues.” RPF President emphasised that RPF’s armed movement to liberate Manipur is a response to the call of the over 2000 years old national history of independence and freedom. He said that RPF’s armed movement is now over 40 years old and is fundamentally against the Government of India’s colonial rule.

He further rejected the views of the Indian security analysts who reasoned that the lack of development and unemployment brewed insurgency in the northeast. “The armed movement is not a manifestation of grievances against administrative or economic policies formulated by the Government of India for the people of Manipur. The armed movement is a movement to liberate Manipur and establish self-rule.” He then went on to say that the revolutionary movement for the liberation of Manipur will evidentially attain the ‘Ultimate Victory’ given its long written national history and the fact that Manipur was forcefully annexed.

This strong worded ‘message’ from the chief of RPF whose armed division, the People’s Liberation Army, PLA, is dreaded even by the Indian Army comes at a time when Manipur is gripped in the tense atmosphere emitted by the post CAA or the Citizenship Amendment Act. The Coalition for Indigenous Rights Campaign, CIRCA, a citizen’s organisation of Manipur had termed the passing of CAB 2019 as an act of declaring war on the indigenous people of the North East”. Following the CAB/CAA related unrest, social observers in the state have said that insurgency in the Northeast may get a fresh lease of life with the Modi government bend of enforcing the CAA.

The Northeastern region of India is a rugged territory consisting of 225,000 sq kms of hills and plains located between Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar with 4,500 kms of international border. There is an extra incentive for India to utilise this strategic space in the nation’s interest and in the interest of the region’s inhabitants.

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