Large scale investment in infrastructure and job opportunities are some options to fight insurgency in the Northeast
Lt Gen. Zameeruddin Shah (retd)
The Northeast (NE) region of India is of great strategic significance. The region comprising Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya encompasses all territory east of the Siliguri Corridor, a 22km wide rail and road link wedged in between Tibet in the north and Bangladesh in the south. However, the region has seen major unrest, especially in Nagaland and Manipur, for years now. The Naga insurgency, the ‘mother of all insurgencies’ has festered since Independence. It has given impetus to other insurgent movements. India’s hostile neighbours took advantage of tribal misgivings and wanton neglect of these areas. China and erstwhile East Pakistan actively supported various insurgent groups. Post 1971, this support has dried up. The main supply route of arms now for the insurgent groups in NE India is from Southeast Asia through Myanmar. Unchecked border movement facilities for tribals along the border with Myanmar hampers control over the free transit of arms.
Reasons for Isolation and Neglect of NE
Historical Legacy: The region never got the warranted focus and attention because of its isolation. Communication during pre-Independence era was primarily through East Bengal (now Bangladesh). The British permitted a large deal of autonomy to the tribal regions. On seeing the birth of an independent India, the tribal populations wanted to retain their independence. The whole area, except for Sikkim, was under the State of Assam which was progressively hived to create new states and now comprises one third of its former territory.
Human issues. The Nagas are not a homogenous collective. There are 17 major and 20 sub tribes amongst them. Each Naga tribe has its own dialect, traditions, culture and region of influence. The multitude of tribes with conflicting interests makes negotiation difficult.
Economic Neglect. The states are under-developed with poor communication. There are no railway lines, although a line is now being laid up to Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Road connectivity is also poor and prone to disruption due to inclement weather, land-slides and human intervention. The economic aid being funnelled into NE states is also diverted to the coffers of a few powerful politicians and do not benefit the common citizens. A large part ends up as ‘taxes’ to insurgent organisations. So, in effect the central funds are bank-rolling insurgency. Insurgency has become an industry.
Nagalim: The Nagas, from the very beginning, wanted a separate country which they christened ‘Nagalim’ (shaded portion of a map). It incorporated all territories inhabited by Naga tribes and encompassed, besides Nagaland, Southeastern portions of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, Northern parts of Manipur and Northwest Myanmar.
Separatist Movements: To push the agenda of Naga separatists, the ‘Naga Club’ was formed in 1918 to represent Naga interests to the British government. In 1929, sensing impending end of British rule, the Nagas submitted a memorandum to the visiting Simon Commission requesting that the Nagas not be included with the Indian Union. In 1935 the Naga Areas were declared as Special Backward Area. Nagaland, then a district of Assam, declared unilateral independence on 14 August 1947. This demand was totally unacceptable as it would have fanned similar demands in other regions. The government of India launched counter insurgency operations to quell this demand.
Attempts at reconciliation: To placate genuine Naga aspirations, the district of Naga Hills was upgraded to a state on 1 December 1963 with a high degree of autonomy. The Constitution of India was amended (13th Amendment Act, 1962). The government of India, from the very beginning, wanted an amicable solution. It began negotiations with elements amenable to a peace deal, the Naga People’s Convention (NPC) and Nagaland National Council (NNC), under the patronage of an evangelist missionary, Rev Michael Scott. A ceasefire was declared. Various Naga factions, however, continued to indulge in violence, and after six rounds of talks, the Peace Mission was abandoned in 1967, and a massive counter-insurgency operation was launched. A significant blow to Naga insurgency was the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971. Several top insurgents in Bangladesh were captured and the aid being given to Naga insurgents by Pakistan, dried up. Another significant step forward was the absorption of surrendered Naga hostiles in 111 and 112 BSF Battalions in 1973.
Shillong Accord of 11 November 1975: This historic agreement was signed at Shillong, Meghalaya on 11 November 1975 under which the underground organisations, of their own volition, accepted without condition the Constitution of India. Their arms were collected and deposited at the Chedema Peace Armoury on the outskirts of Kohima. The underground organisations were given more time to project additional issues they wanted, to facilitate a final settlement. As happened earlier, a faction under Isak Swu, Th Muivah and S. Khaplang, in 1979 rejected the Shillong Accord, terming it as a ‘betrayal’ by the NNC and a complete ‘sell-out’ of the Naga cause. They abandoned the NNC and resolved to continue the fight for total independence. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) was born on 2 February 1980. By 1988, NSCN was further splintered on tribal lines into two different factions — NSCN (K), under Khaplang, (a Tankhul from Manipur) and NSCN (IM), under Isak Swu (Sema) and Th Muivah (Tankhul).
Most Recent Peace Overture: After protracted negotiations, the government had inked a framework agreement with NSCN-IM in 2015. The NSCN (IM) is essentially an entity of Tankhul Nagas of Manipur. Other powerful groups like NSCN (K), mainly Konyak tribe of Northern and Eastern Nagaland and NSCN (KK), comprising Semas of Dimapur region, have been ignored. Another section which has been overlooked are the Angami and Ao tribes which provided leadeship to Nagas for long time. The Indian government has made it clear that demands for sovereignty and territorial adjustments, which impact boundaries of neighbouring states, will not be conceded. The present People’s Democratic Alliance (PDA), a coalition of NDPP BJP, JDU and independents which came to power under chief minister Neiphiu Rio in 2017, is supportive and has stressed on an ‘inclusive and acceptable’ solution. Inclusive implies agreement of all sections. The centre is learnt to have conveyed to various groups of the State that re-election would be one of the options to accommodate rebel groups after the peace deal is finalised.
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