Insurgencies in India’s Northeast are demonstrating signs and intent of staging a comeback.
The premature claims by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in its Annual Report for the year 2006-07 that the overall violence in the northeast “has been contained” notwithstanding, the region’s rendezvous with insurgency and instability continued much longer. Till the newly installed Awami League (AL) Government in Dhaka decided in 2009 to put a halt to the country’s tolerance of the activities of Indian insurgents on its soil, insurgency continued full steam, thwarting New Delhi’s twin efforts of pushing foreign governments in Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar to cooperate with its own counter-insurgency operations at home. However, three years since this momentous and landmark cooperation from Bangladesh that should have reduced the insurgents to tatters, insurgency movements in the northeast live on, albeit weak and a poor caricature of their former selves, yet demonstrating signs and intent of making a comeback. Ineffectual policies that make central forces the backbone of counter-insurgency operations are at the core of such failures.
The MHA, in its year-end report for the year 2011, asserted, “There has been significant decline in the incidents of violent killings of the civilians and the security forces in the North Eastern States due to the consistent efforts by Ministry of Home Affairs.” While the MHA’s actual contribution to the decline in violence levels can be a contentious issue, insurgency-induced violence has indeed hit the bottom. Compared to 2007, the year which witnessed killing of 498 civilians and 79 security force personnel in the northeast, security situation in the region has improved significantly to record 97 civilian and 14 security force fatalities in 2012.
Lest this be construed as a tactical retreat by the insurgent outfits, almost all the major outfits in the region had been reduced to a state of weakness. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)’s anti-talk faction, reduced to cadre strength of less than 150, had to find sanctuary in Myanmar. From being one of the most potent outfits in Manipur, much of United National Liberation Front (UNLF)’s action plan, following its chairman R K Meghen’s arrest in Bangladesh, veered around preserving its cadres.
By the end of 2011, the Northeast appeared on a road to complete recovery and the days of insurgency, once seen as everlasting, appeared numbered. The then Home Minister P Chidambaram predicted a “final settlement of the issues” in December 2010 and a more circumspect “ebbing of insurgency” a year later. Insurgencies, by no means, were dead in this frontier, but certainly were on deathbeds, creating thereby significant opportunities for the police forces in the region to consolidate their hold over the hitherto no-go areas.
On the contrary what continued were the old tactics — combination of alarmist assessments of the state of insurgencies by the governments of the day and a lackadaisical approach at enabling the police to take charge of the overall situation. For the region’s political class, to give up on the central forces, notwithstanding the latter’s negligible contribution to the transformed state of affairs, remained an impossible dream. The prospect of the return of peace appeared to be bad news for the political class, for it could bring in new responsibilities. Carrying on with the narrative of instability, on the other hand, has been far more convenient.
Several questions relating the counter-insurgency strategies remain unasked and unanswered in the northeast. Why a situation of declining violence, when the cadre strength and consequent nuisance potential of the insurgents have declined to record low levels, cannot be handled by the police forces? Why have the MHA’s police modernisation programme with allocations running into Rupees 1690 crores between 2000 and March 2013, consistently failed to augment policing capabilities in the northeast? If indeed there is a method to the fascination of the Chief Ministers of northeastern states to continue projecting a “conflict-affected” rather than a “conflict- free” status for their states, why can’t the Army, with all its reservations against involvement in the Maoist theatres and opposition to the dilution of the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, has not made any unilateral effort to extricate itself from the northeast’s conflict theatres?
Not surprisingly, riding on such persistent disinclination to launch police-led initiatives, the ULFA has been able to cast both its violence profile and extortion abilities far beyond the upper Assam districts in the proximity of Myanmar into districts abutting state capital Dispur. Dismissed previously as a miniscule faction reduced to irrelevance, it has managed to revive itself into what the Assam governor described in February 2013 as a “force to reckon with”. In 2012, 357 ULFA cadres were arrested and 16 were killed in encounters. Yet the cadre strength of this faction led by Paresh Baruah has increased to over 250, underlining the irrelevance of the continuing peace talks with the pro-talks factions.
A similar story has unfolded in Manipur. Major insurgent outfits have managed to thwart the prophecies of doom by forming an umbrella organisation, the CorCom (Coordination Committee) and continuing sporadic violence. The Garo Hills of Meghalaya, the erstwhile transit route for the insurgents between Bangladesh and Assam, has again become active. With no end to the Naga conflict in sight, not only the Nagaland state continues to be a theatre of internecine warfare, abduction and extortion but problems routinely spill over into neighbouring Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.
More importantly, beyond these narratives on the big and influential among the armed factions, smaller outfits have mushroomed in the region, filling up the vacuum left open by the larger outfits. The localised and yet all pervasive activities of the Santhal Tiger Force, Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers, Bodoland Royal Tigers Force, United Tribal Liberation Army et al, combining extortion, arms smuggling and abductions, is not captured by these profusely comforting figures of 111 civilian and security force deaths in 2012.
In the last week of April 2013, Assam Police arrested a central committee member of the Communist Party of India-Maoist in Assam. Each incident of this nature on earlier occasions has been used by Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to demand additional battalions of central forces for the state. Such pathological dependence on central forces could find a potential facilitator in this year’s parliamentary elections in Bangladesh. Victory for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) may very well put north-eastern insurgency on a path to recovery. New Delhi then can be left ruing the undoing of a job half done.