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Unholy alliance in North-East India

Dr. M. Amarjeet Singh is Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Banglore, India. Prior to this he was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 19, 2009

    Although insurgency in several areas of the North-East region of India has declined, external manipulation and support to insurgency in Assam, the most populous State in the region, continues to be a problem.

    Three States in the region, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Sikkim, are mostly unaffected by insurgency, while there has been substantial decline in insurgency in Tripura and Meghalaya. Thus, insurgencies in the region are largely confined to Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.

    In 2008, insurgency-related violence claimed some 1049 lives in the Northeast. 96 per cent of total fatalities were reported from Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. Manipur recorded 47 per cent fatalities, the highest in the region, followed by Assam (36 per cent) and Nagaland (14 per cent). Further, Assam topped civilian (55.44 per cent) and combatant (44.44 per cent) fatalities, while Manipur topped insurgent fatalities (57 per cent).

    Compared with 2007, fatalities among security forces deployed in the region steadily declined from 74 to 36 in 2008. Similarly, civilian fatalities declined from 479 to 404 in 2008. However, insurgent fatalities rose from 489 to 609 in 2008, which was partly due to sustained counter-insurgency operations and partly the result of factional clashes among rival insurgent groups, particularly in Nagaland.

    In 2008, a number of disturbing insurgency-related incidents took place in the region. One such incident was in Assam on October 30, when nine near-simultaneous bomb explosions [three each at Guwahati and Kokrajhar, two at Barpeta Road, and one at Bongaigaon] claimed nearly 90 lives and wounded several others. This was the deadliest terror attack in the history of insurgency in the region. The explosions were reportedly planned and executed by insurgents belonging to the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in collaboration with the Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI). Another major incident was a powerful bomb explosion in Imphal on October 21, the biggest in the history of insurgency in Manipur, which killed at least 18 people and injured several others. A smaller insurgent group, the Kangleipak Communist Party (Military Council), claimed responsibility for the attack. And on October 1, four serial bomb explosions rocked Agartala, injuring over 70 people. The Tripura government accused both the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and the ULFA for the explosions.

    The year 2008 also brought new developments in the insurgency movements. Firstly, a dissident faction of ULFA, popularly known as ULFA (pro-talk group) declared a unilateral ceasefire with the government on June 24. This section accused ULFA’s top leadership including the commander-in-chief Paresh Barua and chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa of lack of interest in a negotiated settlement. Secondly, the NDFB expelled its founder-president, Ranjan Daimary, in December. Thirdly, in Nagaland, a split in the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) led to the emergence of a splinter group popularly known as the NSCN-Unification.

    Unholy Alliance

    Though insurgency is active in Manipur and Nagaland, the situation in Assam appears more disturbing, which is evident from the increasing external manipulations, primarily of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), on the hard line factions of the ULFA and the NDFB. Unlike in Assam, there is negligible external involvement in Manipur or Nagaland. For instance, insurgency in Nagaland is largely confined to factional rivalries among rival insurgent groups, while, in Manipur, it is largely due to the criminal activities unleashed by numerous insurgent groups.

    Unfortunately, in Assam, the ULFA and NDFB are substantially influenced by anti-India external elements like the ISI and the HuJI. Available evidence indicates that the ULFA-ISI nexus began in the early 1990s, and that since then the ISI has been imparting specialised arms training to ULFA cadres. The NDFB too followed suit at the behest of the ULFA. In due course of time, this alliance grew rapidly. For the ISI and the HuJI combine, the ULFA and NDFB are trusted allies in their bid to promote indiscriminate violence in the region in general and in Assam in particular. Further, it is mainly at the behest of ULFA that other smaller insurgent groups of the region came into contact with the ISI or the HuJI.

    One consequence of such external dependence is the erosion of the original objectives which led to the outbreak of these insurgencies in the first place. For instance, illegal migration into Assam was one of the key drivers for the birth of ULFA in 1979. However, as most top ULFA leaders are based in Bangladesh today and enjoy the active patronage of the ISI, the group no longer talks about this issue.

    External dependence is also responsible for the growth of discontent within the ULFA and the NDFB. In recent times, this has been manifested by the emergence of ULFA (pro-talk group) and the expulsion of Ranjan Daimary from the NDFB. The ULFA (pro-talk group) and the NDFB (minus Ranjan Daimary) are in favour of resolving their grievances within the framework of the Constitution of India. However, neither of these factions are capable of emerging as suitable partners with whom the government could work for restoring peace in Assam. Although dissent is growing among the rank and file of both the ULFA and the NDFB, hardliners within these groups remain influential and oppose any efforts to enter peace negotiations with the government. Further, the ULFA (pro-talk group) comprises only a section of the local level commanders and hence their influence is limited. As a result, their efforts to persuade former comrades to support the unilateral ceasefire yielded very little success. Likewise, the expulsion of Ranjan Daimary from NDFB has failed to marginalize Ranjan Daimary and his associates, considered hardliners in the NDFB.

    As a result, the unilateral ceasefire by ULFA (pro-talk group) and the ceasefire with NDFB (minus Ranjan Daimary) may not succeed in bringing peace to Assam. Indeed, the hardliners will be further provoked into indulging in subversive activities, the October 30 explosions being a case in point. Nearly 80 kilograms of RDX were reportedly used in three blasts at Guwahati alone. Such large quantities of RDX had never been used earlier to carry out explosions by insurgent groups in Assam or in the North-East region. No insurgent group in the region has the capacity to cause such massive damage on its own unless backed by expertise provided by external forces. At the same time, external forces alone could not have carried out such massive attacks without the support of either the ULFA or the NDFB. Investigators have recently found sufficient evidence for the involvement of the ULFA and the NDFB in the October 30 explosions with expertise from the HuJI. It is also widely speculated that the explosions were part of a ploy by Ranjan Daimary to show his presence.

    Along with sustained counter-insurgency operations, all other options must be explored to bring the various factions of the ULFA and the NDFB to the negotiating table. Only when all sections are involved in the peace talks will the role of anti-India external elements in fueling violence can be contained.

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