Breaking the supply line to control insurgency in North East

By Sanchet Barua

The government of India is in dialogue with a select group of insurgent leaders from Northeast to find a peaceful solution to continuing insurgency in this sensitive part of the country. Some groups call for a separate state, others for regional autonomy while some extreme groups demand complete independence. A plethora of ethnic groups are also clamouring for special rights and the protection of their distinct identity. To get some of these demands met, insurgent groups have indulged in armed violence against the state and security forces. They have also resorted to the killing of other ethnic groups or even to fratricidal killings. This situation has often prompted the Central government to undertake counter-insurgency operations. Under pressure from security forces, the insurgents have found it expedient to seek support from neighbouring countries. Forces inimical to India’s interest have tried to take advantage of this situation. The insurgent groups have also managed to get support from some countries as same ethnic groups reside on both sides of the border. In some other cases, a purely client-patron relationship has existed. This kind of relationship existed between the insurgents and the arms smugglers of Southeast Asia or the Mafiosi of Bangladesh.

Northeast India has been facing insurgency since 1956 due to feelings of ethnic separatism among its inhabitants. Besides, this region has all other enabling conditions which a terrorist or insurgent outfit might need for continuing their activities. Ninety eight percent of the Northeast is contiguous to the international border, which allows terror outfits to get sanctuaries in Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and even China. In these countries, they also get facilities for training and procure arms and ammunition from there. Ineffective administration in northern

Myanmar, state-sponsorship from the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Bangladesh and a regular flow of funds from the smugglers of narcotics from the Golden Triangle make their operation further easier.

The insurgent groups started developing their international linkages immediately after the independence in 1947. The Nagas were the first to raise the banner of insurgency. The process started when the father of Naga insurgency, Angami Zapu Phizo, chief of the rebel Naga National Council (NNC) left the Naga Hills in 1956 to fight for an independent Naga homeland from London, after travelling through East Pakistan and Switzerland. He continued his activity from there till his death in 1990. His agenda is now being pursued by his daughter, Adinno

Phizo, who has succeeded him as the NNC president and is also based in London.

The Naga insurgency in the Northeast is taken as the mother of all insurgencies in the Northeast. They were the first group to raise the banner of rebellion and also started providing arms training and other logistic support to outfits such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), formed in April 1979 to fight for a “sovereign, socialist Assam.” The ULFA started sending its cadres for advanced “military training” at the hands of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an anti-Yangon rebel group in Myanmar, from 1988 onwards.

The ULFA set up its first camp in the Moulvi Bazaar district in Bangladesh in 1985. By 1990, the outfit had also established its Pakistani contact. Its top leaders, including Paresh Barua, travelled to Afghanistan through Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, where Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), assisted them in meeting Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a top Afghan Mujahideen leader of the time. By the end of 1990 and early 1991, the ULFA also set up well entrenched bases inside southern Bhutan, mainly in the district of Samdrup Jhongkar, bordering western Assam’s Nalbari district.

Bhutan was also chosen by other insurgent groups like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO). The terror groups also preferred Bhutan as it was easy for them to carry out attacks across the border in India and return back to their safe hideouts in southern Bhutan. Bhutan, with a small army, was hardly in a position to take any effective counterinsurgency operation. It took 12- years for Bhutan to launch operation against the insurgents. Bangladesh has been a safe haven for insurgents in the Northeast since East Pakistan days.

The insurgency in Manipur has also received support from Bangladesh. Similarly, in Tripura, both the major outlawed rebel groups — the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) — fighting for independent tribal homelands have operated from bases in adjoining Bangladesh. Tripura shares an 856- kilometre-long border with Bangladesh, with at least 70 per cent of the boundary unfenced and with concrete pillars separating the two countries. But Dhaka denies the presence of Indian rebel bases in their territory. The role played by Bangladesh has been an important factor behind the continuation of insurgency in Tripura.

Except for Manipur, insurgency in the whole of the Northeast is on a decline. Insurgent groups like the ULFA, the NLFT, the ATTF, and the NDFB have been considerably weakened. After 9/11, international opinion has decisively turned against terrorism. This has also resulted in the ULFA being branded a terrorist organisation by the US. The ULFA was considerably weakened when Bhutan launched its operation against the Indian insurgent groups (IIGs) in December 2003.

Along with the international situation, the domestic situation also turned against the outfit.There has been desertions in its rank. Several insurgent outfits of the northeast rank and file were disgusted with their leadership. While they were facing hardships, the leaders were enjoying opulent lifestyles in Bangladesh. Organisations have also faced stress on the grounds of ideology. The discontent in the organisation even led to a split in the ULFA. The organisation has now been divided into pro-talk and anti-talk factions. This decision has also prompted the most deadly 28 battalion to declare ceasefire and opt for talks. The constant operation of security forces has also not made life of the cadres of insurgent outfits any easier. Despite the overwhelming international consensus evolving against international terrorism, the forces inimical to India are yet to curb their covert and overt support to insurgent and terrorist groups operating against India in the Northeast.

Unless the supply lines of these terror outfits are broken, the outfits cannot be brought to their knees or even encouraged to negotiate with the government. Steps should also be taken to disrupt the business interests of some of these organisations in neighbouring countries so that once more, the incentive for keeping insurgency alive is lost. INAV