Neighbouring Countries and Changing Dynamics
North-East India has been facing insurgency since 1956 due to feelings of ethnic separatism among its inhabitants. Ninety-eight per cent of the North-East is contiguous with the international border, which allows terror outfits to get sanctuaries in Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and even China and Nepal. In these countries, they get facilities for training and can also procure arms and ammunition. Involvement of intelligence agencies and the regular flow of funds from the smugglers of narcotics from the Golden Triangle are a cause of concern.
China’s motivation to support the Naga insurgency converged with Pakistan. Both had antagonistic relations with India. The mid-1960s was the period when ideological war between the Communists and the Western democracies was at its peak. China viewed India as its rival in Asia and was giving full support to Naxalites in India. The tribes of the North-East were ideal targets for fanning insurgencies and keeping Indian troops tied down. The Chinese support to Naga rebels started towards the end of 1966. Large numbers of Naga, Mizo and Meitei rebels, including their leaders, visited China and established training camps between 1966 and 1975. China apparently curtailed support for Indian insurgents in the late 1980s, following Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit to China.
Recent reports, however, also indicate that insurgents from the North-East are, once again, trying to take the help of China as the political environment in Bangladesh has become unfavourable to them with the return of Sheikh Hasina to power since October 2009. ULFA’s commander-in-chief, Paresh Baruah, is believed to be somewhere close to the Myanmar–China border, scouting for help to relocate its bases. There are reports that Paresh Baruah met Chinese officials in December 2013 and had sought permission to establish ULFA (Independent) camps in China and Myanmar. The outfit has reportedly set up a base at Laiza, a stronghold of Kachin Independence Army (KIA) inside Myanmar at Sino-Myanmar border.
Bangladesh has been a safe haven for insurgents in the North-East since East Pakistan days. Indian insurgents have received support under all regimes in Bangladesh. As a result, almost all North-Eastern groups engaged in insurgency in the North-East have established their camps in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has also been supporting insurgency in the North-East by freely allowing smuggling of arms to take place from its territory. The removal of the term ‘secularism’ from its Constitution (1977) and the adoption of Islam as the state religion (1988) has provided a stimulus to religious extremism; strengthened Pakistan–Bangladesh ties; and increased cooperation between the two countries, in particular the ISI and the Directorate General of Foreign Intelligence (DGFI) in Bangladesh. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the 854 km fence built in Phase-I has already been damaged along most of the stretches and, consequently, has ceased to be effective in controlling illegal cross-border activities. A crucial length of around 300 km along the eastern border in West Bengal still remains to be fenced. The river border, mostly in Dhubri district in Assam and southern West Bengal, presents peculiar problems, as it is difficult to locate permanent border outposts in the area due to swelling of the Brahmaputra and other rivers that go deeper by about 30 feet. As a result, protecting and constructing border fencing in such places becomes difficult, and if the fencing is even constructed, its existence remains unsure.
It was almost a strategic compulsion for Pakistan to tie down maximum Indian troops in the North-East. When the Nagas rebelled against India, Pakistan found an ideal opportunity to take advantage of the situation. Naga rebels were the first to receive moral and material support from Pakistan, which had opened an office of assistant high commissioner in Shillong soon after independence. The groundwork for receiving moral and material support from East Pakistan was done during visits of Naga underground leaders. Pakistan had created a special
liaison cell for contact and coordination with Naga and Mizo rebels. Besides assisting terrorists in the procurement of arms, ammunition and explosives, the ISI has been arranging meetings of terrorists of different hues to coordinate their activities. The ISI is alleged to have supported a network in Bangladesh, which included the hard-line Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), the BNP and the North-East rebel groups, during the BNP’s rule.
Myanmar has been another favourite base for Indian insurgents. The insurgents used this country as a safe base after East Pakistan (Bangladesh) became unavailable to them immediately after the liberation of Bangladesh. Myanmar is also used as a crucial link zone through which rebels can go to China for training and weapons. It also provides a safe training and regrouping zone where new recruits can be taught guerrilla warfare and active guerrilla units can be shifted to when under pressure in India. Myanmar’s stand towards the insurgents in the North-East is ambiguous. Their army has been selective in targeting Indian rebels. As a result, despite occasional crackdowns on NSCN-K, ULFA and People’s Liberation Army (PLA), rebels have been functioning from there without any difficulties. The reluctance of the Myanmar government to act against IIGs can be explained in the light of the country’s own severe internal security problems and the tenuous control the government exercises over the remote regions that border India.
The Bhutan–India border is 699 km long and adjoins the Indian states of Assam (267 km), Arunachal Pradesh (217 km), West Bengal (183 km) and Sikkim (32 km). The presence of Indian insurgents and terrorists in Bhutanese territory forced Bhutan to take military action against IIGs under the code name ‘Operation All Clear’, on 15 December 2003, to oust them from its territory. Whatever may be the reason behind the Bhutanese military action, ‘Operation All Clear’ was a landmark event and set an example of cooperation in counter-terrorism in South Asia. However, inaccessible forested areas along the Assam– Bhutan border continue to serve as temporary bases and safe havens for the insurgent groups, mainly NDFB (Songbijit), who seek refuge there to avoid contact with the security forces.
The seeds for an ‘open’ border between India and Nepal can be found in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship which the two countries signed in 1950. The extent of misuse of the open border by terrorists and criminals has led to a clamour in some quarters to rethink the rationale for keeping the border with Nepal open. While it is true that the open border has facilitated terrorist and criminal activities which are adversely impacting national security, it is equally important to recognize that an open border has also helped India and Nepal to develop and deepen socio-cultural and economic relations. The emergence of Nepal as a new safe haven for the insurgents further complicates the matter in terms of India’s security concerns.
Way Forward: Regional, Bilateral and Multilateral
Some solutions that are common need to be explored with specifics derived from them for specific regions and groups and even for neighbouring countries.
- Meeting the political aspirations of groups by giving them autonomy. Implementing ‘sixth schedule’ provisions of the Indian constitution in these areas will help them to preserve their identity and culture while giving them greater autonomy.
- Economic development of the area in a calibrated manner. Any development should be sustainable and should have the participation and acceptance by the locals.
- Improving Governance and delivery mechanisms of the government and administration.
- Dialogue should be ongoing process to reach concrete solutions by involving all the stakeholders and not a single group.
- Draconian laws like AFSPA should be repealed as it is one of the causes for inflating insurgency in north east.
- Centre and states should coordinate in decision making. In the recent agreement of the Centre with NSCN (IM), it did not take concerned state governments and other groups on board. It should be avoided.
- State police and central forces should cooperate on intelligence sharing, investigation and operations against militants. It has been alleged by the army that the June ambush of the army became possible because state police did not share the intelligence about the attack with it. It is unfortunate and counter-productive.
- Effective border management with smart border solutions should be implemented
- Strengthening of Regional Forums and diplomatic initiatives (Bilateral and Multilateral) can be done.
- Joint military exercises and operations should be carried out.
- Uniform Simple Laws against Insurgents will help to tackle more efficiently.
Although varying in their demands and methods, there is a common thread running through the insurgency infested north-east, that is of identity and development. 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 North-East made by the GoI, incorporating the central agencies, state agencies, nongovernmental organizations, local administration and civil population, to fight an all-out battle against the insurgency and terrorisms of every form.
- Ministry of external affairs – north east division
- Ministry of Home affairs – north east division
- Global politics by Andrew Heywood
- Globalisation of world politics and an introduction to International relations by Baylis and Smith
- Indian council for world affairs(ICWA)
- South East Asian politics magazine
- Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses – Journal of Defence studies