Connected to the rest of India by a narrow 22-km strip of land aptly called ‘chicken’s neck’ (also known as the Siliguri Corridor), the Northeast has long had a precarious connect with the collective consciousness of the mainland. To the average man on the street in New Delhi, for instance, the region is first and foremost an “integral part of India” — the phrase he hears repeated ad nauseam every time a major militant attack on the security forces or a massive protest against army atrocities hits the national headlines. He believes in it despite the numerous instances of racist attacks on migrants from the Northeastern states in several parts of the country, including the national capital. This paradox throws light on the unfinished business of integrating the people of the Northeast into the idea of India over the decades and through umpteen policy flip-flops between “win hearts and minds” and “hit them hard where it hurts”. And it was brought back spectacularly — and brutally — into the public imagination by the 4 June ambush on an army convoy by a band of insurgents in Manipur’s Chandel district bordering Myanmar. Eighteen personnel of the 6 Dogra Regiment were killed in the attack.
This remoteness of the Northeast from the national consciousness, however, is not in sync with the way the New Delhi establishment views its strategic and economic importance. The “seven sisters”, a popular epithet for the states comprising the Northeast, is seen as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia, and therefore, quite significant for India’s Look East policy. Interestingly, this policy has been the central motif of the country’s diplomatic and trade relations with Southeast Asian countries since 1991 when the then Congress regime at the Centre announced pathbreaking economic measures that set the course for what came to be known as “liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation”.
As a foreign policy initiative, the Look East policy was a success thanks to the economic resilience the Southeast Asian economies exhibited during the financial crisis in the first decade of the 21st century. Trade with these countries has touched $70 billion and is expected to cross $100 billion by the end of this year. But the robust trade stats have not translated into economic development for the Northeast as the bulk of the transactions were routed through the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Little effort has been made to remove the bottlenecks in the way of trade-based connectivity between the region and the Southeast Asian countries.
So, have the governments at the Centre since then been pursuing the Look East policy without giving sufficient thought to the geographical region that could have been key to its success and, in turn, benefitted from it? For had it been otherwise, the root causes of the alienation of diverse ethnic groups in the Northeast from the people of the rest of India would have been addressed, bringing the curtains down on the insurgency that has plagued the region since it was declared a part of independent India in 1947. The recent resurrection of insurgent groups brings into sharp focus this persistent blind spot in New Delhi’s Northeast policy. In April, the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-K) walked out of a 14-year ceasefire with the Indian government and launched a series of attacks on the security forces culminating in the 4 July ambush. The attack triggered calls for vengeance from the establishment leading to the cross-border army raid in Myanmar that reportedly ended with what sections of the media and human rights activists have called a “massacre” of the militants allegedly involved in the ambush. Reportedly, not a single shot was fired at the armed personnel who carried out the raid inside the neighbouring country.
Re-emergence and Regrouping
The Chandel ambush has an interesting backdrop: the coming together of an array of insurgent groups in the Northeast on a common platform, which has been christened the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA). The platform was floated reportedly after four years of consultations that started in 2011 and comprises four insurgent groups — the NSCN-K, the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) (ULFA- I), the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLP) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) (NDFB-S). Twelve groups had participated in the initial discussions, but most of them pulled out later citing one or the other reason.
Formed on 17 April, the UNLFWSEA is headed by NSCN-K chief SS Khaplang and ULFA-I chief Paresh Baruah is said to have played a key role in the process of its formation. A press statement released soon after stated that the platform would lead a “united struggle” for the “liberation of the ancestral homes”. A few days later, the Manipur-based groups declared the formation of a separate platform called CorCom (Coordination Committee).
Namrata Goswami, research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, tells TEHELKA that these moves by the Northeastern rebel groups would significantly impact the course of the insurgency. The common platforms would help groups that represent diverse ethnic groups and do not necessarily agree on all their aims and methods to share intelligence and plan joint operations against the security forces stationed in the Northeast. “This will help them to extend their footprint beyond their current areas of influence,” she says.
This, however, is not the first time that various insurgent groups have come together. Way back in 1986, the ULFA, the Manipur-based United National Liberation Front (UNLF, whose armed wing is called the Manipur People’s Army) and the NSCN tried to forge a common platform but the efforts fizzled out soon. Again, in 1990, the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF, the political wing of the People’s Liberation Army) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), two other insurgent groups based in Manipur, formed a joint committee. A year later, the UNLF and the NSCN-K (which split from the NSCN in 1988) joined hands to form the Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front.
The next attempt to bring all the insurgent groups under one umbrella was made in 1994 with the floating of the Self-Defence United Front of South East Himalayan Region. Then, in 2011, the Manipur-based KCP, RPF, Kanglei Yaol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) formed a coordination committee.
With the insurgent groups joining hands against the Indian State, can it be said that they have buried the differences over ideology, politics and tactics that had so far been preventing them from putting up a united front? Maleem Ningthouja, who heads the Campaign for Peace and Democracy in Manipur, does not think so. “This is just a defensive move in the face of intense repression by the State forces and meant to serve the purpose of propaganda,” he says. “The protracted guerrilla campaign has been sectarian so far. Since each group has a different idea of the ‘nation’ they are fighting for and its boundaries, there is little scope for a radical programme cutting across ethnic groups that would appeal to people across the Northeast.”
Guwahati-based journalist Rajeev Bhattacharyya, who authored Rendezvous with Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men, writes in a recent article that the UNLFWSEA’s formation might grow into a cause of serious concern for India and “a safe sanctuary in Myanmar for [the rebel] outfits means that the government’s efforts to put an end to the separatist campaign may not bear results immediately”.
Another twist to the regrouping tale is the suspected role of China that the Indian intelligence agencies have drawn attention to. Media reports have quoted intelligence officials saying that the NSCN-K walked out of the ceasefire at China’s behest. “China has strong connections with the Myanmar-based outfits and clandestinely supports them despite knowing that they trade in illegal weapons and contraband drugs,” says Namrata.