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    South Asia
     Oct 13, 2007
Embattled frontier
Lost Opportunities. 50 Years of Insurgency in the North-East and India's Response by S P Sinha

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

A good 60 years after independence, India's politicians have failed to satisfy the aspirations of its ethnically distinct northeastern region. Policymakers in Delhi agonize over the incessant insurgencies on this embattled frontier, where 99% of the external boundary synchronizes with India's international border. Counter-productively, alienation and rebellion in this strategic area are exacerbated by bias and insensitivity of agents of the Indian government. Divisive strategies of political parties and an entrenched nexus among politicians, bureaucrats and contractors contribute to the mess.

In Lost Opportunities, S P Sinha, a scholar from the Indian army, presents a one-stop compilation of the insurrections in all the northeast "Seven Sister" states. His core argument is that events beyond India's borders, rather than ethnic impulses, are more potent influences on the area's fate. He highlights the multiple linkages between insurgencies on both sides of the India-Myanmar border, where a "Christian cordon" exists among the Nagas, Mizos, Kachins and Chins. However, overlooking the pernicious involvement of the Myanmar military junta in drug trafficking and guerrilla-fanning, the author clings to the illusion that it is "practical" for Delhi to cooperate with Myanmar.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts of erstwhile East Pakistan and current-day Bangladesh have hosted nearly all the insurgent groups of India's northeast. The rise of Islamist terrorism in Assam and Tripura is a direct consequence of massive illegal immigration from Bangladesh into these states. As of 1996, some 15 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants had infiltrated into India, with upwards of 4 million settling in Assam and 1 million in Tripura.

Sinha pinpoints the changing demographic profile of the area as the "heart of the problem". (p 27) Since 1937, the Muslim League ministry of Mohammad Saadulla encouraged migration of Bengali Muslims into Assam with the aim of claiming it as a part of the hoped-for Pakistan. After India's independence, the malaise was allowed to fester due to "misplaced ideas of secularism and vote bank politics". (p 31) The prophecy of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger that "Bangladesh would over the years accentuate India's centrifugal tendencies and carve out new Muslim states" is an ever-creeping reality.

When the British quit India in 1947, extremist Naga leader A Z Phizo voiced demands for separation. As secessionists went on the rampage in the 1950s, pro-India moderates like A K Sakhrie were tortured and murdered by the militants. Coerced taxation, forcible recruitment of cadres, and arms procurement from East Pakistan were part of the mix. The hostile conduct of Michael Scott, a British missionary close to the rebels, undid chances of any negotiated settlement. The spread of Christianity accentuated the Nagas' sense of separateness. Across the northeast, missionaries "widened the barrier and conflict between the hills and the plains". (p 229)

From 1967 to 1974, Naga youths picked for guerrilla training trekked to China, which even opened a school for northeastern insurgents in East Pakistan. The 1975 Shillong Accord, which promised peace, was rejected by some rebel factions under Chinese sway. Splits and internecine feuds between the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the Naga National Council played havoc with the lives of innocent civilians. A ceasefire has held since 1997, but killings and extortion by the underground go on. NSCN's revival of the Chinese connection and the visit of its top guns to Pakistan in 2000 raise doubts about any final settlement.

Most Mizos did not press for separation from India in 1947. Unlike Nagaland, the Church in Mizo areas opposed secession and violence from the beginning. Perceived discrimination by the central government during the 1959 famine triggered militancy by the Mizo National Front (MNF), which was welcomed in East Pakistan. Pakistan's defeat in the 1971 war with India deprived MNF of a reliable ally, but it regrouped with Chinese aid and Burmese havens. Factionalism in the MNF weaned away splinters to join the Indian "mainstream". The MNF supremo threw in the towel on being co-opted as Chief Minister of Mizoram in 1987. Peace lasts in this state owing to the presence of "an influential political class favoring autonomy within India". (p 101)

In Manipur, the genesis of insurgency lay in discontent that the majority Meiteis and their language were neglected by Delhi in its bid to woo Naga militants. Once Pakistan's assistance dried up after 1971, a China-trained People's Liberation Army (PLA) unit was formed to perform urban terrorist acts. In the 1990s, the PLA forged links with the armies of Pakistan and Bangladesh. In this decade, the distinction between above ground and underground politics blurred. Clashes between Nagas and Kukis, the two minority tribes of Manipur, were possibly instigated by Indian intelligence agencies and bankrolled by Manipuri politicians. Violent demonstrations by Meiteis against bifurcating Manipur to meet the NSCN's demands are now adding to the fracas.

In Tripura, the large influx of refugees from East Pakistan and the unlawful transfer of tribal lands incited anti-Bengali militancy. Sporadic riots against Bengalis resuscitated insurgency from time  to time. Bangladesh succored the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) through the MNF, but it later backed off, fearing Indian reprisals in the form of support for Chakma militants. Breakaway cliques of TNV rebels that enjoyed the patronage of Tripura's political parties and operated through the porous border with Bangladesh robbed the 1988 accord of its peace dividend.

In Assam, feelings of the evil step-mother-like treatment by the central government in economic development, along with the dismemberment of the state in 1972, built up a reservoir of resentment. Capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiment, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) arose in the mid-1980s with the support of the then-Assam state government. Bodo tribals seeking a new state out of Assam (within the Indian republic) took to insurgency in 1988, allegedly with the blessings of Indian intelligence, to counter ULFA. Sinha considers training camps in Bangladesh and espionage work for Pakistan to be the two lifelines of ULFA. Myopically, he avoids mentioning the complicity of the Myanmar junta as the third buoy.

Riding piggyback on the flood of Bangladeshi immigrants, numerous jihadi outfits have cropped up in Assam with the goal of creating "Greater Bangladesh". They might replace ethnic militant movements like those of Kamtapur and Karbi-Dimasa as the locus of future insurgency. Sinha believes that ULFA's ongoing purge of non-Assamese Indians is a stratagem to dig out "working space for Bangladeshi Muslims". (p 308)

Taking the cue from Assam, Meghalaya underwent a number of violent riots since 1979 against non-tribal Indians, Bangladeshis and Nepalese. Leveraging the high rates of unemployment and drug addiction in the state, ULFA has spawned front organizations such as the Achik National Volunteer Council to facilitate safe passage for its cadres to and from Bangladesh.

Thanks to the foresight of consultants like Verrier Elwin, Arunachal Pradesh avoided the trademark violence. However, the settlement of Chakma refugees from East Pakistan sparked worries and spawned fledgling militant groups like United Liberation Army of Arunachal.

Trade in illicit narcotics keeps many northeast insurgencies going. Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, which share a common border with Burma, together account for the smuggling of an estimated 20 kilograms of heroin daily. Naga and Manipuri underground organizations derive a major portion of their revenues from drug trafficking. The NSCN is known to collect 20% tariffs on the value of drugs passing through its territory. It is also the lynchpin of gunrunning in the northeast to Southeast Asia's clandestine arms market.

India's counter-insurgency strategy in the troubled region graduated from military solutions to "winning the hearts and minds" of disaffected tribes. To isolate rebels in Nagaland and Mizoram, the Indian army grouped villages that caused hardship for civilians. Policies like "area domination", cordon-and-search and curfew along the international border could not be avoided even though they restricted the freedom of communities.

To the Indian army's credit, '"civic action" (social welfare) that touched people's lives at the grassroots was implemented in letter and spirit. The spoilers are politicians and bureaucrats who are suspicious of any enhancement of the army's public image as an instrument of social and economic change. Poor relations between the army and local police also hamper intelligence gathering.

As part of psychological operations, the Indian army disseminates pamphlets detailing the amoral life and debauchery of rebel leaders. Wherever possible, it erects armed militia units called "village guards" to take on the despised rebels. In Sinha's opinion, the security forces still lack tactical doctrines to confront insurgents in crowded urban centers.

To breathe easier in the northeast, India has to ensure more efficient administrators, infuse employment-generating investment, and curb illegal immigration. Sinha advocates improved relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar, but omits a deeper examination of regime shenanigans of these two countries. To save the northeast, India needs to be sterner with fundamentalist regimes in Dhaka and militarist regimes in Naypyidaw.

Lost Opportunities. 50 Years of Insurgency in the North-East and India's Responseby SP Sinha. Lancer Publishers, New Delhi, 2007. ISBN: 81-7062-162-3. Price: US$ 24. 357 pages

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