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Bringing peace to India's Northeast: Greater engagement with Bangladesh and Myanmar holds the key

Using the Army to control insurgency in the Northeast has failed as a model, writes B.L. Vohra for South Asia Monitor

B.L. Vohra Jan 18, 2022
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Rebels surrender bringing peace to India's Northeast (Photo: Scroll.in)

Insurgency in northeastern India is rather low at present, thanks to the efforts over the years of the state police forces, army, central armed police forces, the state governments and the central government. Thanks are also due to cooperation by neighbouring countries -- Bangladesh in a big way and Myanmar to some extent. 

Once Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, even Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh were affected by insurgency, with the graphs of violence rather high in some states. With a peace accord in Mizoram and success of local police in Tripura, these two states are now totally peaceful. So is Meghalaya. 

The situation in other states is also better, with Assam having the least problem, Nagaland is more troubled than Assam followed by Arunachal Pradesh. Manipur remains troubled. 

Assam embraces peace 

In Assam, over the years the hard work has paid. The ULFA and its various factions are quite under control. There are hope of talks with the elusive ULFA leader Paresh Barua. With Bodo and Karbi groups having signed agreements with the government, only some from ULFA and KLO (Kamtapur Liberation Organisation) keep indulging in some criminal activity.  

The pace of development and the support of Bangladesh has been a big factor in the improvement of the security situation in the Northeast. Even though the Muslim population is sizable, the communal situation is broadly under control. The state government seems to be bent upon pursuing its goal of peace further and hopefully things will be still better. 

In Nagaland, the main group of NSCN (IM) has a ceasefire agreement with the Indian government but some factions of NSCN (K) keep on indulging in violence. However, the main problem is collection of taxes by all these groups from businessmen in Dimapur and other “taxes” like house taxes from the people. This is going on unchecked. The good news is that the ceasefire with the main group is continuing and many well-meaning Nagas are keen on a settlement notwithstanding the recent fatal mistake by the Indian Army when it killed six coal miners, mistaking them as insurgents, in a botched up operation in Mon district of Nagaland in which ultimately 13 civilians died on December 4, 2021. 

In Arunachal Pradesh, some Naga insurgent groups are active in TEL (Tirap, Changlang and Longding) districts in Upper Assam which are at the tri-junction of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. But the violence level is not that high.

Manipur unrest 

Manipur is worst affected basically because it has a mixture of three main ethnic groups as its habitants: Meteis in the valley, Kukis in the extended plains land towards south and Nagas in the hills. All of them have their own aspirations. All three are having around three dozen groups with a strength of about more than 2,000 personnel indulging in violence and extortion. Kuki groups, numbering roughly about two dozen, mostly indulge in extortion.  

The good thing is that the government has SOO (Suspension of Operations) Agreement with 17 of these groups. Because of that the violence level is low from these groups. Meiteis have about six main groups namely UNLF, RPF, KYKL, KCP, PREPAK and PREPAK (Progressive). They keep on indulging in violence in the valley and extortion. Their violence had started in a big way in the beginning of the 80s by PLA when its founder N. Bisheshwar Singh went to China with some others for training and help.  

In fact, the PLA had recently come to notice in Myanmar also for its help to the Army junta there, which had usurped power after a coup, in fighting those opposing the coup. The Nagas of course have NSCN (IM), NSCN (K) and some splinter groups operating both in Manipur and Nagaland. 

Basically, Manipur and Nagaland have to be tackled now for which some steps are required. First, since most of these groups have bases in Myanmar across a long border of about 1,600 km between the two countries, its help is required. Unfortunately, the writ of the military government of Myanmar doesn’t run well in the areas bordering India, though that government hasn’t been hostile to India's security interests.  

So much more diplomatic and economic activity is needed to persuade Myanmar to cooperate fully. Also, it will be a gateway for India to other countries beyond Myanmar in that region for economic development. A close watch has also to be kept on China which has been giving training, help and shelter to a few of these groups. 

Withdraw army 

Secondly, using the Army to control insurgency in the Northeast has failed as a model. For decades it hasn’t been able to control insurgency, more so when Myanmar is not like Pakistan, aiding and abetting anti-India insurgent groups. The Army is not trained to deal with insurgency as its basic job is to fight the enemy. But by now it has also developed some interests there as it has permanent establishments in the region.  

Also, they have been getting medals for operations there but the downside is that there have been cases of atrocities by them on the local population. The protection of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) helps them. The Army should be gradually withdrawn from there while simultaneously strengthening the local police to lead the operations as was done successfully in Tripura. 

Thirdly, the central government and the state government of Manipur should try to bring the Meitei groups to the negotiating table and sort out their grievances. Similarly, agreement with the Nagas should be concluded at the earliest. This will give respite not only to Manipur and Nagaland but to the entire region. 

Simultaneously, fast economic development and opening of trade and communications links with Myanmar and countries beyond will give a boost to peace in the region, apart from bringing economic prosperity.

(The writer is a former Director General of Police, Manipur and Tripura. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at blvohra@m5trainers.com) 

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