The North-Eastern part of India has for a long time been isolated from the rest of India. This is due to various factors like geographical terrain and ethnic differences. The Government of India in recent times has increased its presence through developmental projects while gradually reducing the military presence in the region. Despite these measures, the numerous separatist groups are uniting with each other for the coordinated achievement of their goals. This is a challenge to India as their presence is hindering economic development in the region. An efficient peace negotiation is a need of the hour.
What is the issue?
- The North-eastern states of India that share international borders with several of India’s neighbours have for a long time faced or continue to face trans-border terrorism and separatist challenges.
- However, in recent times, these armed separatist groups have united under the name “United Liberation Front of Western South Asia”. This recently formed alliance includes the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Assam).
- This poses a challenge to both India and Myanmar.
- Thus both the countries’ armies are mounting coordinated military operations to deal with this threat.
- This year, the armies of both India and Myanmar have launched two phases of joint military operations along the India-Myanmar border to target the insurgent camps that are operating in the Northeast.
- Named Operation Sunrise, the aim of this joint military operation is to hit the militant groups that are impacting both Myanmar and India.
- The first phase of this operation was launched in February when several camps operating in Myanmar were destroyed close to the border, both in the north and south to Mizoram in India.
What led to the insurgency in Northeast India?
Broadly, there were certain favourable conditions that had led to the forming of the insurgent group in Northeast India. Some of them are as follows:
- Large scale migration from neighbouring countries and States has threatened the natives’ culture and traditions. The natives of this region feared that they may become minorities in their own homeland.
- The increase in the competition for employment opportunities between the natives and the migrants.
- The lack of strong and stable governance and economic opportunities has created a favourable environment for the formation of many insurgent groups.
- Porous international border, dense forest covers and easy availability of arms have enabled mobility of the insurgent groups.
- Weak infrastructure growth has allowed for the lack of economic progress and difficulty in governance and security in the North-east.
- The natives of the North-east feel alienated because of the lack of economic growth in the region and also due to the various cases of human rights violations and military interventions.
- There is a stark ethnic difference between people of the northeast and those in the other parts of India. These people are separated from India through the narrow Siliguri Corridor. This paved the way for isolation in the mind-sets of the natives of Northeast.
- The differences are not just at the national level but also between different tribes within the region. Northeast India has more than 50 ethnic rebel groups, with few calling for complete secession from India while others fighting to safeguard their homeland and ethnic identity from migrants settling in the region.
Reasons for the rise of major insurgent groups (State-wise):
- Nagaland: It was previously a part of the larger state of Assam and was also the first to experience militancy. Even before the British left India, Nagas have called for a separate independent nation. After being snubbed by both the British and the newly formed independent Indian government, the Nagas under the leadership of Naga National Council (N.N.C), headed by A.Z. Phizo declared independence in 1951. Subsequently, the NNC had split to form the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (N.S.C.N). It further divided into Isak-Muivah faction (N.S.C.N –I.M.) and Khalpang Faction (N.S.C.N-K).
- Mizoram: It was previously a part of Assam. Later it became an independent state in 1987. It experienced militancy in response to the Union Government’s failure to provide a positive response to its request for assistance during Mautam Famine. Mizo National Front (MNF) had demanded independence in 1966.
- Tripura: The Hindu migrants from the British ruled East Bengal were blamed for the reducing of indigenous tribal people in the State to minority status. The insurgent groups demand the restoration of the rights of the native tribes.
- Assam: The increase in the illegal immigration from Bangladesh have led to the rise of the militant group United Liberation Front of Assam in 1979. The other groups that operate within Assam include the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), Bodo Liberation Tigers and the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS).
- Manipur: Militancy in this region was formed in response to the forced integration of the former Manipur Kingdom with India. United National Liberation Front was formed in 1964 to end discrimination against the natives of Manipur. Manipur got its statehood in 1972 – nearly 23 years after it became the part of India.
- Meghalaya: Meghalaya was formerly a part of Assam. It was mainly formed to address the aspirations of the major tribes in the State – the Garos, the Jaintias, and the Khasis. The desires for tribal autonomy have led to the formation of militant groups like the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) and Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) within the State.
- Arunachal Pradesh: This state, unlike that of its neighbours, has comparatively remained peaceful throughout history. However, due to its proximity to Nagaland and Myanmar, there is an increase in insurgent activities within its territory. The only insurgent group that originated in Arunachal Pradesh was Arunachal Dragon Force (ADF) which was renamed as East India Liberation Front (EALF) in 2001.
Why is the Northeast strategically important to India?
- Northeast India is connected with the rest of India’s territory through a narrow corridor called Siliguri Corridor/Chicken’s Neck that is located between Bhutan and Bangladesh.
- This region consists of Sikkim and the seven sister states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura.
- These Indian States share international borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and China.
- These borders together make up 40% of India’s land borders with other sovereign nations.
- This region is both strategically and economically significant to India.
- It consists of important natural resources like oil, gas, fertile soil, etc.
- It is also the gateway to South East Asia – a vital tool for India’s Act East Policy.
- It is where the major strategic project, the “Kaladan Corridor” is being constructed.
- This corridor provides India’s landlocked north-eastern States with direct access to the Bay of Bengal, at the Sittwe Port which was built by India in 2016.
- Kaladan Corridor is of vital importance because it can provide India with continuous access to the North-eastern States even if the train route across Siliguri is disrupted.
- Arakan Army, which has close links with China, was recently involved in the attacks on the Myanmar workers who are engaged in the construction of the Kaladan Corridor.
What are the measures taken by the government to curb insurgency in Northeast India?
- Special powers were given to the Indian military under AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act).
- This was done to enable the military to deal with emergencies in the region.
- This act encompasses the whole of Assam, most of Manipur and a few regions in Arunachal Pradesh.
- However, the military interventions have negative impacts in these regions.
- For example, during the military operations in Mizoram, the army had launched airstrikes against MNF. It had caused fatalities and displacement of the civilians in the region.
- There are several notable military operations undertaken by the Indian Army to deal with the insurgency in this region.
- In Assam, in the early 1990s, two major military operations took place to deal with ULFA. They are Operation Rhino and Bajrang.
- Assam Rifle deals with the militancy in Assam.
- In recent times, the security situation in the North East has improved.
- There are no insurgent groups left in Tripura and Mizoram and the other states in the region have also seen progress in the security situation.
- The removal of AFSPA from the whole of Meghalaya on 31st March 2018 is proof of the increasing improvement of the security situation in the region.
- Arunachal Pradesh has also seen the reduction of AFSPA from 16 Police Stations/Outposts bordering Assam to 8 Police Stations.
- Peace talks between MNF and the Government of India in 1986 are the only example of peaceful curbing of militancy in this region.
- Other peace negotiations include the Shillong Accord, 1975 with the MNC in Nagaland, the 1988 agreement with Tripura National Volunteers in Tripura and the 1993 Bodoland Autonomous Council agreement with Bodoland militants of Assam have provided only limited peace in the region.
- The Central Government is undertaking peace negotiations for a ceasefire agreement with 6 militant groups including NSCN (IM), Achik National Volunteer Council and UPDS.
- Indian Constitution:
- Article 244 (1): Provisions of the 5th Schedule shall apply to the administration or the control of the scheduled tribes.
- Article 244 (2): Provisions of the 6th Schedule shall apply to the administration or control of the schedule areas in the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram to create Autonomous Districts Councils in these states.
- In accordance with the above-mentioned provisions of Article 244, various autonomous districts have been established on par with the demands of various ethnic groups in the Northeast like Karbi Anglong, Chakma District, Khasi hill district, etc.
- Also, Nagaland has special status in accordance to Article 371(A).
- Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER): It is involved in the planning, execution, and monitoring of the developmental schemes and projects in the North Eastern Region. This is to ensure the social and economic development of the region.
- Inner Line Permit (ILP): ILP is an official travel document issued by the Central government to permit the Indian citizen to travel into the protected areas for a limited period of time. The Indian citizens outside these protected regions must obtain ILP before travelling to these regions. Currently, the ILP is active in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Nagaland. The condition and the restrictions vary from State to State. This permit is being issued under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873. This system was introduced during the colonial era to protect the British’s commercial interests especially oil and tea in the region. Now, this restriction continues to protect the ethnic identity and the culture of the tribes in the region.
How are the neighbouring countries contributing to the insurgency operations?
- Many ethnic groups in this region, especially those that are located near the international borders, have a closer affinity towards the neighbouring countries like China and Myanmar.
- Some of the neighbouring countries are accused of providing both arms and training to the militant groups in the north-east.
- Bangladesh, under the regime of Begum Khaleda Zia, had a close relationship with Pakistan’s ISI and thus had permitted the Indian separatist groups to operate freely within its territory in correlation with Bangladeshi terrorist outfits like Jalmat-e-Islam and Jamat-ul-Mujahideen. However, these groups were forced out of Bangladesh a decade ago under the regime of Sheikh Hasina.
- Now, they are highly active in Myanmar, along with and across Myanmar’s borders with China’s Yunnan Province.
- These separatist groups are freely moving across the Myanmar-China border and are receiving support and a haven from China’s Yunnan Province.
- China is also providing assistance to separatist groups from Myanmar to coerce Myanmar to cooperate with its economic and infrastructure projects.
- The Myanmar government has acted firmly against NSCN (Khaplang) in the recent months to compel the separatist outfit to desist from a cross-border insurgency by raiding its bases.
- The other source of assistance for these militant groups comes from ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency. The ISI provides training and logistics support to these separatist groups for disrupting the peace and stability in North-East India.
- China has assisted groups like NSCN in the 1980s to hinder India’s economic growth and progress.
- Nepal’s 1,800 km porous border is said to be the safest entry point for Pakistan’s ISI personnel operating against India.
- Bhutan has cooperated with India in removing these separatist groups from its territory.
- Operation All Clear was launched by Royal Bhutan Army Forces against the Assamese separatist groups operating within its territory between December 2003 and January 2004.
- Bhutan government’s sustained actions against the militant groups like ULFA, NDBF, etc., have reduced the operation within its territory.
- In 2015, Bhutan has assured India that it would launch military operations to remove all anti-India insurgents who are active in West Bengal and north-eastern states operating within its territories.
What is the current situation?
- The Central government’s both political and military measures have reduced the militancy operations in Northeast India.
- The political connections are helping these groups carry out illegal activities like smuggling.
- The border management in porous international borders is still inefficient and the militants are freely operating in this region.
- Corrupt politics have created a crisis in law and order situations in this region.
- The developmental projects under the Central Government schemes are not at their full potential.
- Given this situation, the peaceful settlements of the ethnic differences within this region are becoming highly difficult.
- The military operations within this region have provided only short-term solutions to the existing problems in the Northeast. The peace negotiations are not yielding the needed result.
- The Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region has provided only limited achievements and is not hastening its developmental projects.
- The conflicts in this region are obtaining only limited attention from both the national and international media.
- Thus the government’s accountability is diminishing.
What is the way forward?
- There must be measures to speed up the connectivity and infrastructure projects to provide for the economic development of this region.
- This will provide the Indian government with the needed public support from the people of the North-East Region.
- This will also simultaneously diminish the popular support to the separatist groups operating within this region.
- The hastening of the economic development projects in this region can improve the lives of the people of the North East Region.
- Promotion of the culture and traditions of the indigenous people of North-Eastern India can remove the feeling of isolation in the minds of the tribes in the region.
- Strict and fast-paced law and order mechanism to deal with the insurgency-related cases.
- Increase in the coordination between the Indian military and paramilitary forces to deal with the insurgent groups.
- Promotion of pro-people governance through the efficient mechanism to deal with corruption in the region.
The military operations have not solved the core issue that is plaguing this region. The peace negotiation is the only solution to completely curb the insurgency in this region. The government, in order to do this, must first increase its presence in the region through good governance and developmental projects. Thus, by doing so, India may become a strong united nation that cannot be separated through external interventions.