Militancy in India’s northeast is a sleeping volcano: the government can ignore it, but only at its own peril — eventually violence will erupt, unannounced. The killing of 18 soldiers in an ambush in Manipur on Thursday, near the Indian border with Myanmar, reinforces a hard truth that insurgency remains a hard reality in this part of India. New Delhi will have to address it politically.
Indian soldiers were returning home with their bags after serving a tour in the region when the ambush took place, catching them off guard. Media reports say that this is the deadliest attack against the Indian army in recent years. Some suggest that the Indian army has not suffered such casualties since the Kargil War against Pakistan in 1999.
The militant-infested state of Manipur has seen relative peace for quite some time, but these killings have broken the lull and drawn the nation’s attention once again to the problem of insurgency in the northeastern state, which shares a long border with Myanmar.
Various reports suspect the involvement of a new group called the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (ULFSEA), a conglomerate of various insurgent organizations based in Manipur and neighboring areas with its headquarters in the jungles of Myanmar. The group is supposedly led by SS Khaplang, who is the head of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). A few months ago, a decade-long ceasefire agreement between the Indian government and the Naga group was terminated. The attack is meant to be a reminder to the Indian government about the strength of the NSCN’s Khaplang faction or NSCN(K),which is largely based in Myanmar.
Since 1997, there has been a ceasefire agreement with the Nagaland and Manipur-based Isak-Muivah group of the NSCN, the most powerful Naga group. New Delhi went into an informal ceasefire with the Khaplang faction later on and this helped in maintaining relative peace in the Naga-dominated regions of the northeast. But early this year the Indian government terminated the agreement with the NSCN(K).
“Thursday’s ambush could be Khaplang’s message that he can still hit back within Indian territory in many different ways, other than dramatically announcing the arrival of ULFSEA,” writes Pradip Phanjoubam in The Wire.
Rajeev Bhattacharya, a Northeast India-based journalist who visited the headquarters of the ULFSEA in Myanmar in 2012, says that the “new outfit has been created to give a greater punch to the independence movement of different separatist groups in the North East.”
He also adds that such a high profile attack has some “strategic purpose for the insurgents.” “It galvanizes the cadres and help them recruit more,” opines Bhattacharya, who has recently written a book titled Rendezvous with Rebels, an account of his 800-mile journey into the den of insurgent groups in the jungles of Myanmar and his interactions with all the senior rebel leaders from the northeast.
In an interview with The Diplomat, Bhattacharya notes that “rebel groups, through such attacks, want to tell the administration that the Indian troops should leave the state.”
The central government reacted angrily to the latest development. The army sent extra troops to the region and firm instructions have been given to the military to find the rebels and confront them. But such a knee-jerk reaction usually ends up killing innocent people, thereby alienating the region further.
This has been a chronic problem. India has always seen the northeast through the prism of security and there has never been much interest in New Delhi in using a political approach to the issue of separatism. Military means are taken for granted as a solution.
“From day one there has been refusal to address it politically,” notes Angomcha Bimol Akoijam of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). “They use a carrot and stick policy: use military intervention and try to buy peace by distributing money. But it does not address the issue,” adds Akoijam.
Even the military has its own limitations. Most of the insurgent groups operating in Manipur and neighboring areas are based in Myanmar, which shares a long and porous border with India. Myanmar’s cooperation is important for nailing down the militants. The irony is that the Khaplang faction holds a ceasefire agreement with the neighboring government. Besides, Myanmar itself is facing a tough time in negotiating with many militant groups operating within its territory.
Bhutan and Bangladesh have helped India in cracking down on rebel groups taking shelter within their borders. Will Myanmar also fall in line? Past assurances from Myanmar have not yielded any positive results.
However, before India looks outside for support it has to set its own house in order. It has to seriously examine why the insurgency in the northeast has been so persistent, even after over six decades of independence. Is the insurgency just a law and order problem or a socio-economic issue rooted in the unique historic context in which the northeast has evolved over the years? Why does the region remain emotionally alienated from New Delhi?
“If you compare [it] to the Kashmir problem, India’s approach to the militancy in the northeast is completely different. It is always law and order. There is no required political approach to the problem. This is the part of the general orientation towards the region,” says Akoijam, the JNU professor.
There are over 30 insurgent groups active in Manipur itself. In recent years, the government has managed to neutralize a majority of them, but the political problem that allows so many underground groups to remain active has never been addressed.
The first reaction of the Indian government after Thursday’s attack was to reinforce its military presence in the region and hunt down the rebels without an acknowledgement that such approaches have led to failure in the past. The Indian government needs to find a new way to deal with this problem.