Flashpoints | Security | South Asia | Southeast Asia

China’s Insurgency Card in India’s Northeast Is Overhyped

Even if China decides to increase military and financial support for insurgents in India’s Northeast, it will find it difficult to alter the security situation there.

By Avinash Paliwal for
China’s Insurgency Card in India’s Northeast Is Overhyped

General Secretary of the NSCN (IM) Thuingaleng Muivah leaves at the end of a funeral service for Chairman Isak Chishi Swu at their headquarters in Hebron, Nagaland, India, Friday, July 1, 2016.

Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath

This is the second of a two-part series on insurgencies in India’s northeastern frontier and the varying role China has played in supporting them. Read the first part here.

An underappreciated if not overlooked aspect about India’s Northeast insurgency landscape is the agency these groups enjoy vis-à-vis each other, India, and China.

With the Naga peace talks in doldrums, a crisis afflicting Sino-Indian relations, and their own future prospects dimming in the face of India’s intense counterinsurgency campaign, it would not take a genius for the United Liberation Front of Asom – Independent (ULFA-I) to see a chance to exploit the situation.

It is likely that these groups took kinetic action in Manipur’s Chandel district in July without Beijing’s intervention.

To get a sense of how they develop such operational autonomy, one needs to focus on the illicit arms and drugs trade in Southeast Asia. In recent months, there has been hectic movement in and around the Golden Triangle with huge caches of arms and drugs being captured by authorities in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. Equally large caches have made their way to Myanmar’s Rakhine state and, probably, to India’s Northeast.

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Of Chinese make, small arms used in these regions are mostly (but not only) produced in ordnance factories located in north Myanmar’s Wa state. Under the command of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), this region is a semi-independent statelet strategically reliant on China. The UWSA, and some of the private owners of these ordnance factories, have interests that may or may not coincide with Beijing’s geopolitical calculus.

In fact, original arms developed by the state-owned China Ordnance Industries Group Corporation Limited, also known as NORINCO, have not been procured by  Northeast rebels for over a decade and a half. Launched in 1988, NORINCO pursued a strategy of indiscriminate, aggressive sales throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, to generate profits. This meant selling to Northeast rebels via NSCN-IM’s Anthony Shimray and Baruah, who, at least in the mid-1990s, even met with NORINCO’s chief at its Beijing headquarters to sign deals.

Beijing eventually put an end to such overt, escalatory, and diplomatically embarrassing sales of Chinese arms to non-state actors in the region. Instead, spinoff ordnance factories that could produce NORINCO-style rifles and other small arms sprang to life – sometimes with the support of retired military and intelligence officials with party patronage – and began supplying to actors with whom Beijing did not want to have any official connection.

Such factories have opened considerable space for collaboration between South and Southeast Asian rebels and these arms suppliers that is not directly linked to the larger geopolitics of the region, even if it shapes the contours of the same significantly.

The attack in Chandel in July, then, could just be a bold endeavor by ULFA-I, the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), and the Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) aimed at resuscitating themselves using Chinese-made weaponry procured through the illegal arms bazaar. What works in favor of these groups is the easy conflation by Indian media – and also, sometimes by Indian officials – of the use of Chinese-made weapons with Beijing’s deliberate turning-on of support for these groups.

The illicit drug and arms routes are so complex that process tracing – least of all tracing causality – is a tedious and time-consuming endeavor. It leaves space for Indian media outlets to run stories that suit their own commercial interests, which are often closely aligned with nationalist narratives. This does not mean all journalists and analysts following these developments fall for generalizations, but in the case of Northeast there is a tendency for nuance to be lost in popular discourse.

So, the timing of the Chandel attack, the composition of the groups that orchestrated it, and the vocabulary they used to communicate intent to their constituents and New Delhi alike, creates room to construe China’s growing hand in India’s domestic troubles. But it doesn’t offer enough evidence to definitively assert that Beijing is behind these attacks – or whether these groups are exploiting the Sino-Indian crisis.

This brings us to the other two interconnected issues of the extent to which China may be able to exploit the situation in India’s Northeast if it so desires, and the future of separatist politics in the region.

Just like India’s Tibet-card vis-à-vis China is over-hyped, so is China’s Northeast card vis-à-vis India.

Even if China decides to increase military and financial support for these groups, it will find it difficult to alter the security situation in the Northeast to an extent that revises India’s strategic calculus. It may succeed in increasing the frequency and intensity of attacks similar to the one in Chandel by supporting select groups and individuals, but it won’t be able to bring the region to a boil akin to the situation in 1980s and 1990s.

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This is because the insurgent leaders that Beijing supported all these years are largely removed from the emerging realities of India’s Northeast. The political ideas and methods of ULFA-I and NSCN-IM have lost popular appeal.

In Assam, despite pervasive anger against the 2020 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which Baruah tried to exploit, the separatist narrative has lost its edge. If anything, the signing of the Bodo Accord in February 2020 underlined how deeply linked armed ethnic subnationalism is to India’s mainstream national politics.

To counter growing anti-CAA sentiment across the state, New Delhi gave into certain demands of the All Bodo Students Union and various factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), militant outfits that had been under tremendous military pressure from Indian forces, and often at odds with ULFA-I. Short of statehood, New Delhi created the Bodoland Territorial Region, effectively pitching the nationalist Assamese (a constituency Baruah seeks to cultivate) against Bodo groups.

In Manipur, which houses numerous insurgent outfits, there is hardly any group that does not have a patron in Imphal or New Delhi. In fact, akin to the organized crime-politics nexus in other parts of India, these groups constitute the intrinsic underbelly of India’s political landscape in Northeast, instead of being independent actors that truly seek separation from India.

The convergence of interests between politicians and criminals/insurgents blunts the lethal potential of both the state and the rebel while generating a powerful dynamic of cohabitation that is difficult to overcome. Even ULFA, which has a history of factionalism and mainstreaming after the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, is part of India’s political tapestry rather than a disconnected whole with a distinct demographic constituency seeking separation.

Such comprehensive, organic, and undemocratic connections between India’s political parties, security agencies, and the Northeast’s illicit financial networks and armed actors are unlikely to be disrupted anytime soon. Given India’s sensitivity about China’s support for any Indian rebel outfit, many of these groups often simply exploit Beijing’s openness to “do business” with them as a tactical tool to exert pressure on New Delhi – without China’s knowledge or approval.

So, even if China decides to offer more money and more arms to some factions, for these groups to credibly assert themselves on the ground would require negotiating this crime/insurgency-politics nexus in the Northeast. Such an act would itself give away any linkages to Chinese support before the group makes political or military headway.

Just like Indian officials understand the limits of what Tibetan guerrillas disconnected from Tibet can achieve in terms of challenging China’s might in Lhasa, Beijing also understands the limits of what Baruah and Tangkhul can achieve in Guwahati, Kohima, and Imphal while sitting in Yunnan. In this context, even if Beijing decides to exert pressure on India through these groups, it is likely to remain covert in nature and have limited objectives such as signaling Beijing’s angst to New Delhi, instead of overhauling the ground situation.

An indication of China’s limits of influence is the absence of NSCN-IM from recent attack in Chandel, despite Beijing playing host to Tangkhul and Calvin.

A former shadow of itself, the NSCN-IM has lost popular appeal in Nagaland. Thuingaleng Muivah, its chief, is a Tangkhul Naga who has more political capital in Manipur, especially in Senapati, than anywhere in Nagaland. New Delhi’s chief negotiator, N. Ravi, a former intelligence official, has exploited these intra-tribal rifts within Naga society to telling effect, and isolated NSCN-IM’s leadership considerably from non-Tangkhul Naga groups.

This contributed to the recent turbulence wherein NSCN-IM leaked the draft Naga Accord signed in 2015 and sought Ravi’s removal as an interlocutor with New Delhi. Just yesterday, the group warned that it is ready to “fight another war” if its version of Naga history and rights are not respected.

That MNPF and not NSCN-IM was involved in the Chandel attack is a signal that the Naga insurgency is at a cusp of change. Even if the Naga Accord is not signed, or it excludes NSCN-IM, Nagaland is unlikely to erupt in heavy violence – NSCN-IM’s threats notwithstanding. But the situation in Manipur might worsen as NSCN-IM’s Tangkhul-dominated leadership tries to assert itself afresh in its demographic heartland.

Here too, with smaller groups such as MNPF contesting for dominance (being propped up by Meitei and Assamese outfits or Indian agencies to counter NSCN-IM), NSCN-IM would find it difficult to continue fighting to the same scale and effect that it has in the past. This implies that figures such as Hangshi Tangkhul and T. R. Calvin who are being sheltered by China, though potential flag-bearers of NSCN-IM along with Shimray, are unlikely to yield much return for Beijing’s buck in the coming months.

All New Delhi then needs to do, and is likely doing, is wait for Muivah, who is old, to die of natural causes. This would unleash a power struggle within and outside a diminished NSCN-IM that New Delhi could manipulate to its advantage in months and years to come. A comparative case in point is the death of S. S. Khaplang, the former leader of NSCN-K, in June 2017. The event unlocked a power struggle within the group leading to its near-total decimation. Within two years, NSCN-K’s new leader Khango Konyak, outmaneuvered by Indian agencies and exhausted by infighting, agreed to join the Naga peace talks.

As for the illicit networks of Southeast Asia that afford operational autonomy to Northeast insurgents, New Delhi is likely to keep a close eye on them. On this count, India’s extensive network in the region helps the Ministry of External Affairs and the Research and Analysis Wing (India’s external intelligence service) keep track developments in and around the Golden Triangle, as well as Myanmar militias’ links to China and Indian insurgents.

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The dilemma for China and its Northeast rebel clients, then, is about how to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship. Unlike India’s institutionalization of Tibetan fighters into its national defense fabric (as witnessed in Indian Army’s recent deployment of 7 Vikas Regiment of the Tibetan-dominated Special Frontier Force against China’s People’s Liberation Army at the Pangong Tso), Indian rebels operating from China have no such value for Beijing. Baruah retains a modicum of value as an arms dealer who can channel illicit guns and money to the region. But his history of cheating groups such as the NDFB has bereaved ULFA-I of trust –  an essential but hard-to-find item in this space – among still-active groups.

In this context, ULFA-I’s recent pro-China and anti-India social media activism, attempts to create unwieldy coalitions, and low-intensity attacks on Indian military installations, are as much a sign of them losing ground in the Northeast as of continuing patronage from China.

All in all, despite reports of China’s increased interest in India’s Northeast, the region is unlikely to see widespread separatist violence on Beijing’s behest. Even though intense localized criminal and insurgent violence in Manipur and parts of Assam may occur in the coming months, it would do New Delhi good not to rush to blame China, or entirely ruling out foul-play by Beijing.

The recent attack in Chandel might just be the last gasp of struggling insurgent outfits – who have to prove their value both to the people they ostensibly represent and their northern patron – rather than a renewed clarion call with Beijing’s support.

Avinash Paliwal is Deputy Director of SOAS South Asia Institute and author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).