Flashpoints | Security | South Asia | Southeast Asia

Is China Behind a Recent Insurgent Attack in India’s Northeast?

China’s support for insurgent groups in India’s Northeast has a murky history.

By Avinash Paliwal for
Is China Behind a Recent Insurgent Attack in India’s Northeast?

An NSCN (IM) soldier adjusts ammunition carried by another during the funeral service of their Chairman Isak Chishi Swu at their headquarters in Hebron, Nagaland, India, Friday, July 1, 2016.

Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath

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

Under the shadow of an ongoing crisis in Ladakh and worsening India-China relations, the ghost of Beijing’s support for India’s northeastern rebels seems to have been reawakened. According to media reports, New Delhi recently complained to Beijing for supporting Paresh Baruah, chief of the militant group United Liberation Front of Asom–Independent (ULFA-I). For decades, Baruah — who seeks Assam’s separation from India — has been operating from China’s Yunnan province with interim stays in and travels to Myanmar’s Sagaing Division.

Often viewed as China’s counter to India’s support for the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama, Beijing’s support for ULFA-I and other India-centric rebels has, at best, been an irritant in the bilateral relationship in recent years. Unlike Beijing’s interventionism in 1960s and 1970s under the rubric of the Cultural Revolution, China has done little to empower Northeast insurgents in recent years or to truly complicate India’s counter-insurgency strategy in the region.

But a joint attack in Chandel district of Manipur on July 29 by the Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), and ULFA-I, which led to the death of four Assam Rifles personnel and injured more, set off the alarm bells in New Delhi, triggering the complaint to Beijing.

In a retort to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent statement (aimed at China) that “the era of expansionism is over,” the rebels issued a joint statement one day after the attack, saying “as the entire world has made up its mind against expansionism, the people of WeSEA [West Southeast Asia] are also countering against the expansionism of India.” Such vocabulary, the ownership of responsibility, and availability of Chinese-made arms in the Northeast, firmly positions these groups along the spectrum of an intensified Sino-Indian rivalry.

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These developments raise questions with implications both for Sino-Indian relations and the future of India’s Northeast. One, how far is China involved in the Northeast? Two, can Beijing dramatically increase the cost of rivalry for India by supporting Northeast insurgents? Three, what does the recent uptick in violence in Manipur and elsewhere in this region mean for the politics of separatism in the Northeast?

Though China surely engages with Northeast insurgents in different capacities, counter to intuition, it would not be able to overhaul the security situation in this region to India’s detriment in a strategic sense. But, on the third issue, politics of separatism in the Northeast is far from over, even if violence is likely to intensify and localize in Manipur and pockets of Assam. Let’s unpack these aspects one at a time.

China shelters various Northeast insurgents. In addition to Baruah, there is Hangshi Tangkhul, the self-styled defense minister of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), NSCN-IM, and T R Calvin, NSCN-IM’s deputy chief arms procurer. One of the most potent insurgent group in the Northeast, NSCN-IM signed a ceasefire in 1997 and is currently in peace talks with the government of India. Based out of Yunnan, these insurgent leaders maintain contact with colleagues and cadres through social media platforms, email addresses with false names, and bases along the India-Myanmar border (and also along the India-Bangladesh border during the Khaleda Zia years).

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) of India filed a charge-sheet in 2011 against Tangkhul, for masterminding “a criminal conspiracy … to procure huge consignment of arms and ammunition illegally.” For this purpose, in 2007, Tangkhul along with NSCN-IM’s chief arms procurer Anthony Shimray and his deputy Calvin, met with leaders of Myanmar’s Mon National Liberation Army at a Mon monastery in Bangkok, and then traveled to Mae Sot to meet leaders of the Karen National Union.

These Burmese rebels helped Tangkhul strike a deal amounting to $1.2 million, for an assortment of small arms including rifles, machine guns, grenades, pistols, and grenade launchers.

The arms were to be loaded from China’s Beihai port at the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea, transferred into small fishing trawlers in the high seas near Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, and smuggled into India from there.

Till 2006, when Zia’s anti-India Bangladesh Nationalist Party was in power in Dhaka, NSCN-IM and ULFA-I were allowed to have bases near the border areas, as well as in Dhaka and Chittagong. The weapons that NSCN-IM stored in these camps (named Goshen, Bethel, and Zion; and an overseas command center called Alee), were silently transferred to camps in Nagaland and Manipur, as the group planned to restock them with new weapons arriving from the Beihai port.

But with the pro-India Sheikh Hasina government cracking down on India-centric militants, this arrangement was postponed for a more politically opportune moment. Meanwhile, Tangkhul and his associates were unaware that Indian intelligence agencies were closely tracking their moves. With the help of a trader in West Delhi who had business links in Thailand and its consulate in Chiang Mai, Indian intelligence penetrated Tangkhul and Shimray’s network. In September 2010, authorities arrested Shimray at the Patna Railway Station after he entered India clandestinely via Nepal on a Bangladeshi passport.

Tangkhul and Calvin never returned.

Instead, as in Baruah’s case, they received protection from Chinese intelligence as it became clear that neither Myanmar nor Thailand was entirely safe given India’s growing diplomatic clout and intelligence networks in these countries. For Beijing, they were too important within the NSCN-IM’s hierarchy — and knew too much about the terrain — to be let go to waste. Ever since, India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) and China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) have played hide-and-seek when it came to Baruah, Tangkhul, and Calvin, among other issues.

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But Beijing has remained silent on such support to ensure deniability and signal restraint to India, if not maintain outright secrecy. Baruah’s presence in China is hardly a secret. He has openly hinted at Chinese support in media interviews, signaling either comfort or disinterest on Beijing’s part on the exposure of his apparent China connection. This was further corroborated in a series of recently released YouTube videos wherein ULFA-I openly supports China’s narrative on the Eastern Ladakh crisis, especially the deadly clash in Galwan Valley where 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives.

To be clear, it is difficult to precisely gauge China’s intent behind supporting these groups. They surely offer Beijing an effective tool to exert pressure on New Delhi during moments of crisis such as now. But, despite affording them sanctuary for years, Beijing has not empowered them enough to undertake high-intensity kinetic action against India. In fact, given how murky the world of espionage can be, and how difficult patron-client relations in this space often are, it is entirely possible, though unknown, that Beijing quietly limited ULFA-I or NSCN-IM’s operational capabilities to avoid a confrontation with India.

The recent attack in Chandel seems to challenge this assumption.

To begin with, the timing is compelling. A sharp and violent downturn in Sino-Indian relations arguably offers Beijing a reason to increase pressure on India in the Northeast and elsewhere. After having invested in ULFA-I and NSCN-IM for years, the current circumstances offer an opportune moment to augment military and financial support for these groups.

The situation in Northeast itself is precarious.

Growth in mutual mistrust has fatally deadlocked talks between New Delhi and NSCN-IM, and the security situation in Manipur, eastern Arunachal Pradesh, and parts of Assam remains fragile. The composition of the grouping that orchestrated the attack in Chandel offers clues to this effect. A Meitei, a Manipuri Naga, and an Assamese group operating together without overt involvement of NSCN-IM indicates a churn in Northeast’s insurgent landscape.

To be sure, insurgent alliances and in-fighting in this region are very common. But, given the history of animosity between Meitei and Manipuri Nagas, the coming together of MNPF and RPF signals tumult. At a local level, it signals growing opposition to NSCN-IM in the Tangkhul heartland of Manipur by a combination of Meitei and disgruntled Tangkhul Naga outfits with strategic support from ULFA-I. In addition to MNPF, other small groups such as the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) and the Eastern Naga National Government (ENNG) have violently challenged NSCN-IM’s dominance in Manipur’s Tamenglong district and Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district respectively.

These local dynamics receive a boost from powerful external factors – China? – that enable supply of arms and money in a play that promises better payoffs if these groups operate jointly instead of pursuing ethnic fratricide. The joint statement offered a clue to this effect: “We know that joining the Indian Occupation Force is not right because roguish India makes enmity among our brothers.” None of this, however, offers definitive evidence of Beijing’s hand in the Northeast, India’s not-so-incredible claim of a “link to China” notwithstanding.

But then, this is not the first time such an attack has occurred. In 2015, a conglomeration of Northeast insurgents led by ULFA-I and NSCN-Khaplang (a rival Burmese Naga group that has long been at violent odds with NSCN-IM) attacked an Assam Rifles convoy, also in Chandel, killing 18 soldiers. The attack triggered an equally violent Indian response, wherein Indian special forces crossed over into Myanmar to target militant camps. In December 2017, two Assam Rifles personnel was killed in an attack in Arunachal’s Tirap district, for which NSCN-K, ULFA-I, and the Meitei-dominated and Imphal-centric Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup group took responsibility.

There was no official indication that the 2015 and 2017 attacks had a Chinese (or Pakistani) imprint on them, despite ULFA-I’s involvement in the plots. India did not lodge complaints with Beijing either, despite the two neighbors having witnessed an intense military standoff in Doklam a few months prior. This raises the questions about the myths and realities about China’s increased involvement in India’s Northeast. If these insurgent groups undertook independent action in 2015 and 2017 without China’s direct involvement, why might that not be the case in 2020 as well?

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)