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Militancy in the Northeast

Militancy in the Northeast
There were two significant internal security-related events in the Northeast last week. The Assam-Nagaland border witnessed a bloody encounter between the Indian Army and militants from the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) and an armed faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which led to the death of one officer. Following this encounter, however, there was news that SS Khaplang, the leader of the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland had passed away. These developments have given credence to a lot of speculation about what path militancy will take in the Northeast. The Khaplang faction, once a favourite of New Delhi, had broken its ceasefire agreement with the Indian government in early 2015. Since then, the militant group has known to be a part of numerous attacks on the Indian armed forces. Most famously, the group launched a major attack on Indian Army convoy in Manipur last year, killing 20 soldiers. The Indian government retaliated to this heinous strike, using a Special Forces unit of the Indian Army to carry out a cross-border raid on the outfit's camps in Myanmar, although its veracity is still under question.

Apparently, the cross-border raid has done little to deter the NSCN (K), which joined hands with other militant groups in the region. Other reports, however, suggest that the group's strength and intensity of their operations have since lessened. Once it broke the ceasefire agreement, Khaplang was instrumental in the creation of the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia—an alliance of four militant groups from the region. This alliance includes the armed faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom led by Paresh Baruah, which refuses to hold talks with New Delhi, a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the Kamatpur Liberation Organisation. Led by the NSCN (K), which operates out of Myanmar, this alliance has partially rejuvenated many of these armed groups that were suffering from depleted cadre strength and funds. They have carried out a few ambushes on Indian security forces, targeting Indian security personnel.

Before Khaplang's death, there was talk of how the cadre strength of the NSCN (K) had swelled, although these claims remain unverified. Before one gets into the implication of SS Khaplang's death, it is imperative to present some historical context. He was the brains behind the creation of the Naga Defence Force in 1964, a group which envisioned the establishment of a separate Naga nation carved out of India and Myanmar. He soon teamed up with the famous Angami Zapu Phizo's Naga National Council, helping them gather arms and facilitating their training activities under the aegis of the Chinese government. In 1975, Phizo signed the Shilling Accord, under which the NNC accepted the Indian Constitution. This development, which the likes of Khaplang and other leaders like Th Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu saw as a monumental betrayal of the Naga independence movement, led to a revolt. The three broke away and formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). In 1988, a bloody internecine strife, borne out of rivalries among fellow Naga tribes, the Konyak and Thangkul, led to a further split and created two NSCN factions—one led by Isak-Muivah (I-M) and the other by Khaplang. For the uninitiated, Muivah is a Thangkul Naga from Manipur. Based out of Myanmar, the NSCN (K) soon began to supply arms and ammunition to a whole host of armed militant groups in the region. This illegal trade of weapons continues along the Sino-Myanmar border even today.

In the past decade, however, the Indian government has decided to hold talks with the stronger of the two NSCN factions in India—the one led by Isak-Muivah. After many rounds of talks, the Government of India signed a historic peace accord with the NSCN (I-M) in August 2015. Under this framework agreement, the Government of India recognised the unique history, culture and position of the Nagas and their sentiments and aspirations. As a reciprocal move, the NSCN said that it understood and appreciated the Indian political system and governance. In other words, while the Indian government agreed to recognise the 'uniqueness' of the Nagas, the Naga leadership also accepted the Indian Constitution. Although the larger public is not privy to the details of this "final solution", it is apparent that claims of "recognising the sovereign rights of the Nagas" could prove problematic for other democratic stakeholders in the region. Anyway, the NSCN (K) refused to be a part of this history accord and walked out of its longstanding ceasefire agreement with the Indian government. For the Indian interlocutor, this was a blessing in disguise, as holding formal peace talks with someone who was essentially a citizen of Myanmar might have posed certain intractable problems. There are some within the Indian establishment who believe that Khaplang's death would aid the "peace process", and bring the Indian side of the faction back into the mainstream. "Khaplang was the heart and soul of NSCN-K, which will face a lot of difficulties without him. The NSCN-K has members from both India and Myanmar. The Myanmar nationals are not our concern, but we will appeal to the Indian NSCN-K rebels to return to the mainstream," Union Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju said on Saturday. Rijiju went on to suggest that Khaplang's death would also have a detrimental effect on all militant groups in the Northeast, including the Paresh Barua-led anti-talks faction of the ULFA. As for the NSCN (K), the event could result in yet another power struggle within the group, although for the time being a certain Khango Konyak has taken over the leadership mantle. He operates out of the Indian side of the border.

Security experts, however, have asked the government to exercise caution and not get carried away. There are some who believe that Khaplang's death may force the Chinese government to invest themselves in the region further through Baruah. It is common knowledge that Paresh Barua visited China in 2010. Reports from the Chinese province had stated that he led a group of 80 cadres that received weapons and training. However, it was in the 2011 and 2012, when Chinese activity in the region grew more pronounced. Reports yet again have stated the role Chinese authorities played in the organising of two major conclaves of insurgent leaders in Western Myanmar. Further evidence of a Chinese hand surfaced in 2008, when a militant, who chose to surrender to the Indian authorities, had revealed that many insurgent groups were travelling to Yunnan province to receive training and then return with arms. Chinese presence in the region is not a recent development. In the 1960s, the Chinese had openly backed the Naga rebels. "With the death of Khaplang, that of Isak Chisi Swu last year, and an ageing Muivah, the classical guerilla warfare may be a thing of the past. However, it is unlikely that the next generation of urban-guerilla leaders of these two outfits will give up criminal activities of extortion and abduction. It will be interesting to see how the existing leaders of other armed outfits such as Paresh Baruah of the United Liberation Front of Asom and Manipuri groups operating out of Myanmar now position themselves and influence the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang)'s line of succession," writes Kishalay Bhattacharjee in a recent column for an Indian news website. As argued in these columns earlier, how India deals with these militant groups in the Northeast will go some way in determining the outcome of New Delhi's 'Act East' policy, which seeks to enhance trade ties with South-East Asian economies.
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