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Arunachal Pradesh: New Command in an Old Frontier

Posted on May 13, 2008

WASBIR HUSSAIN
DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR DEVELOPMENT AND PEACE STUDIES

 

Arunachal Pradesh — one of India's most talked about frontiers, along China's Tibet region — is likely to have a unified command, involving the Army, Police and Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs). This new security arrangement is not meant to guard the rugged Himalayan heights along the border with China, but is being created to ensure effective maintenance of law and order within this state of over a million people, through better synergy among the various security forces (SFs).

General (Retd.) J.J. Singh, Arunachal Pradesh's new Governor, who was, until recently, the Chief of the Indian Army, has confirmed to this writer that a proposal to set up a Unified Command structure in the sate was currently being examined by Chief Minister Dorji Khandu and his cabinet. The General, who is more than familiar with Arunachal Pradesh and its strategic importance, stated that the Unified Command, if approved by the state cabinet, would be headed by the Chief Minister, while the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the Army's Tezpur-based IV Corps, in northern Assam, would be in charge of its operations. "We plan to have a unified command on the same lines as the one existing in Assam. The idea is to deny the insurgents breathing space in another state," General Singh added.

The Unified Headquarters was set up in Assam on January 24, 1997, six years after the government first launched military operations against the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), a separatist group fighting for a 'sovereign, socialist Assam' since 1979. For the past decade, since the Unified Headquarters came into being in Assam, insurgents from Assam and Nagaland have been escaping into adjoining Arunachal Pradesh and further into neighbouring Myanmar. In fact, the ULFA's most potent strike unit, called the '28th battalion' or the 'Kashmir Camp' is based in Myanmar, across Arunachal Pradesh.

Arunachal Pradesh has been facing the impact of the spill-over of insurgency from Assam and Nagaland for more than a decade now. Moreover, a dozen home-grown insurgent groups, which had sprung up in Arunachal Pradesh with backing from the Naga rebel groups — both by the Isak-Muivah and Khaplang factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM and NSCN-K) — though they have failed to flourish. The question, consequently, arises — what precisely has changed on the ground in Arunachal Pradesh to provoke the move to set up the Unified Command structure in the state? Could this be nothing more than an attempt by the state's new Governor to make his presence felt?

  • An assessment of the quantum and character of the spill-over insurgency in the state can be had by a review of the few incidents that have occurred in the recent past:
  • September 18, 2007: Police in Arunachal Pradesh's capital Itanagar arrests Ranu Das alias Gita Gogoi, wife of a Myanmar-based ULFA cadre, along with her 14-month-old child, from Naharlagun, near Itanagar (this showed that rebels were operating from the state).
  • December 23, 2007: Naga militants shot dead Wangsha Rajkumar, former Congress Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, at Deomali in the Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh, 600 kilometres east of Itanagar.
  • January 27, 2008: A Naga militant was arrested from the house of a former Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Tingpong Wangham, in Itanagar.
  • March 31, 2008: A group of ULFA militants made a quick getaway during an Army raid, but left behind a bag containing USD 100,000 in Arunachal Pradesh's Manabhum Reserve Forest.

Going by the scale of insurgency in some of the other north eastern Indian states, particularly Manipur and Assam, violent activities by rebels operating from or transiting to Myanmar through Arunachal Pradesh is insignificant.But what is significant and cannot be ignored is Arunachal Pradesh's strategic location – this is a state that opens into Myanmar, Bhutan and China. Particularly after Beijing has chosen to be vocal about its claim on Tawang (an important seat of Buddhism) or for that matter the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, New Delhi would not like this frontier state to slide into the grip of separatist rebel armies with their potential to create unrest.

Prodded perhaps by the new Governor, this strategic criticality would explain, in substantial measure, the decision to set up a Unified Command to choke the ULFA and Naga rebels, block their access to bases in Myanmar (up to 5,000 NSCN-K and ULFA rebels are known to operate jointly and share camps in Myanmar), and block the defunct local armed gangs from possible resurrection.

The idea of the Unified Command may be new to Arunachal Pradesh, but the state has sought to check crime and insurgency through different measures in the past. In August 2002, the state assembly pushed through a rather harsh anti-crime Bill to help tackle organized crime and insurgency. With the state Governor's assent on October 3, 2002, the Arunachal Pradesh Control of Organised Crime Act, 2002 (APCOCA), became law. Less than a year after this legislation came into effect, the Arunachal Pradesh Police arrested Tingpong Wangham, a cabinet minister, and T.L. Rajkumar, a Congress Legislator, under APCOCA, on charges of having 'links' with the NSCN-IM. They were later released on bail and denied any links with the rebels.

Whether or not the two politicians had links with the insurgents is not the key issue, but, what Wangham had told this writer has significance within the present context of the move to set up a Unified Command. Wangham stated: "I come from an insurgency affected area. We often get written notices from the rebels as well as threatening telephone calls. At times, we need to reply to certain notices sent by them (rebels). On certain occasions, we being public leaders, need to meet certain people to find out whether those who have sent a particular notice are genuine rebels of that particular group or not. We keep the authorities informed of such things most of the time. Now, it is unfair and incorrect to term these actions on our part as evidence of links with insurgents. After all, the ground situation needs to be understood and taken into account."

The move to bring the security forces in Arunachal Pradesh under a Unified Command could bring about better synergy among the different security agencies and deny the rebels operating through the state the scope to act as a cohesive group. Rebels from outside the state are having a field day and groups like the NSCN-K were even held responsible by the authorities of having abducted more than 40 local youth in January 2008 and forcibly taken them to Myanmar to join its ranks. The Army operating in adjoining Assam has all along being handicapped by the fact that its troops were not entitled to cross over, beyond 20 kilometres, into Arunachal Pradesh in hot pursuit. Moreover, the Police top brass in Arunachal Pradesh were getting used to directing whatever operations it was carrying out in the disturbed Tirap and Changlang districts from their offices in Itanagar. All this is bound to change once the Unified Command comes into force and is operationalised. Past experience, however, suggests that results will come only if this new structure actually operates as a unified command of different forces and not a competitive command, with each force trying to outsmart the other to take credit.

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This article was first published in the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal (www.satp.org)