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A Marked Change in GOI's NE Peace Policy

POSTED ON 23 JUNE 2015

rani pathak das
senior research associate
, cdps

The Indian Army’s routine counter-insurgency operations in the ‘remote’ northeastern region of the country was terribly shaken on 4 June 2015 when militants assaulted a convoy of five vehicles of the 6th Dogra Regiment at Tengnoupal–New Somtal road under Chandel district of Manipur, killing 18 soldiers on the spot. The magnitude and intensity of the rebel strike—one that has not been faced by the Indian Army in the last twenty years—has forced the Government in New Delhi to reconfirm its earlier statement, that there will be no more peace talks with emerging militant groups in the region. For the record, the last such attack was in the early 1980s when more than 20 soldiers of the 21 Sikh Regiment were killed in Ukhrul district of Manipur.

The Government’s kid glove policy adopted all these while in tackling the Northeast insurgents proved to be detrimental in several ways. The open offers of ceasefire and peace talk to the militant groups have benefitted the later at the time of their crises and helped them to regroup and strengthen themselves only to strike back with more force and upscale violence and bloodshed. While the Government has always been the stronger party, the tactics and strategy of the militant groups provide them with the means for a protracted armed conflict aimed at wearing down the will of the stronger party to conflict.

We have seen this in the case of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-Issac Muivah), and now the NSCN(Khaplang) who have used ceasefires as a phase to regroup, recruit, finance and rearm themselves. The ULFA took this advantage during the period of indirect talks between the Government and the “People’s Consultative Group” formed in September 2005. That ULFA had taken advantage of ceasefire was admitted both by the then Governor of Assam and the Chief Minister in 2006. Even the Army opposed Centre’s ceasefire decision during August-September 2006. During this period, ULFA reorganized, formed the 27th battalion and moved into new areas like Karbi Anglong. In the same way, the NSCN-IM had increased its cadre strength from 1000 in 1997 to 5000 in 2009 and spread its hold to new areas of Nagaland, Manipur and Assam. This while the Naga outfit was on a ceasefire with New Delhi.

The NSCN, formed in 1980 by opposing the Shillong Accord, experienced a split in 1988 due to differences in leadership. The Issac Muivah faction of the NSCN declared ceasefire with the Government in 1997 and the SS Khaplang faction of NSCN went for a ceasefire with the Government in 2001. While the Government has been engaged in a prolonged peace talk with the NSCN-IM, no formal talks took place between the Government and NSCN-K for 14 years and the Khaplang faction decided to retract from the ceasefire in April 2015. Supported by CorCom (Coordination Committee), the umbrella organization of six insurgent groups from Manipur, the NSCN-K got access to training and regrouping camps in Myanmar’s Naga Self-Administered Zone. The Nagas in that part of Myanmar have been granted autonomy by the Myanmar government. So just after the breakdown of the ceasefire, there were renewed attacks on security forces by suspected NSCN-K militants, beginning with a major attack in Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh in which three Army soldiers were killed. The biggest attack on security forces has been the recent ambush in Manipur. The ambush, according to ULFA-Independent leader Paresh Baruah was carried out under orders from SS Khaplang, chairman of the newly-floated (17 April 2015) common platform, United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia comprising NSCN-K, ULFA-I, Kamatapur Liberation Organization and National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Songbijit faction. The NSCN-K was joined by the Manipur outfits, KYKL (Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup) and KCP (Kangleipak Communist Party), while accomplishing the June 4 attack.

Following a decision at the highest level of the Indian Government, the Army crossed over into Myanmar and struck two Northeast insurgent camps, one across the Nagaland border and the other across Manipur. The decision to deploy the elite Para commandos to raid rebel camps across the country’s borders has been a first in CI operations by the Indian security forces. What is significant is that several Union ministers chose to confirm the Indian Army raid inside Myanmar, a fact, not surprisingly, denied by the Myanmar authorities. The idea was to send out a strong message that New Delhi’s CI (CounterInsurgency) strategy has undergone a major transformation.

This prompt reaction of the Government talking tough came on the same day of the incident with Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju saying that the Centre would not enter into peace talks with any emerging militant outfits in the Northeast states. When Rijiju said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had decided to take a “tough line” against the militants, he reiterated what Home Minister Rajnath Singh said on 26 December 2014 about the “zero tolerance” policy being adopted by the Centre against all acts of terror. Singh’s reaction came after the mindless killing of about 70 Adivasis by rebels of the NDFB-S militants in Sonitpur, Kokrajhar and Chirang districts of Assam.

The Government has always been seeking cooperation from India’s neighbours. But this has been the first time that the Indian Army was sent inside Myanmar to strike at Northeast Indian insurgents. The ground for such an operation was being prepared since long. In January 2010, the then Home secretary GK Pillai led a delegation to Naypyidaw for three days of secretarial-level talks with Myanmar officials where the elimination of insurgent camps in Myanmar across the border from the Northeast featured in discussions. This was followed by the visit of the Indian Army chief General Deepak Kapoor in the same year in October to discuss "enhanced military cooperation''.

The crossing of international borders to attack the homegrown rebels who have declared war against the country is nonetheless a new counter-insurgency strategy adopted by India, which is unlike the Operation All Clear against the ULFA and NDFB in 2003 when it was the Royal Bhutan Army on the Bhutan side and Indian soldiers were along the Indo-Bhutan borders only. Emphasizing its tough stand this time, the Centre also stated that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) would remain in the northeastern states, other than in Tripura (where the Act is recently repealed by the State) and that there will be no ceasefire renewal with the NSCN-K.

When the security forces have termed the army operations against the militants as a “turning point” in counter-insurgency in the Northeast, this also suggests the newfound camaraderie among the Northeast militant groups that has become a challenge to the state forces. The coming together of the four rebel groups at the initiative of the NSCN (K) and ULFA (I) and the quick demonstration of their strike potential means they are prepared to target the security forces.

The statements reflecting a tough peace policy by the Government, however, have so far been informal. These are expressed to media persons as replies to questions on the subject. The Government needs to come up with a clear policy statement in so far as its peace policy to send out a clear signal to the rebels in the northeastern frontier.