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Insurgency in Northeast India: Changing Times, Changing Tactics


Arunav goswami
researcher, Centre for Development and Peace Studies

The separatist rebel groups in the Northeast are changing their tactics to continue their battle against the Indian state. Sending demand notes through text messages from cell phones, hiring persons outside of their organization to plant bombs, setting up bases in different parts of the country to carry out their extortion activities, with Bangalore and Guwahati being the most favourite base, and involvement in clandestine arms dealings in the South Asian illegal arms market are among the major changes in tactics made by the insurgent groups of the region.

Text messages have become the latest medium used by insurgent groups in the Northeast to send in their demand notes. Extortion has always been rampant in this insurgency-driven region and business concerns and individuals receiving demand notes from insurgent groups is a common phenomenon here. But sending demand note through text messages is quite new in this region. The method is simple: Sit in a hideout and demand money through text messages from cell phones. The names in which the mobile numbers are registered are mostly fictitious names and therefore, there is very little chance of being caught by security forces. This method was first employed by Meghalaya’s Garo hills-based insurgent outfit, Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) formed by former Meghalaya police official Champion Sangma in 2008. Now this method has caught the fancy of other outfits too.

The extortion methodology adopted by rebel groups has also changed a lot over the times. Let us take the case of Assam. In Assam, ULFA earlier used to hand deliver extortion demand notes through their cadres. Those demand letters were mainly sent to big businessmen, tea planters or to corrupt government officials and concerned large amounts of money. However, now the outfit had expanded its target range and has started collecting money from whatever source it can. It has started demanding small amounts of money from the common people and as the amount demanded is not quite big, people try to settle the matter without involving the police. There are also reports with police that ULFA rebels were even forcing villagers to donate bicycles and motorcycles besides mobile phone handsets and SIM cards. ULFA has also started sending monetary demands through text messages from cell phones to businessmen and government officials residing near the Assam-Meghalaya border, where 109 battalion of the ULFA has a considerable influence. A recent case is that of M.D. Arengh, the block development officer of Resubelpara in East Garo Hills, who had received such a text message in October 2010, demanding Rs 5 lakh. The text was sent in the name of Dipar Rabha, a cadre of ULFA’s 109 battalion.

In the Bodo heartland of Assam, the anti-talk faction of the NDFB is involved in widespread extortion. Its extortion network covers tea plantations, businessmen, government officials and even the simple villagers. Kidnapping for ransom was also a way of earning money for the NDFB, though such incidents were less in the initial years. But slowly it increased the number of abductions and till now in 2010, the anti-talk faction of the NDFB was involved in 23 cases of abduction in which 28 persons were taken hostage. So it shows that the outfit has now included kidnapping also its major source for generating funds.

In Manipur, the extortion network of the various insurgent groups operating in the state is spread over all the nine districts, including four in the Valley and five in Hill areas. Places of worship, educational institutions, health centres, commercial establishments, and the civilian population are all under the extortion net of the insurgents. There are incidents of closure of educational institutions and private hospitals due to the extortion demands of the insurgents.

In the initial years of their formation, all the insurgent groups in the Northeast sought money in the form of donations for their social activities but soon these were gradually transformed into extortion demands. The initial targets were the politicians, the bureaucrats and the businessmen. Soon the extortion net spread over to cover the government employees and small traders also. They began to impose ‘tax’ on various activities. In Manipur and Nagaland, cashiers of different government departments were directed to deduct certain percentages according to the rank of the official, and pay the amount to the insurgent outfits.

There has been another tactical change in the operational method of the insurgents. Earlier, while the extortion drives were on, the senior level leaders were present at that region. Now that has changed. They set up base at another place and carry on their extortion activities from there. The arrest of 20 militants of various Manipur-based rebel groups in Guwahati during the past six months is a proof of that. They are carrying on their extortion drives in Manipur while using Guwahati as a base.

Even Bangalore, a place far away from the Northeast, is now being used as a base by the insurgents. In June 2008, four activists of ULFA were arrested in the Hennur locality of the city. In September 2008, two sympathisers of Manipur’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were picked up by the police. On June 18, 2009, Roshan Ali alias Anees, leader of the People’s United Liberation Front (PULF), a banned outfit in Manipur, was nabbed and on June 4, 2009, Jewel Garlosa, chief of the Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel faction), Assam, was arrested from a farmhouse in Bangalore along with his two aides. In late 2009, six members of another banned militant organisation - People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) of Manipur -- were nabbed by the Bangalore police. In October 2010, Bangalore police nabbed Nisha Daimary, a top leader of the NDFB, along with two others. Nisha was in-charge of mobilising funds for the outfit and she used to make extortion calls to businessmen in Assam from Bangalore.

The extortion drives of the insurgents are still going strong in the Northeast. Most of these insurgent groups depend on extortion money to purchase weapons to run their military campaigns against security forces and for their other activities. Some of the insurgent groups have tried to earn money through other means like drug trafficking, making pornographic films and arms smuggling but still, extortion is the main source of income for them.

The terror tactics of the insurgents have also undergone changes through the years. In Assam, ULFA used to carry out hit-and-run strikes on security forces. Then it changed its tactics. It went for triggering explosions in crowded places. Though such incidents by ULFA have dwindled since the arrest of its top leadership in later part of 2009, it is still its mode of attack. Also, now ULFA rarely uses its regular cadres for such strikes. Someone outside the organization is hired for planting the bomb by paying out money. In that way, the outfit do not lose their cadre even if the person entitled to plant the bomb is caught by security forces.

The anti-talk faction of the NDFB has also taken the same stance of carrying out bomb explosions in crowded places. The biggest such explosion it carried out was on October 30, 2008 in four places of Assam leading to the death of nearly a hundred people besides injuring over 300.

ULFA and NDFB have also made another change in their attack tactics. They are now using their female cadres to carry out bomb attacks. The loss of too many male cadres during the last few years may have led the outfits to use this new tactic.

The insurgent outfits are also modernizing their weaponry. They are now acquiring more sophisticated weapons. The recent arrest of Anthony Shimrey, the head of “Foreign Affairs department” of the NSCN (I-M) in October 2010 has brought into light many facts about arms procurement by the northeastren insurgent groups. According to sources, the Chinese army, as a part of its modernization drive have dumped huge number of weapons and different militant groups of India are now using those weapons. Anthony Shimrey was one of those involved in procuring such weapons. Those weapons were also sold to outfits operating in the region like ULFA, NDFB, ANVC, HNLC as well as to other smaller militant outfits. ULFA ‘Commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah is also supposed to have set up base in Yunnan province of China and being involved in arms dealing. Some reports suggest that even Indian Maoists are procuring arms from Paresh Baruah.

The security forces in the Northeast have been fighting with the insurgents over a long period of time. The counter-insurgency operations by the security forces have yet to get the desired results in the region. With the tactical changes that are being made by the insurgent groups, the task is becoming more difficult for the security forces. They have to keep track of the changes made by the insurgents in order to remain ahead of them in the game. The counter-insurgency strategy also needs to be continuously upgraded keeping in mind the tactical changes made by the insurgent groups in their operational methodology. The insurgents are surely to keep changing their tactics according to the ground situation and the security forces need to be ready for that.