A BLEEDING SHOULDER – INDIA’S NORTHEAST

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The Kashmir insurgency having taken centre-stage for many years now, the insurgencies of the Northeast no more occupy significant spaces of newsworthiness. Nevertheless, they aren’t dead as yet, lingering on preventing the region from going full steam on the road to development. This is an attempt to trace the histories of these insurgencies until 5 years ago when this study was undertaken. Nothing has changed drastically since then, with the insurgencies still existing or claiming to exist, with the formal burials yet to take place. Even the one notable development of the Government of India entering into a peace accord with NSCN (IM), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muviah) in 2015, is yet to draw any dividends because the exact terms of the accord are yet to be made public and implemented. This is the first episode of a blog serial on the various ethnic insurgencies of the North-East.

1 Nagaland – A Dream Gone Sour

Any history of the present-day insurgencies in India must necessarily commence with that of the Naga movement, which had its genesis in pre-independence India as early as 1918 when an elitist organization called the ‘Naga Club’ was formed at Kohima by a few educated Nagas to promote their tribal interests. From this ostensibly benign happening, which proved a catalyst for the Naga aspirations for a separate homeland – that owed a lot to the British policy which kept the Naga Hills isolated from India’s national mainstream – to find voice, to the Naga National Council (NNC), the overtly political organization formed on the eve of India’s independence, turning the flag bearers of the cause, form the early part of the Naga story. The firebrand Naga leader, Angami Zapu Phizo (radicals led by him went so far as to declare the ‘independence’ of Naga Hills on 14 August, 1947), taking over as the president of the NNC in 1950 and the fermenting of the trouble that followed till it burst out into an all-out conflict by the middle of that decade marked the initial phase of the insurgency.

Though Phizo fled the country to exile in London (where he lived thereafter till his death in 1990, directing the movement in absentia), and the state of Nagaland was created by the Union Government in 1963, the insurgency continued unabated for entire two decades that formed the bloodiest period of Naga insurgency; while the government tried to combat the menace with its armed might shored up by various legislations. In 1975 the Union Government and a major faction of the NNC leadership signed an accord at Shillong whereby the latter agreed to work for a solution within the framework of the Indian Constitution, which bought a certain amount of reprieve.

Soon however the insurgency underwent a twist with the leadership splitting into pro and anti accord factions. The staunch followers of Phizo, not willing to compromise on the Naga independence, broke away from the NNC and formed a new organization that called itself the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980; which, with its larger following, soon made the NNC more or less redundant. However its own top leadership composed of Isak Chishi Swu, Thuingaleng Muivah and S. S. Khaplang, suspicious of each other’s complicity with the Government of India, split within a decade; resulting in a lot of bloodletting and the formation of two factions, one led by Isak and Muivah (NSCN-IM) and the other under Khaplang (NSCN-K). While the internecine feud between these two factions – that continue till today – has taken some heat off the security forces, the civilian population continues to suffer from the extortionist activities of the insurgents to raise funds.

Through the 1990s NSCN-IM, the staunchest exponents of Naga independence, garnered the largest following and emerged as the most powerful group. This also happened to be a period when the entire Northeast had been gripped by a spate of insurgencies, with several ethnic movements that had sprouted in the 1960s and 70s gaining ground. The situation came as a godsend for the NSCN-IM, which went on to widen the scope of its anti-India strategy, aided and abetted by interested foreign powers like China (which had supported the NSCN from the time of its inception), Pakistan and to a lesser extent even the US. With its longer experience of guerilla warfare and better access to arms and funds, it took upon itself to motivate, train and support the various dissident groups, aiming to get the whole of Northeast to break away from the Indian union, which would indeed accelerate the cause of Naga independence.

In the event, all that it achieved was a lot of turmoil and bloodshed, with none of the insurgent groups ever proving capable of notably impacting the relentless war of attrition the security forces were waging against them. The sufferers in the bargain were the civilian population, which the insurgents claimed to represent, since the armed forces often went about their job rather ruthlessly, leading to collateral damage. And the insurgents never missed an opportunity to exaggerate such instances for maligning them. Most insurgent groups, including the NSCN-IM, were hardly committed to a cause or following any ideology. None of them enjoyed any kind of support from within the society at large either. In effect they were just wayward youth drawn into the misadventure by the lure of the loot and freebooting, and more often than not gave it up and surrendered meekly to the army or the paramilitary when the going got tough.

Ironically, even as the various insurgencies that the NSCN-IM backed were causing mayhem across the Northeast during the 1990s and into the new millennium, Nagaland itself remained comparatively peaceful. The Naga insurgency began losing it momentum anyway from the 1970s when splits began to appear in its leadership. What the last four decades have witnessed by way of insurgency in Nagaland is more of factional fighting between the various groups – and the rampant extortions – rather than any aggression against the state institutions.

As a result of the ‘tax’ collection and extortions the present-day rebels have lost the public sympathy. This is in stark contrast to the popularity their predecessors enjoyed at the beginning of the insurgency. Notwithstanding the suffering caused to the ordinary people caught in the conflict between the army and the insurgents (the army burned down the villages suspected of harbouring insurgents and the insurgents burned down those that did not support them), by and large the fighting was limited to the jungles where the insurgents countered the army’s combing operations by ambushes; both sides accusing each other of brutality to those captured. That was indeed the ugliest phase of the Naga insurgency. Yet, the ordinary people, especially women and children, appeared to have been spared from the atrocities. The Naga code of ethics does not permit harming women – whom they hold in high esteem – and innocents. The bombing campaigns the present-day terrorist groups indulge in never formed a part of the Naga strategy. That they treated the Indian Air Force officers they took prisoner in the early stages of the insurgency – whose plane they shot down – as POWs according to the Geneva Conventions is a known fact. In fact, even at the peak of the insurgency army ambulances could move around Nagaland safely, and in the rare instances when the families of some armed forces personnel visited the area they were never harmed. In fact the ‘mainland Indians’ who perpetrate so much of crime against women could learn a lesson or two, not only from the Nagas, but from men of the whole of Northeast who invariably treat their women with decorum.

Mercifully, the violence in Nagaland is on a steady decline since 2008. With the other insurgencies also showing signs of wearing out (most have given up the sovereignty demands and falling back for autonomy of their regions, and many of the militants are plainly surrendering), the NSCN-IM’s anti-India designs do not seem to make much of a headway. In any case its programme for unification of the various ethnic movements is beset with contradictions because of the conflicting demands they make on each other. NSCN-IM’s own ‘Greater Nagaland’ – ‘Nagalim’ as it’s named – proposal, which calls for all the Naga-inhabited areas to be merged with the present Nagaland, brings it into direct conflict with Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh since many of these areas come under these states, besides those that fall within Myanmar.

Even diluted proposals – like one contained in a bill passed by the Nagaland Assembly – to find a solution within the framework of Indian Constitution, which calls for the merger of some contiguous areas of other states – mainly Manipur – to Nagaland are meeting fierce resistance. Manipuris who are themselves sworn to their independence from India – a separate story that is to follow – are in no mood to give up any part of their state to Nagas or anyone. A highly explosive situation is already brewing across the border areas between Nagaland and Manipur, as highlighted by the civil unrest that broke out in 2010 when the NSCN-IM leader, Muivah, tried to visit his native village which falls within Manipur. The Naga youth have tried to choke Manipur time and again by blockading NH-39, Manipur’s sole road link with its railhead at Dimapur. Killings and counter killings between Naga and Manipuri insurgents have become commonplace.

The Government of India entered into separate ceasefire agreements with both NSCN-IM and NSCN-K during 1997 and 2001 respectively and talks with the former have been going on on a continuous basis ever since, but a final solution still eludes, compounded by the internal divisions among the Nagas themselves. The irreconcilable issue of Naga sovereignty, which the NSCN-IM is not prepared to give up, remains the chief hurdle (It is believed to have accepted the condition of the states’ boundaries not being altered as per the accord signed in 2015, going by the skeleton information since released by the GOI).

Peace initiatives were afoot within Nagaland from as early as the sixties. Almost the entire population of the state being Christian, the Baptist Church has always been able to play an active role in these efforts. Notwithstanding the hundreds of lives still being claimed by the internecine war between the insurgents, there is a groundswell for peace among the Naga people. While their tribal councils have been trying to persuade the warring groups to bury the hatchet, ‘Gaon Buras’, the village elders, and ‘Dubashis’, the chiefs of Naga customary courts, in many districts have taken up the drive for peace in a big way by organizing mass rallies, asking the insurgents to stop the violence. The church-led Forum for Naga Reconciliation has been holding a series of meetings to bring together the different groups – it held one in May 2012 in Thailand. Leading civil society organizations and various women’s and students’ groups – like the Naga Hoho and the Naga Mother’s Association – are working tirelessly to bring about lasting peace, not only in Nagaland but in the entire region. They have been reaching out to various ethnic communities and civil society groups all over the Northeast to achieve this end – the best hope of salvation in the current scenario, since the political class, by and large, seems stuck in a limbo.

The Government of India on its part is maintaining laissez-faire attitude about the internecine clashes between the insurgents, calling it a law and order problem, which is a state subject; whereas the Nagaland Government sees it as a ‘political problem’ between ‘India and Nagaland’, implying that the issue of ‘Nagalim’ is not dead as yet. In November 2009, Nagaland Assembly went so far as to pass a resolution formally recognizing the insurgency and the ‘sacrifices for the Naga cause’ made by the rebels.

To get down to the brass tacks, neither the centre nor the state government is sincere about finding a solution. For the state government, insurgency is a milch cow that yields rich regularly in the form of central funds, and for the centre complacency is an easier option than taking hard decisions. And with money to play around everyone except the people gets a piece of the cake. Corruption – championed by a nexus between the politicians, criminals who parade as insurgents and the business community – is the menace that Nagaland is engulfed by, not insurgency which is practically dead; however much the interested parties may claim otherwise. It is ironical that the Nagas who chose the path of insurgency to protect themselves from exploitation by outsiders are being plundered outright by a horde of greedy businessmen from all over India helped by equally greedy locals. The lion share of the funds the centre pumps into Nagaland for development is funnelled out this way or goes into the pockets of the high and mighty of the state.
Meanwhile the internecine feud continues, with both NSCN-IM and NSCN-K splitting into further factions. Between 2000 and 2012, there had been a total of 814 insurgency related fatalities recorded within Nagaland; that of 617 militants, 182 civilians and 15 security personnel.

[To be continued. Next: Manipur – The Subjects of a Lost Kingdom]

Capt. D P Ramachandran
Capt D P Ramachandran is a war veteran & military history enthusiast who writes about Indian Army’s battles of the past. He can be reached at captdpr@gmail.com
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