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OPINION / ANALYSIS

Northeast India: Identity Assertion and Ethnic Tension

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Maitreya Buddha Samantaray
January 18, 2008

Northeast India has earned a dubious distinction of being home to Asia's longest running insurgency. Geo-strategic locations of the region surrounded by Bhutan and China (Tibet) in north, Myanmar in east and south and Bangladesh in south and west and approximately 4000 square kilometres of porous international borders further accentuating the security threat. For the last two months, the intensification of insurgency incidents has put a question mark on the various security efforts in Northeast region.

Security has been intensified around nine regional airports in the region since January 3 in view of the possible aircraft hijacking plan of the insurgent group- United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Intelligence report indicates hijacking will be used by ULFA as a bargaining tool to release its imprisoned hardcore front ranking leaders. Relatively peaceful North-eastern state Meghalaya has been on alert since 22 December 2007 following an e-mail allegedly sent by Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) terrorist group threatening explosions in the state capital, to avenge the atrocities perpetrated by cadres of the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) on the Punjabi population settled in Punjabi dominated Sweepers Colony in Shillong.

Sensing the volatility of the Northeast region, the Union government organised a security review meeting recently in Nagaland's main commercial centre, Dimapur. Interestingly, the venue is the headquarters of the insurgent group, National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) and has been considered as the crime hub of the northeast. Even dynamites and explosives meant for the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) were sold to civilians in the area. Meanwhile, review of counter-insurgency operations and security arrangement for the ensuing elections in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura in February/March were high on the agenda of the meeting.

The forthcoming elections in three States have a wider ramification and possibility of insurgent attacks can’t be ruled out. Glaring example was the recently concluded three phase local body elections in Assam (31 December 2007 to 9 January 2008). Violent clashes at Goalpara that has claimed eight lives, Election Commission’s decisions to hold fresh elections in 170 polling booths and polling officials reported refusal to carry out their duty citing security reason endorse the vulnerability. The Union government has promised to dispatch 170 additional companies of the Central Para-military Forces (CPMF) for restive Tripura assembly elections. Election in Nagaland is bound to evoke violent clashes in the wake of simmering discontentment arising out of the imposition of President’s rule in the state from 4 January. Opposition parties had recently organised state-wide daylong strike and blocked traffic in National Highway 39. Latest political imbroglio in Nagaland has the potentiality to adversely affect the ongoing peace process between insurgent outfits that had gained significant momentum under the Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio’s tenure. Although, election in Meghalaya is not a matter of serious concern for security agencies, but the presence of four active insurgent groups and problems arising out of the frequent demonstrations and blockade may pose a challenge. On 7 January, Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) organised massive demonstration in Shillong over the government’s decision to hand over six major Hydro-power projects to private parties. Subsequently, prohibitory orders were clamped in the East Khasi Hills district following the KSU call for two days of office picketing.

Most part of the region is severely grappling under security related tensions arising out of insurgents, aggressive indigenous groups and Islamic militants. The emergence of several Islamic militant groups in Northeast like that of Islamic Sewak Sangha [ISS], Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA), the People's United Liberation Front [PULF) etc and their ability to strike accord with the region's dreaded insurgent outfits including that of ULFA pose a major security threat for the region. There were reports that several insurgent outfits including ULFA had plans to attack the `North East India Investment Summit’ at Guwahati. Talks between the Indian government and the ULFA failed in 2006, after which the rebel group resumed surprise terror attacks against security forces and civilians. Violent protests demanding Scheduled Tribe (ST) status by six ethnic communities viz, the Tea tribe, Tai-Ahoms, Chutias, Motok, Moran and the Koch-Rajbongshis have created serious law and order problem in the recent past in Assam. Tribal ethnic group, All Assam Muttock Yuba Chhatra Sammelan (AAMYCS) had launched series of oil field blockade last month.

Insurgent’s extortion demand recently compelled the employees of the 17 United Bank of India (UBI) branches to shut down operations from 8 January in another insurgency hotbed Manipur . The incident occurred three days after parents withdrew their children from the hostels of a government school in West Imphal, following a similar extortion threat. Meanwhile, security forces have been engaged in intensified combing operations in the southeastern border areas in Dingpi Gamkai and Chandel. Although, Union government gained success in striking deal with eight lesser active insurgent groups in September 2005, but none of the major outfit like the United National Liberation Front(UNLF) and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) have shown any inclination for dialogue.

Although, intensified operations against the rebels have significantly reduced the operational capabilities of the rebel groups in Tripura, which in early 2000 was branded as an abduction hub of the Northeast region, stray insurgency-related violence do occur regular intervals in the relatively volatile western and southern districts of the state. It seems political clashes have overpowered insurgency related violence in the state. Recently on January 7, a crowd supported by the opposition Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), burnt down 12 houses of the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxists (CPI-M) leaders over the killing of an innocent tribal youth by security forces at Tuichakma village in the Kalyanpur region of West Tripura district.

Chinese territorial claims in Arunachal Pradesh have been constant bone of tension in Sino-Indian relationship. Presence of insurgent groups like the East India Liberation Tigers’ Front (EILTF), the NSCN-IM particularly in Changlang and Tirap districts of the state and problems of Chakma and Hajong refugees have been a major security concern. Mizoram is perhaps the only state in the region which can claim to have abandoned insurgency. However, criminal activities such as the trafficking of illegal arms and ammunition through the porous borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh do occur frequently.

Widespread malpractices in the state machineries and administration’s permissive attitude towards unjustified demands of the insurgents, including of extortion have hampered the developmental initiatives in the region. The prevailing conditions fuel the insurgency apparatus to flourish in the region without any hindrances. The nation-building multicultural ethos has come into conflict with societies and communities in the region who perceive themselves as tiny but distinctive nations.

Maitreya Buddha Samantaray is a Delhi based Security Analyst