India's Northeast, troubled by decades of militancy and ethnic extremism, has seen dramatic improvements in the prevailing security scenario over the past years, with a multiplicity of enduring insurgencies weakening considerably, disintegrating or seeking peace through negotiated settlements with the Government.
Trends in fatalities for the Northeast demonstrate sustained and dramatic improvements, from a recent peak in insurgency-related fatalities across the region, at 1,051 in 2008, collapsing to a total of just 247 fatalities in 2011.
In its year-end review for 2011, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs described the year as one of the most successful in terms of bringing rebel groups to the negotiation table in India´s northeastern states.
The most significant recent improvements have been witnessed in Assam and Manipur, the two States in the region that accounted for the overwhelming majority of recent fatalities.
In Assam, the SATP database recorded a 39.87 per cent decline in militancy-related fatalities, from 158 in 2010, to 95 in 2011. More importantly, a 27 per cent drop was registered in civilian killings in 2011 as compared to 2010, indicating considerable improvement in the general security situation. 45 militants, 35 civilians and 15 Security Forces (SF) personnel, were killed in 67 incidents in 2011, as against 98 militants, 48 civilians and 12 SF personnel, in 100 incidents, in 2010.
Nine fatalities had been recorded by SATP in 2012 [Data till March 25], as compared to 26 fatalities in 2011 during the same period. 2012 fatalities included seven militants and two civilians. There has been no SF killing this year.
21 militant groups remain present in Assam, with existing armed cadres, though many of these are under various processes of negotiation with the Government. Of these, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland - Ranjan Daimary faction (NDFB-RD) and the Karbi People´s Liberation Tigers (KPLT), were responsible for most fatalities in 2011.
The various ´active´ militant groups in the State which retain armed cadres include [A groups is categorized ´active´ if it has been involved in any incident (including extortion, intimidation, arrests, shootings, abductions bomb blasts, encounters, fratricidal clashes, etc.) over the preceding two years].
United Liberation Front of Asom - Pro Talks Faction (ULFA-PTF): The ULFA-PTF signed a tripartite Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with the Central and State Government on September 3, 2011, after declaring a ceasefire on July 13, 2011. The first formal talks with Central Government were held on October 25. 496 militants belonging to ULFA-PTF are located in seven ´designated camps´.
ULFA-Anti Talks Faction (ULFA-ATF): Paresh Baruah and Abhijeet Barman head the ULFA-ATF, which has an estimated surviving strength of some 225 to 250 militants. The group´s leadership and principal cadre strength is currently located in camps in Myanmar. ULFA-ATF continues to carry out occasional terrorist attacks in the State.
National Democratic Front of Bodoland - Pro Talks Faction (NDFB-PTF): NDFB-PTF signed a SoO agreement on May 25, 2005.
Talks with the formation remains in a very early stage. The group has demanded the replacement of the present interlocutor, P.C. Haldar, a former Director of the Intelligence Bureau, by a politician from the Northeast. The outfit has recently come out in public demanding a separate Bodoland State within the Indian Union. 936 NDFB-PTF militants are staying in three ´designated camps´ in the State.
NDFB-RD: NDFB-RD declared an indefinite ceasefire on August 1, 2011, but Security Operations against the group have continued. Daimary and other top leaders of the group had been arrested in Bangladesh in 2010, and were handed over to Indian authorities.
The Central Government has appointed P.C. Hadar as the interlocutor with the outfit and informal meeting between Halder and Daimari have taken place in Guwahati Jail. The group´s strength is estimated at about 325 to 350 militants.
Dima Halim Daogah - Nunisa faction (DHD-N): The group signed a SoO on January 1, 2003. The talks with the formation have hit a roadblock over its demand for incorporation of additional villages of the Districts of Cachar and Nagaon with Dima Hasao District. 512 DHD-N militants are staying in four ´designated camps´.
Jewel Garlosa faction of DHD (DHD-J)/ Black Widow (BW): The group lay down arms on September 2009. Peace talks with the outfit are close to completion according to Government sources. 440 DHD-J members are staying in four ´designated camps´.
United Peoples Democratic Solidarity (UPDS): UPDS signed a tripartite accord on September 25, 2011, with the Centre and State Government.
Karbi Longri North Cachar Liberation Front (KLNLF): The group lay down arms on February 11, 2010. Talks are on, but the issue of ´Karbi self rule´ remains the roadblock to resolution. The group isdemanding the status of a State within a State. 288 militants of the KLNLF are staying in three designated camps.
Karbi People´s Liberation Tigers (KPLT): KPLT has an estimated strength of about 60 to 70 armed cadres and has been involved in frequent acts of violence.
Hill Tiger Force (HTF): A militant outfit of the non-Dimasa hill tribes in Dima Hasao District, was formed following the ethnic clashes among the Dimasas and the Zeme Nagas in the NC Hills District in 2009. The group suffered major setbacks. Specifically, on November 13, 2011, SFs arrested nine HTF militants, including its ´commander-in-chief´ Benjamin Jaolin Zaute and ´finance secretary´ Alex Thiek, from the deep jungles at the Hmar village of Arda under Harangajao Police Station in Dima Hasao District.
Seven militant formations - the Adivasi People´s Army (APA), All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA), Santhal Tiger Force (STF), United Kukigam Defence Army (UKDA), Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA), Kuki Liberation Army (KLA) and Hmar Peoples Convention-Democratic (HPC-D) - lay down arms on January 24, 2012.
Two Muslim militant formations remain active in the State: Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) and Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM). MULTA has an estimated 60 cadres while HuM is reported to have some 40 armed cadres.
The Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) has also made inroads into the State.
In addition, there are many smaller outfits operating in certain pockets. They include: Liberation Democratic Council of Mising Land (LDCMS), a rebel formation in Lakhimpur and Jorhat Districts; United Tribal Liberation Front (UTLF); the United Tribal Revolutionary Army (UTRA); Dimasa National Liberation Front (DNLF); Bodoland Royal Tigers Force (BRTF); National Dimasa Protection Army (NDPA); and Gorkha Liberation Army (GLA).
Manipur also recorded a steep decline (52.89 per cent) in the number of overall fatalities from 138 in 2010 to 65 in 2011. The number of civilian and SF personnel killed has, however, remained more or less the same. Militant fatalities have registered a sharp drop of 74.03 percent from 104 in 2010 to 27 in 2011.
47 encounters between SFs and militants were recorded by the SATP database in 2010, while just nine were registered in 2011. Fratricidal clashes between the National Socialist Council of Nagaland - Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) and the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) - a breakaway faction of the NSCN-IM - became very prominent in the State after the latter´s formation on February 25, 2011.
The early months of 2012 give cause for rising concern, with 42 fatalities recorded by March 25, 2012, dramatically higher than the previous year´s figure of 16 fatalities over the same period. The 2012 fatalities included 22 militants, nine SF personnel and 11 civilians.
CorCom - an umbrella organization of seven Valley-based militant groups - which called for a boycott of the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) during the recently concluded Assembly Elections, was responsible for the largest number (10) of attributable fatalities this year, with the NSCN-IM following (7).
There are 15 active groups in Manipur, while some of these groups have a number of factions. The Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), for instance, is known to have more than 12 factions.
The most significant active groups in the State include:
CorCom - The ´Coordination Committee´ comprising seven militant outfits, including the KCP, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), People´s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), PREPAK - Progressive faction (PREPAK-Pro), Revolutionary Peoples Front (RPF), United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and United Peoples Party of Kangleipak (UPPK).
The committee had banned the Congress from contesting the recently held Assembly elections (January 28) in Manipur.
The ban failed, and the Congress won an overwhelming majority of 42 out of the State´s 60 Assembly constituencies.
UPPK - The former Chinglemba Mangang group of PREPAK re-incarnated itself under a new identity, the UPPK, with its armed wing Kangleipak People´s Army (KPA). The party with its armed wing was founded on November 6, 2008.
NSCN-IM: The Naga formation, which has been engaged in extended peace talks in Nagaland, seeks the inclusion of Naga dominated areas of Manipur in its projected ´Greater Nagalim´, and has been involved in continuous mobilization of the Naga tribes in the Manipur hills, as well as in some violent operations in this State.
Meghalaya has bucked the broad trend of improvement in the Northeast, registering an increase in insurgency-related fatalities from 20 in 2010 (in 11 incidents of killing), to 29 in 2011 (in 13 incidents of killing). More worryingly, civilian fatalities nearly quadrupled, from three in 2010 to 11 in 2011.
This is the first time since 2003 that fatalities among civilians have reached double digits. Similarly, the State recorded double-digit fatalities among the SFs for the first time since 2002, with 10 fatalities among SF personnel in 2011, as against none in 2010. In fact, it was on December 7, 2008, that a trooper had last been killed in the State.
Meanwhile, militant fatalities declined, with eight killed in 2011, as compared to 17 in 2010. 2009 had recorded four insurgent fatalities.
Meghalaya has already recorded 10 fatalities in year 2012, including nine civilians and one militant [until March 25].
There are two active groups in Meghalaya, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) and Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA). GNLA remains the most potent threat in the State and is responsible for most casualties.
HNLC has expressed interest in initiating talks, but has alleged that the Meghalaya Government was ´not sincere´, and warned that it would, consequently, continue its ´armed struggle. Groups like the Liberation A´chik Elite Force (LAEF) and Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) remain dormant.
LAEF ´chief´ Nikseng G. Momin had been killed on December 2, 2010, while the ANVC had entered into a cease-fire with the Government on July 23, 2004. On October 11, 2011, the tripartite cease-fire agreement between the Centre, State Government and the ANVC was extended by another year, effective from October 1, 2011.
At least 50 persons were killed and eight injured in 16 fratricidal clashes between Naga militant formations in 2011, both within and outside Nagaland.
In 2010, the number of persons killed in just two such incidents was two. Insurgency related fatalities within Nagaland have increased from just three in 2010 to 15 in 2011. More worryingly, seven civilians were killed in six incidents in 2011.
There were no civilian killings in 2010. The last civilian killing before the spike in 2011 was reported on July 23, 2009. While the number of militants killed increased to eight in 2011, from just three in 2010, there has been no SF casualty since May 11, 2008.
In 2012, Nagaland has already recorded 18 fatalities [until March 25], including 16 militants and two civilians. The NSCN-Khaplang (NSCN-K) suffered a split in June 2011, with the Khole-Kitovi group forming another faction. The maximum fatalities in 2012 are due to fratricidal clashes between the two outfits, NSCN-Khole-Kitovi and NSCN-K.
There are five active groups in the State: the NSCN-IM, NSCN-K, NSCN-Khole-Kitovi, NSCN-Unification and the Naga National Council.
Tripura recorded just one militancy-related fatality in 2011, as against three in 2010, a remarkable contrast with the 514 fatalities recorded in 2000, when terrorism was at its peak in the State. National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) was responsible for the single fatality in the State in 2011.
An October 20, 2011, Police report indicated that 74 people, mostly tribals, were abducted by militants in Tripura in 2011, as against 114 and 121 people in 2010 and 2009 respectively. One militant fatality has been recorded so far in 2012.
There are two active militant groups in Tripura:
NLFT: After a series of splits suffered by the NLFT, only the Biswamohan faction of the group (NLFT-B) remains active. It has, however, suffered a severe loss in cadre strength. The group continues to operate from Bangladesh, with occasional strikes against civilian targets, principally abductions for ransom, across the border into Tripura. The State Government estimates the cadre strength of the outfit at approximately 150.
All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF): Two factions, headed by Ranjit Debbarma (ATTF-RD) and Sachin Debbarma (ATTF-SD) have been decimated, and have a minimal surviving strength based in Bangladesh. The Sachin Group has reportedly joined NLFT. The combined strength of the ATTF is currently estimated at no more than 10 to 12 militants.
A two-decade long insurgency in Mizoram ended in 1986, and peace has held since. Occasional incidents, principally the result of overflows from neighbouring States, or of unresolved issues relating to refugees populations, still occur.
According to the SATP database, Mizoram recorded a single fatality (civilian killed by the Assam-based UDLA) in 2011. No fatalities have yet been recorded in 2012. There were no fatalities in the State in 2010, and one in 2009.
The important militant groups with a presence in Mizoram include the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF), which surrendered in 2005, and is currently in negotiations with the Mizoram Government for the repatriation of Bru refugees, currently housed in camps in Tripura; and the Hmar People´s Convention-Democracy (HPC-D), which entered into a Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with the Government on November 11, 2010 for six months.
The SoO expired on May 11, 2011, and was not extended by the Mizoram Government on the grounds that the HPC-D was violating SoO ground rules. The HPC-D continues to demand the formation of separate Hmar Territorial Council in the north eastern part of the State. Peace talks with the outfit were supposed to start in January 2011. However, the Government has refused to resume talks on the grounds that HPC-D has involved a foreigner, a US citizen (Rochunga Pudaite), as interlocutor.
There is no major indigenous insurgency in Arunachal Pradesh, though an ´overflow´ from neighbouring Nagaland has resulted in regular fatalities in this State as well. According to SATP data, the State recorded 41 fatalities during the year 2011, up from none in 2010. All 41 fatalities were militants.
The State recorded three major incidence of killing during the year. There were no militancy-related fatalities in the State in 2010, while 2009 had recorded nine militant fatalities.
Arunachal Pradesh has already recorded two (militant) fatalities in 2012. Significant groups operating in the State include the NSCN-IM and NSCN-K, as well as the Arunachal Naga Liberation Front (ANLF), which was formed in May 2010. The ANLF, however, formally merged with NSCN-K on June 19, 2011.
The broad positive trends in the security environment in India´s Northeast are, however, tainted by a number of emerging factors, including a number of crucial and potentially disruptive ´externalities´.
For one, an Intelligence Bureau (IB) note reportedly indicates that the idea of a Strategic United Front, designed to bring a number of terrorist groups in the Northeast and in Jammu & Kashmir under a single umbrella, has been chalked out by China, to launch what has been described as ´synergised attacks in India´.
The Manipur-based People´s Liberation Army (PLA) has elaborated this vision of evolving a ´Strong United Front´, along with CPI-Maoist and Kashmiri militants, backed by Pakistan´s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and China.
The PLA has claimed that the ´United Front´ so formed had been promised ´Chinese support´, but only after the militant conglomerate had secured cadre strength of ´over 30,000´. The PLA also declared that it would extend support to Myanmar´s insurgent groups in days to come.
Militant groups in India´s Northeast have also created linkages with other insurgent groupings in India, most prominently the CPI-Maoist. The CPI-Maoist has already signed an agreement with the PLA of Manipur.
Sources also indicate that the ULFA-ATF was imparting arms training to Maoist cadres in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh.
An MHA internal note warned of a new ´Red Terror Corridor´ along the Assam-Arunachal border, and indicated that the Maoists had started making extortion demands on local villagers in this area. In a March 14, 2012, report, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) confirmed that the CPI-Maoist was making inroads into Northeastern States. Reports also indicate that PLA cadres had travelled to Jharkhand to provide weapons´ training to Maoist recruits there.
The most significant, potentially destabilizing, externalities, however, include accelerating foreign interventions in the region, particularly by China and Pakistan.
Pakistan has, of course, supported insurgencies in India´s Northeast since the commencement of the first Naga insurgency in 1951, providing insurgent groups safe-haven and support in what was then East Pakistan. After the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, this support became difficult for a brief period, till the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in August 1975 restored certain pro-Pakistan element to influence in Bangladesh.
Over time, a strong alliance was built up between Pakistan´s ISI and Bangladesh´s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), and full support was restored to Northeast Indian insurgent groups, through Bangladeshi soil, in operations jointly controlled by these agencies.
On March 14, 2012, former ISI Chief Asad Durrani admitted, before a three-member bench of the Pakistan Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary, that the notorious agency had continuously intervened to support the insurgencies in India´s Northeast.
Intelligence agency cooperation between Pakistan and Bangladesh, however, went into a gradual decline under the interim military-backed Government between 2006 and 2008, and finally terminated under the Sheikh Hasina Government, with the arrest, hand over, or expulsion of most Northeast insurgent leaders and cadres, over the past three years.
With the loss of Bangladesh as a staging ground, the ISI has now shifted its strategy.
Intelligence sources indicate that the ISI has sought to extend its support to insurgent groupings in India´s hinterland - implying efforts to establish links with the Maoists - and to deepen its engagement with groups such as Paresh Baruah´s ULFA-ATF and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO). The KLO is now believed to have emerged as one of the principal weapons´ suppliers to the Maoists, in turn, sourcing its own supplies from ULFA-ATF.
A January 11, 2012, news report cited intelligence sources to claim that the ISI ´recently´ spent over INR 200 million towards supplying arms to militant outfits in Assam, and through these, to the Maoists. Stockpiles of sophisticated weapons were transferred in two installments through the Kalishara area of Bangladesh, and handed over to militant outfits of the Northeast.
Separately, between April and November 2011, the Tripura-based NLFT received a consignment of weapons in the Pheni (Feni) area on the Indo-Bangladesh border; the NDFB-RD received weapons at the border near Sylhet; the Garo rebel outfit GNLA collected its consignment at the Sherpur border area; the ULFA-ATF at the Haluwaghat border area; the NSCN-IM at Moulavibazar; the KLO at the Charonmola and Maheshkhali border areas.
The handing over of weapons is reported to have been supervised by ISI agent G.K. Choudhury.
Earlier, on August 9, 2011, Shasadhar Choudhury, ´foreign secretary´ ULFA-PTF had disclosed, "Pakistan´s ISI trained ULFA. In 1991, I was part of the first batch of ULFA members to go to Pakistan for training in small arms, including main battle rifles."
Media reports of January 9, 2010, cited a ´senior Bangladesh Minister´ to allege that former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf had a secret meeting with jailed ULFA leader Anup Chetia during a visit to Dhaka, when the then Premier, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was in power.
With the loss of Bangladeshi safe havens, several of the surviving insurgent formations in the Northeast have moved into, or increased their presence in, Myanmar.
ULFA-ATF, headed by Paresh Baruah, is reported to be located in the Taga Area in Myanmar, in close contact with the leaders of the Manipur-based groups, as well as with the Khaplang faction of NSCN (NSCN-K). The ´commander-in-chief´ of the anti-talk faction of the NDFB-ATF, I.K. Sangbijit, along with several hardcore members of the outfit, are also believed to have moved closer to the Taga area.
On November 22, 2011, the Central Government formally confirmed that several militant outfits of India´s Northeast, including ULFA-ATF, NDFB-ATF, and both the NSCN-IM and NSCN-K had established camps in the Sagaing Region, and States of Chin and Kachin, in Myanmar.
The shutting down of Bangladeshi safe havens for India´s Northeastern insurgents has pushed the surviving groups together in their last foreign refuge in Myanmar, ready for picking by the Chinese. While the Chinese role in mobilizing these elements in an anti-India strategy remains shadowy, it is given substance by patterns of the flow of small arms into India.
Several Manipur-based militant formations, including the PLA, UNLF, PREPAK and KYKL, have arrived at a mutual understanding to seek Chinese support.
Crucially, the CPI-Maoist has made no secret of its objective of extending the "people´s war throughout the country", and plans to fill up the emerging vacuum in the Northeast have long been afoot. These efforts have gained greater momentum because of the Maoists´ search for a reliable source of weaponry.
The Northeast rebel groupings offer access to smuggling routes through Myanmar and Bangladesh, and a new flood of Chinese small arms appears to have been released into the region.
News reports indicate that intelligence sources, in September 2011, noted, "ULFA´s Paresh Baruah faction recently received a huge cache of arms from China and there were serious apprehensions in the intelligence and security establishments that the outfit may sell these weapons to the Maoist. as ULFA has struck an alliance and has assured them of a steady supply of arms and ammunition."
Official sources also indicated that "ISI and PLA are in touch and supplying Maoists with arms. They are supposedly using China as the alternative route."
There has been a steady procurement of arms by Northeast militants from China over the years, especially from its Yunan Province, through the India-Myanmar border.
This arms supply is propelled by a major modernization drive in the Chinese Army, resulting in the release of vast quantities of old weapons, some of which are being offloaded to arms dealers in the grey market. Weapons, including AK series and M-15 rifles, LMGs, and ammunition, discarded by the Chinese Army, are good enough for militant groups.
The managers of Chinese State-owned weapons´ establishments are reportedly involved in this clandestine arms supply. According to February 21, 2010, news report, nearly 80 per cent of weapons seized or recovered from militants in the Northeast in recent years have the ´star´ mark, indicating Chinese manufacture, on them.
In an analysis of the Asian weapons black market, Jane´s Intelligence Review observes that the United Wa State Army (UWSA) rebel group in Myanmar acts as the "middleman" between Chinese arms manufacturers and insurgent groups in India´s Northeast, with most weapons routed through China´s Yunnan province.
Some quantities of weapons´ supplies to militants in the Northeast are also being sourced from various other countries.
A number of weapons recovered from the ultras in recent times were of German, Italian and Israeli manufacture. These were also brought into India mostly through Myanmar, and it is believed that Dimapur has become a hub for transaction of such weapons by the militant groups. Sources of weapons recovered in the Northeast have also been identified as including Pakistan, Belgium, Thailand, Russia, USA, UK, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar.
The involvement of Northeast militants with external agencies is visible in wide and variable indices. Growing linkages abroad, as well as between various insurgent groupings within the region, and with the Maoists, as well as the easy acquisition and inflow of arms into the region, give significant cause for concern, despite the declining indices of current violence.
(The writer Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management & SATP)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)