The Naga insurgency and the ‘idea of India’

The Naga insurgency arose out of Naga nationalism which focused on the sovereignty and territoriality of the Naga people. Naga nationalism was suppressed brutally by independent India. The long and painful saga of the Naga struggle for independence is well recorded. In 1963, India granted statehood to the Naga people but the demand for independence did not vanish. Peace moves initiated by India during the 1950s and ‘60s had only limited impact.

The Naga insurgency is the oldest and most powerful insurgency in India today. Bertil Lintner, in his perceptive book Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier, 2012, says that the Nagas were the first in independent India to challenge the ‘idea of India’ —  a concept which preoccupies elite scholarship in India today.

After a prolonged struggle, Naga insurgents are now divided into two main groups: the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (greater Nagaland) or NSCN-IM led by Isaac Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah and NSCN-K led by SS Khaplang who does not want to dilute the original demands, namely sovereignty and territoriality.  The former group, now willing to function within the Constitution of India, is in secret peace talks with government of India. The latter is excluded from the talks ostensibly because Khaplang is not an Indian citizen but a domicile of Myanmar.

Nagaland militant group

Nagaland militant group

Moreover, there is pressure too from the rival group as well to keep him out. The Khaplang too had signed a ceasefire agreement with the government of India in 2001 and would have liked to be part of the dialogue process but has now reneged from the agreement. His group seems to have become today the most powerful group among the Nagas of India and Myanmar. The impact of the exclusion of Khaplang from peace talks was seen in the June 4 devastating attack on the Indian army convoy in Manipur mounted by the NSCN (K) and two Manipuri groups of insurgents.

The ‘surgical strike’ on June 9 by the Indian army on the Myanmar-based Naga and Manipuri militants has had a controversial and contradictory impact followed by  warnings from sections of the Indian media and politics to those who nurture terrorist groups to attack India, which means Pakistan. On  April 17, 2015, it set up in ‘eastern Nagaland’ (the Sagaing Division of Myanmar), a new and expanded group of militants with the support of the Paresh Baruah-led rebel Assamese group and the Naga and Manipuri insurgent groups christened United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA). The ill-conceived move to exclude the Khaplang group from the negotiating process, possibly on the advice of Indian intelligence agencies and the rival Naga militant group seems to have backfired politically with devastating consequences for the future of peace in Northeast India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a bid to hasten the resolution to the Naga problem, has given a push to the negotiating process with the NSCN-IM group, which seems to be moving towards a solution. The June 4 attack on the Indian army convoy by the NSCN-K was a big blow to the negotiating process. The June 9 retaliatory “surgical strike” in Manipur and Nagaland by the Indian army against the Khaplang-led militants inside Myanmar has sent a wrong message to India’s neighbors, especially Pakistan.  The jingoist jubilation by sections of the Indian public, media and government has not gone down well. The Myanmar government too has indicated its unhappiness diplomatically but in no uncertain manner.

India seems to be waging a “war against itself” in its sensitive and strategic Northeastern region. The region, surrounded by China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, is also enmeshed in multinational systemic crime networks of espionage, terrorism, arms trafficking, drug trafficking and money laundering with explosive possibilities. To avert charges of human rights violation, the Indian army needs urgently to address concerns about the number of persons killed in its “surgical strikes” across the Myanmar border. Lack of clarity about the number of persons killed; the manner of disposal of the dead bodies; and the intimation if any of details of events to the state governments of Manipur and Nagaland where the actions took place is worrying. “Collateral damage” from army actions could further alienate the already alienated local population and derail implementation of developmental programs especially the government’s Act East policies and the ‘NER Vision 2020.’

Speculation exists over whether China has had a hand in the formation the new militant political agency the UNLFWSEA masterminded by SS Khaplang. Journalist Rajeev Bhattacharyya,  after a visit to the NSCN (K) camps in the Sagaing Division of Myanmar has provided in his book Rendezvous with Rebels, 2014 an accurate picture of the strength and activities of the group. His fascinating and frank discussions with the NSCN leader SS Khaplang are full of indispensable insights.

Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to China and his meeting with President Xi Jinping has failed to generate positive vibes on the settlement of the Sino-Indian border dispute. The developing strategic ties between India and the US are a matter of serious concern to China, which has duly responded by strengthening its own strategic ties with Pakistan.

Indian intelligence agencies seem to have failed to assess adequately the importance the NSCN (K) and its leader for the resolution of the Naga problem in the Northeast. The government of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, the nodal agency for the development of the Northeast and its Research and Policy Division had the responsibility to analyse and interpret security-related intelligence reports. The winding up of the Division some time ago has deprived the ministry of its crucial instrument for policy analysis independent of intelligence agencies. This has led to the failure of the ministry to develop an adequate policy response to the Naga problem. The ‘idea of India’ seems thus further diluted and weakened in India’s Northeast.

Kadayam Subramaniam was Director General of Police in Northeast India. He is an author and writer and was Director of the Research and Policy Division of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi.

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