Only after Independence and re-organisation of the States was a semblance of real Government authority and administration brought into these far-flung areas. This was strongly resented by the newly educated elite of the tribal societies, who construed the efforts of the Government as an encroachment on their tribal way of life and freedom. Thus, on the basis of racial, cultural and religious differences from the majority stock of the plains, insurgency in the NE India came into being.
Issues of ideology are by and large irrelevant to the insurgency movements of the NE region. The single predominant factor that has withstood the test of time in this regard is either ethnic (such as in Assam and Tripura) or tribal as in Nagaland. It has also been seen that, within a particular State, insurgency by one set of tribals raises its head, finds roots and spreads and then dies with an agreement with the Government. Thereafter, in the same geographical area, another lesser tribe/sub tribe undergoes the same cycle.
This in Mizoram, once Lushai insurgency came to an end, we have the Hmars up in arms. In the same manner, the Naga insurgency once spearheaded by the Semas has now passed into the hands of the Konyaks in Northern Nagaland and the Tangkhuls in Southern Nagaland and NE Manipur with the once dominant Semas and Angamis relegated largely to the side lines. Similar to the Bodos, the Karbi Anglongs of Assam are showing all the signs of the itch to raise yet another movement. Thus it is evident that even if, at the point of origin ideology had any role to play, in the long run it is the ethnic and tribal perceptions that truly matter.
The insurgency in our NE states first manifested itself in Nagaland and thereafter mushroomed to other areas. The insurgency in Nagaland has thus, in a sense, been an umbrella for all other insurgencies in the region. It is essential to know the historical context leading to these insurgencies.
The map of the NE has been altered with new lines drawn to recognise new political and administrative realities. The names of these entities have changed; the Naga Hills has become Nagaland, the Lushai Hills has changed to Mizoram and the North Eastern Frontier Agency, still known to many simply as NEFA, has become Arunachal Pradesh.
The jungles of SE Asia sweep down from Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh across seven other nations – Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Kampuchea, Malaysia and Vietnam-spanning political boundaries regardless of physical frontiers. Ethnic coalitions, oral traditions and lifestyles based on respect for nature have mattered more in these regions than frontiers. Here men and women, with common origins but different nationalities, share a racial, historic, anthropological and linguistic kinship with each other that is more vital than their links with the mainstream political centers, especially at Delhi, Dhaka and Rangoon, or Yangon, as it is known today.
It is this affinity that has played a role in the unrest and insurgencies that have long troubled the NE of India. Affinity and Identity; these, more than any other factors, have represented the principal compulsions that triggered the Naga, Mizo, Meitei, Tripuri and Assamese affirmation of separateness from the non-Mongolian communities that dominate the India subcontinent.
India’s NE is a misshapen strip of land, linked to the rest of the country by a narrow corridor just 20 kms wide at its slimmest, which is referred to as the “Siliguri Corridor”. This region has been the battle ground for generations of sub-national identities.
The anthropological composition of the inhabitants of North Eastern India presents a kaleidoscopic variety. Descendants of Aryan and Dravidian stocks co-mingle with the Indo-Burmese and Indo-Tibetan strains. Owing to its geographical isolation from the rest of India and the relative primitiveness of the tribal societies existing here, the region remained virtually cut off from the rest of India. From time immemorial till the near eclipse of the British Raj, and even to this day, this situation of isolation has continued in one form or the other.
To give a fair account of the feeling of non-“Indianness” of the tribal peoples, it is essential to understand that the phenomenon is more or less reciprocal with the rest of India being largely ignorant of the problems and privations of the peoples of NE India. One striking example of the psychological aloofness of the Indian people from this region is the massacre at Nellie in 1976. This incident in which over 3000 men, women and children were slaughtered in one go, could engage Indian media attention for barely two weeks.
There is now a perceptible change in attitudes. The sheer scale and intensity of the ongoing political violence in Assam and the resultant continuous media coverage has brought about a situation where the rest of India is now aware of the existence of the region. Similarly, the opening of roads and related means of communication in the region has served, in conjunction with the spread of education, to bring about an awareness of the rest of India. The veritable flood of Hindi movies and their popularity in the region have also assisted in no small measure in this slow but sure process of absorption in the Indian mainstream.
History of Insurgency
For centuries, western and central India witnessed the thunderous march of many armies. Some were led by plunderers who returned with the loot, and some by more ambitious warlords who stayed back to establish their dynastic rule. All through this, the northeastern region had remained by and large unaffected. Emperors in Delhi rarely set their eyes beyond the Gangetic plains and even the rulers in Patliptura did not find reasons enough to venture far into the east. Similarly, it was only their commercial interests in tea and oil that led the British into Assam. They too let the myriad tribal societies in the east continue with their old ways. In the wake of the Japanese invasion, some arterial road infrastructural facilities were created to sustain campaigning in Burma. By and large, however, the region remained undeveloped.
Ever since Independence, the people of the northeastern states have been restive. This is because these states, though they are rich in natural resources, have experienced little industrial or economic growth. Unemployment has caused frustration amongst the youth. Demographic changes threatened continuation of the special ethnic identity of these people as also their culture and traditions. To crown it all, this jungle covered mountainous terrain having porous borders with many neighbouring countries, provides an ideal setting for the growth of insurgency. Not surprising therefore, for the past over four decades the formations and the units of Eastern Command have remained heavily committed. Some facets of this gnawing threat from within, highlight the complexities of the Command’s task in hand.
The insurgency in Nagaland was the first one to begin and it set the tone for the others that followed.
In February 1947, it was formally announced that the British rule in India was to come to an end. Soon therafter, the Naga National Council (NNC) set down their demands for an interim Naga Government for a ten-year period. The matter could not be resolved despite many rounds of talks. Consequently, on 14 August 1947, Mr Z Phizo, who was then the most powerful spokesman of the Nagas, declared independence. He was arrested and was jailed for two years. Incidentally, he had been arrested earlier also for collaborating with the Japanese, and had been released only in 1946. Be that as it may, despite the government’s efforts to solve this vexed problem, the Naga secessionist demand for an independent state continued. By 1953, the hostile elements had become bold enough to attack policemen and to snatch away their weapons. By 1955, the Konyaks, a warring tribe, began resorting to attacking Assam Rifles personnel. In 1956, an infantry battalion was deployed in the area and it did well to quickly suppress the hostiles. With that commenced Eastern Command’s unending and ever increasing involvement in CI operations. Soon Phizo announced the formation of his ‘government’ and also started raising an armed wing. Initial cadres were armed with anything from muzzle loaders to assorted weapons left behind by the retreating British and the Japanese armies in Burma.
The growing activities of the hostiles led to the deployment of a brigade in Nagaland. The grouping of villages was attempted in 1957, as had been done in Malaya before, but was not persisted with. Years rolled by as the moderates held a series of parleys with the Centre while the underground Nagas stuck to their hostile ways. There was no let up even when Nagaland came into being as a separate state in 1963. In fact, the insurgents stepped up their activities when troops from Nagaland were pulled out during the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962.
8 Mountain Division was raised in 1963 to combat insurgency in Nagaland. The Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare (CIJW) School was established at Vairangte, Mizoram to impart pre-induction training to all the incoming units. Towards the end of the 1960s, 8 Mountain Division had well over thirty battalions under command, including those of the Assam Rifles and the other Central Police Organisations. They had notched up a series of spectacular successes as some of the gang leaders – self styled ‘Generals’ – and their gangs were intercepted. Thinning out of the troops for the 1971 operations gave a breathers to the insurgents once again.
Hardliners shunned the Shillong Accord of 1975 and the triumvirate of Swu, Khaplang and Muivah formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). It soon became the most powerful underground organisation in the northeast. Between 1980-86, over 300 security personnel are estimated to have lost their lives due to the NSCN ‘s militant activities. As a result, in February 1985, Headquarters 3 Corps was raised to ensure a more co-ordinated employment of all troops combating insurgency. Consequently, the formations of 3 Corps launched large-scale operations, in conjunction with units of the Myanmar Army, to gain the upper hand over the NSCN. By then, some cracks had begun to appear amongst the NSCN’s top leadership and the ensuing inter-gang rivalry in 1988 left the organisation disjointed for a while. However, the pulling out of troops of 8 Mountain Division for employment in Jammu and Kashmir gave them time to regroup yet again.
Thus, there have been many ups and downs during the long drawn out insurgency in Nagaland. The quantum of deployment of troops has increased steadily over the years. Army units have carried out endless cordon and searches of villages, interceptions and raids to maintain a strike rate higher than the insurgent’s ability to recoup. More importantly, formations and units of the Eastern Command have initiated many steps to win the hearts and minds of the people. The insurgencies in Mizoram and Tripura have also run a similar course. The undercurrents of frustration among the youth in the Mizo Hill Districts were akin to the ones in Nagaland. By the mid-1950s, the signs of discontentment and uneasiness were clearly visible. Besides, the ongoing activities in Nagaland had not escaped the attention of the Mizos. Matters came to a head, when, towards the end-1950s, relief measures for the famine hit Mizos failed to ease their plight. A voluntary organisation sprung up to lend a helping hand. Soon, however, under the leadership of La Denga, the organisation came to be known as the Mizo National Front (MNF) and went on to raise the demand for an independent state. With an easy access to the Chittagong hill tracts in East Pakistan, their hostile activities grew. Lal Denga was arrested in 1963 but was released almost immediately. By 1966, the MNF was in full cry and had raided a number of armouries and treasuries and a few far-flung police posts in the southern parts of Mizoram. These incidents led to the Army’s deployment and the launching of combing operations that forced the rebels to disperse and flee. The grouping of villages was undertaken with greater care and strictness. Soon, matters quietened and the Mizo hill district was given the status of a Union Territory.
In January 1975, the hostiles raised their head once again and, in a daring act, killed three senior police officers. The Army launched relentless operations yet again and by the year-end, had broken the cohesion of MNF hostiles for good. Consequent to a series of talks in 1976, Lal Denga gave up his demand for an independent state. The princely state of Manipur had formally merged with India in October 1949. As is usual, a small section of the people was against such a merger. Their leader, Irabot, died in 1951 and Manipur remained quiet for a decade and a half.
However, trouble started in a different form in the mid-1960s when the frustrated and the unemployed Meiteis objected to settlers coming to their state from elsewhere. Some of them decided to resort to violence and found their way to East Pakistan to seek help. That, however, came to an end with the liberation of Bangladesh. Thereafter, all the splinter groups in Manipur came together again to form the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) and commenced their efforts afresh to seek support from other underground outfits. Some of their emissaries even trekked to Lhasa to seek Chinese assistance. The end-1970s saw numerous killings, extortion and encounters as PLA members increased their hostile acts. The Army was called out and was soon gaining ground. Acting on a tip off, Second Lieutenant Pithawalla raided a hideout in July 1981 to kill seven top leaders and also to capture Bisheshwar, the PLA chief, with his trusted associates. This young and spirited officer earned a well-deserved Ashok Chakra (AC) – the highest peacetime award for gallantry. The hostile organisation had barely regrouped when in April 1982, the new PLA chief and eight of his associates were eliminated. However, quite contrary to the assessment of the Army and other intelligence agencies, the PLA was to emerge yet again.
For two good reasons a scan of insurgency in Assam is merited. Firstly, being the entry point for the entire northeastern region, happenings in Assam have wider ramifications. Secondly, unlike other insurgencies of this region, the one in Assam also has an urban touch and a degree of technical sophistication.
For long the people of Assam have harboured the feeling of being exploited. They also strongly resent the ‘foreigners’ since these outsiders have gradually taken over the control of the civil administration and business in the state. In the 1970s, there were a series of agitations and the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) emerged as a forceful party. In April 1979, a secessionist organisation came into being. It raised its banner at Rang Ghar in Sibsagar where Ahom kings used to witness tusker fights. Misguided cadres, acting against the ‘exploiters’, soon acquired a Robin Hood image. They had swanky motor cycles, moved about in urban centers and frequently made long distance calls to remain in contact. They knew the power of the media and they had learnt to use improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 did nothing to curb hostile acts. Soon they are indulging in weapon snatching, kidnapping and killings. In November 1990, Assam was declared a disturbed area and the Army was called out.
The situation soon came back to near normal and the Army returned to the barracks in May 1991. However, misguided cadres were soon back to their errant ways. More outfits jumped into the fray. The Army was called out yet again in September 1991. In the next four months it delivered severe body blows to insurgency in Assam. The army operations were then suspended as insurgents agreed to come to the negotiating table. As it turned out, under the pretense of the peace talks, the insurgents leadership was, in fact, buying time to recast its future course.
In the northeast, there are over 15 underground political organisations. Only four or five out of these are really active. Some amongst these are beset by gang rivalry. Internecine quarrelling among themselves continue for the control of tribes, geographical areas and for overall say in the affairs of Nagaland. Manipur faces similar factional fights which have claimed many lives. The entire situation has been further complicated by recent trends in ethnic strife.
Kuki-Naga clashes have been going on since 1991. In Assam, many violent acts of ethnic cleansing have been committed.
The complexities of insurgency in the northeastern states notwithstanding, for over forty years, Eastern Command and its formations have dealt with a vitiated internal security situation with a firm yet patient and understanding hand. Restrained and the minimum necessary forces was always resorted to, that too when it was unavoidable. Successive commanders at all levels have always sought to reduce the Army’s presence and primacy so that other organs of the state attend to the root causes of the insurgency. All through these years, the troops have operated under trying conditions – no rules apply to the hostiles – to adhere to the stipulated regulations and not to violate human rights. Many officers and men have laid down their lives to bring peace to these troubled states. Above all, it is commendable that not once in the last four decades have the officers and men of the Eastern Command ever been faulted for their apolitical stance and absolute impartiality. Indeed, they also deserve to be commended for much else that they have done for the people of the region.