By Athul Menath
The North Eastern states of India – often referred to as ‘the Seven Sister’ states – have been affected by insurgency in varying proportions since the 1950’s. Although the root causes of insurgencies can be traced back to India’s chaotic partition and colonial history, these violent movements arguably have been sustained due to failures of the Indian state, including a lack of transparent governance and employment opportunities, as well as the support provided to militants by hostile neighbours .
Geography is also a big factor. Arunachal Pradesh borders Myanmar in the east, China in the north, Bhutan in the west, as well as the two insurgency affected states of Nagaland and Assam. Despite the absence of sustained high level violence or indigenous insurgency, this state has been adversely affected by armed conflicts in adjacent areas and has become the life line of militant movement in the region. According to Assam Director General of Police (DGP), Assam was facing militant threat from groups’ based out of Arunachal and Nagaland.
On February 1, Indian Security Forces (SFs) killed two militants of the independent faction of the United Liberation Front (ULFA-I) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at Shankapani in Changlang District of Arunachal Pradesh. Only a week earlier, on January 24, 2018, an Indian Army trooper of the 11 Grenadiers regiment was killed in a joint ambush by Coordination Committee (CorCom) of Manipur and ULFA-I, at Namsai District along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. This was the first SF fatality in more than a year. The last in state SF fatality was recorded in December 3, 2016 when two SFs were killed and eight wounded in Nginu village in Tirap District in a joint operation by Khaplang faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), ULFA-I and Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL).
The highest militancy-related fatality in Arunachal was recorded in 2001 with 63 fatalities, however between 2007-17 only three years recorded more than ten insurgency related fatalities.
* Militancy fatalities between 2000-18 (Source : SATP)
Significance and Spillover Threat
Arunachal Pradesh – which spreads over 83,743 square kilometres with a population of about 1.3 million – is a logistical hub for militants from adjacent states of Manipur, Assam and Nagaland. The militants use the state to cross over to the loosely governed Sagaing region of Naga Self-Administered Zone (NSAZ) in Myanmar, where at least 2,500 Indian militants are based.
The Tirap, Changlang and Longding Districts of the state share 520 kilometers of the 1, 643 Kilometers long porous border with Myanmar. According to security agencies, these Districts along with Nagaland’s Mon and Tuesang Districts have become the nerve centre of militant activity in the region. As of January 31, 2018, in the last ten years these five Districts accounted for about 313 fatalities.
Fatalities from five bordering districts of India (Source* SATP)
The three districts of Arunachal host militant groups such as NSCN-K, a reformation faction of NSCN (NSCN-R); the ULFA-I; the Saigora faction of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S); and CorCom. According to a Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) report, ‘several armed modules of ULFA-I either individually or jointly with CorCom are active in several locations….in Longding, Tirap and Changlang Districts.’ The notification also adds that the Assam-Arunachal interstate boundary continues to be used as hideouts and corridors for movement by militant groups.
NSCN-K, which abrogated the ceasefire agreement with the Indian Government in 2015, has been the predominant organisation in Arunachal Pradesh. With a plethora of groups present in the region, the possibility of one militant group attempting to gain dominance in the area remains likely, which may result in a spike in factional clashes. According to an intelligence official, NSCN-IM, which currently conducts peace talks with Indian Government and is also a rival to NSCN-K, has attempted to gain dominance and destabilize NSCN-K by propping up local proxy militant groups such as the Eastern Naga National Government (ENNG).
Arunachal Pradesh Police records from 2016 indicate that there were at least 80 cases of extortion and about 103 incidents of abduction. In 2017, the number of abduction cases stood at 106 and extortion at 75. A majority of these incidents are perpetrated by militant groups as means to generate funds. Moreover, Arunachal Pradesh is located adjacent to the ‘golden triangle’, one of the primary opium producing regions in the world comprised of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. According to a 2016 report, NSCN-R has reportedly been recruiting drug addicts across the opium belt of Arunachal Pradesh to broaden its extortion racket. Apart from Longding, Tirap and Changlang, Lohit and Anjaw Districts are notorious for opium cultivation. According to the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), Arunachal topped the list of states in illegal poppy production for opium during 2014-15. NCB officials also claim that illegal poppy farms are guarded by armed militia who are known to work with insurgents.
Shift in Centre of Gravity & Future of Violence
After Sheikh Hasina became the Prime Minister of Bangladesh in 2014, Dhaka cracked down on Indian insurgents based in the country, resulting in militant groups relocating to Myanmar’s Sagaing region. With this development, the ‘centre of gravity’ for the insurgent movement shifted to Myanmar. Union Minister for Home Hansraj Ahir stated that between 2015 and March 31, 2017, the Indo-Myanmar border witnessed a steady rise in insurgent activities, resulting in the death of 18 security personnel and 32 insurgents, as well as the arrest of 337 militants .
Other Indian militants groups such as PLA and ULFA-I have shifted their bases to Shan State in Myanmar bordering China’s Yunnan province. Chinese intelligence has reportedly renewed relations with some militant leaders. ULFA has established links with Beijing’s proxy in Myanmar the United Wa State Army (UWSA). Additionally, Chinese intelligence officers arguably favoured the constitution of UNFLWESA, a conglomerate of various groups . In 2017, ULFA-I issued a statement against the visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh.
Although the Indian Army has been able to keep violence contained in three Districts, rampant extortion, abduction and drug production highlight the inefficiency of the policing machinery of the state. The inefficient policing apparatus could also be an indicator of a possible deficiency in human intelligence, since the police is likely to have more local level contacts as they are indigenous to the area, unlike the Army. Consequently, intelligence-based targeted operations carried out at a grass root level also suffer.
The primary causality for the drop in insurgent violence can be attributed to the security cooperation extended by Dhaka, but the Indian counter insurgency strategy can only occupy a peripheral secondary position. With Myanmar becoming the primary base of operations for insurgent groups, the Arunachal Pradesh will play a vital role in strategy of Indian insurgent groups. In light of Beijing’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh, the supply of weapons to insurgents makes it a geopolitical issue rather than an internal security issue. The Indian government would do well to act accordingly.
Athul Menath is a security analyst at the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP). His focus is the Insurgency in Northeast India. You can follow him on Twitter @loner/56
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