Mainstream, VOL LIII No 36, August 29, 2015
An In-depth View of Resistance Movements in North-East India
Monday 31 August 2015, by
Rendezvous with Rebels, Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men by Rajeev Bhattacharyya; 2014; Harper Collins; pp. 311; price: Rs 399.
This is an extraordinary book which provides an integrated account of the author’s risky, exciting and adventurous 800 km journey (much of it on foot) in late 2011 from the State of Assam to eastern Nagaland in Myanmar (lasting three months and twenty days) and an un-blinkered analysis, based on interviews with the leading actors, of the main trends of insurgency in the region. The leading actors were Paresh Baruah, chief of staff of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), and S.S. Khaplang, Chairman of the of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-Khaplang faction). One admires the author’s courage, consistency and competence of narrative skill and depth of political understanding in the presentation of the major facts and issues involved in the varied conflicts in the North-Eastern region of India and western Myanmar. This review will focus mainly on the issues arising from the author’s interviews with the two leading actors, Paresh Baruah and S.S. Khaplang, both cooperatively and conveniently located near each other in eastern Nagaland today.
Paresh Baruah would appear to have invited the author and also arranged for his meeting with S.S. Khaplang. Given recent developments involving the Chairman and Chief of Staff of the ULFA, the former would have been happy for a conversation with a friendly journalist who could put things in perspective. The author agreed to abide by certain norms and conditions and confidentiality as regards place names, personalities and the precise route of the journey. The location of eastern Nagaland is indicated on a map on page VI of the book. Paresh Baruah had indicated to the author that he mention the venue of the interview was broadly eastern Nagaland though Khaplang, who had worked with insurgent groups of the North-East for over thirty years providing them crucial support and sustenance, had no hesitation in allowing the author to mention Myanmar as the venue.
In the author’s understanding, the ULFA faction (‘Independent’) led by Paresh Baruah, located in eastern Nagaland, and the NSCN faction (Khaplang) led by S.S. Khaplang would seem to be the most consistent fighters for independence in India’s North-East today. The ULFA emerged in 1979 with a belief that the path of violence alone made sense to the Government of India as had been seen in the Naga struggle before. The ULFA built itself up in the 1980s and became a powerful political force in Assam in the 1990s with a steady flow of funds and weapons. Driven out of Bhutan in 2003, it fell back on Bangladesh in a strategy which compromised with its basic principles. In 2005, it made a tactical move to obtain civil society support for the peace process so as to gain time for its other moves. (p. 186)
In 2008, the emergence of the India-friendly Awami League rule in Bangladesh led to the arrest of ULFA Chairman Rajkhowa and his colleagues who had taken refuge in Bangladesh and their handing over to the Indian authorities. Chief of Staff Paresh Baruah, however, escaped arrest and fled to the safety of eastern Nagaland in Myanmar, the haven of cross-country militant organisations. While the Chairman and his close associates felt compelled to agree to begin peace talks with the Government of India, Chief of Staff Paresh Baruah remained defiantly ‘inde-pendent’ professing loyalty to the original party demand for Assam’s ‘sovereignty’. The party Chairman and Chief of Staff had had differences and had not met for long. Paresh Baruah, it seems, was confident that he had the stamina to fight from the jungle despite advancing age. There were periodic reports of government shelling of the jungles in Myanmar but the option of a retreat to Bhutan, Bangladesh or Pakistan did not exist for Baruah.
The author blames the predominant military culture, borrowed from other similar organi-sations, for the many unjustified killings of innocents carried out by the ULFA cadres at the lower levels. This saw the military wing under Baruah strengthened and the political wing under Rajkhowa marginalised. The gulf between the two widened after the 2003 elimination from Bhutan. Baruah decided to prepare a new team for Assam’s ‘liberation struggle’. The author notes that while the Government of India claims success in arriving at peace deals with insurgent groups in the region, the conditions which give birth to insurgency have not disappeared. Currently, more than 70 outfits are active in the region with Manipur leading the show. The government’s focus is on short-term conflict resolution but the underlying alienation remains and extrajudicial executions by security forces and economic exploitation of Assam by the Government of India continue.
The extended conversation between Paresh Baruah and the author is contained mainly in chapters 4 and 5 of the book. Several key problems afflicting the ULFA are discussed. Baruah avers that Chairman Rajkhowa had given up on the foundational principles of the party while he himself held fast to them; that there is continuous new inflow new recruits to the party; that ‘proper panning’ would help deal with the undoubted difficulties arising from its changed location; that the party’s political base is not restricted to some communities and districts as alleged by some; that Assam’s rich natural resources makes it valuable for India and hence the heavy repression it inflicts on independence struggles; that every revolutionary movement goes through ups and downs; that recent events in the party have only strengthened it rather than weakening it. Baruah had made huge sacrifices for the party and led a simple life with no opulence. The ULFA had several camps in eastern Nagaland including two big ones. However, the author notes that Baruah had become less adamant in his views than in the past.
In chapter 5, the author, noting the arrival of a new consignment of arms and ammunition at the ULFA, states that it contributed to an increase in self-confidence on the part of Baruah. He discusses the important issue of arms and drugs trafficking in the region and states that a senior cadre of the Kuki militant group revealed that the retired officers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) acted as middlemen in the arms trade and had agents placed in Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong. Continuing his dialogue with the author, Paresh Baruah said that the ULFA is fighting for Assam’s independence from India and had its own specific historical background; it cannot be compared to other organisations such as the LTTE in Sri Lanka, the Maoists in Nepal, the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Irish Republican Army; ULFA had a tactical understanding with the Indian Maoists who, however, cannot displace the ULFA from its strongbase in Assam. Baruah dismissed talk of huge ULFA investments in Bangladesh; its alleged involve-ment in arms trade was ‘absolute trash’. Refusing to comment on the 2004 arms haul in Chittagong, Baruah said he had the responsi-bility to provide arms to his cadres for self-defence.The need for air power for the ULFA would be met by outsourcing the task to other agencies. On the issue of economic and political models for Assam after independence, Baruah said the model would have to be ‘scientific socialism’. Admitting some blunders in the past, Baruah ruled out any more bombings in Assam against indigenous communities. Talking about ‘secret killings’, he mentioned that some IPS officers had been responsible for the assassi-nation of the party ideologue, Parag Das, and that other unidentified people were behind the killing of the party’s publicity secretary, Mithinga Daimary. The British had been responsible for the influx of Bangladeshi Muslims into India threatening the identity of indigenous communities and ULFA would solve the problem after achieving independence for Assam, which was its ‘legitimate right’. (p. 157) Baruah lauded the role of civil society agencies but said that the killing of Sanjoy Ghosh in 1996 had been carried out by ‘lower-level cadres’ and had harmed the party’s work for the independence of Assam. The tribal groups in the State were being alienated by ‘religious fundamentalism’, a new feature in Assam. Baruah denied the growth of militarism in the party but said it was essential for party cadres to be acquainted with military culture and about the aims and objectives of the movement. Rajkhowa would have to resign from the party for advocating peace and for not pursuing the goal of sovereignty, which was not unattainable. He concluded by saying that the Government of India feared the ULFA which is the ‘sole obstacle to its turning of Assam into an unmitigated colony’. The ULFA had had its problems but would soon regain its lost position.
Interestingly, Baruah firmly believed that a war between India and China was inevitable and would likely take place around 2016-17. The provocation would come from the US and China would retaliate. This would provide an opportunity for Paresh Barua to create a new state in Assam just as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had created Bangladesh by exploiting the differences between India and Pakistan. The author concludes that although problems do remain, fresh recruits are joining and receiving training at the ULFA camp in eastern Nagaland and the other camps too are intact. Moves towards unity of all militant groups are underway.
Sangsang Sangnyu (S.S.) Khaplang (‘Baba’) of the NSCN-Khaplang group was among the trio of the leaders who had formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980, the other two being Thuingaleng Muivah and Isac Chisi Swu to fight for the independence of Nagaland from India. When Muivah and Swu began to compromise and begin talks with the Government of India, Khaplang—who believed in continuing the fight for independence—split from them and formed his own organisation NSCN-Khaplang group. Khaplang is now President of the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland (GPRN) based in eastern Nagaland. His discussion with the author is equally fascinating and long. Precise questions were asked about the current situation and these were followed by questions on the history of the Naga movement as a whole to which Khaplang provided detailed answers.
Khaplang was born in 1940. He converted to Christianity in 1958 as it would help unite the Nagas, get rid of superstitions and avert inter-village clashes. Since the year 2000, the group had an informal ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar Government, which helped the people live peacefully. It also helped like-minded revolutionary groups in eastern Nagaland and India’s North-East join forces. The North-East was never a part of India and forcefully integrated into the Indian Union. The Nagas had come together to fight for independence and sovereignty. All the insurgent groups have been brought together including seven from Manipur alone. Regarding the recent split in the Khaplang group, ‘Baba’ said that there was an attempt by the Indian intelligence agencies to sow differences within the group. This was not a power struggle.
Regarding the engagement of the NSCN-Muivah group with the Government of India, ‘Baba’ accused Muivah of betraying his comrades. He had moved away from the NSCN since 1988 when he was not invited to an emergency meeting. He said that Muivah would never get sovereignty for his people. Greater Nagalim within India was next to impossible. There would be a civil war in Manipur if integration of the Naga inhabited areas takes place.
Baba’s views on the important episodes of the Naga movement threw up interesting facts and perspectives, not known to the public. Hardly any research has been done on eastern Nagaland and very few journalists and researchers have visited the area. There are intricate inks between the two Naga regions. Further, Khaplang has recently arrived at a written agreement with the Myanmar autho-rities to keep peace in the region.
Chapter 7 on ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ investi-gates the ‘fractious politics and fragmented alliances’ of the several Naga groups, including especially the NSCN-Khaplang group in eastern Nagaland in Myanmar and the crucial role played by S.S. Khaplang in these developments. This is a neglected subjecteven in the great study by Bertil Lintner The Great Game East (2012). Though fascinating indeed, these developments cannot be examined here.
K.S. Subramanian is the author of two books on India’s North-East: Security, Governance and Democratic Rights: Essays on the North-East (Niyogi, 2014), and State, Policy and Conflicts in North-East India (Routledge, forthcoming, 2015).