Understanding insurgents

Print edition : March 04, 2016

S.S. Khaplang, NSCN(K) chairman, at a Bihu celebration in the ULFA camp in Myanmar's "Eastern Nagaland" region. Photo: COURTESY: RAJEEV BHATTACHARYYA

The ULFA “chief of staff”, Paresh Baruah, at a camp of the outfit in “Eastern Nagaland” in Myanmar. Photo: COURTESY: RAJEEV BHATTACHARYYA

The book portrays the intricate mechanics of insurgency, where the participants’ interests and stakes are varied.

AT a time when journalistic agenda across the country is increasingly being determined by editors sitting in television studios, it is heartening to read Rajeev Bhattacharyya’s Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey To Meet India’s Most Wanted Men. The book recounts the author’s adventurous journey through one of the most treacherous and difficult terrains in Myanmar to interview some of the most elusive and wanted separatist rebels of north-eastern India.

As a journalist specialising in the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and insurgency, the author had made repeated attempts to visit the organisation’s camps in Myanmar. He finally succeeded in convincing the ULFA “chief of staff” Paresh Baruah. And on the specific order of Baruah, a group of ULFA cadres escorted the author to the camps across the border. Bhattacharyya was accompanied by Pradip Gogoi, a journalist who worked for a local news channel. The journey to Burma and back lasted three months and 20 days.

Divided into eight chapters, the book provides a vivid narrative of the journey, describes the political situation prevailing in eastern Nagaland and concludes with the politics in media houses that almost endangered the life of the author and his colleague. In the first chapter, “On the Trail”, the author dramatically narrates how he managed to escape death when he tumbled down a hill on the very second day. The reader is then informed about the efforts he made to meet and cultivate Baruah, who was inaccessible to the media then. The author says a breakthrough was achieved when Baruah agreed to meet him although the venue of the meeting was not disclosed. Obtaining the consent of Baruah for an interview at that time was no mean achievement for a journalist. Until Bhattacharyya’s interview with Baruah, the ULFA chief had remained an enigma. In fact, even the intelligence agencies had no idea how he looked at that time as only three photographs of Baruah had appeared in the media at regular intervals. There were rumours that he was suffering from a serious illness. There were reports that he had survived several attempts on his life and one news report even mentioned that he was injured sometime in the late 1990s. But the photographs provided by the author in the book dispel these myths. Baruah was not only hale and hearty but exercised regularly and even played football.

What is endearing about the book is that in spite of the fact that the author is at the centre of the narrative, he does not portray himself as a hero. Rather, his vulnerability is evident right from the beginning of the journey. There is no dramatisation of events. The narrative has been woven from the diary jottings of the author. In fact, the plain narrative imparts authenticity. Yet, the story is gripping and the book reads like a thriller. It combines the excitement and anxiousness of adventure sports with a deep understanding of rebel politics in the region. The author poses some tough and uncomfortable questions to Baruah, and the latter’s answers to some of them provide a different perspective on the ULFA’s military and ideological tactics. It would, perhaps, not be wrong to say that Baruah’s tenacity and military tactics have helped sustain ULFA even in the face of brutal military offensives and large-scale surrender of cadres.

The Nagas

However, what I found most interesting is the depiction of Naga life in the hills and rebels in camps deep inside a valley. The account succinctly sums up the relationship between the local people and the rebels and their interdependence. Sakhan, for instance, is a sort of forced labour in which able-bodied residents of villages are made to carry the luggage of the rebels from one village to another. The author describes the prevalence of opium consumption among different Naga tribes and narrates some amusing incidents relating to it. The anecdotal tone of the narrative is sure to entertain the reader. The description of a visually impaired woman who walks perfectly in a patchy terrain along with her grandson shows the hardiness and spirit of endurance of the Nagas. Bhattacharyya provides a deft illustration of the workings of the different stakeholders and power groups in Myanmar and the constant power struggle among the armed groups in the region in which the Myanmarese army is a formidable factor. The local inhabitants survive and coexist with the armed groups amid this tussle.

It can be gleaned from the book that Baruah was eager to give an interview to the author. He had sent a senior and trusted aide to receive Bhattacharyya and his colleague across the border in Nagaland. Baruah perhaps wanted to show himself as capable of regenerating the organisation at a time when support was dwindling. When the author embarked on the assignment in October 2011, the pro-talks faction of the ULFA headed by its chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, had already submitted a charter of demands to the Central government. The talks had begun in February and the Centre had also expressed its willingness to take the process to its logical conclusion. Rajkhowa was accompanied by all the senior leaders of the ULFA who had been apprehended in Bangladesh and were later handed over to India. There was an impression that the anti-talks faction would no longer be able to carry on with the campaign for independence. But Baruah appeared confident and even said, in the interview, that the organisation would only emerge stronger after the exit of the moderate leaders who were never committed to the movement. (Interestingly, a consignment of European weapons comprising assault rifles and pistols arrived when Bhattacharyya was in the camp. The book carries photographs of these weapons.)

After Bhattacharyya’s return from Myanmar, Baruah started giving more telephonic interviews to the electronic and print media. Even videos showing him performing Bihu (the Assamese folk dance) with his colleagues in the camp were despatched to the media. But Bhattacharyya’s interview with Baruah remains the most elaborate and authentic one by far, although the author could have asked some more questions. Some of Baruah’s replies are a repeat of the answers he had given in the past during telephonic interviews. Baruah also avoided answering some ticklish questions, perhaps to ensure that his long-term interests are kept intact. His desire to know more about the people back home, particularly the changes taking place in society, showed he was cut-off from the ground reality in Assam. In guarded responses, Baruah has shared some memories and information with the author about his childhood, family and the initial years of the ULFA. What is striking is his poor understanding of the national and international situation. Baruah is firm in his belief that a war between India and China is inevitable and imminent. He even believes that the provocation would come from the United States, and China would retaliate by invading India. He hopes the ULFA would seize the opportunity to liberate Assam when that happens. This seems quite far-fetched given the current trend of geopolitics in the region. This proves beyond doubt the intellectual bankruptcy in ULFA, which is one of the reasons why the outfit’s journey has gone downhill after it reached its peak in the late 1980s.

Khaplang’s control

Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the political situation and the Naga movement for independence. S.S. Khaplang, who was recently in the news after the Indian government abrogated the ceasefire with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang faction), is considered the godfather of the region. Unlike Baruah, Khaplang is forthcoming and candid. His confidence stems from his absolute control over, and support, of the Naga populace in the northern region of Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, which is contiguous with the eastern districts of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. In his interview to the author, he has dropped quite a few bombshells, which are contrary to reports published and telecast in the media in the past decade or so. Khaplang reveals that he arrived at an informal understanding with the Myanmarese army in 2001 and that this resulted in peace in the region. Gone are the days when the army would raid the villages, indulge in loot and plunder and leave a trail of death and destruction. No wonder New Delhi’s repeated requests to Nay Pyi Taw to eliminate the insurgent camps and facilities have fallen on deaf ears. One gets a clear picture of the reasons why Myanmar refuses to take on the Naga rebels.

The account of the Naga region since Myanmar’s independence in 1948 is exclusive. The author has gathered the information from documents published years ago in Nagaland and Myanmar and through interviews with Naga rebels. For instance, he says factional clashes between the rebels and internecine wars among the villages have left hundreds of people dead within a span of a few hours. Such incidents remained unreported since there was no access to the region.

Journalists have, on several occasions, managed to reach the camps of Kachin and Karen rebels in Myanmar surreptitiously from China and Thailand. Many books have been written on the Kachin and Karen conflicts and the movement spearheaded by the Communist Party of Burma, which had almost toppled the regime in Yangon.

But there were areas in Myanmar, such as the Sagaing Division and Chin State, which had escaped the attention of journalists and researchers probably because of their inaccessibility. To date, information is scarce on the movement for independence spearheaded by the Chin National Front.

The chapter titled “Missing in Action” talks about the anxiety the author’s relatives suffered back home after reports appeared in the media that he had been apprehended by the Myanmarese army, and about the politics at the newspaper he worked in and its subsequent closure. The personal enmity between the editor of the daily and the author, leading to the leakage of information about Bhattacharyya’s assignment to Myanmar, gives a biographical touch to the narrative and distracts the reader from the original theme of the book. This apart, the narration in the first person is often too formal. But many a time, the author breaks the monotony of a linear narrative by using dialogue, and this imparts a fictional flavour to the writing. He is quite successful in keeping the reader’s attention—the events seem to unfold in front of the eyes of the reader.

The book is a must-read for those who are interested in studying the insurgency in India’s north-eastern region and in Myanmar. It is undoubtedly exclusive and exciting. There is a plethora of literature on insurgency in the north-eastern region written with inputs from intelligence agencies, but they obfuscate the issues and do not throw new light on the subject. Rendezvous with Rebels, in this respect, is a new and much-needed departure for understanding insurgency politics.

Unlike most travelogues, the book has eight pages of endnotes, which reveal the sources of information. What emerges from the book is the intricate mechanics of insurgency, where the participants are human beings whose interests and stakes are varied. Most importantly, it shows how armed rebellions thrive and survive in the realm of people’s everydayness.

Uddipan Dutta is a researcher based in Guwahati. He is at present associated with the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor