In no mood for peace

Print edition : December 25, 2000

Large parts of northeastern India continue to be in the grip of extremist violence.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI in Kohima and Guwahati

DESPITE the counter-insurgency operations under the joint command of the Army, the paramilitary forces and the police, northeastern India continues to be in the grip of militancy. On November 29, an attempt was made on the life of Nagaland Chief Minister S.C. Jamir by extremists. Jamir escaped unhurt, but two of his 14 security guards were killed in the ambush, which took place 35 km from Kohima.

Jamir's seven-vehicle convoy came under heavy firing. After a shoot-out that lasted about 30 minutes, Assam Rifles jawans rushed to the scene and whisked Jamir away to Medziphema. The blasting of improvised explosive devices which were planted on the hil l along the road set off a minor landslip. It is suspected that the militants had planned the blasts in order to create road-blocks so that the Chief Minister became an easy target.

Although no militant organisation has claimed responsibility for the attack, the outlawed National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah), which had made three attempts on Jamir earlier, is suspected to be behind it. Jamir told Frontline: "I have no doubt about that. NSCN(I-M) extremists have been trying to eliminate me for several years. This time they had made massive preparations. They set off a series of explosions and fired at my convoy from three sides. They were armed with automatic weapons. They had a camp on top of the hill, below which the ambush was made."

The NSCN(I-M), however, denied involvement in the incident. N.G. Hungshi, "information and publicity secretary" of the "People's Republic of Nagaland", the NSCN(I-M)'s "parallel government", said that the attack must have been carried out by forces inter ested in scuttling "our ongoing peace negotiations" with the Centre. "We may have had clashes with the Khaplang group of the NSCN and other rival underground outfits; we are not interested in attacking anyone else. The NSCN (Khaplang) controls the area w here the ambush was made," Hungshi maintained.

The Union Home Ministry described the incident as an attack on the peace process and the aspirations of the people of Nagaland. In a statement issued in New Delhi, it said that the attack was carried out by an underground group but did not name the NSCN( I-M).

Jamir described the Home Ministry's stand as "most unfortunate", especially since it was "absolutely clear that the NSCN(I-M) ultras had attacked me". Giving an account of the incident, he said that the NSCN(I-M) had carefully planned the ambush. (Nagala nd was carved out of Assam in 1963 after a decade-long turmoil, which culminated in the signing of a 16-point agreement between Naga leaders and the Centre. Jamir is one of the signatories to the agreement.)

Shortly after the attack, the Assam Rifles sealed the office of the NSCN (I-M)'s ceasefire monitoring cell in Dimapur. The Army directed the organisation to vacate the office by November 30. With this, the 27-month-old ceasefire agreement between the NSC N(I-M) and the Centre remains suspended. Activists of the NSCN(I-M) claimed that they had contacted K. Padmanabhaiah, the chief intermediary of the Centre, but failed to get his approval for the resumption of the cell.

Assam Rifles officials maintained that there was no option but to seal the monitoring cell as the NSCN(I-M) was "grossly misusing" the facilities provided to it. The office became the de facto headquarters of the organisation and extortion, abduct ion and intimidation were organised from there, they said. Leaders of the NSCN(I-M), who are underground, said in a statement: "If the Government does not restore the ceasefire monitoring cell at the earliest, we would be compelled to sever all ties with the Government of India at all levels."

G.K. Pillai, the joint secretary in charge of the northeastern region in the Home Ministry said that the Government had no intention to abrogate the ceasefire agreement. He, however, warned that action would be taken if the NSCN(I-M) continued to violate its provisions. Pillai disclosed that a meeting had taken place in October between V.S. Atem, the former self-styled commander-in-chief of the NSCN(I-M), and Home Ministry officials in New Delhi. He did not subscribe to Atem's argument that inter-group wars had "nothing to do with the ceasefire". According to the Centre, the ground rules of the ceasefire stipulate that the NSCN(I-M) must suspend operations against "all" its rival factions in general and the NSCN (Khaplang) in particular. The Isaac-Muiv ah group insists that the ground rules only prohibit attacks on security forces.

The NSCN(I-M) is the main interlocutor in the peace dialogue, which was initiated by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and carried forward by his successors H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral and now by A.B. Vajpayee. The talks resulted in the declaration of a ceasefire on July 25, 1997. The ceasefire has been extended several times, but the peace process has not moved forward. Several rounds of talks have been held between the Centre's emissaries and NSCN(I-M) leaders T. Muivah and Isaac Chisi Swu outside In dia.

Nagaland Chief Minister S.C. Jamir.-

Muivah, also the "Prime Minister of the People's Republic of Nagaland", claims that the ceasefire agreement was to cover all Naga-inhabited areas, including parts of Manipur and Assam, and not just Nagaland. Further, the NSCN(I-M), he says, was opposed t o the participation of the NSCN(K) in the peace process. As the Centre did not agree to these positions, the talks have been deadlocked.

Despite violations, the ceasefire remains in place. The Khaplang faction, which had stayed out of the talks, has now shown the willingness to enter into a dialogue with the Centre. In November, its chairman announced a cessation of hostilities in order t o enable the people of Nagaland to "enter the new millennium with the hope for a peaceful Nagaland".

Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta told Frontline that the Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front (IBRF), an umbrella organisation for the NSCN(K), which operated from Kachen on the Myanmar side of the border, had approached him with a request to arrange for talks.

However, the NSCN(I-M) appears to be in no mood to end its underground activities. The Mizoram Government recently sounded an alert following reports that a heavily armed group of NSCN(I-M) activists had sneaked into the State en route the Barak V alley in Assam. They were part of a larger group of extremists who were returning to underground bases in Nagaland and Manipur after undergoing training in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. The group also included activists of the Bodo National L iberation Front (BNLF). The BNLF and the most active underground outfit of Assam, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), have had an agreement with the NSCN(I-M) in the matter of training for cadres.

Army sources said that Samjukta Mukti Fauj (SMF), the military wing of the banned ULFA, had reconstituted its mobile action groups in the region. The SMF, consisting of hard-core activists which was raised a few years ago by ULFA's self-styled commander- in-chief Paresh Barua, has decided to go in for an onslaught against the security forces deployed to contain militancy in Assam.

The recent unearthing of a mass grave at Ghagabeel in the Nalbari district of Assam proved that ULFA was brutal with its opponents. So far 10 bodies have been recovered from the marshy land. The area was dug up after the body of Prasanna Kalita, a peasan t leader belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), was discovered on November 2. Kalita was abducted by ULFA activists on October 28.

T. Muivah and Isaac Chisi Swu, NSCN general secretary and chairman, at the organisation's political office in Dimapur.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

Meanwhile, in an offer to ULFA chairman Arabindra Rajkhowa, Assam Governor Lt. Gen. (retired) S.K. Sinha guaranteed a 10-day "safe passage" from December 21 for Paresh Barua and Arabindra Rajkhowa and other extremist leaders who wished to visit their fam ilies. A similar offer was made by Mahanta. The ULFA leadership rejected the offer.

THE National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the strongest militant group in the Bodo region of Lower Assam, has refused to enter into any talks with the Centre. It is firm on its demand for a sovereign Bodoland. Activists of the NDFB are involved i n violent ethnic-cleansing in the Bodo region, often in the form of the killing of non-Bodos such as Santhals, Muslims and Hindu Bengali settlers from the erstwhile East Pakistan. Besides targeting non-Bodos, ULFA and the NDFB have been systematically de stroying public installations. Last year ULFA activists blew up an Oil India installation at Thekeraguri in Nowgaon district.

The NDFB accused the Army of excesses and declared that it may retaliate by "killing an equal number of Indians". Its activists shot dead 17 Army personnel in an ambush in November. The Bodo region has become the most disturbed area in Assam, with freque nt clashes involving Bodo militants, non-Bodo organisations and the security forces.

Significantly, while top leaders of ULFA and the NDFB are determined not to give up violence, a section of the disillusioned cadres have turned their backs on bloodshed. On December 5, 134 militants - 117 of them were ULFA activists and the rest belonged to the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), the military wing of the NDFB - surrendered to the authorities at Baihata Chariali in Kamrup district. The ceremony was organised by SULFA (Surrendered United Liberation Front of Asom). More than 1,000 militants have returned to the mainstream ever since the Army welcomed the first group of militants in July 1998 and assured them rehabilitation. The Centre has released Rs.1 crore as "initial mobilisation advance" under the scheme. G.K. Pillai said that the Centre wa s willing to initiate talks with ULFA leaders on the condition that the organisation would not raise the demand for a sovereign Assam.

MEANWHILE, the security forces unearthed a nexus between the NSCN(I-M) and a nascent Karbi militant outfit in Assam, following the arrest of a few leaders of the United People's Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), who demand a separate Karbi Anglong state cons isting of areas on the Assam-Nagaland border. Following the arrest of seven UPDS cadres at Dimapur, the Assam Rifles apprehended Kiri Rongphar and Horen Singh Bey, self-styled chairman and commander respectively of the organisation, from their hideout in the Singnal Basti area in the Karbi Anglong district.

The NSCN(I-M) has strong underground bases in Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur and has a "tacit understanding" with some Manipur-based militant outfits.

Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura have been in the grip of insurgency for the last few decades. There are at least 18 underground organisations operating in the region. While ULFA has launched an " armed revolution for an independent Assam", the Unite d National Liberation Front (UNLF) of Manipur and the Revolutionary People's Front (RPF), the political wing of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), are fighting for an "independent Manipur". The NSCN, fighting for a "sovereign and independent Nagaland", split in 1988. While the NSCN(I-M) has been active in Nagaland, Manipur and parts of Assam, the NSCN(K), is based in upper Myanmar. It has formed the IBRF together with the Manipur-based UNLF. The IBRF's avowed aim is to liberate what it calls the Indo-B urma region (the northeastern region of India and northwestern part of Myanmar).

The All Tripura Tribal Force (ATTF), which demands a separate homeland for the tribal people, is considered the strongest underground organisation in Tripura. It is actively involved in ethnic-cleansing, killing non-tribal people inhabiting the hills. Wh ile the Achik Liberation Matgrik Army (ALMA) and the Hyniewtrept Volunteer Council (HVC) are active in Meghalaya, the activities of the Hmar People's Convention (HPC) are confined to Mizoram. Of the seven Manipur-based militant organisations, the UNLF, t he PLA, the Kuki National Front (KNF) and the People's Revolutionary Army of Kangleipak (Manipur), known as PREPAK, are active in Manipur, particularly in areas along the Nagaland-Manipur border.

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