The current stand-off on Northern borders started with an ugly fracas at Naqu La in Sikkim, in first week of May. Subsequent events at Galwan, Pangang Tso and Depsang have got the whole nation, literally glued to Ladakh albeit on TV screens. While some sort of tortuous disengagement is being attempted, in face of Chinese obduracy, possibility of this being ruse and main action unfolding on Eastern border is very real. China claims large tracts of territory in Arunachal Pradesh (AP) as South Tibet and even in 1962, main punch came in AP, after an initial diversionary foray in Ladakh.
History tends to repeat itself, hence, it will be prudent to keep additional vigil and take requisite measures to dissuade another surprise. It is high time that we discard peripheral focus on North East (NE). We need to take up two critical challenges in mission mode: externally — guard eastern border, and internally — resolve Naga problem.
Armed forces are prepared to combat external threat, but more sinister, internal one, calls for taking note of recent ominous developments. On 12 July, Assam Rifles (AR) and AP Police launched joint encounter to neutralise six militants of NSCN (IM) in Longding district in AP. This was notwithstanding the fact that there is so called ceasefire (CF) in place since 1997. There have been more than 100 rounds of peace talks, over last 23 years. This agreement is most inappropriately called as CF pact, instead of suspension of operations and does not stipulate territorial limits.
The basic stumbling blocks, in resolution of Naga problem, are centred on sovereignty (extent of autonomy) and concept of Nagalim. Factions seek to extend scope to include adjoining Naga habitation pockets in AP, Manipur and Assam. Groups owing allegiance to Khaplang, stretch Nagalim dream to include Heimi, Konyak tribal areas in Myanmar. AR justified this encounter, on the grounds of agreement being confined within territorial boundaries of Nagaland. IM faction countered, by reiterating that Bangkok agreement of June 2001, does not specify territorial limits and is between Government of India and NSCN. It has served an ultimatum asking for clarification on scope and territorial limits, concurrently NSCN leader Muivah has shifted base to Delhi, demanding direct talks.
Naga peace process has been unfortunate litany of badly handled parleys, characterised by series of concessions, in the hope that factions will splinter and tire out. NSCN factions, after mutual agreement, were allocated ‘designated camps’ to intern their cadres. The first deviation in 2002 resulted in IM setting up unauthorised camps, including in Manipur.
Our objections were disregarded with MHA accepting them as – ‘camps taken note of’. This was further compounded by neglecting process of registration, disarming, skilling and absorption of cadres in alternate vocations, including security forces. NSCN factions were allowed to maintain self-styled armies. Armed cadres continued to roam around outside, running parallel economy fuelled by extortion (euphemistically, termed as taxation) with all pervasive influence in elections, politics and controlling stake in shady under world, encompassing narco-terrorism, arms trafficking, timber and wildlife product smuggling, and government contracts.
Anyone, who stands up to the group is likely to receive Azha (deadlier than Fatwa) and meet fate similar to my good friend, retired DGP Hesse Mao murdered brutally in state capital. This reprehensible practice provides measure of pelf and legitimacy to Naga factions. It is ironical, as Nagas working in NE, are exempted from paying income tax.
Recently, central agencies finally turned heat on few kingpins, associated with IM faction, but only after they escaped to Ruili in China. This group included self-styled General Phunthing Shimrang, related to Muivah and designated representative in peace process. IM already has Alee (external) command based in China, orchestrating money laundering and arms trafficking. Overarching control of peace process vests with designated interlocutor, an ex-bureaucrat, assisted by CF Monitoring Group, headed by senior retired Army or police
officer. Starting with Padmanabhaiah, who was reluctant to even visit Nagaland and preferred Bangkok, interlocution process, has undergone a full circle. The current incumbent, R N Ravi, ex-IB, doubles up as the governor. As per leaked letter addressed to CM, he has dropped major bombshell by flagging extortion and uncontrolled move of cadres. This has lead to virtual derailing of peace process as the person nominated to find solution, is now highlighting problems at most inappropriate time, when solution seemed almost imminent. The main reason is that our spooking experts, over play being Machiavelli; promising different things at Delhi and Kohima. It will be important to bring conflict resolution process, back on rails, urgently. Naga problem is the Gordian knot, with potential to bring regional stability and operationalise, stalled ‘Act East’ policy.
Complexity is further exacerbated with reported busting of arms trafficking racket in Myanmar having Sino-Pak connection. Seizure of Chinese arms along Thai-Myanmar border lead to arrest of Pak operatives, linked to Lashkar (LeT). Arms were destined for Rakhine province for Arakan army insurgents. They were meant to target assets, being created for Kaladan multi-model project, to link Kolkata with Sittwe port in Myanmar with Mizoram and Manipur. Unresolved terrorism tends to have domino effect. There has been another dastardly IED attack in Chandel district, close to Indo-Myanmar border by very strange combination of RPF (PLA-Meitei), MNPF (Manipuri Nagas) and breakaway faction of ULFA, causing four fatal casualties.
It is time to act in focussed and concerted manner in mission mode denying China and Pakistan, an opportunity to exploit internal faultline in NE. The key to stability and outreach to the East lies in resolving the longest festering Naga insurgency.