Market in Moreh, a Manipur town on Myanmar border, is believed to be a major transit point for rebels and clandestine trade in arms and drugs.
© David Mayum
Guerrillas who fought the Indian state for decades in the country’s troubled Northeast are busy negotiating settlements in Delhi, raising hopes that the region could finally become a bridge between South and Southeast Asia.
“Most ethnic rebel groups have agreed to a ceasefire and have started negotiations. We hope the landscape in the Northeast will soon change from one of turmoil to one of peace and stability,” according to India’s junior Home Minister Khiren Rijjuju.
Rijjuju, who hails from the region, has reasons to be optimistic.
The leaders of two powerful separatist movements in the state of Assam and Nagaland are engaged in negotiations with Delhi.
India signed a ‘framework agreement’ with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), the most powerful rebel group in the region, in August this year.
Though the agreement is no final settlement of the Naga problem that has led to huge conflict for six decades, it does serve as the framework for a final settlement.
“We are now hopeful of a just and reasonable solution in the not-too-distant future,” said Thuingaleng Muivah, the NSCN general secretary.
The NSCN has given up the Naga demand for independence in return for an Indian promise for substantive autonomy for Nagaland.
The NSCN wants an integration of the Naga-dominated areas of the three neighbouring states of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam with Nagaland state. But that is not what the Indian federal government is prepared to concede.
Instead, Delhi has offered a ‘supra-state’ model to ensure the ‘cultural integration’ of Nagas by forming an inter-state Naga council that does not rework state boundaries but allows Nagas in different states a modicum of cultural and educational rights (in their mother tongue).
“I am optimistic that we will finally have a settlement,” says R.N. Ravi, the Indian interlocutor for the Naga talks. “And this will happen within the tenure of the present government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
But India faces a problem. There are three breakaway NSCN factions who also want a say in an eventual deal.
Two of them are still maintaining the ceasefire, but one headed by Burmese Naga rebel leader S S Khaplang reneged on the ceasefire in March last year.
Khaplang then formed an anti-Indian rebel coalition in the Burmese jungles, with three other groups.
Many believe this coalition that calls itself the United National Liberation Front of Western South-East Asia (UNLFWSEA) was masterminded by the Assamese rebel chieftain Paresh Barua, who broke away from the main faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).
The main ULFA faction headed by its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa is currently negotiating with Delhi and claims a settlement to the issue is close.
But Barua says he will fight on unless India agrees to discuss the ‘core issue of Assam’s sovereignty.”
When Indian wellness guru Ravishankar as Modi’s representative approached Barua through intermediaries to ask him to join the talks, he told the Art of Living founder that “he cannot betray the spirit of thousands of Assamese who have fought for independence.”
Later Barua told this writer: “Everyone in Assam may go for talks but I will join it only on my terms.”
His terms – a discussion of Assam’s sovereignty – will never be acceptable to any government in Delhi.
“Barua should know our bottom line. We hope he is realistic,” said India’s former Home Secretary R K Singh, now a ruling BJP MP.
But Indian commanders are confident both Khaplang and Barua are ‘isolated‘ in the Burmese jungles.
“They may attack our forces once in a while, but they are not a worthwhile force,” says former chief of staff of India’s eastern army, Lt Gen J.R Mukherjee, who has authored a book on the region after his retirement.
Separatist insurgency ended in Mizoram in 1986 after a historic agreement that turned the hill zone into a full-fledged Indian state.
The rebel Mizo National Front (MNF) which fought Indian forces for 20 years turned into a legitimate Indian political party and won elections to hold power in the state for two five-year terms.
Two tribal separatist groups in neighbouring Tripura were crushed by tough counter-insurgency measures that even involved attacking their bases and hideouts in Bangladesh through using surrendered rebels and mercenaries.
With Sheikh Hasina taking charge as Prime Minister in January 2009, Bangladesh security forces launched a fierce crackdown against Northeast Indian separatists holed up in their territory.
Scores of top leaders and activists were nabbed and quietly handed over to India.
A court in Chittagong even gave ULFA’s Paresh Barua a death sentence for his involvement in the 2004 Chittagong arms case.
Bhutan’s “Operation All Clear” pushed out groups such as ULFA from its territory in 2003-4 and Bangladesh’s crackdown post-2009 left dozens of rebel groups in northeast India with no real trans-border regouping zone except Myanmar’s Sagaing jungles.
“Bhutan and Bangladesh have greatly helped us and now we are persuading Myanmar to do the same,” says former Indian military intelligence official Major General Gaganjit Singh. “Hope this will work with the change of government in Myanmar.”
Even smaller rebel groups in Meghalaya and Assam have begun negotiations with Delhi.
The only exception is Manipur, where four strong separatist groups are still active. They have neither joined Khaplang’s rebel coalition nor given any indication of considering talks with Delhi.
“But the Meitei Manipuri rebels have been largely contained. They remain a nuisance but not a major threat,” says Gaganjit Singh.
In India’s Northeast, as Prime Minister Modi pushes hard on developing connectivity with the neighborhood and the underground movements look weak, isolated and most of them in a mood for compromise, optimism seems to be on the rise.
“Once we have peace, this region will be India’s land bridge to south-east Asia and China. It will hold the key to India’s future growth by integrating with regional economies,” says Binoda Mishra of the Kolkata-based Centre for Study in International Relations & Development (CSIRD).
“Our neighbours here were once our headache. Now they present us with real opportunities,” says minister Rijjuju. “The change in the scenario is real. We look forward to great days after decades of conflicts.”