How India Has Made Survival Difficult For North East Militant Groups, One Safe Haven At A Time 

How India Has Made Survival Difficult For North East Militant Groups, One Safe Haven At A Time A helicopter of the Indian Army (Representative Image)
  • Last week’s handing over of 22 northeast rebels to India by Myanmar has dealt a huge blow to those outfits.

    Their strength had been vastly depleted over the last few years due to relentless operations by the army and security forces.

The latest body blow suffered by the remnants of the once-notorious rebel groups of the Northeast is the deportation of 22 militants belonging to outfits of Assam and Manipur from Myanmar.

The deportation — the first time Myanmar handed over Indian rebels who were hiding in that country — also marks the end of all safe havens that the rebels had operated from and found refuge in the neighbouring countries.

The rebels of the Northeast had, for decades, found shelter in Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

While the royal government of Bhutan and Myanmar’s military (called the ‘Tatmadaw’, they effectively rule that country) never extended official support to the militant outfits of India, the BNP regime under Khaleda Zia and the country’s Islamist military leaders who seized power intermittently in Bangladesh offered shelter and material support to the rebels.

The process of denying the rebels of the Northeast safe havens in neighbouring countries started under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Through his National Security Advisor (NSA) Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee convinced Bhutan to agree to joint operations with Indian security forces to destroy hideouts of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and Bodo outfits in the forested hills of that Himalayan kingdom.

Ultimately, in December 2003, Bhutanese and Indian forces launched Operation All Clear that resulted in all bases of the rebels in Bhutan being destroyed.

A number of militants were killed or apprehended. Mishra deserves a lot of credit for that successful operation. Since then, Bhutan has remained a ‘no-go’ area for rebels, what with the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) establishing posts and stepping up vigil  along the Indo-Bhutan border.

Mishra had also made a lot of progress with the then Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (during her first stint in power from June 1996 to July 2001) on the issue of denying Northeast rebels safe shelters in that country.

Hasina, fighting tremendous odds and the especially influential sections of the anti-Indian military establishment and powerful Islamist forces in that country, had initiated steps in India’s favour.

However, she lost power in mid-2001 and Khaleda Zia returned to power. But Vajpayee built bridges with Zia and efforts to get Dhaka to act against Bodo and Kamptapuri (the KLO) outfits and the ULFA gained momentum once again.

Those efforts suffered a setback with the surprise defeat of Vajpayee in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

Since then, for want of follow-up action and any initiative on the part of Mishra’s immediate successor J.N. Dixit (under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh), the process initiated by Vajpayee stagnated.

It was only after M.K. Narayanan (who had headed the Intelligence Bureau) became the NSA in 2005 that he re-initiated the process of leaning hard on Dhaka to take action against the ULFA and other Northeast militants sheltered in that country.

But Narayanan did not get the strong political backing from Manmohan Singh that Mishra had received from Vajpayee.

Thus, his efforts bore little fruit. In fact, after Zia’s term ended in October 2006, the three successive military-backed rulers who were in power for a little over two years rebuffed Delhi’s requests to take action against Northeast rebels operating out of Bangladesh.

Security experts say that Delhi’s requests were weak and lacked muscle, primarily because Manmohan Singh himself was a weak Prime Minister with little interest in tackling the festering wound of militancy in the northeast.

It was only when Sheikh Hasina returned to power in January 2006 that she kick-started the process.

And from 2009 till 2015, a large number of hideouts of ULFA, KLO and Bodo militants in Bangladesh were destroyed and rebels belonging to those outfits handed over to India.

Bangladesh also reversed the policy of offering shelter, financial aid and other help to Indian militants.

Denied shelter in Bangladesh, the militants fled to neighbouring Myanmar. Large parts of northwest Myanmar are under the control of rebel outfits of that country. Hence, the Tatmadaw was powerless to drive away the militants of Northeast India who had taken shelter in that country.

To complicate matters, the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) had their main bases in that country. The western part of Myanmar is home to seven Naga tribes, including the Tangshan tribe that Khaplang belonged to. As such, they had a genuine right to be in Myanmar.

Since the Tatmadaw had little control over the Sagaing province and Kachin state where the Myanmarese Nagas are dispersed, the Khaplang faction of the NSCN strengthened its bases in those parts of Myanmar and also offered shelter to rebels of other militant outfits belonging to the Northeast.

The NSCN (Khaplang), which had an informal truce with the Tatmadaw, offered that support in return for huge sums of money.

It was only when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in mid-2014 that New Delhi started working with the Tatmadaw and the country’s civilian rulers to deny safe havens to militants belonging to Northeast India.

NSA Ajit Doval, backed to the hilt by Modi, did what Brajesh Mishra had done with Bhutan during Vajpayee’s tenure.

“Doval held extensive parleys with both Myanmar’s military and its civilian rulers and convinced them to establish firm control over Sagaing province and Kachin state that used to be under the grip of Myanmarese rebel groups like the Kachin Independence Army. A lot of aid also flowed to Myanmar from India and New Delhi’s engagement with that country became more intensive and extensive,” said a senior army officer who was posted at the ‘Red Shields Division’ (a mountain division) headquartered in the outskirts of Manipur’s capital Imphal.

This division of the Indian army oversees operations along a large stretch of the Indo-Myanmar border. Thanks to Doval’s efforts, the Tatmadaw launched operations in Sagaing province early last year and in a series of raids, smashed camps belonging to the ULFA, Bodo and Manipuri outfits.

The Myanmarese forces also destroyed the headquarters of the NSCN (Khaplang), accusing the latter of violating the truce conditions by sheltering rebels of other outfits.

The Tatmadaw’s operations led to many rebels belonging to the ULFA, Bodo and Manipuri outfits and the KLO fleeing Myanmar and sneaking into India. Most of them were apprehended by the Indian army and the rest surrendered.

This ultimately led to the badly cornered Saoraigwra faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, or NDFB(S), coming to the negotiating table and signing the Bodo peace accord in January this year.

This accord brought to an ultimate end militancy in the long-restive Bodoland region of Assam.

Last week’s handing over of 22 northeast rebels, 12 of them belonging to various Manipuri outfits (UNLF, PREPAK and KYKL) has dealt a huge blow to those outfits.

Their strength had been vastly depleted over the last few years due to relentless operations by the army and security forces.

Now, the denial of shelter in Myanmar has come as a last nail in their coffins.

Security experts say it is only a matter of time before the Manipuri outfits surrender or get obliterated.

Even the strength of the ULFA (Independent) led by Paresh Barua, who is said to be sheltered in China, has got depleted.

Many ULFA militants have surrendered and Barua is fighting a lonely and lost battle from his hideout in the western Yunnan province of China.

The days of militancy, which has kept the Northeast backward and under-developed, may soon be coming to an end.

The ULFA(I) remains the only outfit that is active, but the days of an ageing Paresh Barua (he is 64 now) are numbered.

The blow suffered by the rebels of the region in Myanmar, thanks to Modi and Doval, could well have been the debilitating one that broke their backs.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.


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