ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Terrorism in the North-East

The armed insurrections in north-east India have tested the Indian military might for over four decades. The region is characterised by widespread conflicts which are related to the geography of the region, the multiethnicity of its population and the political and economic feeding grounds of discontent. The conflict dynamics range from insurgency for secession to insurgency for autonomy, from sponsored terrorism to ethnic clashes, to conflicts generated as a result of a continuous inflow of migrants from across the borders, as well as from the other states of the country. Terrorism in the region can best be understood as a rational strategy to achieve political and personal ends, both through the use of extreme violence and intimidation through the instrumentalities of the state and at times with the complicity of the state's agencies.

Terrorism in the North-East

Linkages and Implications

The armed insurrections in north-east India have tested the Indian military might for over four decades. The region is characterised by widespread conflicts which are related to the geography of the region, the multiethnicity of its population and the political and economic feeding grounds of discontent. The conflict dynamics range from insurgency for secession to insurgency for autonomy, from sponsored terrorism to ethnic clashes, to conflicts generated as a result of a continuous inflow of migrants from across the borders, as well as from the other states of the country. Terrorism in the region can best be understood as a rational strategy to achieve political and personal ends, both through the use of extreme violence and intimidation through the instrumentalities of the state and at times with the complicity of the state’s agencies.


ndia’s north-east is where south and south-east Asia meet. The region is placed between what is now Bangladesh, Tibet, Myanmar and Bhutan with a thin land corridor linking it with the rest of India – the Siliguri Corridor which is an area of 12,203 square kilometres connecting mainland India with the outlying border states of the north-east.1 Ninety-eight per cent of the borders of north-east India are international borders. Only 2 per cent of the region is connected to India, pointing to the north-east’s tenuous geographical and political connectivity to the Indian mainland. There are altogether seven states in the region, which is why they are often referred to as the “seven sisters”. These are Assam – the biggest state – Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura and Manipur. The combined area of the region comprises 7.7 per cent of the country’s territory (about 2,55,088 sq km) and, according to the 2001 Census of India, the region is inhabitated by 3.75 per cent of the national population. Characterised by extraordinary ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity, the region is inhabitated by three distinct groups of people – the hill tribes, the plain tribes and the non-tribal population of the plains [Verghese 1997].

The historical connectedness of the region was systematically undermined by the colonial policies of progressive segregation. Between 1874 and 1934 the tribal populations in the region were administered under a succession of extraordinary provisions that segregated them into categories called “non-regulated”, “backward” or “excluded” areas. The Inner Line Regulation of 1873 prohibited access to these areas to all “outsiders” except those who obtained special permission from the government. This regulation was extended to most of the hill areas and thus created “a frontier within a frontier”, accentuating the political and cultural schism between the tribal areas and the plains. The overall effect of these factors was that the tribal areas were excluded from the pattern of administration that prevailed in the rest of the country. Continuing this policy, the Government of India Act 1935 made most of the hill areas in the region “excluded areas”, outside the jurisdiction of provincial legislature. The overriding effects of the policy were twofold. First, the possibility of a process of integration of the communities and tribes, which could have been initiated by a common alien administration, was lost. Second, most of the tribal communities in the region remained alien to the national process being isolated from the social and political developments taking place elsewhere in the region [Bezbaruah 1996]. The overall result was that the region, which was a mass of heterogeneous people before the advent of the British rule, retained basically the same character. The sheer magnitude of ethnic diversity of the north-east, the colonial legacy of exclusion and seclusion in certain areas and the problems of unequal and unbalanced economic development during the post-independence period created conditions for ethnic conflicts of various kinds to emerge and sustain themselves over a period of time. One of the responses of the Indian state, to the demands of autonomy and separate homelands by different ethnic groups, was the creation of autonomous districts and autonomous regions within the districts, often identified with particular tribes, through the constitutional mechanism of the Sixth Schedule.2 Subsequently, many of these territories became full-fledged states, which in turn fuelled the demand for similar homelands by many of the tribes.

I Nature of Terrorism

The north-east India is a region of great differences and it is not always helpful to encompass all its diversity under the term “north-east”. However in the context of understanding terrorism in the region, there are sufficient similarities and linkages among the states of the region to warrant a conspectus [Bajpai 2002]. The region is characterised by widespread conflicts which are related to the geography of the region, the multiethnicity of its population and the political and economic feeding grounds of discontent. Political expediency and the profusion of examples for imitation have added dynamism of their own. The conflict dynamics ranges from insurgency for secession to insurgency for autonomy, from sponsored terrorism to ethnic clashes, to conflicts generated as a result of continuous inflow of migrants from across the borders as well as from other states of the country. The growth of Islamic fundamentalist groups in the region is a recent phenomenon, which, it is believed, is linked with the large-scale illegal migrations from Bangladesh. These groups, not bound by territory or ethnicity, follow the familiar pattern of terror organisations elsewhere.

The conflicts in the region have some typical characteristics and can be assessed around four distinct lines:

  • (1) Tribal groups versus the state: The conflicts, which fall in this category, arise out of a concept of distinct and separate nation.3
  • (2) Tribal versus tribal: These conflicts are generated as a result of the assertion of numerically smaller and less dominant tribal groups against the political and cultural hold of the dominant tribal group. These result not only in conflicts with the dominant group, but also among various contesting groups as well.4
  • (3) Tribal versus non-tribals: These movements demand constitutional changes to give political recognition to subnationality aspirations. Such movements come in direct conflict with the existing state governments who have the constitutional obligation for the maintenance of law and order.5
  • (4) Criminality: Militancy in the region can be partially examined as a criminal enterprise aimed to expand and consolidate control over critical economic and administrative functions. This has resulted in the establishment of a retrograde set of social relationships in which economics and violence are deeply intertwined within the shared framework of identity politics.
  • Insurgencies in north-east India have often been described as examples of ethnic terrorism. It is best understood as deliberate violence by subnational ethnic groups to advance their cause. Often seen by its practitioners as part of a proto-guerrilla movement, terror acts are directed against symbolic targets, designed largely to foster identity as well as to advance standard political goals. For a separatist movement to emerge, it is imperative that people must first be convinced that they share something in common against an enemy [McCord and McCord 1972]. It is here that the ethnic terrorists have an advantage over other terrorists: their agenda usually has some resonance with a pre-existing, welldefined group of people .Two key factors can help explain the strength of ethno-nationalism in the region. First, ethnic distinctiveness, shaped by shared history and values and as manifested in a common language and culture has proved to be a far more durable and powerful influence on communities than other identities. Secondly, there remains a colossal mismatch between the state system, with its legally recognised frontiers, and the demographic map of distinctive ethnic groups or national identities. Other significant factors that have contributed to the onset of ethno-nationalist violence include: availability of militant leaders capable of mobilising sizeable sections of their ethnic constituencies by persuading them of the reality and the severity of the threat they face and appealing to history and historical myths; availability of weapons and availability of political and military support from friendly states, other ethnic groups and external actors [Wilkinson 2001]. Perceived discrimination along economic, political and cultural lines have also triggered tremendous resentment in the region. The struggle begins by strengthening ethnic identity by making ethnicity politically salient for the larger ethnic community. It is therefore not surprising that one of the most common demands of ethnic political movements in general, concerns language [Weber 1979]. Language thus becomes the instrument through which vital identity component as history, national myths and politics are formulated, maintained and crafted. Quite often these “new” histories do not stand up to informed objective analysis. Political groupings based on exclusive identity tend to be movements of nostalgia, based on the reconstruction of an heroic past, the memory of injustices, real or imagined. They acquire meaning through insecurity, through rekindled fear of historic enemies, or through a sense of being threatened by those with different labels. Exclusive identity-based polity necessarily generates a minority. At best, this brand of politics involves psychological discrimination against those labelled differently. At worst, it leads to population expulsion and genocide [Kaldor 1999]. Ethnic terrorism in the region has also been understood as a response to state failure. From the perspective of its ethnic constituency a particular militia may be a reliable provider of security in a context where it faces a threat from another ethnic group that is armed with its own militia. In an ethnically polarised situation, where the actions of the security forces may be seen as partisan, offensives against militants who are seen as security providers by their ethnic kin, may even add to the latter’s sense of insecurity and an incentive for strengthening the self-help form of security’ [Baruah 2005].

    Ethnic conflicts in the region have been explained with the help of concepts such as uneven development, differential modernisation, relative regional deprivation, internal colonialism, failures of assimilation and cultural oppression. A careful examination would however reveal that these conflicts are social, political and economic conflicts between groups who identify themselves and their opponents in ethnic terms. These conflicts have some major characteristics: they tend to be asymmetrical; they are ambiguous, making it hard to differentiate a friend from a foe; they are fought unconventionally using political and psychological means and methods; and these conflicts often develop into protracted wars of attrition.

    There are two distinct features in the situation in north-east India that are worth noting. First, except for the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya all other states of the region have had major, long-standing violent movements that have sought political independence from India or greater autonomy within the Indian union. Second, conflict exists in all the seven states at different levels. Besides conflicts between the states of the region and the central government, there are conflicts between the states of the region themselves, between one tribe and another, between tribal and non–tribal groups and between indigenous groups and “settlers” who have come from Bangladesh, Nepal or other parts of India. As things stand today, Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Tripura are the most violent states.6 In most cases a feeling of deprivation resulting from the nature of national decision-making process in the centre where the region is only a distant negligible presence, provide the logic for mass movement.7 Land, migration and fears of loss of identity are the basic themes that resonate in the north-east.

    II Illegal Migration from Bangladesh and Islamic Militancy

    Immigration from Bangladesh initiated in the early part of the last century became illegal with the changed political boundaries of independent India. However, large-scale and unabated influx of population from Bangladesh into India’s north-east continues and has resulted in a phenomenon that is visibly

    Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

    reshaping and transforming the demographic, ethnic, linguistic and religious profile of large parts of the region [Hazarika 2000]. This phenomenon has generated a host of destabilising political, social, economic, ethnic and communal tensions in the region. Few regions in the world have such a high proportion of its population as illegal aliens. The estimates of the number of illegal migrants in Assam alone varies from 4-5 million to 10-14 million.8 While some authors feel that the extent of illegal migration from Bangladesh to Assam and other north-eastern states are grossly exaggerated in public debates, doubts have also been expressed about the authenticity of the census data on migration.9 However, some important aspects of the demographic changes in the states of the north-east India need to be discussed here.

    First, states of north-east India have experienced a comparatively high growth rate of population in the post-independence period (see the table). While there are various factors responsible for these high growth rates, immigration in general and, illegal immigration from neighbouring countries in particular are widely considered to be one of the underlying causes of such high rates of population growth [Bhuyan 2002]. The high growth rate of population in Tripura during 1951-61 (78.71 per cent), for example, can be explained in terms of migration of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the aftermath of Partition. Secondly, in Assam, the percentage share of Hindus in total population has come down from 72.51 in 1971 to 67.13 per cent in 1991, while that of Muslims and Christians has increased from

    24.56 and 2.61 per cent in 1971 to 28.43 and 3.32 per cent in 1991, respectively. While the high growth rate of Christians in the state (95.37 per cent) during 1971-91 might have been contributed, to some extent, by conversion, the high growth rate of (77.42 per cent) Muslims is attributed to migration of Muslim population from Bangladesh (ibid, p 78). In other states of northeast India too, there also has been a rise in the share of Muslim population during the past few decades. Thirdly, in many of the districts of Assam bordering Bangladesh an unusually high growth of Muslim population has been noted and their share in total population has increased appreciably, particularly during the post-1971 period.10

    A fallout of this massive influx of population has been that the region has opened up to radicalism and to a network of fundamentalist campaigns, which have access to arms and easy connections to sanctuaries across a porous international border. A new “front” has emerged to plague governance and peace in the north-east and its ethnic and religious composition makes it difficult to comprehend and address.11 Islamic militant activities have begun to proliferate in the region with an agenda which has religious fanaticism and division as important coordinates. This trend is gaining ground particularly after the fall of the Taliban in Afganistan, with reports indicating that active remnants of the Al Qaida have taken refuge in Bangladesh which abuts north-east India.12 From the geostrategic angle, Bangladesh’s emergence as a proxy war base arises from the following factors:

    – India and Bangladesh share a 4,000 km long border. The border is geographically porous and hence difficult to keep under close surveillance due to its riverine configurations in the west and hilly terrain in the north-east and east. Complicating the situation further is the presence of enclaves on both sides of the border. With 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India and 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, border management has become a major challenge.

  • Bangladesh’s border configuration rests on vulnerable Indian states like West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram thus providing elements hostile to India with multiple ingress routes to these sensitive states. Bangladesh territory sits astride squarely on India’s strategic “Siliguri Corridor” through which runs India’s slender communication links with its seven north-eastern states.
  • In a belt running parallel to the borders with Bangladesh and significantly deep inside India reside large sections of illegal migrants from Bangladesh who are vulnerable to influences from forces hostile to India, find it relatively convenient to recruit infiltrators for their ventures. Powerful syndicates are engaged in cross-border smuggling of arms and narcotic.
  • Bangladesh’s political-religious factors provide a forcemultiplier effect in terms of Bangladesh’s utility as a base for promoting Islamic militancy in the region. The political arithmetic of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Khaleda Zia has brought Bangladesh to what can be termed as a furtherance of Islamic agenda.13
  • The multiplicity of forces on the same borders has inevitably led to the lack of accountability as well as problems of command and control. Very often the services of the forces meant for guarding the borders is diverted for security related counterinsurgency operations resulting in borders being virtually unmanned.14
  • Observers have pointed out that the rise of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh threatens the region and beyond if left unchallenged. The combination of Islamic fundamentalism, religious intolerance, militant muslim groups with links to international terrorist groups and a powerful military with ties to militants have transformed the once moderate Islamic state of Bangladesh [Lintner 2002]. The growing Islamisation of Bangladesh has direct consequences for secular space of north-east India that it strategically borders and characterises an atmosphere that is ripe for the spread of Islamic activities in the region [Saikia 2003]. The abdication of ideology by some of the important ethnically based militant organisations in the region has been a critical factor in the promotion of Islamic militancy in the region.

    The prominent fundamentalist organisations active in the region are the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA), Harkat-ul-Mujahidden (HuM), Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA), Muslim Volunteer Force (MVF), Independent Liberation Army of Assam (ILAA), Liberation Islamic Tiger Force (LITF), Islamic Security Force of India (ISFI), Students’

    Table: Growth Rate of Population in North-East India: 1951-2001

    State Growth Rate of Population

    1951-61 1961-71 1971-81 1981-91 1991-2001 1 234 56

    Assam 34.98 34.95 23.36** 24.24** 18.85 Arunachal Pradesh* -38.91 35.15 36.83 26.21 Manipur 35.04 37.53 32.46 29.29 30.02 Meghalaya 27.03 31.50 32.04 32.86 29.94 Mizoram 35.61 24.93 48.55 39.70 29.18 Nagaland 14.07 39.88 50.05 56.08 64.41 Tripura 78.71 36.28 31.92 34.30 15.74 North-east total 38.04 35.04 26.40 27.46 22.02 India 21.51 24.80 24.69 23.82 21.34

    Notes: * Census was conducted for the first time in 1961. ** Since census was not conducted in Assam in 1981, the rates for 1971-81 and 1981-91 are estimated on the basis of interpolation. Source: Census of India, various years and Bhuyan 2002.

    Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), People’s United Liberation Front (PULF), Students’ Islamic Organisation (SIO) and the Islamic Liberation Army (ILA) (ibid, pp 63-71).

    III Cross-border Linkages

    North-east India represents a complex arena of foreign involvement. India’s 1962 war with China and the 1965 war with Pakistan coincided with the outbreak of several ethnic insurgencies in the region. Pakistan, China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh have played a role in the region. The terrorist organisations operating in the region have formed linkages with both state and non-state actors in foreign countries. These linkages have provided valuable assistance, which include financial and organisational support, weapons, training and operational cooperation. Government sources reveal that the terrorist organisations in the region have been receiving arms as well as money from foreign countries. Arms were primarily emerging from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand while money was flowing in from non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The fact that the region shares 98 per cent of its borders with Bangladesh, China, Myanmar and Bhutan renders the task of establishing linkages across the borders relatively easy. Confessions of surrendered militants reveal that terrorist groups in both Assam and Nagaland have received major arms consignments from China from time to time.15 The scope of activities of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in the region suggests that the sensitive, extensive and poorly managed border lands of north-east India has emerged as the hotbed of its activities. Pakistan’s involvement in the region appears to be purely tactical, in the service of a better balance of power with India. The effort is to tie down Indian military forces and to create a systemic crisis in India with rebellions brewing everywhere in the borderlands.16 Recent evidence suggests that the ISI operates training camps in Bangladesh where separatist groups of the north-east collectively known as the “United Liberation Front of Seven Sisters” are trained in subversive activities. These camps besides being a safe haven for militants also facilitate arms shipments in transit to India.17Similar bases and camps are also there in and around Myanmar bordering the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram. Myanmarese fringe outfits have deep-rooted historical-cultural ties with many of the tribes in the region and thus have been known to provide support to terrorist groups by offering training facilities and safe havens. The role of Bhutan and Nepal has largely been those of accessories. The two nations have provided safe havens as well as transit facilities to separatist groups from the north-east.18

    With the expansion of the area of terrorism in the region, the role of umbrella organisations as coordinating agencies assumes importance as the complex matrices of friendly and antagonistic insurgent groups are always in a state of flux. The choice of partners in these coalitions depends on proximity, location of safe havens, conduits used and their relative dominance over other groups and common financial supporters. Ideology seldom comes in the way of a coalition. Umbrella organisations create their own dynamics and drastically change insurgent policies. The first umbrella organisation to be established in the region was the Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front (IBRF) in May 1990. In 1993 a wider insurgent network including all the north-east states came into existence with the formation of the National Liberation Front of the Seven Sisters (NLSS). This organisation underwent a transformation in 1994 to become the Self-Defence United Front of the South East Himalayan Region (SDUFSHR) [Pillai 2002]. These linkages have benefited both the larger and smaller organisations. While the smaller alliance partners receive arms training as well as arms, the smaller groups perform the role of a conduit in reaching arms consignments to the theatre of operation of the larger group.19

    The conflict in the region is largely fought with small arms. The acquisition of illegal small arms and light weapons by terrorist outfits in the region has been crucial to the conduct and duration of the conflict. The armaments of the terrorist outfits in the region vary from group to group. The main factor dictating the choice of armaments is flexibility in the face of varying government tactics. AK-47s, 56s, M-16s and G-3s are the most common weapons used. Semi-automatic rifles, such as the M-21, and selfloading rifles, including .303 calibre weapons and Russian Dragunov sniper rifles have also been utilised. Furthermore, captured government stocks of FN-MAG machine guns, RPG7s and 57mm RCL M18 anti-tank weapons have also been used from time to time. Improvised explosive devices and hand grenades too have been in use.20 Most of the terrorist groups have their own separate networks with arms suppliers. Autonomous mafia modules, not working under any insurgent group comprises these weapon networks. It is believed that right from the stage of receiving orders to the collection of arms, its conveyance and delivery, several groups are involved. Large arms collections are usually operations run totally by the insurgent group concerned mainly with the help of insurgent groups in the neighbouring countries. The role of the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) and the China National Liberation Army (CNLA) in Myanmar is particularly noteworthy. The proliferations of small arms in the region have been largely assisted by its geopolitical contiguity to Myanmar and south-east Asia. The militant groups active in the region, starting with the Naga National Council (NNC) of Nagaland have traditionally forged and maintained ties with similar movements in Myanmar, who are instrumental in providing them sanctuary, training, weapons and access to the clandestine market of south-east Asia. The fall of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia has led to the free availability of small arms in the south-east Asian arms market. The long porous frontiers of the region, presence of elements hostile to the Indian state, inhospitable terrain covered with thick dense forests and the regions proximity to south-east Asia, have made north-east India a favourite destination for the proliferation of illegal small arms and light weapons. The weapons purchased from this market are transshipped from southern Thailand via the Three Pagoda Pass opposite the Karen state in Myanmar and then along the Rangong coastline by insurgent groups like the KIA to Cox Bazaar in Bangladesh. Cox Bazaar, a completely unmonitored port in Bangladesh, has emerged as a major centre for the supply of illegal arms and ammunition, not only feeding criminal and extremist elements in that country, but also the terrorist outfits in India’s north-east.21 Apart from factory-made weapons, the region has also witnessed a proliferation of country-made weapons.

    IV Terrorism as Criminal Enterprise

    Against the background of the breakdown of the institutions of civil governance, slow economic growth,22 lack of adequate employment opportunities,23 particularly for the educated youth,

    Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

    in the region, terrorism has entrenched itself as a lucrative industry. The progressive erosion of the state’s authority as reflected in the government’s inability, or perceived inability:

    (i) to safeguard the basic human and property rights; (ii) to enforce the ordinary laws of the land (and the consequent and increasing dependence on extraordinary laws and force to sustain authority);

    (iii) to reward and punish; (iv) to collect taxes; (v) to carry out functions of financial management with requisite credibility;

    (vi) to enforce discipline among state employees; and (vii) to evoke fear of sanctions has resulted in the erosion of the state government’s legitimacy and authority in the region. This, in turn, has also resulted in the simultaneous acquisition and consolidation of legitimacy and authority by various non-state agencies, including the terrorist groups [Sahni and George 2001]. Both the military and the developmental response to terrorism in the region have not produced the desired results. With almost all the major terrorist movements operating in the region enjoying external support and safe-haven in foreign countries, the military response has had very limited success. The inaccessible terrain within the region as well as the scope to return to normal life among the civilian population at times when the operational successes of the military operations are high, keeps these movements alive.24 Incidents of human rights violations by security forces create conditions for further alienation of local population with the security forces often being viewed as the oppressive occupying power.

    For a variety of reasons the developmental response to terrorism too has failed miserably. In the absence of accountability and transparency, a preponderant proportion of developmental resources flow directly or indirectly to the militants through a collusive regime of extortion and intimidation. Developmental interventions attract terrorist action, as their success is perceived as weakening the terrorist cause. Moreover, the flight of capital from the region more than offsets the limited success of the development projects. The disruptive power of the militant distorts and inhibits the processes and growth of legitimate economic and development activities in the region. In this context, it is noteworthy that a wide variety of economic activities that were integral to the lives of the tribal people of the region such as cross border trade and the use of forest products have been “criminalised” forcing the local people into a collusive relationship with terrorists. Dominant terrorist organisations provide critical “services” in these areas. These include the regulation of economic activities both legal and illegal, containment of distributive conflicts, protection and resolution of disputes and consequently a stable context for transactions within the illegal market.

    A serious fallout of this collusive relationship has been on the fragile eco-system of the region. The clearing of forest areas to set up camps has progressively destroyed the endangered species of flora and fauna. Poachers in league with the militants have played havoc with wildlife parks and sanctuaries. As many of these reserve forests are used as hideouts by the militants, it has resulted in the indiscriminate destruction of forest resources and endangered animals like tiger, rhino and elephant. Assam’s famous Kaziranga sanctuary bordering Bhutan, home to the endangered one horned rhino, is a major transit point for wildlife contraband.25

    Terrorist organisations have developed a vested interest to work within the existing governmental system by subverting and exploiting the existing institutions for financial gain rather than dismantling the same. Clearly the members of these organisations operate as rationale economic agents or entrepreneurs who continuously respond and adapt to market and policy incentives and disincentives with a view to the maximisation of individual and group profits. The dynamics of terrorism in the region has a different character and autonomy entirely different from paradigm of imbalances in development.26 The subversion of the public distribution system provides an interesting example of the enormity of public resources that gets transferred to the underground economy. Sources indicate that a bulk of these commodities are simply diverted to the open market generating illegal revenues amounting hundreds of millions of rupees per month, a large proportion of which accrues to banned terrorist outfits.27 Virtually every vehicle on all major routes in the terrorism affected states of the north-east pays a “toll tax” at several points marking the several transitions from one insurgent group’s area of influence to the next [Sahni op cit]. Extortion, protection money and “taxes” are regularly levied on the business and salaried class by the terrorist groups in their respective spheres of influence. They control virtually all illicit trade – including the drug and arms trade – in the region. The route for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the region is the same as the drug route. The lethal combination of drugs and AIDS that flows unstopped across the borders into the north-east is harming societies in every part of the region. Far more than any other reason, it is spreading from infected needles that heroin addicts use.28

    The counter-terrorist policies pursued in the region ensure the continuation of the terror industry. Dishonest deals with terrorist leaders have led to the creation of a Frankensteinian monster that retains all the instruments of terror and operates substantially under the protection of and in collusion with the state and its agents. The “surrender schemes”, devised by state governments, aim to bribe terrorists away from their violent activities. The social and economic costs of such policy have proved to be devastating. It is believed that a large proportion of those who “surrendered” were far from hardcore militants with some not having anything to with militancy. As for weapons, not only did the surrendering cadres fail to surrender all their weapons, they were subsequently provided gun licences and armed guards by the state, on the grounds of their personal security against retributive attacks by their former comrades. A nexus between mainstream politician, militants and surrendered militants is a frequently noted dimension of contemporary politics of northeast India. What results is a kind of “stable anarchy” where the rule of law lapses entirely, as the institutions of governance are subverted directly or through collusive arrangements to serve personal and partisan ends of those who control [Pillai 2001]. There is a discernible shift in the methodology of dealing with the opposition or rivals – the use of brute force, the threat of guns and death. Each political grouping in the region benefits from this armed quasi-legal force whose services are often used to settle political scores and intimidate rivals.29 “Accords” with terrorists and their over-ground representatives, place no constraint whatsoever on any others from seeking to replicate the success of those who have already risen to prominence along the route of violence. Terrorism thus becomes a rational strategy to achieve both political and personal ends through the use of violence and intimidation both through the instrumentalities of the state and at times with the complicity of the state’s agencies.

    V Conclusion

    The armed insurrections in the region have tested the Indian military might for over four decades. The fundamentalist engineering underway in the region and the linkages between some of the prominent ethnic militant movements and Islamic fundamentalists are far too real to be ignored. However, till date there has been no coordinated policy to tackle the situation. The Indian conceptual model for counter-insurgency operations is a linear one. The central government intervenes by deploying the army after the state government has failed to effectively deal with the situation. The role of the army is to create a situation, which would bring the insurgent to the negotiation table and thus result in a ceasefire declaration. The negotiation if successful would lead to a political solution which would imply the grant of statehood/union territory status/autonomous district council along with other measures to safeguard the identity and culture of the indigenous people. This results in the normalisation of the idea of exclusive homelands for ethnically defined groups and in turn creates and sustains a vicious circle of violence and ethnic cleansing in the region.

    However, against the background of the international cooperation against terrorism, the insurgency environment in the region has undergone a change. “Insurgency fatigue” seems to have set in which is evident in the steady erosion of popular base of all insurgent groups and the growing public pressure for the peaceful resolution of grievances. However, in a scenario where a multiplicity of organisations are operating, negotiations with some have led to the escalation of violence by others. The continuous demographic destabilisation of the region on account of unchecked migration continues to be the most significant obstacle to peace in the region. Indiscriminate external support to all terrorist outfits, irrespective of ideology creates further barriers to peace. The lucrative criminal economy of terrorism and a counter-terrorism policy that seems to reward the terrorist does not do much to improve the situation. The government’s accretion of emergency powers, the devaluation of debate and dissent and the assault on liberals are some of the serious consequences of continued violence in the region.

    The prospects of peace in the region remain mixed. In the post-9/11 scenario, there have been efforts to curb terrorism in the region through joint efforts. The December 2003 move by the Bhutanese government to flush out terrorists from their base camps in the country, at least partly, reflects the strengthening of inter-governmental efforts to restore normalcy in this troubled region. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has also taken some positive initiatives in this direction. The summit declaration issued at the conclusion of the first BIMSTEC summit in Bangkok, attended by the heads of governments of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, on July 31, 2004 expressed grave concern at the continuing threat of international terrorism and transnational crime that had adversely affected the economic and social progress of the peoples of the BIMSTEC region. In this regard the setting up of a BIMSTEC joint working group on counter-terrorism is an important step. The changed global attitude towards terrorism has been instrumental, to some extent, to induce some of the terrorist groups to come to the negotiating table. However, the security concerns in the region can be best addressed by a mix of military action and political settlement along with the constant monitoring of the borders and evolving a mechanism that would contain and regulate migration. All this calls for a forward looking security doctrine for northeast India that would not only restore the rule of law and constitutional politics in the region, but would also address both military and non-military security concerns.




    [This research was made possible by the generous support of the Commonwealth Commission, UK and the International Policy Institute at King’s College, London. The author sincerely thanks Chris Smith, senior research fellow, International Policy Institute, King’s College, London and Deepak Mishra, associate professor, CSRD, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for their critical inputs and valuable suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper.]

    1 The Siliguri Corridor’s dimensions extend lengthwise approximately 200 km with a width varying between 20 and 60 km. While every other part of India is joined integrally to the mainland, the north-east hangs on a narrow stretch of land between Nepal and Bangladesh.

    2 The Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution (Article 244(2) and Article 275 (1)) provides small tribal communities, disadvantaged by lack of opportunity – educational, political and numerical – extensive powers through the system of autonomous district councils to protect their tradition and their lands.

    3 The insurgency in Nagaland, Manipur and the rebellion of the Mizo National Front in 1966 fall in this category. 4 These conflicts are internecine in nature. Several conflicts in Manipur, Tripura, Nagaland and Assam fall in this category. 5 These kinds of conflicts are evenly spread across the region in all the seven states.

    6 There are over hundred terrorist groups operating in the region, ibid, p 5. Also see South Asia Terrorism Portal; Countries; India; Terrorist Groups, accessed on March 1, 2005.

    7 The region does not enjoy significant political clout in the national decision-making process. The representation of north-east India in the 524 member lower house of the Parliament is: Assam-14, Arunachal Pradesh-2, Meghalaya-2, Nagaland-1, Mizoram-1, Manipur-2 and Tripura-2.

    8 Hazarika, Sanjoy (1992), ‘Bangladeshisation of Assam’, The Telegraph, February 6. Also see, T V Rajeswar (1996), ‘Migration or Invasion?’ The Hindustan Times, February 7; Hazarika, Sanjoy (1994), Strangers of the Mist, Viking Publishers, New Delhi; Saikia, Anup (2002), ‘Global Processes and Local Concerns: Bangladeshi Migrants in Assam’, Dialogue Quarterly, Vol 3, No 3, pp 99-126; ‘Who Will Bell the ‘Illegal Immigration’ Cat?’, Times of India, May 26, 2005.

    9 See Anindita Dasgupta, ‘Thinking with the Head: Foreign Nationals in Assam’, The Daily Star, Dacca, Vol 2, No 252, May 6, 1999; Anindita Dasgupta, ‘Political Myth-making in Post-Colonial Assam’, Himal South Asia, Vol 13, No 8, 2000, pp 14-23; S K Dass, ‘Immigration and Demographic Transformation of Assam, 1891-1981’, Economic and Political Weekly, May 10, 1993, pp 850-59.

    10 Bhuyan (ibid), p 80. Also see, Anup Saikia, op cit, Ref 17.

    11 Hazarika, op cit, p 121. Also see, Oinam Sunil, ‘North-East Tinderbox’, Times of India, May 24, 2005.

    12 ‘ISI, Al Qaida Assisting Assam Militants’, Times of India, May 27, 2004. ‘Whose Sonar Bangla?’ Times of India, December 12, 2004. Also see, Alex Perry, ‘Deadly Cargo’, Time Asia, October 21, 2002.

    13 The Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Khaleda Zia is in power with a fourparty alliance together with the Jammaat-e-Islami, Islamic Oikyo Jote, and the Jatiyo Party (M). This political arithematic has brought Bangladesh closer to the furtherance of the Islamic agenda. See Bertil Lintner ‘Bangladesh Extremist Islamist Consolidation’ available online http//

    14 Report of the Group of Ministers on National Security available online Also see, Bibhu Prasad Routray, ‘Managing the Tripura – Bangladesh Border: Issues and Challenges’, available online accessed on January 25, 2005. Also see ‘CMs Seek More Security along Border’, Times of India, April 16, 2005.

    Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

    15 ‘Unwanted Force’, North-East Sun, Vol 3, No 19, New Delhi, May 1-14, 1998, p 8.

    16 Bajpai, op cit, p 103-04. See ‘ISI Now Spreading Its Tentacles Eastwards’, The Times of India, April 16, 2005.

    17 ‘Does ULFA Have Camps in CHT?’ Sentinel, June 29, 2002. Also see ‘India Seeks Closure of 155 Ultra Camps in Bangladesh’, Assam Tribune, May 12, 2003. Also see ‘Whose Sonar Bangla?’ Times of India, December 12, 2004.

    18 North-East Sun, Vol 4, No 9, December 1-14, 1998. See, ‘ULFA, NDFB, KLO Form New Outfit in Bhutan’ Assam Tribune, July 17, 2003. Also see ‘The Nepal Game Plan’, available online ntoday/extra/isi-rep/index.html assessed on February 28, 2005.

    19 ‘Ulfa Men Get NSCN (K) Training’, Times of India, February 16, 2005.

    20 International Institute of Strategic Studies, Armed Conflict Data Base available online, http: // /armedconflict/mainpages/ dsp_conflictsummary 1D+171,172,173,174&180 accessed on March 1, 2005.

    21 Nepram, Binalakshmi (2002), South Asia’s Fractured Frointer: Armed Conflict, Narcotics and Small Arms Proliferation in India’s North East, Mittal Publications, New Delhi. Also see ‘Southeast Asian Arms Trail to India’s Northeast’, available at November 15, 2002 accessed on February 28, 2005.

    22 India’s north-eastern states are among the least developed states of India. In the 1990s, after the initiation of the economic reforms, the share of the region in the country’s national income has steadily deteriorated, notwithstanding some differences among the individual states. The manufacturing sector in the region continues to remain small and its share in the net domestic product has gone down during the 1990s. See, M P Bezbaruah and M K Dutta, ‘Economic Transition in the North-Eastern Region Before and After Liberalisation’, Assam Economic Journal, Vol 14, 2001.

    23 The unemployment rate in the north-eastern region is almost double the all-India figures. In the urban sector male youth unemployment is phenomenally high at over 77 per cent compared to the national average of nearly 40 per cent. See N Srivastav and A Dubey, ‘Unemployment in North-eastern Region of India: An Inter-State Comparison for the Year 1993-94’, paper presented at workshop on Employment-Unemployment situation in India, organised by V V Giri National Labour Institute, Guwahati, March 26-27, 2002.

    24 Sahni, Ajai ‘The Terrorist Economy in India’s North East’ available online in article5.htm, 4 accessed on February 1, 2005. Also see, ‘NSCN Sounds Oil Warning’, Times of India, May 3, 2005.

    25 North-East Sun, November 1-14, 1998, p 18.

    26 In this connection it needs to be noted that all the states in the northeast are special category states which means that 90 per cent of the plan assistance is grant and only 10 per cent loan. The formula for the other states in the country is 30 per cent grant and 70 per cent loan. The central devolution to the states in the north-east accounts for over 80 per cent revenue receipts in the region and development expenditure as a percentage of revenue expenditure is higher than the national average at least by 10 percentage point. The per capita income in the region is Rs 5,070 per annum as compared to the national average of Rs 4,485. However much of the development package has ended up financing militancy through the enveloping economy of extortion and collusion. See, Ajai Sahni, op cit.

    27 “Rural development” is another lucrative sector and it is estimated that as much as 70 per cent of all funds available to the state governments is systematically siphoned off under a well-organised network of the militants, contractors, civil servants and members of the political executive. Sahni, op cit.

    28 There are an estimated two to five million people infected with HIV in India today. Among the states, Tamil Nadu in the south, Maharastra in the west and Manipur in the north-east are the worst-affected. While in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu the infections are mostly due to heterosexual contract, injecting drug use is the main problem in Manipur, where 55 per cent of drug users are HIV-infected and 1 per cent of women attending antenatal clinics are infected with HIV. See asg/hivindia.html and Although the estimates of AIDS-infected persons vary widely and there is a dearth of reliable statistics on the issue, according to the estimates of the National AIDS Control Organisation, as on May 31, 2004, of the 70,453 AIDS cases in the country, 1,238 were found in Manipur, 423 were reported from Nagaland and 52 were found in Mizoram. See indianscene/overv.htm accessed on February 2, 2005. Also see, Sanjoy Hazarika, op cit, p 322.

    29 The impact and efficacy of such a demonstration effect is evident from the proliferation of militant groups in the north-east India. Assam has over 30 such groups that find their justification in a variety of tribal, subtribal and community identities and ideologies. Tripura too has over 30 such groups, and a thriving “kidnap industry” that accounts for over 70 per cent of all kidnappings in the entire north-east region; Manipur has 35 groups. Even the “peaceful states”, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh have also seen a proliferation of such groups. See, K P S Gill, ‘State Must Fight Terrorism Industry’, The Pioneer, March 31, 2001.


    Bajpai, Kanti P (2002): Roots of Terrorism, Penguin, New Delhi, p 62.

    Baruah, Sanjib (2005): Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp 16-17.

    Bezbaruah, Madan P (1996): ‘Cultural Sub-Nationalism in India’s North East: An Overview’ in Mitra K Subrata and Lewis Alison R (eds), Subnational Movements in South Asia, Westview Press, Oxford, pp 178-79.

    Bhuyan, J C (2002): ‘Illegal Migration from Bangladesh and the Demographic Change in the NE Region’, Dialogue Quarterly, Vol 3, No 3, pp 71-82.

    Hazarika, Sanjoy (2000): Rites of Passage: Border Crossings, Imagined Homelands, India’s East and Bangladesh, Penguin Books, New Delhi, p 7.

    Kaldor, Mary (1999): Organised Violence in a Global Era, Polity Press, Cambridge, p 78.

    Lintner, Bertil (2002): ‘Bangladesh: A Cocoon of Terror’, Far Eastern Economic Review, April 4.

    McCord, Ariline and William McCord (1972): ‘Ethnic Autonomy: A Sociohistorical Synthesis’ in Raymond Hall (ed),Ethnic Autonomy: Comparative Dynamics, Pergamon Press, New York, p 427.

    Pillai, K S (2001): ‘Three Matryoshkas: Ethnicity, Autonomy and Governance’, paper presented at a seminar on ‘Addressing Conflicts in India’s North East’ organised by the Institute for Conflict Management at India International Centre, New Delhi, June 25-27.

    Pillai, S K (2002): ‘Insurgencies in Northeast India’, Aakrosh , Vol 5, No 17, pp 31-52.

    Sahni, Ajai and J George (2001): ‘Security and Development in India’s North-East: An Alternative Perspective’ in K P S Gill (ed), Terror and Containment Perspectives of India’s Internal Security, Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi, pp 295-318.

    Saikia, Jaideep (2003): ‘Terror sans Frontiers: Islamic Militancy in North East India’, Occasional Paper, Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security, Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois.

    Verghese, B G (1997): India’s Northeast Resurgent: Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development, Konark Publishers, New Delhi, p 2.

    Weber, Max (1979): Economy and Society, University of California Press, Berkeley, p 395.

    Wilkinson, Paul (2001): Terrorism versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response, Frank Cass, London, p 46.

    Economic and Political Weekly

    available from:

    Churchgate Book Stall

    Churchgate Station Opp Indian Merchants Chamber Churchgate Mumbai - 400 020

    Dear Reader,

    To continue reading, become a subscriber.

    Explore our attractive subscription offers.

    Click here

    Back to Top