Assam was challenged by Pakistan

Shortly before rear India

by Subir Bhaumik

What India's Interior Minister P. Chidambaram says about the far north-east of his country sounds cautiously optimistic: “In this border region, our nation-building process has repeatedly encountered resistance from armed rebel movements since independence. But lately there is a prospect of peace. "

This means that the situation in the northeast differs considerably from that in the far west. Here the Indians see their neighbor Pakistan at work, who still supports militant Islamic groups in the disputed area of ​​Jammu and Kashmir (and possibly also Indian Muslims in other regions). In the northeast, on the other hand, says Nirupama Rao, Minister of State in the Foreign Office, the neighboring states of Bangladesh, Bhutan and Burma have started to support the Indian government in its fight against the separatist groups.

India has meanwhile concluded agreements to combat cross-border insurgency with Bhutan and Burma. There has also recently been an agreement with Bangladesh, which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina signed on her visit to Delhi in January 2010. Already at the end of 2009 there was a massive operation by the Indian military against separatist rebel groups from the northeast, which for almost twenty years have found refuge in Bangladesh and were also supported by the military intelligence service in Dhaka.

The United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa), one of the strongest rebel armies in the border region, suffered the greatest losses in the wake of the Indian operation. Almost the entire leadership around the "chairman" Arabinda Rajkhowa was arrested in Bangladeshi territory and extradited to the Indians. The same happened to more than a hundred guerrillas from other insurgent groups, and another 300 fled their camps across the border and surrendered to the Indian authorities. The government in Dhaka froze almost 40 accounts on which the rebel leaders had deposited a total of nearly 4 billion Taka (about 465,000 euros).

“Dhaka dealt a hard blow to these rebel groups; The Ulfa in particular is knocked out, ”claims the Indian defense expert Gaganjit Singh, a former major general. After the rifle aid from Bhutan and Bangladesh, Burma has also resolved to take limited action. So the rebels will soon find no refuge anywhere.

Without the support from across the borders, the rebel armies in northeast India would not have been able to withstand the blows of the mighty Indian military machine or the machinations of the politicians, who with various promises often succeeded in dividing the separatists. And since the insurgents are getting less and less help from abroad, the Indians hope to be able to turn their north-east into a real “growth region” - and that too with the help of their neighbors.

Bijoy Hanique, Minister for the Northeast Region in the Union government, believes significant domestic and foreign investment will flow into the country once the vicious circle of violence is broken. And the economist Jayant Madhab, who himself comes from Assam and used to work at the Asian Development Bank, agrees: “The investors stayed away for fear of the rebels. As a result, economic development stagnated, which in turn led to more dissatisfaction and increased activity by the rebels. Hopefully that will change now. "

It may, but it won't be as fast as Madhab and many others in northeast India would like it to be. It is true that Bangladesh allows the Indians to use the two large ports of Chittagong and Mongla as a transshipment point for goods that are to be transported from the Indian subcontinent to the northeast region. And in Burma they are allowed to use the port of Sittwe, from where the Indian northeast can be reached via the Kaladan River. But both countries have no money and expect India to pay for the investments in upgrading their ports, supplementary railroad lines, roads and waterways needed to cope with the additional volume of goods.

Together with China, Burma is supporting another important transport project: the expansion of the almost 1,800-kilometer Stillwell Road, which was laid out by the British during the Second World War. This trunk road through northern Burma would restore the old connection between Assam and the Chinese province of Yunnan and shorten the transport route to western China considerably, explains Rajiv Singh of the Indian Chamber of Commerce: "20 to 30 percent of India-China trade could be carried out via this road . That will make north-east India an important industrial location and trading center. ”All these plans are still just a long way off and in concrete terms little has happened so far.

Northeast India has a population of 43 million and an area of ​​around 246,000 square kilometers; it consists of plains, especially along the Brahmaputra, and mountainous regions. Administratively it is divided into seven states.1 The only territorial connection with the rest of India is the "Chicken Neck", which is only 22 kilometers wide at its narrowest point. So 98 percent of the northeast does not border on other Indian states, but on the neighboring countries China, Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.

The Mongolian heritage is still stronger

Most of the peoples of the northeastern states have Mongol ancestors who once immigrated from Southeast Asia or southwest China. This ethnic composition makes the northeast, in the words of ethnographer Peter Kunstader, a region that "reminds less and less of India and more and more of the adjoining highlands of Southeast Asia."

The population not only feels a cultural foreignness to the rest of India and rejects the post-colonial nation-building program that Minister Chidambaram in Delhi so proudly invokes. Many groups also insist on the right to self-determination and demand territorial sovereignty. To achieve these goals, militant rebel organizations have often instigated prolonged armed uprisings and carried out acts of terrorism. They even went so far as to drop bombs in crowded places.

Very often, however, these disparate ethnic groups fight their local rivals even more bitterly than the Indian rule. There is deep resentment between many of these ethnic groups, and it often happens that they claim the same territory exclusively for their own community. These conflicts have claimed at least as many victims as the uprising against the Indian authorities. These tensions are exacerbated by illegal immigration from neighboring countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal, but also from other Indian states. This not only shifts the demographic weight, but also brings the individual ethnic groups closer together.

The Indian central government has become accustomed to exploiting the divide-and-rule ethnic disputes instead of acting as a mediator to resolve the dispute. Indeed, it can be said that the differences between the divided ethnic groups of the region have made it easier for the Indians to keep the "problem of the northeast" under control. "This is one of the most important reasons why the separatist activities in the northeast have no chance of success," says political scientist Sabyasachi Basu Ray Choudhury. This wound may not heal as quickly, but there will never be a state secession, as in the case of Bangladesh, which has broken away from Pakistan, or East Timor, which is now independent from Indonesia. "

The northeast region is rich in raw materials such as oil and natural gas, but also in plant products such as tea and rubber, medicinal plants and fruits. Huge deposits of uranium have been discovered in the state of Meghalaya, which are of enormous importance for the Indian nuclear program. The government in Delhi is planning huge dams, especially in the sparsely populated state of Arunachal Pradesh in the far northeast. The aim is to use the huge potential of hydropower, which is stated to be around 40,000 megawatts.

The region is thus becoming a kind of power plant for the Indian economy, which, with its rapid growth, has an ever-increasing demand for energy. The resources of the northeast have not yet been exploited. On the contrary, the region was dependent on huge budget funds from the federal treasury: the inefficient bureaucracy ate up grants and loans from Delhi, which should have been used to finance development projects.

Delhi's new neighborhood policy ensures that the armed rebels no longer receive help from beyond the borders, but that does not mean that the insurgency will soon fall asleep. The mistrust is just too deeply ingrained for that. On the list that the South Asia Terrorism Portal on the Internet2 published, 115 rebel groups are listed for northeast India. 104 of them are currently still active. Of these, Delhi estimates only ten to twelve so strong that the Indian anti-terrorist units have to fight them seriously.

Some of these organizations - like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) - are real separatists fighting for an independent state; others, like the rebel groups of the Bodo in Assam, only want their ethnic group to form a separate Indian state. But most of the others just want to live in autonomous tribal areas. And while one group is primarily directing its operations against the Indian security forces and politicians, the other primarily feud with one another.

In the meantime, however, seven separatist organizations have announced that they want to join forces in the fight against Indian rule. In January, they issued a joint declaration calling for a boycott of Republic Day - an act of protest with a long tradition. The rebels also threatened to disrupt the celebrations with “coordinated attacks”. After a total of three bombs went off in Manipur and Assam on January 25 - there were 11 injured - state security measures were massively strengthened. But on Republic Day itself, which commemorates the entry into force of India's republican constitution on January 26, 1950, many celebrated in Assam, for example, who did not want to join the boycott. In Manipur, on the other hand, the shops were closed and people stayed at home.

The seven rebel groups operate in Assam, Tripura and Manipur. The situation is said to be worst in this state on the border with Burma.3 A total of The groups have 7,000 to 8,000 fighters who are well trained and also heavily armed because they can get Chinese weapons and explosives at low prices in Burma. "The number of insurgents is not gigantic," says Brigadier General a. D. Basant Ponwar, who formerly ran the Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS), "but because the rebels find some local support and know the terrain very well, you need a lot of soldiers here."

All seven allied groups are now rejecting the Indian peace offers and insisting on their demand for independence. At least two of them demand a corresponding plebiscite from Delhi in the states of Assam and Manipur. "If people speak out against independence in this plebiscite, we will lay down our arms and end our long struggle," Paresh Barua, one of the leaders of the Assam separatists, told me recently. However, the plebiscite must be held under the supervision of the United Nations.

Rajkumar Meghen, leader of Manipur's separatist organization, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), is in favor of a similar plebiscite. He calls on India to stop operations against the UNLF, which has already repulsed at least three major military offensives against its bases on the Burmese border. "The UNLF is the only separatist group that has managed to maintain control of much of the territory it holds," admits an officer of the military intelligence service. The colonel, who wants to remain anonymous, finds this worrying.

Even more worrying, however, is the human rights situation in Manipur and, in some cases, in Assam as well. The Manipur Police Chief has admitted that there were at least 62 controversial deaths in his state in 2009, in which police were brought to trial on suspicion of extrajudicial executions. Some of the fatalities were former fighters who surrendered, others were farmers or unemployed youth who were used by the rebel groups as couriers or informants.

In August 2004, soldiers from the Assam Rifles paramilitary unit in Manipur were accused of raping and killing a girl. There was a wave of protests. Fourteen elderly women undressed in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters in Fort Kangla and shouted: “Come out and rap us!” Human rights activist Irom Sharmila has been on hunger strike since 2000. With this she wants to force the repeal of the emergency decree, which gives the security forces in Manipur practically unlimited power, which they abuse again and again.4

After the girl's death, the federal government in Delhi appointed a five-person commission to reopen the case, chaired by Judge B. P. Jeevan Reddy, who sat on the Supreme Court until 1997. Sanjoy Hazirka, a member of the Reddy Commission, has already stated: "We are unanimously in favor of lifting the emergency decree, otherwise the human rights situation in Manipur and the rest of the northeast will not improve."

But the government has not yet implemented the recommendations of the commission it set up. The reasons are explained by Nandita Haksar, the best-known Indian lawyer for human rights issues, who has already brought many lawsuits against the Indian military for assaults against the civilian population in the north-eastern regions: “In Delhi, the security forces have a strong lobby and the German government is unwilling to cooperate to invest in these people, especially as long as there are repeated terrorist attacks and the mood in the rest of the country calls for a policy of the strongest hand. "

In Assam, too, the formation of a commission to deal with “covert murders” did not result in a judicial conviction. Police officers accused of contract killings of family members of Ulfa members by ex-rebels who had given up the fight were even promoted. "This commission to investigate extrajudicial executions became one farce," said Lachit Bordoloi, chairman of the Assam-based human rights group MASS (Manab Adhikar Sangram Samity).

The government in Delhi is apparently not fully aware that the illegal attacks by the Indian security forces are so outraged by the public in the states of the Northeast that many are willing to join the rebel groups for that reason alone. "If they kill my innocent family members, not only will I go underground, but also my brothers and sisters," said Mithinga Daimary, Ulfa's former "public relations secretary" who is imprisoned in Assam.

Many citizens in the rest of India are protesting against the brutalities in the northeast because the violence is spreading to other states. But these conflicts are about more than ethnic pride. It is also about land: with a great agricultural and resource potential that gives hope for significant oil, gas or ore deposits. The pursuit of political influence, economic power, or social prestige fuels the conflict. And another factor is playing an increasingly important role: Much of the violence stems from illegal activities such as drug and arms trafficking across the Burmese border. Many of these groups have long since forgotten their original “ethnic” motives and now act more like the Mafia.

Moral rebels became drug dealers

Even the oldest ethnic insurgency in the northeast - that of the Naga tribes - is infected. Both factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) have been negotiating with the government in Delhi for twelve years. Donald Ingti of the anti-drug police believes that this arduous process is being held up mainly by the fact that the NSCN leaders have entered into illegal businesses such as drug trafficking: “The long-standing skirmishes between the NSCN and the militias of the Kuki tribe are not only territorial To do disputes.It's also about controlling drug trafficking routes between the Burmese 'Golden Triangle' and India. ”The NSCN was once a strict Christian rebel group in which alcoholism and drug addiction were strictly punished. However, over the past few months, their leaders have been caught red-handed while smuggling heroin and amphetamines from Burma.

However, the Indian authorities are not very keen to put more pressure on the NSCN fighters as long as they keep the ceasefire signed with Delhi. Delhi hopes that this will ultimately deprive the rebels of the livelihood. It is only a matter of time, says GK Pillai, State Secretary in the Interior Ministry: "If we can force the strongest of these groups, the NSCN, to the negotiating table, the others will follow." We never thought much of violence, so we only rely on military action to a limited extent. We only do this to force the rebels to the negotiating table so that mutually acceptable solutions can be found through a dialogue. "

But the government is no longer relying solely on military force or financial incentives, offers of dialogue and divide-and-rule tactics in suppressing the ethnic uprisings, but recently also on offensive diplomacy towards neighboring states. However, the State Minister in the Foreign Office, Nirupama Rao, emphasizes: “We do not only expect our eastern neighbors to cooperate on security issues. We want to convince them that the transport links to Burma, Bangladesh and even China that existed before the partition of India should be restored in order to facilitate trade. That is the main thrust of our Ostpolitik. "

Under a prime minister who is an economist and whose constituency is in the northeast region, the focus of Indian politics has shifted from security to economic relations. "The northeast is increasingly viewed as a common transregional economic area," says Sanjib Barua, political scientist from Assam. But he also honestly admits that this vision can only take shape if there is a rethink in Delhi - and across India -: “India should view the Northeast as a part of itself - and not as hostile territory just because of its natural resources is important, but not because of the people who live here. "

Footnotes: 1 Arunachal Pradesh: 1.37 million inhabitants, Assam: 29.2 million, Manipur: 2.8 million, Meghalaya: 2.7 million, Mizoram: 1.05 million, Nagaland: 2.71 million ., Tripura: 3.5 million 2 3 At least one of these groups, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) from Manipur, works with the most militant Maoists in India and wants to work with them to fight “the bandit government in Delhi”. 4 Irom Sharmila is still force-fed in police custody to this day.

Translated from the English by Niels Kadritzke

Subir Bhaumik is an Indian journalist and India correspondent for the BBC World Service in Calcutta. In December 2009 he published the book "Troubled Periphery: Crisis of India’s North East" (Sage Studies on India’s North East).

© Le Monde diplomatique, Berlin

Le Monde diplomatique from 02/12/2010, by Subir Bhaumik