A review of the state of the various Northeast rebellions by a noted journalist of the region reveals that the quiet on the Naga and Mizo fronts is accompanied by a suddenly sputtering Tripura, and an ULFA that seems to be receiving support from Beijing.
When Luit Deuri surrendered with 300 rebels on 13 August, little did anyone realise his disclosures would unsettle basic perceptions. The former “G2” of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) made three major revelations, first in an interview to this writer (that was broadcast on the BBC) and then to the Assam police. Deuri said that ULFA was receiving weapons from China on a regular basis; that many of these consignments were now coming into ULFA’s bases in Bhutan from Tibet over the Himalayan passes; and that, in the past, ULFA had picked up weapons consignments from Chittagong port in Bangladesh, where they had been landed by the Chinese, concealed in cargo vessels. Deuri’s diaries are lost, but he remembers two dates when he took delivery of the weapons.
- Deuri says he first went to China in 1989 with Paresh Barua, chief of ULFA’s military wing. That was when some Chinese military officials assured them of arms supply through Burma. That was the beginning of the ULFA-China nexus.
- Deuri says he personally took delivery of one consignment of 143 rifles and 235 revolvers from China in one of four camps in Bhutan on 11 April 1999.
- On 5 February 1995, he had led a group into Chittagong to take delivery of a much larger consignment brought, he said, by the Chinese navy.
Indian intelligence officials have “fallen from the sky” over these disclosures, said one source. Meanwhile, Amiyo Samanta, a former Intelligence Bureau official who served long in north-eastern India, had this to say: “We knew for sure the Chinese armed and trained Naga, Mizo and Manipuri rebels in the 1960s and 1970s, but not after that. Deuri’s disclosures, if true, will unsettle our perceptions and revive fears of a China hand behind the insurgencies of North-east India.”
Many of Samanta’s serving colleagues agree. Said one senior intelligence officer, “We have taken Deuri’s statements with a pinch of salt, but if they turn out to be correct, we will have to formulate our strategies afresh.” In that case, he says, India will not only have to raise its level of worry on China, it will also have to “closely monitor” Bhutan, an ally it has wholly trusted before now.
His point is echoed by a member of the Indian Foreign Service (most officials interviewed for this article spoke only on condition of anonymity), who says, “If Bhutan can be used by China to ferry weapons to the ULFA, we will have to take a close hard look at what is going on there behind our hacks. Reports of anti-Indian lobbies in Bhutan hobnobbing with China will no longer be dismissed as fiction.” Indian suspicion on this regard was rightly or wrongly aroused after the People’s Republic asked for opening an embassy in Thimphu, after first assuring Bhutan of “totally accepting its position on the boundary question”.
Unlike the China connection, Deuri’s disclosures about Bangladesh and Pakistan were not entirely unexpected. About Pakistan, he reported to Indian interrogators that Islamabad had provided LISA with almost 200 kilograms of RDx and C4 explosives. Meanwhile, he said, Bangladesh’s office of the Director General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) continued to shelter senior ULFA leaders. Citing one example of the DGFI’s favours, Deuri said that in July 1997, the Special Branch of the Bangladesh police was all set to arrest ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa on his return to Dhaka from a human rights conference in Geneva. “The DGFI warned Rajkhowa of the Special Branch plans and escorted him to safety once he arrived at Dhaka airport,” said Deuri.
Deuri told Indian officials that a little-known group called Mukti Jhujharu (Soldiers of Freedom) now maintains liaison between the DGFI and the ULFA, who are also believed to be close to some BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) leaders. Indian officials say what worries them most with regard to ULFA’s backup in Bangladesh is Sheikh Hasina’s inability to secure complete control over the country’s military-security establishment. Indian intelligence agencies say their agents are in Bhutan, Bangladesh and Thailand trying to verify Luit Deuri’s claims.
Suddenly, those who have supported Defence Minister George Fernandes for describing China as “India’s enemy number one” are feeling vindicated vis-a-vis those who believe Sino-Indian friendship remains on a firm footing. For some Indian security officials in the frontlines, the concern about the red dragon is palpable. Says one such official, G.M.Srivastava, Additional Director General (Operations) of Assam Police, “We knew the Chinese would play games behind our backs. We have been outflanked by their penetration in Pakistan and Burma and we will have trouble in the Northeast if they start supporting the rebels.”
Says another official, with good understanding of the South Asian psyche, “At the end of the day, the Pakistanis are quite like us, as inefficient and corrupt. But the Chinese are a different kettle of fish altogether.”
According to one school of thought, India must do all it can to decimate the rebel groups in the Northeast, politically and militarily, not least by exploiting tribal factionalism—for the Chinese Communist state has a history of backing only winners. This point is supported by Li Feiyu, a professor at the College of Diplomacy in Beijing. She cites the example of how the Chinese “did everything” to prop up the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) for two decades, providing weapons, training and sanctuary. But then the tap closed abruptly in the late 1980s, when Beijing realised that the BCP could only “just hold some territory but not capture state power”. That was when, in an astounding volte face, the global headquarters of proletarian revolution started cultivating a military regime in Rangoon.
However, it is not difficult to see why the Chinese would not at least want to “try out” ULFA. After the splits within the Naga and Mizo rebel groups and largescale surrenders to Indian authorities, the Chinese strategists lost faith in the tribal guerrilla armies of the Northeast. Having always valued political manouverability more than military prowess, the Chinese saw the rebels as “politically inept and ideologically confused”, said an intelligence officer. The ULFA is the only separatist rebel group in the Northeast which provided an “alternative post-Indian vision” for Assam and perhaps the rest of the region.
The difference was that ULFA not only focussed its guns exclusively on the Indian state, but also came up with an all-encompassing ideology that sought to harmonise the interests of the sons of the soil with those of settlers. It publicly declared that it was fighting for “all dwellers of Assam (Asombashi)” rather than just for the Asamiyas (ethnic Assamese) (see Himal cover, August 2000). ULFA therefore has remained a potent force, with political capacity undiminished despite the military battering it has taken and large-scale desertion from its ranks.
ULFA has managed to reconcile its differences with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB)—the strongest Bodo rebel group. The relationship had become tense when the NDFB started receiving support from the Naga rebel group NSCN (Issac-Muivah), which led an angry ULFA leadership to forge links with Muivah’s bete noire, the Burmese Naga rebel leader S.S Khaplang. It was to ensure “total revolutionary unity” in Assam and the rest of the Northeast in the face of relentless military operations by the Indian state, that the ULFA leadership moved to sort out its problems with NDFB. Before Indian Independence Day this year, the ULFA and the NDFB chairmen issued a joint call for boycotting the celebrations.
At present, the source of funds for both the ULFA and the NDFB have dried up, the Assam government having come down hard on the tea companies and the businesses for the payoffs they used to make. With the NSCN(I-M) now in the fourth year of rather tardy negotiations with New Delhi, the Indian troops have been able to concentrate on the Assam counter-insurgency theatre. Says an intelligence officer, “Delhi has managed to keep the peace with the NSCN, militarily the strongest rebels in the Northeast. That’s by design, because the security forces can then totally concentrate on the Assam insurgency.”
Forced to the wall by the Indian security forces, ULFA and NDFB both switched to employing urban terrorist tactics, shedding their original Maoist guerrilla style. They also began development works, such as building dykes in flood-prone areas, and roads in remote villages. This may have given the two groups some publicity mileage, but the fact is that their basic plank does not attract mass support in a state where secessionism has never really found ready acceptance.
Over to the east, military strategists used to treat Tripura as a low-intensity counter-insurgency theatre. That was until the emergence last year of the Bengali rebel group, the United Bengal Liberation Front (UBLF). The authorities would routinely overlook the killing or abduction of scores of Bengalis by tribal guerrilla groups like the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) or the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF). It was only after the UBLF started launching counter-attacks against the tribals that New Delhi woke up to the threat of a Tripuran ethnic holocaust. Here, too, the Bangladesh factor is important.
Dhaka’s security forces recently launched large-scale operations against the Tripura rebel bases in its territory, particularly in the remote Sajek ranges of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. More than 30 NLFT rebels were killed, many arrested and the rest forced to flee. The NLFT is also involved in a running battle with the Reang tribal guerilla group, the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF). The BNLF resents the imposition of Christianity on the predominantly animist Hindu Reangs—and it is upset with the NLFT’s opposition to its demand for a separate Reang homeland in Mizoram. In June, the NLFT attacked the BNLF guerrillas after having invited them to an NLFT base inside Bangladesh for reconciliation talks. Sixty-nine BNLF rebels were killed, along with some NLFT guerrillas. The BNLF chief Suryamoni Reang was kidnapped and is believed to have died in NLFT custody. The BNLF hit back, killing 12 NLFT rebels at Saikarbari inside Tripura.
This eruption of tribal warfare, on the pattern of the Naga-Kuki feud that led to hundreds of deaths in the early 1990s, has further confused the situation in Tripura. The Reang groups have even said they will collaborate with the Bengali militants to fight the predominantly Tripuri and largely Christian NLFT. Add to that the relentless NLFT attacks against the ATTF, both inside Bangladesh and in Tripura, and one knows that the NLFT has far too much on its plate than what it can comfortably chew.
Pressed with the worsening situation in Kashmir, the Indian state has been adopting a new strategy to fight separatist or violent autonomy movements in the northeast of the country. The earlier strategy of splitting tribal groups or rebel armies and pitting one against another has been supplemented by a coordinated effort to develop military relationships with neighbours like Burma, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
The Indian Army Chief, General Ved Prakash Malik, has visited Burma twice this year to work out a military understanding with the Burmese military junta. These visits were followed by Burmese military operations inside Burma against the ULFA and the NSCN (Khaplang faction) inside Burma, as well as Indian pushback operations targeting the Chin and the Rakhine refugees, from which the outlawed Chin National Front or the National Unity Party of Arakans have drawn recruits.
India’s determination not to allow the Lhotsampa refugees from Bhutan to use its territory for marching into Bhutan has been reciprocated by a resolution in the Bhutanese Tshongdu (National Assembly) authorising Thimphu’s army to start military operations against the ULFA and the NDFB bases within the Bhutanese jungles. While for the moment, the Bhutanese are trying to use diplomacy to get the rebels to leave, it may not be very long before Thimphu pulls the trigger.
General Malik’s visit to Bhutan and Bangladesh in mid-2000 were followed by Bhutanese sabre rattling against ULFA/NDFB, and Bangladeshi operations against the Tripura rebels. Thus, New Delhi’s efforts over the past year to start building a network of military relationship with neighbours around the Northeast seem to be yielding fruit. Except, of course, for the new calculations which have to be suddenly done after Luit Deuri made his stunning revelations of Chinese support for ULFA. For no amount of discussions and joint negotiations can be fully effective if the biggest and most threatening neighbour of all is allowed to continue to do mischief—and that is the People’s Republic.