India’s Northeast saw new twists and turns in so far as its conflicts and peace processes were concerned. If peace appeared to be knocking at the doors with most of the major rebel groups coming to truce mode, the emergence of many smaller groups and break-away factions and continuing bloodshed, mostly because of internecine turf wars, painted the year with warnings of more violent conflict amidst the perceived calm.
The year ended on violent notes of ethnic turmoil between the Karbis and the Rengma Nagas in southern Assam. On 28 December 2013, Naga Rengma Hills Protection Force (NRHPF) executed the cold-blooded murder of ten Karbis, nine of them near Nagaland’s commercial hub Dimapur. This was, however, a retaliatory action against the killing of nine Rengma Nagas by the KPLT (Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers) in the Chokihola area in Karbi Anglong on 27 December 2013. The stage was set for intra-tribal feuding. Altogether, 3,131 people (1,033 women and 911 children), about 1,600 of them Rengma Nagas and the rest Karbis, Adivasis and Nepalis, have since been displaced from their homes and are taking shelter in nine camps. Describing the cause of the attack, Assam Home Secretary G D Tripathi said, ‘The KPLT had issued a quit notice to Rengma Naga community sometime back, and had also fixed a deadline, which the latter ignored.’ The community was targeted earlier in June 2013.
Behind the conflict, there could be livelihood issues, land encroachment, and insecurity created by the Nagas among the non-Nagas. However, the conflict between the two communities reveals a clear attempt at ethnic cleansing of the minority Nagas from the area. And such attacks always bear retaliatory measures by rebel groups representing the injured party, no matter how small the community is. The ethnic divide created by such conflicts between various communities cohabiting in the same area leads to continued ethnic conflict – a situation that seems to become unmanageable for the authorities. The government’s flawed policy while trying to meet the aspirations of different tribal communities on ethnic lines could be blamed for this. The conflict between the Garos and Rabhas in the Assam-Meghalaya border areas, for instance, is due to the fact that the minority Garos do not seem to accept the arrangement to stay within the Rabha Autonomous Council – the nomenclature itself implying that it is meant for the majority Rabhas. Here and in similar cases, the government should reflect upon their policy of granting autonomy and consider granting of regional autonomy in place of ethnic autonomy in the region, which is home to 220 ethnic groups.
On 21 November 2013, Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said that agitation for separate states by various groups had made western Assam and Karbi Anglong "vulnerable to ethnic and communal" tensions. Actually, ethnic mistrust and communal tension among the Bodos, Karbis and Dimasas in Assam, Garos in Meghalaya, and tribals of Tripura increased dramatically with the raising of statehood demands after the Congress Working Committee announced its decision to create a separate Telangana state on 3 October 2013.
The silent spread of the Maoism (Communist Party of India-Maoist) in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh is becoming a worrying factor. On 22 November 2013, the Union Home Minister said, ‘Maoist presence in Assam and border areas of Arunachal Pradesh have been noticed, in areas like Golaghat, Dhemaji, Lakhimpur and Tinsukia Districts of Assam and Namsai area of Lohit District in Arunachal Pradesh.’ Seven Maoist-related incidents were reported in 2013, in addition to 10 incidents in 2012, three in 2011 and one in 2010. Maoist activities in the region have been taken seriously by the Centre and the 27 September 2013 notification declared Tirap, Changland and Longding Districts of Arunachal Pradesh as ‘Disturbed Areas’ under AFSPA for a further period of six months with effect from 1 October 2013.
Nevertheless, positive developments were visible in the government’s peace negotiations with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-Progressive). On 12 September 2013, a Suspension of Operations agreement was signed between the Ranjan Daimary faction of NDFB, the central government and the state government, raising the number of insurgent groups talking peace with the government to 13 in Assam. However, facts presented in the State Assembly on 16 December 2013 by the Assam Forest Minister presented a disturbing picture. The Minister said that six new militant outfits had emerged in the state in the last two years. These include the Karbi National Liberation Army (KNLA), United Peoples Liberation Front (UPLF), Dima Halam Daogah-Action (DHD-A), Dima Jadi Naiso Army (DJNA), National Liberation Front of Bengalis (NLFB) and United Dimasa Kachari Liberation Front (UDKLF). On the other hand, in July 2013, in a tripartite meet, the government agreed to the ULFA’s demand for ST status for five tribes – Moran, Motok, Chutia, Koch-Rajbongshi and Tai-Ahom – thus pushing the peace process a step forward. The 8 October 2012 Memorandum of Settlement among the central government, government of Assam and the factions of Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) & DHD-J (Jewel group) is another significant development.
In Manipur, on 13 February 2013, three Meitei insurgent groups (The United Revolutionary Front, Kangleipak Communist Party Lamphel and Kanglei Yawal Kanna Lup) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government of India and the state government and joined the peace process. Earlier, on 17 July 2013, the United Tribal Liberation Army (UTLA) (SK Thadou Group) surrendered while a Suspension of Operation (SoO) Agreement was signed on 30 August 2013 between the United Revolutionary Front (URF), United Peoples Front (UPF), government of India and government of Manipur at New Delhi.
Talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) have not moved much during the past year. ‘The group has given up the demand for sovereignty. It has also given up the Naga integration demand for the time being,’ said Sambhu Singh on 9 December 2013, stating that the list of demands, which were negotiable, was submitted before the Centre only in July 2011 although the Naga peace talks began way back in 1997. ‘The real negotiation started after that. Demands that had been raised before were not negotiable,’ he said. Then there are two more groups, the NSCN Khaplang and Khole-Kitovi, which will have to be brought around, so it is a long haul for peace in Nagaland. The Naga peace talks reached a deadlock on 13 December 2013 with the interlocutor RS Pandey joining a political party and, therefore, relinquishing his job as New Delhi’s peace envoy.
At present, most of the outfits in the region have small cadre strengths ranging from about thirty to three or four hundred only, except the NSCN-IM, which has over 2500 cadres. In Assam, the most violent outfit in the state, the Songbijit faction of the NDFB, has 300 member,s and the Paresh Baruah faction of the ULFA has 240.