Nations accustomed to making episodic responses to high-profile security events run the risk of missing out subterranean trends and realities. Wang Qing, a Chinese woman spy masquerading as a television reporter, was recently arrested and deported after she visited the headquarters of the NSCN(IM), a Naga rebel group, in Hebron, some 30 km from Dimapur. But the news attracted little attention. The authorities say she admitted to being a spy for the People’s Security Bureau, a Chinese intelligence agency. She had had a four-hour-long closed-door session with T. Muivah, a rebel leader who is holding talks with the Indian government. The rebel group, however, would have the Indian government go by what its spokesperson Phunthing Shimrang says—that “the general secretary (Muivah) has made it clear we are holding talks here and have no relations with China”.
Of late, the security discourse pertaining to the Northeast has been marked by good news: peace engagement with the rebels, improved cooperation from Bangladesh, dissent within insurgent groups and so on. But, in a region that has a 5,215-km international border as opposed to just one per cent of that with the Indian mainland, the external factor, though pivotal, is often glossed over. China, with which India has an uneasy security relationship, shares a border of nearly 1,561 km with the northeastern states. It has a dubious record of meddling with insurgent groups there. There was a lull since the mid-’80s, but there is increasing evidence of China reviving its covert offensive in the region. Chinese support to rebel groups has waxed and waned in accordance with the content and direction of our bilateral relations, their evaluation of the strength and grit of New Delhi, the viability of insurgent groups.
Naga rebels were the first to establish transborder contacts, in the early ’60s. The 1962 Indo-China war only catalysed the process. Facilitated by Pakistani intelligence in Dacca, Kughato Sukhai, the self-styled Naga prime minister, wrote to Chinese leaders on May 29, 1963, alleging persecution and oppression by India. He exhorted China to “honour and follow their principle of safeguarding and upholding the cause of any suppressed nation of Mongolian stock”. In November 1966, China welcomed a 300-strong contingent of Naga rebels led by Thinusilie and Muivah. Trained, and laden with huge quantities of arms and equipment, the contingent returned in January 1968 and established a huge camp in the Jotsoma jungles. When Indian forces attacked it in June that year, they recovered Chinese weapons and incriminating documents.
These initial interactions of northeastern insurgent groups with China gradually expanded. Soon, it came to patronise, train and arm Mizo, Meitei, Kuki and Assamese insurgents. Procurement of weapons from China’s Yunnan province, their transportation into India across Myanmar or via the sea route, arrangements for money transactions, liaison with Thai insurgents—all this got institutionalised over the years.
Recent developments, though coming after a long lull, indicate a major policy shift on part of China, one that should give India cause for worry. In October 2007, on the invitation of the Chinese authorities, Anthony Shimray, in charge of the NSCN(IM)’s foreign affairs, visited China and met Lee Wuen, head of the intelligence unit of Yunnan province (of which the deported spy was an operative) and other officials in Dehong Mangshi, near Kunming. He handed over to the Chinese a letter from Muivah, self-styled “prime minister” of NSCN(IM), naming Kholose Swu Sumi, a Sema Naga from Zunheboto, their “permanent representative” in China. The Chinese welcomed this and wanted Kholose to keep them updated on the movements of the Indian army, particularly in Arunachal, the activities of the Dalai Lama and Tibetans and on the NSCN(IM)’s peace talks with the Indian government. In April 2009, it was the turn of Isak Chisi Swu, the NSCN(IM) president involved in talks with New Delhi, to visit China.
Paresh Baruah of ULFA, too, visited China in 2010. Reports say he led a group of 80 cadres which received training and weapons in Yunnan province. This is significant, for the Maoists are known to be sourcing weapons from ULFA.
China’s renewed interest in insurgencies in the northeastern states cannot be wished away, coming as it does in the backdrop of its increasing aggressiveness, military activities in border areas, claims on Arunachal Pradesh and the links of the Maoists with insurgents in the Northeast. Engaging the rebels in talks will alone not suffice. New Delhi must display greater clarity of vision. Mistaking talks with insurgent groups as an end rather than a means to an end will push us into a self-made strategic trap.
(The writer, ex-director of the Intelligence Bureau, now heads the Vivekandanda International Foundation, Delhi.)