TIME: 8 pm; Place: Circular Road, Dimapur, Nagaland. Dusk has cast its shadow on the town's deserted main road, lit as it is by low-voltage street lamps and an occasional flashlight of a passing police vehicle. There's no curfew but the street is empty barring a few stragglers and paan shop owners. Suddenly, a Maruti Gypsy appears out of nowhere, screeching to a halt in the stillness of the dust-laden night. Four Naga boys, all below 20, in conventional teenage gear—Levis and Nikes—jump off the vehicle and move towards a Marwari businessman's sprawling house. A closer look shows that they are carrying M-20 pistols with snipers and walkie-talkies, which operate in a 200-km radius.
Meet the new generation of Naga militants: unemployed, semi-literate and high on a heady combination of guns and money. In a state with a history of insurgency, a deep-seated feeling of alienation and virtually no avenue for self-employment, militancy is fast becoming an attractive career option—and extortion, a cottage industry. Investigations conducted by Outlook show that the new breed of underground militants, or 'UGs' as they are popularly called, are mostly school and college dropouts, driven not so much by lofty ideals as by hopes of making a quick buck. "Extortion by militants is actually an indirect tax in the state," says G.K. Pillai, joint secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs.
Consider this: Limamark Tangkhul, 26, a graduate from New Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia and now a 'Second Lieutenant' with the NSCN (I-M)'s military wing, joined the ranks of the 'UGs' after all his efforts to secure a government job failed. "I sat for the UPSC, NPSC and even the NDA, since I was always attracted to some kind of a military job," he confesses. Tangkhul, who has been trained in Bangladesh and Burma, feels that the movement has become increasingly organised in the past few years. "It's because more educated youth are joining the ranks and the movement has moved away from villages."
At 17, Vesodolu Chakesang, a Class VIII dropout and a Jackie Chan-film buff, felt that studies were a "waste of time" and that she wanted an action-packed life. Vesodolu, who was arrested under the NSA for carrying 'command certificates' (correspondence for communicating messages between the militants), has been schooled in all guerrilla warfare tactics, can operate an AK-47 and is anxiously awaiting her release from Dimapur Central Jail. "My parents feel I am doing something useful. What is wrong in this?" she says. Not much, since joining the ranks of militants has social legitimacy in the state.
In the Dimapur Central Jail, for instance, the 'UGs' get reverential treatment. "They are like heroes to most people," says a prison staffer. Adds Hushka, a local MLA: "It is the romance of being associated with something adventurous and heroic which is attracting a lot of people."
Another motivating factor for the youth is the incentive of foreign travel and postings. The educated 'UGs' are invariably sent abroad as publicity managers and spin doctors. Says Limamark: "I do have a good chance of being sent on a foreign assignment because I am better educated than the rest." While on the face of it, the Isaac-Muivah faction networks with the Baptist Church and other human rights organisations all over the world apparently to garner ideological support for their movement, intelligence reports show that these trips are actually used to coordinate arms supplies and aid.
In fact, chairman T. Isaac, who is based in Thailand, actually coordinates the accommodation and training of the fresh recruits in Bangkok. Their list of supporters is quite impressive too. Apart from being members of the Unrepresented Peoples' Organisation (Unpo), an NGO headquartered at the Hague, this NSCN faction is affiliated to foreign agencies like the Asian International Alliance for Self-Determination, the European Alliance for Indigenous People and the United Nations' Commission for Indigenous People.
But what is a bonus for the youth is perhaps the professional touch that marks all militant operations. In 1994, the Isaac-Muivah faction advertised for 'militants' in Nagaland Banner, a local newspaper, offering as much as Rs 15,000 to each fresh recruit. Depending on their aptitude, the recruits were then placed in different wings of the parallel administration being run by the NSCN (I-M).
For instance, those with a head for bookkeeping and accounts were usually placed in the finance department which is run by 'finance minister' Qhevihe Chishi Swu and his deputy Q. Tuccu. Swu, who was arrested under the NSA last year and is presently in Dimapur jail, has worked out an elaborate system of taxation and the money collected is used for the upkeep of cadres. Says Swu: "Our boys serve notices on the assessees in advance and people pay quite willingly." While Swu estimates that his faction collects a monthly tax of Rs 3 lakh, intelligence agencies claim that the total booty gathered by all militant factions would work out to a whopping Rs 1 crore.
The other tax collectors in the otherwise tax-free state are the NSCN (Khaplang)—a breakaway group of the Muivah faction—and the Third Force (which, according to Intelligence Bureau reports, comprise renegades from both factions employed by politicians as a private army). But the Isaac-Muivah group is the most organised and perhaps the largest employer of youth in the state. Says R.H. Raisinh, 'home minister', NSCN (I-M): "We have a very good network abroad. Nearly 32 countries support us and our cadres are trained by the best in the world." And that's no idle claim. Intelligence reports available with the Union Home Ministry show that military recruits of the NSCN (I-M) are regularly trained by the Palestinian Liberation Army in Thailand and Bangladesh, apart from being logistically assisted by the Pakistan's ISI and the LTTE. The local administration, in fact, feels that it is the allure of the international crime arena that attracts a lot of youngsters. Or perhaps, the thrill of handling sophisticated weaponry. Consider the range of their arsenal: AK-47s, AK-56s, G-3 and G-4 rifles, US-Carbines, M-16s, Self Loading Rifles, M-20 pistols and snipers, M-22 sub-machine guns, M-21 semi-rifles, rocket launchers, Chinese hand grenades and rocket propel grenades.
"It's quite a contrast to what we have. The Nagaland Police has a few SLRs and 303s. There's just no comparison," says S.T. Sangtham, superintendent of police, Dimapur. What would also perhaps evoke the envy of the local police is the NSCN (I-M)'s organisational capabilities and communication network. Designed on the lines of the Indian Army, the military wing has 'Maj. Gen.' V.S. Atem as the 'chief of the army staff', followed by his deputy, Col. Hanshi. The foot soldiers—an estimated 5,000 in number—are divided in 15 battalions, each headed by a commander. Says a senior official of the Union Home Ministry: "Till the Centre tackles the basic issue of employment generation, there can be no solution to the impasse." Considering the fact that as many as 10,000 Naga applicants line up for every 10 vacancies in the Indian Army, the answer does appear to lie there.