February 19, 2020
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Beginnings Of An End?

In the coming days, NSCN-IM is bound to see its popular support decline even further, even as peace in Nagaland remains miles away. Muivah, NSCN-IM's M, has already started talking about exercising the 'back to the jungle' option

Beginnings Of An End?

What is worrisome for Nagaland, however, is the prospect of the intensification of the internecine clashes between the NSCN-IM on the one hand and the NSCN-K and NSCN-U on the other. 

-- South Asia Intelligence Review
January 21, 2008 

Terror turned realtime in Nagaland in the early hours of June 4. Television cameras captured live footage as armed cadres of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Unification (NSCN-U) and the Isak-Muivah faction of the NSCN (NSCN-IM) exchanged fire in the Seithekima area, 15 kilometres off the commercial hub, Dimapur, in a clash that left 12 NSCN-U cadres dead. The NSCN-IM blamed the Unification faction of initiating the clash. In a separate clash in a nearby area, another two NSCN-U cadres were killed on the same day. 

Barely 20 days earlier, on May 16, in a similar pattern in the same area, 16 persons including 14 NSCN-U cadres and two civilians had been killed. The clash had occurred while NSCN-U cadres were returning after carrying out an attack on an NSCN-IM camp in a nearby area. IM cadres, waiting in ambush, hailed bullets on their unsuspecting rivals, giving them little chance to react, and decamped with their victims’ weapons. With bodies lying scattered, local people converged on the NSCN-IM’s Cease-fire Monitoring Cell at the 4th Mile area in Dimapur, demanding an explanation for such ruthless killings. Subsequent firing by the IM cadres claimed the lives of two civilians. 

Apart from the staggering number of deaths in these individual incidents, the incidents themselves come as no surprise to regular watchers of the Naga conflict and conform largely to the pattern of militant violence in Nagaland. In a state where the two principal militant factions [NSCN-IM and the Khaplang faction (NSCN-K)] have been under a cease-fire agreement with the centre, Nagaland records disturbing level of annual fatalities, with a consistent escalation over the years. Fatalities, mostly among the militant ranks as a result of factional clashes, claimed 97 lives in 2004, 99 in 2005, 147 in 2006 and 154 in 2007. According to the union ministry of home affairs (MHA), 25 fatalities were recorded in 2008 (till March 31). The Institute for Conflict Management database records another 48 deaths between April 1 and June 3 (a day before the June 4 incident). Total fatalities in the current year, consequently, already stood at 87, as of June 5, 2008. 

Interestingly, the NSCN-U, which has been in the thick of things in Nagaland since its inception in November 2007, has been a product of a move to unify the warring NSCN-IM and NSCN-K, which represented a tribal divide that has marked the Naga secessionist struggle since the 1950s. On November 23, 2007, armed cadres and some senior functionaries of both the IM and K factions converged at Hovishe under the Niuland sub-division in the Dimapur district to sign an inter-factional ‘truce agreement’, declaring the unification of both warring factions a common goal. The Agreement led to the birth of NSCN-Unification (NSCN-U), which remained stationed at Vihokhu, 25 kilometres from Dimapur. The IM leadership was critical of the development and made it clear that the Agreement was not acceptable to them. 

The NSCN-IM’s attitude was mostly rooted in the tribal divide within the group, which was brought into further prominence by the formation of the NSCN-U. The NSCN-U signified a revolt by the cadres belonging to the Sema tribe within the NSCN-IM against the overbearing presence of the Tangkhul tribe, to which the IM general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah belongs. The Tangkhuls have a marginal presence in Nagaland and are mostly based in the Hill district of Ukhrul in neighbouring Manipur. The NSCN-U has subsequently argued that the IM faction is trying to turn Nagaland into a ‘Gaza Strip’ to rehabilitate the Tangkhuls, with a view to undermine the native Nagas in the state. At least on three occasions this year, NSCN-U cadres have carried out attacks on Tangkhul Nagas in Dimapur. 

Inevitably, the birth of the NSCN-U has added to the instability parameters within Nagaland. Cadres of the new outfit, mostly drawn from the IM faction, retained the legacy of violence of their parent group. With its proximity to NSCN-K, the NSCN-U also faced no dearth of small arms and ammunition. A glimpse of the array of weapons in the possession of the NSCN-U was provided by a March 11 recovery of an AK-47 rifle with magazine, one .22 rifle, one double barrel 12 Bore gun, one 7.65mm pistol of Italian make with three magazines, one.38 revolver and two Chinese grenades, from six arrested NSCN-U militants in Dimapur. 

There is little doubt that the NSCN-U is being supported by the NSCN-K, which has apparently found a way out of its direct confrontations with the IM faction (the two principal factions have clashed only six times this year, thrice in the neighbouring state of Manipur and thrice in Nagaland) and is still being able to inflict losses on its bete noire. Both the NSCN-K and NSCN-U cadres have reportedly operated in tandem and a substantial amount of arms and ammunition has been transferred from the Khaplang camp to the NSCN-U cadres. Realising this, on May 10, the Cease-Fire Supervisory Board (CFSB) had asked the NSCN-K to shift its camp at Vihokhu in the Dimapur district to avoid clashes with the NSCN-IM, since the camp was not a ‘Designated Camp’. 

While clashes between the NSCN-IM and the NSCN-K, in previous years, were reported mostly from the districts of Kohima, Mon, Phek, Zunheboto, Mokokchung and Wokha, Dimapur has emerged almost as the sole location (with the exception of just one incident in Wokha) of the fighting between the IM and U factions. Since its inception, Unification cadres have been based primarily in and around Dimapur and have not ventured into the NSCN-IM strongholds in other districts. Dimapur, however, hosts NSCN-IM’s command headquarters at Camp Hebron and, consequently, accounts for a large concentration of its total of 3,000 cadres. 

Prior to the June 4 incident (and excluding the May 16 clash), the clashes between the U and IM factions in 2008 have included the following.

May 12: A clash between militants of the NSCN-IM and the NSCN-U was reported from ‘Tinali Teak Bagan’ between Xelhozhe and Seithekiema ‘A’ in the Dimapur district. No casualty was reported. 

May 5: In separate incidents, two civilians, including a college student, and a NSCN-IM militant were shot dead by suspected NSCN-U militants in Dimapur.

May 4: Two NSCN-U cadres were killed during a clash at Merapani in the Wokha district. (This was the sole incident of a clash between the two factions outside Dimapur). On the same day, NSCN-IM ‘lieutenant’ A. Pouken Zeliang, was shot dead by suspected NSCN-U militants in the Burma Camp area in Dimapur.

May 1: Two civilians and an NSCN-U cadre were killed during a clash at Old Showuba village under Niuland sub-division in the Dimapur district. 

April 30: One ‘Deputy Kilonser’ (minister), Nemalie Metha, and a ‘joint secretary’, Kahoi Chaplee, of the NSCN-IM were abducted by the rival NSCN-U from Dimapur. On the same day, an NSCN-IM ‘commanding officer’ in the Tamenglong district of Manipur, identified as L.Y. Shanga alias Yurthing, was killed when an explosive ‘accidentally’ went off at Camp Hebron in Dimapur. The NSCN-U, however, alleged that Shanga was ‘executed’ at Camp Hebron on the suspicion of his attempt to defect to the NSCN-U.

April 22: Two NSCN-U militants, ‘Captain’ Atovi and ‘Sergeant Major’ Pukheto, and two NSCN-IM militants, ‘privates’ Thachan Tangkhul and Y. Tangkhul, were killed during a clash between the two groups at Tenyiphe-I near St. Joseph’s School along the road towards Khopanalla in Dimapur. Two unexploded grenades were recovered by police personnel from the incident site. On the same day, a clash between militants of the NSCN-U and NSCN-IM was reported at Singrijan in the Dimapur district along the Assam-Nagaland border. No casualty was reported. 

April 17: Two cadres of the NSCN-U, identified as Alex Sema and Sukuithong, and one from the rival NSCN-IM, identified as ‘Lt.’ Shondhar, were killed, while another NSCN-IM cadre was abducted in three separate incidents of factional violence in Dimapur. 

March 28: Two NSCN-IM leaders, Hangsing and Longshen, were abducted from their respective houses by the NSCN-U. 
May 25: NSCN-U alleged that four of its cadres were abducted by the NSCN-IM in Dimapur and one of them was tortured to death. 

February 1: Three NSCN-IM militants, Tokishe G. Swu, Asangba Santam and Nikhuyi, and Swu’s wife were abducted by the cadres of NSCN-U from Dimapur. 

In addition, at least three clashes between the two factions were averted in the Dimapur district as a result of intervention by civilians. On May 14, irate villagers drove away cadres of both factions from Khehokhu, Hoito and Nihoto areas, where both the groups had converged to carry out attacks on each other. Previously, on May 8, people chased out NSCN-IM and NSCN-U militants engaged in a violent clash at Diphupar. On April 24, a factional clash between both factions was averted after people forced cadres belonging to both factions to vacate Diphupar ‘B’ and Ikishe villages. While civilian intervention for peace is an indication of the popular disenchantment with an overwhelming atmosphere of constant war and is a welcome scenario in trouble-torn Nagaland, the near absence of the state in peace-making has contributed to the significant collateral loss of civilian lives, as in the May 16 incident.

Several previous assessments have underlined that the cease-fire ground rules which are supposed to keep the armed cadres within the designated camps, and to control their movements and activities, have been violated with impunity over the years. The mere existence and non-enforcement of such ground rules has provided the militant cadres the licence to run a regime of extortion and abduction targeting not just the civilian population in the state, but also the transit traffic and travellers bound for neighbouring Manipur, on the National Highways passing through Nagaland.

A confirmation of the state of affairs, largely a product of a complacent union government, was provided by a MHA letter to the Nagaland government on January 29, 2008. The letter broadened the definition of cease-fire violations to include extortion in the garb of collecting ‘taxes’, abduction for ransom and killings, smuggling of arms and ammunition, issuing demand letters, issuing warning/threat azhas (orders) to senior politicians and bureaucrats, movements through and residence in populated areas with arms and in uniforms, inter-factional clashes and targeted killing of rival cadres, stand off between cadres and Security Forces (SFs) and unauthorised concentrations of armed cadres. The MHA letter further indicated that cease-fire violations involving commission of offences would be dealt with primarily by the state Police, with the support of Assam Rifles/Army wherever required. However, violations involving movements and stay in populated areas with arms and in uniforms and unauthorised concentrations would primarily be dealt with by the Assam Rifles or the Army. State police and other central forces would be co-opted wherever necessary.

The letter also included a newly formulated Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) for the Army/ Assam Rifles (AR), Central Para-Military Forces (CPMFs) and the Nagaland Police, which included the directive that, during joint operations, cordon should be established by the Army/AR and search operations should be carried out by the state Police / India Reserve Battalion (IRB) / Nagaland Armed Police (NAP) / CPMFs. However, only in exceptional circumstances where the Police make such a request, the senior most Army / AR officer present on the spot may assume command of all forces to deal with the situation. 

For some inexplicable reasons and in spite of the continuing clashes between the militant factions, the SOP has remained unimplemented for three and half months after the directives to this effect reached Kohima. After the May 16 incident the state government had asked for the implementation of the SOP, pleaded with the militant factions to vacate populated areas, and directed the Police and CPMFs to enforce cease-fire ground rules to pre-empt armed clashes between rival factions. On May 22, the state government also set a deadline of June 10 to evict all armed militants from civilian areas in all the 11 districts, especially from district Headquarters. However, it was not till June 6, that the Dimapur district administration conducted a thirteen-hour ‘flush out’ exercise in different colonies of Dimapur town and nearby villages. No such operation, however, had been carried out in any of the other districts till the writing of this report. 

As indicated repeatedly in earlier reports, the Nagaland state government’s role in the long-standing conflict has remained negligible and limited mostly to issuing of occasional pleas for ‘sanity’. While the earlier Congress regime headed by the present Governor to Goa, S.C. Jamir, was accused of favouring the NSCN-K, the Nephiu Rio-led Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government, which was re-elected in the March 2008 elections to the State Legislative Assembly, is believed to be close to the NSCN-IM. Such proximity has led Rio to maintain, on a permanent basis, that factional clashes are 'political' in nature and are largely unavoidable as long as the conflict exists. On May 10, Rio expressed his doubts regarding New Delhi’s ‘sincerity’ in talks with the militant groups, and said that there was no clear direction from the MHA about what the fate of talks with the NSCN-IM was to be. He asserted, further: "Definitely, the delay (in talks between NSCN-IM and centre) is the cause of all the problems. It is getting multiplied. We want to see the sincerity of the government of India and the underground groups to resolve it." 

Official complacency and complicity notwithstanding, the recent developments signify a moment of truth for the NSCN-IM, not just because its monopoly over violence is increasingly being challenged by other armed factions, but also due to a rapidly developing schism between the common people and the rebel group. For example, at a meeting organised by the local populace in Dimapur after the May 16 violence, speakers repeatedly questioned the rationale behind the continued bloodshed and the direction of the Naga struggle under the leadership of the NSCN-IM. While it might be easy for the insurgent outfit to dismiss such queries as part of the propaganda by sympathisers of rival factions, it remains a fact that the group is no longer the undisputed leader of the Naga movement, a position it laid claims to, in earlier years.

On May 19, 2008, a new militant group, the United Naga People’s Council (UNPC), another splinter from the NSCN-IM, was formally launched at an unspecified location in the Senapati district of neighbouring Manipur. UNPC has the purported objective of minimising the divide between the Hills and the Valley areas of Manipur, an objective that runs contrary to the NSCN-IM’s grandiose vision of a Greater Nagaland (Nagalim). Further, on June 3, four NSCN-IM senior cadres defected to the Khaplang camp, alleging that the IM faction is being run to satisfy the interests of few persons.

Evidently, irrespective of the fatalities it has been able to inflict on the NSCN-U, restiveness is fast catching up with the NSCN-IM top leadership. General Secretary Muivah, in media interviews, has started talking about exercising the ‘back to the jungle’ option if negotiations with the government of India do not progress satisfactorily. He is also trying hard to initiate a half-baked reconciliation effort with the NSCN-K. Such efforts, however, have limited utility as far as pressuring the government or cajoling his old adversary, Khaplang, to come to his rescue. In the coming days, NSCN-IM is bound to see its popular support decline even further, even as peace in Nagaland remains miles away. 

Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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