The story repeats itself again in Assam. Either you are pro-talks or anti-talks when it comes to insurgencies in the Northeast.
It started with the Naga insurgency. When the moderates within the Naga National Council (NNC) signed the Shillong Peace Accord with the union government in 1975, the hardliners within the NNC like Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu broke away from the NNC and formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland—(NSCN), which got further divided along leadership lines in 1988. The Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) in Assam faced an identical situation in 2003 when it broke into the pro-talks and anti-talks faction after a cease-fire was signed with the union government. The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) also split into pro-talks and anti-talks factions after the 2004 cease-fire.
The same story is now repeating itself with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).
In 2009, the chairman of the ULFA, Arabinda Rajkhowa along with other leaders like Sashadhar Choudhary and Chitrabhan Hazarika were arrested in the Assam-Bangladesh border and were subsequently released after they agreed to hold peace talks with the union government. Rajkhowa, it may be noted, was in support of peace talks even before he was arrested and had sent feelers to the government. The only major leader of the ULFA, Paresh Barua, Commander-in-Chief, was against talks and managed to slip off to Myanmar during that period.
In the wake of formal peace talks between the union government and the ULFA, Paresh Barua has now declared a new anti-talks ULFA faction. Constituting a 16 member central committee, the new outfit has ousted Rajkhowa as the Chairman of the ULFA and has replaced him with an unknown figure: one Dr Abhijit Barman.
Almost no police intelligence exists on Barman raising doubts on whether he is a real person or a fictitious character. To be sure, the prefix Dr to Burman’s name is seen by many to be a clever move by Paresh Barua giving one the impression that someone highly educated has now taken over the leadership of the new ULFA faction.
The only man who has the intellectual fervour and charisma within the ULFA is Rajkhowa, who is the ULFA ideologue and founding member. Paresh Barua, while skilled in military matters, cannot hope to replace Rajkhowa’s ideological leadership and charisma. Hence, many say, the creation of a fictitious person as the new Chairman, with the honorific pre-fix Dr to boot.
On the other hand, some argue, it could be a genuine master-stroke by Barua, to name a person, who has completely escaped the radar of police intelligence, a highly unlikely proposition given intense police profiling of ULFA leaders.
Nevertheless, the new ULFA faction has been created and its Chairman —fictitious or not, Dr or not — Barman has issued a press statement saying that sovereign Asom is the only solution to the Assam-India conflict.
It is also clear now that Paresh Barua is working out of Ruili in Yunnan province in China. Ruili is a border town in China connected to northeastern Myanmar. It is a main transit point for drugs and small arms. Its population is a mix of Han, Burman, Thai, Vietnamese and so forth. Without this kind of safe base area, it would have been near impossible for Barua to keep issuing threats against India.
In fact, the China factor has always been critical with regard to insurgencies in the Northeast. China began to aggressively support revolutionary movements across the world after the Communist takeover in 1949. Thereafter, it provided strong political, economic and logistical support to various insurgent groups in Northeast India in order to counter Western imperialism and Soviet revisionism in Asia. In return, most of these insurgent groups supported the “One China policy” with regard to Taiwan.
The Nagas were greatly inspired by the Chinese ideas of “Peoples’ War” and “protracted struggle”. In 1966, Muivah, then member of the NNC led a 130 strong Naga guerrilla force in a three month trek to Yunnan province in China mostly helped by the Kachins. He later on moved onto Beijing to get political training thus becoming the first Naga to visit China followed by Isak Chisi Swu and Moure Angami in 1968.
China’s help to the Mizos is also well documented subsequently followed by support to the United National Liberation Front of Manipur. However, Deng Xiaoping “good neighbour policy” had stopped Chinese aid to these insurgent groups except for the flow of illegal Chinese arms through the black market in Yunnan. Chinese support for Northeastern insurgencies appears to be revived.
There are two explicit reasons for this kind of implicit Chinese support to Northeastern insurgent leaders. First, it is a ‘bargaining chip' for China vis-à-vis the presence of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in India. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan-government in exile is an eyesore for China given the continuous questioning of its legitimacy over Tibet.
The recent developments with regard to China’s postponement of the 15th round of India-China border talks based on its concern that the Dalai Lama was speaking at a Buddhist Conference in New Delhi during the same period vindicates this aspect of Chinese insecurity over Tibet.
Second, given the West’s concern with China’s rise and India being seen by China as aligned with the West in this debate, harbouring Indian insurgent leaders like Barua provides China with a ‘poking stick’ to keep India in check, lest it forgets its own vulnerabilities. China is keenly aware about the strategic significance of Northeast India, given its 4, 500 km international border coupled with the fact that the region is home to nearly 72 ethnic insurgencies. This area also houses the disputed area of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as it territory.
Supporting insurgent leaders who have resorted to violence vis-à-vis the Dalai Lama is however a skewed strategy, to say the least. The official position of the Dalai Lama is that he does “not seek independence in Tibet, and wants China to give Tibetans ‘genuine autonomy’ in religious, cultural and educational spheres”. This position is contrary to what insurgent leaders like Paresh Barua espouse: violent means for secession of Assam from India. Hence, to maintain such support as a bargaining chip against the Dalai Lama could prove counter-productive for China in the long run.
Be that as it may, the lesson one can draw from armed factions in the Northeast is that a conflict which could have been resolved much earlier continues to drag on thereby coming in the way of development. It also creates a vicious environment of inter-factional killings.
This time around, with good visible policing and strengthened law enforcement mechanisms, a similar situation of ULFA violent factionalism must be averted so that Assam does not descend into violence again. This is a responsibility the state government owes to its people on an urgent basis.
Dr. Namrata Goswami is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed here are those of the author alone.
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