|Foreign fuel for the fire? Bengali Muslim houses burn in Assam’s Kokrajhar district (top); villagers flee (below)|
CHIANG MAI: India’s northeast finds itself connected to neighbors and the wider world in a way that worries policymakers in Delhi. Recent violent clashes between Muslims and tribal Bodo people in the northeastern state of Assam forced 400,000 to flee their homes, bringing the region and its wider ramifications under scrutiny. Pakistan, China, Burma, Bangladesh – and Christian and Islamic communities around the world – have stakes in the region’s conflicts.
For decades, this corner of India has been troubled by communal strife, ethnic insurgencies and illegal immigration. The Bodo-Muslim conflict was followed by attacks elsewhere in India. As far south as Bangalore, people who looked as if they might come from the northeast were under threat. More than 30,000 northeasterners, many of Mongol stock, boarded trains in a startling exodus. Rumors flew about foreign interference, with fingers pointed at Islamic extremists in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
India’s eight northeastern states connect with the rest of the country via a narrow stretch of land, 20 to 40 kilometers wide, known as the Siliguri corridor or, more colloquially, “the Chicken’s Neck.” This territorial peculiarity is an outcome of the partition of British India in 1947. Muslim-majority areas of East Bengal were made part of independent Pakistan, leaving the Brahmaputra plain and surrounding hills virtually isolated from what many northeasterners still call “mainland India.”
The conflict over land and livelihoods also has a religious dimension, attracting Islamic attention.
East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh in 1971. Poverty, underdevelopment and scarcity of land for the 160 million of Bangladesh – a country roughly the size of Greece or the US state of North Carolina – have prompted millions to cross the border into Assam and the fertile Brahmaputra Valley. The struggle is over land and livelihood, but the Bangladeshis are Muslims, giving the conflict a religious dimension and attracting attention of nearby Islamic powers.
In the late 1970s, Assamese nationalists and local tribals launched an attack against the influx of Bangladeshis. In rural areas of Assam, an armed movement known as the United Liberation Front of Asom, or ULFA, had emerged as early as 1979, spreading throughout the state and demanding expulsion of foreign migrants and independence for Assam.
In a carnage that lasted no more than six hours on February 18, 1983, more than 2,000 people were killed near the village of Nellie. Most victims were Bangladeshi migrants.
The ULFA insurgency followed rebellions in other parts of the northeast populated by Tibeto-Burman peoples. The Nagas had fought for separation from India since the mid-1950s, with material support from Pakistan and China and encouragement from Christian groups. The Mizos fought since the late 1960s, and in the Imphal valley of Manipur, left-wing militants had launched a violent campaign to turn their state into an independent republic.
The Kashmir conflict in India’s northwest may attract more attention from the outside world, but the conflict in the northeast is no less vicious, possibly claiming more lives and causing more mayhem. Assam’s commercial center, Guwahati, earned dubious distinction as one of the most bombed cities in the country. Bloody clashes between guerillas and the Indian army were part of everyday life in tribal hills.
Kashmir conflict in the northwest may attract more attention. Conflict in the Northeast is no less vicious.
India’s arch-enemy Pakistan provided sanctuaries, military training, and weapons for Naga and Mizo rebels. Indian troops marched into Dhaka in December 1971 and found rebel leaders from both groups. Relations between India and newly independent Bangladesh soured. Before long, the rebels returned to hideouts in Chittagong Hill tracts, safe houses in Dhaka and the northern city of Sylhet. The Nagas and Mizos enjoyed a close relationship until the latter signed a peace accord with the Indian government in 1986.
Earlier, in 1985, Paresh Barua, commander-in-chief of ULFA, led his fighters from a Naga rebel camp across the border in northwestern Burma The alliance with tribal guerrillas didn’t last, reflecting traditional animosity between highlanders and plainspeople.
ULFA searched for new comrades-in-arms to establish bases outside India and soon found an ally in Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, ISI. In March 1992, Barua and several of his lieutenants had just come from Singapore where he had bought sophisticated communications equipment. He made no secret of the fact that Pakistan supported ULFA and encouraged the group to step up activities in Assam. At that time, the 8th Mountain Division of the Indian Army had been withdrawn from the northeast and sent to Kashmir. If serious trouble were to erupt once again in Assam, ISI evidently hoped that the division and possibly other units would be pulled from Kashmir.
I had met Barua in a Naga rebel camp in Burma and later in Thailand, and our third meeting took place in Dhaka in April 1996. He was escorted by two Bangladeshi intelligence officers who were not pleased to see a foreign journalist in what was supposed to be a top-secret safe house. UFLA was a nationalist movement born out of opposition to illegal immigration from Bangladesh, yet ironically had found new sanctuaries in that country, becoming a pawn in the hands of foreign intelligence agencies. ULFA militants traveled around the region – to Thailand, the Philippines and China – on Bangladeshi passports using Muslim names.
United Liberation Front of Asom militants traveled around Asia on Bangladeshi passports.
Connections between Burma and India’s northeastern militants are equally startling. ULFA was forced out of Bangladesh in late 2009, less than a year after the Awami League – considered friendlier towards New Delhi than its predecessor, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – had come to power in Dhaka. ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and almost the entire leadership were apprehended and bundled off to India, where they’re now in talks with authorities.
Barua and his hardline followers regrouped at a new camp near Taka village west of the Chindwin River in Burma’s northern Sagaing region. Their camp, shared with Naga and Manipuri militants, is near Burmese army outposts. In September 2011, it was reported that the Burmese army had attacked the Taka camp, partly destroying it. Local sources assert that the operation never took place. It’s no coincidence that news about the alleged attack came a few weeks before Burmese President Thein Sein arrived on a state visit to India.
Unlike Pakistan and Bangladesh, Burma has no interest in fomenting unrest in India’s northeast. It’s not in Burma’s interest to use military resources, engaged in counterinsurgency operations elsewhere in the country, to fight India’s rebels. Instead local sources suggest that the Burmese military prefers a buffer of instability between Burma and India. That way, Burma can avoid policing an extremely remote part of the country to keep the Indians at arm’s length.
China’s role is more convoluted. Until the late 1970s, China gave massive support to India’s northeastern insurgents. Still, Barua is reported to spend more time in China than at the Taka camp. Weapons acquired on the Southeast Asian black market are also reported to have transited through China on their way to Taka as late as in December 2011. China may not be interested in reigniting any large-scale insurgency in India’s northeast, but contributes to fanning flames in an area where it has substantial territorial claims. Official maps show most of the state of Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory.
Northeast India is one of Asia’s most volatile regions. With several foreign countries engaged in the conflicts, there may be more trouble ahead.