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Armed Conflict and Small Arms Proliferation in India’s North East—Part I

by Binalakshmi Nepram-Mentschel

The human society is now drifting in the direction of a self-contradictory, multi-layered ‘new middle age”.. a world in which the significance of territoriality declines and the range of the claimed authorities and conflicting types of legitimization expands dramatically … a world defined by the spread of plagues of private violence and permanent ‘civil war’ sanctioned by uncontrolled powers – new warlords, pirates, gun runners, gangsters, sects – to which the modern state was supposed to have put an end.
– John Keane, Reflections on Violence

North East India, comprising the seven states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and 7.6 percent of the land area and 3.6 percent of the total population of India, has been facing the onslaught of ethnic-based armed conflicts since the late 1940s.

The region is home to more than 70 major population groups and sub-groups, speaking approximately 400 languages and dialects. No other part of India or South Asia has been subjected to such a prolonged violent struggle, which has held development for ransom. Violent and vociferous demands by various ethnic groups for independence and for new states in the North East has been occurring over the past five decades. The fire of insurgency has long engulfed this strategic region for the last half a century or more, making it one of South Asia’s most disturbed areas. Bound by four countries (Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar), the region has immense geopolitical significance.

One finds a large variety of conflicting dynamics in the North East, ranging from insurgency for secession to insurgency for autonomy, from sponsored terrorism to ethnic clashes, to problems of continuous inflow of migrants and the fight over resources. North East India is home to socio-political instability and economic backwardness, to isolation and inaccessibility, compounding the problems further. The cultural chasm between its people and those of the mainland is also so deep that this region is unlikely to be psychologically integrated with India for some time to come. Perhaps the map, too, does not help in developing this mental state. While every other part of India is joined integrally to the mainland, the North East hangs on a 14 km “chicken neck” of land between Nepal and Bangladesh.

There are about 272 tribes or more in the region, thereby earning the name of a Miniature Asia. Besides the tribes, non-tribes like Assamese (Assam) and Meiteis (Manipur) exist. Forming a complex matrix, no other region of India, South Asia, or the world for that matter, have seen the existence of the numerous ethnic based insurgent outfits nor the proliferation and mushrooming of militant outfits as in North East India.

Genesis of Ethnic Conflicts in North East India and the Proliferation of Armed Groups

Nation-building in South Asia has been very fractured and difficult. Fifty years ago, in the entire North East, there existed two armed insurgencies. The first was that of the Nagas, led by Angami Zaphu Phizo, and the other was the Manipuris, whose seminal seeds of insurgency were sown by Hijam Irabot Singh in the late 1940s. Then the Mizo insurgency followed suit in the 1960s, and a decade later, the Assamese saw the rise of the United Liberation Front of Assam in the late 1970s. The above-mentioned insurgencies had a shared character of their own. They all fought for secession through struggles like those of the Mizo National Front, which later died down with the signing of the Mizo Accord in 1987.

However, the 1990s saw the ushering in of a new phenomenon in many parts of North East India—many other ethnic communities of the region within the state boundaries began taking up arms demanding autonomy within the Indian Union. Similarly, the Hmar People’s Council (HPC), started in 1990 by Hming Chhungunga, demanded a separate autonomous district council for the Hmar people. The outfit, Hmar Revolutionary Front (HRF), was formed to realize the Hmar’s goal. The HRF operates in the Cachar district of Assam, northern Mizoram, and the Tipaimukh sub-division of southern Manipur. Furthermore, a new outfit was formed called the Accord Implementation Demand Front (AIDF). With the same objective as HRF, the AIDF pressured the Mizoram government to fully implement the Hmar People’s Convention Accord.

But despite having similar goals, there are differences between the two outfits. In April of 1998, five members of AIDF were arrested in the Tipaimukh sub-division of the Churachandpur district, Manipur, by the Assam Rifles, an Indian paramilitary force. They were found in possession of a large quantity of weapons, including 13 explosive sticks, 27 detonators, 12-bore shotgun ammunition and 5 meters of safety wires. The arrested AIDF members admitted being aided by some northeastern militant outfits that instructed them on how to handle certain types of explosives.

Another armed struggle emerged on December 31, 1994, in the hills of North Cachar in Assam, when the Dimasas formed Dima Halam Daogo (DHD) and sought to achieve independence for Dimarji, a kingdom that once existed under Dimasa rule. Besides the armed movement, the DHD also carries out measures to free the society of North Cachar hills from alcohol consumption and other ‘evils.’ Furthermore, the DHD activists are warning people to stop poisoning river water in the name of fishing.

Assam is now also home to the newly emerged Karbi National Volunteers, of which 82 members were recently arrested by police.

Elsewhere, Kuki-Naga clashes were followed by Kuki-Paite, resulting in the formation of Kuki militant outfits that started demanding a separate state for the Kukis within the Union of India. More armed groups guarantee an increasing small arms influx into the region, which come primarily from bordering South East Asian countries, especially Myanmar. In these places, weapons are procured for the “Clash of Micro-civilizations.” According to a study done by John Sisline, et al, a systematic regroup analysis of arms acquisition patterns among clashing ethnic groups is lacking in the international level records. He does say, however, that “light weapons—small arms such as AK-47 rifles, mortars and grenade launchers—are the mainstay of ethnic conflicts.”

To illustrate, the first batch of ULFA, consisting of 70 boys, were trained with 600 other insurgents—including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of Manipur—and returned with around 10 weapons of different makes including a Chinese AK-47 and some M-20s. Weapon training led by NSCN cadres had included M-22, M-21, and M-20 pistols. Later, ULFA was trained under the Kachin’s expert guidance. Training included shooting, making bombs, and most of all, improvising the existing weaponry.

More than 30 insurgent groups now operate in the North East.

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