Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow & Columnist, IPCS
After a two year hiatus, the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S) struck again on 5 August, raiding a crowded roadside market near Kokrajhar, in western Assam, killing 14 civilians and injuring at least 18 others. The police was quick to conclude that the rogue NDFB-S was behind the attack. Their evidence was one of the attackers shot dead by the security forces who arrived at the scene soon after. The police as well as the visiting state Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma identified the slain attacker as Monjoy Islari alias Mwdan, described as a self-styled commanding officer of the NDFB-S’ so-called ‘western command.’ The NDFB-S was equally quick to deny its involvement in the attack.
A fortnight after the raid, security officials seem to suggest it was a lone-wolf attack and that a ‘heavily drunk’ Mwdan might have carried out the raid without the approval of the NDFB-S. The Chief of the Bodo Council (the local administrative body) Hagrama Mahilary even appears to be ready for peace talks with any rebel group keen on shunning violence. That means if the NDFB-S were to offer talks in the future after being cornered, the authorities could well consider playing ball. This stance runs counter to the statement made by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh who had stated after two major NDFB-S massacres in 2014, there is no question of engaging in peace talks with terror outfits like the NDFB-S that indulges in mindless violence.
That it was a random attack was clear because the dead include Bodos (7 of the 14), Bengalis (both Muslims and Hindus) and an Assamese. In the past, particularly during two of the biggest assaults carried out by the NDFB-S in May and December 2014, the targets were migrant Muslim settlers and Adivasis. Significantly, the email that the NDFB-S sent out to the media denying its involvement was dated 19 July, a Tuesday. The Balajan market operates twice a week - Tuesday and Friday (5 August was a Friday). So, the question arises whether the outfit had actually planned to carry out the attack on 19 July but had to abort the plan for some reason.
Why would the NDFB-S kill people at random, deviating from its practice of carrying out targeted attacks? Did the outfit deny its involvement in the attack in a hurry because so many Bodos were among the dead? Answers may not be forthcoming easily, but the fact remains that the NDFB-S has been facing severe reverses since the past year and has actually been pushed to the wall. First, its founder Ingti Kathar Songbijit was sidelined by his colleagues and removed as the outfit’s president after a ‘general Assembly meeting’ on 14 and 15 April 2015. Confirmation of this came from the NDFB-S itself through a press statement on 27 June 2015 where the outfit announced the organisational revamp. The statement was signed by its new president B Saoraigwra, who replaced Songbijit.
Songbijit, actually a Karbi tribal, may be currently cooling his heels somewhere in China’s Yunnan Province, close to the Myanmar border. Even the most powerful NDFB-S leader, G Bidai, who is its vice-president, is said to be cornered by the continuing counter-insurgency operations and forced to confine himself along the Assam-Bhutan border. According to the intelligence community, the NDFB-S has actually been pushed to the wall, and the 5 August attack is seen as a desperate bid by the outfit to divert the attention of the army offensive from the border with Bhutan to create an opportunity for Bidai and other senior leaders to move to a safer location. In fact, the slain NDFB-S commander Monjoy Islari alias Mwdan was apparently operating together with four other experienced sharp-shooters directly under Bidai until May this year. But, the intensified security offensive had forced the group to part company, and eventually three members of this group were killed in shootouts with the security forces. Monjoy Islari, according to the intelligence community, was frustrated over the loss of his colleagues.
No one is surprised at the authorities pointing their needle of suspicion at the NDFB-S because the outfit had carried out several murderous raids in the past, but the question today is whether it did it solo or whether there were other rebel groups and terror elements providing its cadres assistance. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is probing the case and more information may emerge, but there is no doubt that the NDFB-S, like a few other rebel outfits in the region like the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) in Meghalaya, has degenerated into a pure terror group, killing unarmed civilians and indulging in kidnapping for ransom.
This is the first insurgent violence anywhere in Assam after the BJP-led government of Sarbananda Sonowal assumed office on 24 May. One, therefore, will get the opportunity to see whether the new government’s counter-insurgency strategy will be any different. Most importantly, the Narendra Modi government’s stated policy on combating terror has been one of 'zero tolerance'. Whether this comes into application in Assam now remains to be seen. The timing, too, is critical. The attack came ahead of Independence Day and it has been a ritual among insurgent groups in Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast to step up attacks on the symbols of the Indian state ahead of key days on the national calendar or call for boycotts of all functions associated with the occasion. But, whether it was a symbolic show of strength or whether it signals the regrouping of the NDFB-S remains to be seen.
Jihadis from Bangladesh: Eyeing Trans-Border Playing Fields?
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow & Columnist, IPCS
Bangladesh has clearly been sucked into the whirlpool of jihadi terrorism with a plethora of outfits managing to draw cadres from both the over-populous nation’s poor strata of society as well as the elites who go to universities and upscale schools in Dhaka. The 1 July raid in an eatery in Dhaka’s posh Gulsan area that led to the brutal killing of 20 hostages and two police officers was carried out by young men who were sons of people holding high positions, like an election commissioner, an Awami League leader, an executive with a foreign company, and so on. This indicates the menace in Bangladesh has spread to sections far beyond the madrassa-educated boys usually accused of being radicalised.
Dhaka has stepped up its crackdown on jihadis who belong to outfits like the Jama'at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Ansar al Islam, Hefazat-e-Islam, the Hizb ut-Tahrir etc. Bangladeshi authorities have also sought India’s help in investigating the possible roles of Islamic preachers like the Mumbai-based Dr Zakir Naik who has close to 15 million followers on Facebook. With Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina already demonstrating her grit by letting influential war-crime accused and Islamist radicals face the law and get executed, it is likely Dhaka would go all out against jihadi terror. After the 1 July raid, the jihadis struck again on 7 July, Eid day, killing four people, including a policeman, and injuring several others at Kishoreganj, 140 km outside Dhaka.
What happens when the crackdown gains momentum and reaches its peak? Can the jihadis fight and retard the security offensive? What sort of a strategy could the jihadi terrorists adopt? The jihadi groups in Bangladesh appear to have some linkages and support from the Islamic State (IS), despite Dhaka’s rejection of the IS claim of the 1 July attack, and can, therefore, launch fresh terror raids, mounting the challenge for the pursuing security agencies. Alternatively, the jihadis could decide to lie low and even try to sneak across the border into India. If they decide to cross over into India, their favoured destination would be West Bengal and Assam, two states that share long and porous borders with Bangladesh with rivers criss-crossing these borders. Moreover, in both West Bengal and Assam, Bangladeshi jihadi outfits like JMB has some presence, demonstrated by several arrests by the Indian security agencies in the past few years.
The chars or sand bars in the riverine areas in western Assam, along Bangladesh, is ethnically and geographically the ideal hiding place for such elements. No wonder, after the Dhaka attack, the Assam Police and the paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF) have stepped up vigil in bordering districts like Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Karimganj, etc. The people who live in these areas on the Indian side lack access to education, healthcare services and livelihood opportunities. The char dwellers are mostly Muslims of migrant origin. But the silver lining is that although Assam shares a 262 km long porous border with Bangladesh, a country that is a hotbed of Islamist militancy, the Muslims in Assam, who comprise 34 per cent of the state’s population of 31 million, are practitioners of liberal Islam.
But in the last few years, some incidents have occurred that indicate that there is an attempt at radicalising a section of the Muslim population in the state, a development that cannot be brushed aside as a minor security matter. The incident that confirmed the inroad of jihadi elements into Assam was the arrest of twelve persons with links to the JMB in the state in November-December 2014. One of the arrested persons was Sahanur Alom, who had close links with the JMB and was in constant touch with the outfit’s leaders in Bangladesh. The arrested persons had revealed that JMB is eyeing pockets inhabited by people of Bangladeshi origin as well as districts like Sivasagar in eastern Assam, where it is said to have motivated some people. They had also apparently told interrogators that over a hundred recruits from the state, mostly youths from western Assam districts, had undergone "training" in the madrassas of West Bengal.
Then, on 16 September 2015, the police arrested three persons and busted a jihadi training centre in Chirang district, one of the four districts under the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). The BTC area had in 2012 witnessed clashes between the Bodos and the Muslim migrant settlers. Besides, insurgent groups like the Songbijit faction of the NDFB (NDFB-S) had directly targeted Muslim settlers in the area, killing nearly a hundred people in 2014-15. Based on the revelations made by the arrested persons in Chirang, one of their accomplices was arrested on 18 September 2015 and eight handmade AK-47 rifles and two handmade Insas rifles were recovered. Three videos - two on atrocities on Muslims, which are used for indoctrination, and one containing instructions on the use of arms - were also recovered from the training centre.
Again, on 18 September 2015, two members of a new militant outfit called the Muslim Tiger Force of Assam (MTFA) were apprehended by the Army from Gossaigaon in Kokrajhar district and one 7.65 mm rifle was recovered from them. The MTFA was apparently formed to take revenge for the killing of minorities in the BTC area. On 21 April 2016, the Assam Police arrested seven persons in Chirang district who were part of a module involved in indoctrinating jihadi ideology among the local people. These incidents are an indication of how jihadi elements are slowly trying to secure a foothold in the state.
Under-development and lack of access to basic facilities in these areas are factors that can be used by fundamentalists to lure some people towards their fold. According to a survey done by the Directorate of Char Areas Development, Government of Assam, in 2002-03, there were over 24 lakh people living in 2,251 char villages spread in 14 districts of Assam. The literacy rate among these people was only 19.31 per cent at that time, while the corresponding literacy rate of Assam and India during the period was 63.25 per cent and 64.84 per cent respectively. The percentage of people Below Poverty Line (BPL) in these areas in 2002-03 was 67.88 per cent, while the figures for Assam as a whole stood at 36.09 per cent and for India it was 26.10 per cent.
Another reason that many believe is the reason for the increased penetration by jihadi elements into the state is the unabated illegal migration from Bangladesh. This migration through the porous India-Bangladesh border has remained a cause of concern and it is surely abetting the influence of Islamist fundamentalism among a section of the Muslim population.
Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh fall into two categories – one, those who enter India with valid travel documents and then overstay, and second, those who enter India without any valid travel documents. A number of Bangladeshi nationals who come to India on valid travel documents overstay after the expiry of their visas. However, the majority of illegal migration is through the porous India-Bangladesh border. There is no accurate data on the number of such illegal migrants in the country. Now, after it has come to light that suave, educated Bangladeshis have taken to jihadi terror, the fear of potential jihadis coming in from that country on valid travel documents has also become real, adding to the challenge for Indian security agencies.
The bottom-line is simple—New Delhi cannot afford to end its responsibility by simply liaising with Dhaka and offering assistance to Bangladesh in tackling the jihadis. It has to actually draw up a slew of measures—administrative, policing and technological—to check jihadi terror from spreading and becoming a reality in Northeast India. Most importantly, New Delhi has to recognise the moderate Muslim voice in India, give it due weightage, and channel the energy of the young Muslim youth by giving them adequate education and livelihood options, and help them emerge from their economic backwardness.
Migration Issue in Assam: Going Beyond The Rhetoric
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow & Columnist, IPCS
On 24 May 2016, the day he took oath as the new chief minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition in Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal said, “Our government will strive to make a illegal migrant-free and corruption-free State.” This pledge – made in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and almost the entire BJP top-brass including party President Amit Shah who were present during the swearing in ceremony – only reinforced the importance and priority the BJP has lent to the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration to Assam and elsewhere in the country.
Throughout the campaign period, the BJP harped on the migration issue. In fact, the party described the Assam election as the ‘last battle of Saraighat’. Fought in 1671, the much weaker local Ahom army defeated the Mughals on the banks of the Brahmaputra River near Guwahati. The Ahom victory in that battle halted Mughal expansionism into Assam. The BJP’s explanation was that if the party did not win the polls, Assam would come to be ruled by people who may not be of Indian origin – implying that it could be governed by the Congress-AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front headed by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal) combine who, BJP leaders said, might win with the votes of alleged ‘Bangladeshis.’ The campaign worked and the BJP and its allies received a huge mandate – 86 seats in the 126-member state assembly.
The question now facing the BJP and the Sonowal government is plain and simple – can one expect steps beyond rhetoric to actually deport those people who have been or who would come to be declared as illegal migrants by the due Indian legal process? After all, New Delhi must first be able to make Bangladesh agree that such a problem – that of its nationals migrating illegally to states like Assam – actually exists. After all, unless Dhaka recognises the problem, the question of Bangladesh taking back its nationals declared as illegal migrants by the Indian legal system does not arise. Of course, one must record the fact that India-Bangladesh relations have reached a new high under Prime Minister Modi and, therefore, New Delhi is expected to make Dhaka agree to reach a deal on taking back its nationals declared in India as illegal migrants.
The first visit Sonowal made as chief minister was to the headquarters of the state agency that is involved in the process of preparing an updated National Register of Citizens (NRC). This visit was symbolic, because a correct and updated NRC is expected to determine the Indian nationals among the residents of Assam. This means those whose names do not figure in the final NRC can be considered as people of doubtful citizenship. Sonowal has also assured providing full logistical support to the tribunals set up by the government to go into cases to determine the nationality of those whose citizenships are considered doubtful.
There is no doubt that there are illegal migrants in Assam, but achieving the ultimate objective – that of freeing the state of illegal migrants – can be extremely difficult. First, there is a lack of clarity on the issue itself because all persons who have migrated are loosely labelled as illegal migrants irrespective of the date of their entry into India. In Assam, there can be several categories of migrants who could claim a legal status. Take a look at the following categories as provided for in the Assam Accord that had set 25 March 1971 as the cut-off date:
a.Persons who came before 1 January 1966 will be entitled to Indian citizenship
b. Persons who came between 1 January 1966 and 24 March 1971 are entitled to grant of citizenship after a lapse of 10 years
c.Persons born on Indian soil between 24 March 1971 and before 1 July 1987 are entitled to claim citizenship by birth
d.Persons born on Indian soil after 1 July 1987 but before the commencement of the Citizenship Act, 2003, are entitled to citizenship if one of the parent is an Indian national and the other is not an illegal migrant at the time of his/her birth.
The BJP government in Assam will have to begin with two things now – press the Centre to enter into a dialogue with Bangladesh on the issue and to halt fresh influx. The BJP has promised in its election vision document that it would ‘seal’ the border and stop fresh infiltration of people from Bangladesh. Now, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has announced the border will be ‘sealed.’
This has been repeatedly said for the past 30 years and people have come to be cynical on such assurances. To actually halt further infiltration, certain other measures like a second line of defence along the border by settling ex-serviceman and things like that will be necessary. However, theoretically speaking, ‘sealing’ the border and halting fresh influx is possible.
Assuming that fresh infiltration is stopped, how is the new government in Assam going to look at or deal with the issue of Bangladeshi migration? Are people going to bracket every Bengali-speaking Muslim settler who lives in the Char or riverine areas as ‘Bangladeshi’? The Sonowal government will have to address this issue and try to resolve it once and for all. The new government must make a clear distinction between Muslim settlers who are Indian nationals by virtue of the provisions of the Assam Accord as well as other Constitutional provisions, like nationality by birth, and those whose citizenship are doubtful in nature.
Once this distinction is made, the new government must draw up a roadmap to provide education, healthcare, connectivity and power to the areas where the settlers are concentrated. If the sense of deprivation among these people continues, they may fall prey to anti-India forces who may try to exploit their vulnerability. Assam can do without a new security situation, nor does the state want social tensions with a new dimension.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS
The Assam Assembly elections, that concluded on Monday, 11 April, witnessed an unprecedented polling with the turnout touching almost 85 per cent. This has been the highest-ever polling in any form of election in the state. Which party comes to win when the results are announced on 19 May is a different story, but if the catch-word of ‘parivartan’ or change that did the rounds across the length and breadth of the state of 32 million people is anything to go by, it has been a vote for a new Assam.
Hundreds of voters, including a large number of youth, both before and during polling days, told local news channels they are seeking ‘parivartan’ for ‘unnayan’ or a change for development. It would be right to say that the campaign for ‘parivartan’ was led solely by the young voters whose decision to vote for change could have actually influenced the voting behaviour of the elders. Even during the 1985 Assembly polls, held in the wake of the mass anti-foreigner uprising and signing of the historic Assam Accord, the polling percentage was a little more than 79.
If the high turnout in 1985 managed to oust the Congress and usher in the then fledgling Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to power, the high turnout in 2001 (75.05 per cent) once again brought in the Congress. It was a vote for continuity in 2006 (75.77 per cent polling) and 2011 (75.92 per cent turnout), one of the reason for which perhaps was the absence of a truly viable alternative to the Congress. The AGP was weak and the BJP was struggling with its tally down from 10 seats in the Assembly in 2006 to five in 2011. Now, the big question this time is - will the BJP and its allies, riding on the high voter turnout, manage to oust the Congress that has been in power for 15 years in Assam without a break?
Firstly, what must be noted is that this has been the toughest elections in Assam in 30 years, an election that is being fought primarily by two national political parties - the Congress and the BJP. Secondly, this has also been among the most bitterly contested elections where political opponents took recourse to a language never heard in the state’s political or social arena ever. The BJP, for instance, has been going around with slogans saying ‘Aibar Axomot Khilonjiar Sorkar’ (This time, a Government by the indigenous people of Assam). It is not clear if the BJP meant to suggest that the governments headed by Tarun Gogoi, and former chief ministers like Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and Sarat Chandra Sinha were not governments by ‘khilonjias’ or natives.
Confronted, BJP leaders tried to explain saying they were only cautioning the people to ensure a government is not formed by those who are not of Indian origin. They obviously meant people elected out of votes of Muslim settlers who largely inhabit the ‘chars’ or the riverine areas along the Brahmaputra, mainly in the western, northern and parts of central Assam. In fact, Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers dominate the election results in around 30 of Assam’s 126 Assembly constituencies. These votes have largely been shared by the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), formed by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, a perfume baron, in 2005. It would, however, be incorrect to dub every Bengali-speaking Muslim settler an illegal migrant or ‘Bangladeshis’, as they are bracketed as by many.
There is no denying the fact that illegal migration from Bangladesh is a live issue in Assam even today, 30 years after the Assam Accord. That agreement had set 25 March 1971 as the cut-off date for detection and expulsion of illegal migrants, meaning anyone found to have migrated to Assam (India, for that matter) before this date would be regarded as an Indian national. During every election since 1985, political parties haved invoked this issue, like the BJP this time saying it would give the people a government by the indigenous people of Assam. The BJP promised to ‘seal’ the India-Bangladesh border to stop further influx, a pledge made by parties of different hues all these years. It may theoretically be possible to ‘seal’ the border and halt further influx, but without an agreement with Dhaka, it appears impossible to deport those declared by the Indian legal system as illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Dhaka has not recognised that such a problem exists, and no political party active in Assam has addressed this issue.
People like Atul Bora, president of the AGP, an ally of the BJP, agree that the key to the problem lies in the voters' list which is still believed to contain names of a large number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Samujjal Bhattacharya, adviser of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), that had led the anti-foreigner stir of the eighties, said that the voters' list on which this Assembly polls were fought contained names of "lakhs of illegal Bangladeshi migrants." “They will vote...they are very organised,” he said on the eve of the polls. But, none of the parties raised the issue of a faulty voters' list ahead of the elections. After all, parties like the BJP or the AGP, which are vocal with their demand to free Assam of illegal migrants, could actually have sought postponement of the polls until a correct voters' list was available. Perhaps the politics of citizenship is there to stay for the long haul in Assam.
If the BJP harped on the migration issue, aside from its promise of ‘vikas’ or development, the Congress went all out in accusing the BJP of dividing the society in Assam on communal lines. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, who visited Assam six times to campaign for his party, kept pointing out Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘failed promises’, including his vow to bring back the black money stashed abroad by many Indians.
This was the BJP’s first-ever real power grab attempt in Assam, a quest that started after the party managed to win seven of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. The target seemed real after Congress heavyweight Himanta Biswa Sharma defected to the BJP in August last year along with nine other Congress MLAs. The BJP recognised Himanta Biswa as a poll-winning strategist and made him the convenor of the party’s election campaign committee. He proved his worth by mobilising the people and parties, and even in his solo rallies, people came out in large numbers. From the mood on the ground, it is advantage BJP, although the resilient Congress cannot be wished away.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS, New Delhi
Riding on clear signs of an ascendant India and a massive electoral mandate behind him, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on course to try and break the status quo in New Delhi’s ties with Beijing, setting the ball rolling by re-calibrating and infusing life into relations with Japan and the US. Modi knows he need not pursue anything blatantly anti-China, but only has to use India’s huge market and economic growth potential to goad Beijing to be pragmatic on the way to evolve a solution to the border logjam and agree to initiate measures to reduce the trade imbalance—two issues New Delhi would like to achieve breakthroughs on.
Much of India's efforts in 2016 on the China front will be to work for a level playing field in areas such as access to the Chinese market to boost exports and reduce the trade gap; increasing the quantum of Chinese investments; and, of course, bridging the differences on the border question so as to resolve the issue permanently. By now, the ability of Chinese companies to peddle their wares in India is legend, but they are reluctant to invest in the country. In fact, Chinese investment in India is lesser than those of Canada, Poland, or Malaysia. For instance, in the past 14 years, UK has invested $ 21.5 billion in India; but China’s investment stands at $ 0.4 billion - less than Canada’s $ 0.5 billion.
It is true that India has dethroned China as the world’s fastest growing large economy, with a growth rate of around 7.5 per cent. However, New Delhi still has a lot to do to improve the nation’s economy and the job sector that can take care of the aspirations of the country’s 365 million youth aged between 10-24. That is the reason New Delhi has launched its ambitious ‘Make in India’ campaign and is also the prime reason why it wants China to really invest big time here. True, Japan has beat China in bagging the $15 billion contract for building India’s first bullet train project in the 505-km-long Mumbai-Ahmedabad sector. However, it is also true that an India-China consortium is conducting a feasibility study to build a high-speed rail track on the 2,200-km Chennai-Delhi sector, in addition to the 1,200-km New Delhi-Mumbai corridor.
If New Delhi, would strive for a deeper economic engagement with Beijing in the coming days, China will seek to bring India on board its ambitious and controversial ‘Silk Road’ projects that began with the launch of the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative. China’s New Silk Road aims to link Central and South Asia by roads, railway and energy pipelines. China has already flagged off the longest cargo rail link in the world, connecting its manufacturing hub Yiwu to Madrid, Spain. One of the sectors in this belt is a corridor that envisages linking China’s Yunnan province with Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. New Delhi is wary about this project as it fears the deepening Chinese presence or influence in the region, but countries like Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia are already on board. What the Modi government will have to decide in 2016 is whether India can afford to stay away from such a trans-national connectivity initiative in today’s geopolitical scenario.
Modi’s margin of victory in the 2014 election has projected him as a strong leader - something the world was quick to recognise. China, in fact, was among the first countries to send a special envoy to India to greet him on his party’s victory. This increased the level of contacts between the two Asian giants brought Chinese President Xi Jinping to India in September 2014, followed by Indian Prime Minister Modi making a trip to China in May 2015. Again, in November 2015, India hosted the highest-ranking Chinese military delegation in about a decade. The 26-member delegation, headed by General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), held talks with the Indian military and government leadership.
These bilateral contacts are expected to continue in the coming days because both countries appear to have realised that the simultaneous re-emergence of India and China as two major powers offers a great opportunity for the realisation of the Asian Century. Both have already agreed that the border is ‘generally stable’ and have endorsed ‘concrete actions’ to implement the consensuses reached. Already, indications are emerging that the two could actually be keen to work on the economic engagement aspect more while continuing efforts to keep the border cool before a possible solution is reached.
New Delhi has taken symbolic first steps in easing relations with Beijing. During his May 2015 visit to China, Modi announced that E-Visas would be extended to Chinese tourists visiting India. It has been said that he made the announcement against the advice of the security establishment. One would now expect Beijing to stop issuing stapled visas to Indian nationals from Arunachal Pradesh - a practise aimed at reinforcing its claim on the frontier state. These are irritants New Delhi would work on in the days ahead, because removing these irritants are extremely important for a serious economic engagement at a time when China has over-burdened itself with its massive expenditure on mega connectivity projects it has launched.
Another critical issue New Delhi cannot ignore is that concerning China’s massive dam projects on the shared rivers, particularly the Yarlung Tsangpo, known in India as the Brahmaputra. The Zangmu dam near the U-bend, as the river enters Arunachal Pradesh, has already been commissioned, and Beijing has approved the construction of three more dams on the river. This has led to real and serious concerns in the lower riparian areas like Northeast India and Bangladesh. In the absence of a water treaty between the two nations and China only committed to providing India with flood-data during monsoons, India has to work hard to secure Beijing’s nod on a water agreement.
In 2016, of course, one can safely say trade and commerce would dominate the dialogue between the two countries. After all, Modi’s massive mandate enthused China Inc., long upset with India’s ‘hostile’ investment policies for Chinese investors. The setting up of two industrial parks for Chinese manufacturers and the India-China consortium being on board for a mega bullet train project has changed that perception among Chinese investors. Trade is bound to call the shots in India-China engagements as we embark on yet another new year.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS
Very rightly, key world leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have not forgotten to congratulate President Thein Sein, the head of Myanmar’s quasi-military regime, for successfully being able to hold the 08 November 2015 national elections in presence of international observers. These leaders have, of course, also congratulated the chief of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi, for her party’s landslide victory. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong told Suu Kyi, “the NLD’s victory reflects the support and hope that the Myanmar people have in you and your party.”
To be fair to the outgoing semi-civilian government, a largely free and fair election could be held because the people wanted it that way, and, more importantly, because the Thein Sein-led regime in Naypyitaw set the democracy ball rolling in 2011 by allowing Suu Kyi and her party to contest the 2012 by-elections that the NLD swept.
The people of Myanmar, a nation of 51 million, wanted a change, and the results showed precisely that. The NLD won nearly 80 per cent of the seats and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) came a distant second, bagging just about 10 per cent of the vote share. There is no doubt that it has been a mandate for democracy over authoritarianism, but the question now is, can Suu Kyi usher in true democracy in Myanmar, which, until recently, was a pariah state whose draconian military regime faced near global sanctions.
Suu Kyi may actually see her party assume office around March 2016, but she faces several odds. First, she cannot become the president herself because of a provision in the military-drafted 2008 Constitution that bars a person with a foreign spouse or offspring from assuming that office. Secondly, the Constitution reserves 25 per cent of the parliament seats for the military, and, therefore, Suu Kyi and her party will have to deal with the military in any case for any reform. Suu Kyi had made it clear even before the polls that she would run the government irrespective of whether she becomes president or not, meaning she would actually nominate a president from within her party who would simply follow her diktat, in some way similar to what Sonia Gandhi did during the UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh.
Eventually, as she consolidates, she may work towards changes to the constitutional power structure. But, without the acquiescence of the Tatmadaw (the military), it would not be easy for Suu Kyi or the NLD to diminish the power of the generals. That may happen with time because one cannot forget that democracy icon Suu Kyi belongs to a military family – her father General Aung San is regarded as the ‘father of Burmese independence’. The military too is more than aware that these are different times and the people’s will have to prevail at some point in time, and the time may be actually now.
That the generals have realised this is clear because the permission to set up political parties given by the junta in 2011 was out of their own volition, and not a result of any Arab Spring-type mass street uprising. The Tatmadaw could also be actually wanting to change Myanmar’s economic profile and let the impoverished nation develop and make attempts to be at par with the rising East Asian Tiger economies in the nation’s neighbourhood. Since then, Suu Kyi has had very ‘cordial meetings’ with President Thein Sein and the nation’s military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and both have promised a smooth transfer of power. This in itself indicates the changing times in Myanmar.
It is a different matter whether Suu Kyi will eventually be able to alter the provision in the 2008 Constitution that allows the defence services to participate in the national political leadership of the state. More pressing questions, already raised by sceptics, is on how democratic is Suu Kyi herself? She is being accused of not promoting intra-party democracy; not approving a line of succession; being silent during the poll campaign, about atrocities committed on the minority Rohingyas etc. It is now being pointed out that she denied party tickets to as many as 17 members belonging to Myanmar’s adored ‘88 generation’ and that she failed in forging an ethnic alliance for the polls. It would also be a challenge for her to deal with the remaining ethnic rebel armies such as the United Wa State Army, the Kachin Independence Army and others who are out of the nationwide ceasefire agreement reached by the Thein Sein government in October 2015. Will the NLD government send in the military to tame them should the need arise?
These are tough questions, answers to which would be sought.
Without doubt, Suu Kyi’s titanic popularity brought that massive win for the NLD. However, one is unsure vis-à-vis the NLD’s agenda for Myanmar to make projections about the governance priorities of an NLD government. Will it be national reconciliation? Will there be a high focus on education and healthcare? What will Suu Kyi’s policy of industrial development vis-a-vis environmental protection be? How would she possibly deal with the Rohingya issue, which always hogs international limelight? How will she rule Myanmar if she does not manage to be president eventually? What be her neighbourhood policy be like—will Myanmar pursue a policy of equi-closeness with both India and China?
If the people of Myanmar or the world can wait so long to see democracy return to the nation, one would obviously have to wait for some time for answers to emerge. Indications, however, are that Suu Kyi would tread slowly and carefully in the following direction—list out leaders from her party who would play key roles she would assign them, consolidate her ties with the military and the officialdom, engage with the civil society, and, of course, chart out a course to take forward the process of ethnic reconciliation. Her biggest challenge is that she has only to move forward, not turn back.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS
The government of Meghalaya’s failure to protect civil liberties in the Garo Hills region has forced the state’s High Court to issue a directive to the Centre, asking it to consider enforcing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) to tackle lawlessness arising out of kidnappings, killings and extortions by militants in the area. The judiciary being forced to step in to compel the government to initiate tough measures to protect life and property of citizens is something unprecedented.
The Meghalaya High Court’s directive comes at a time when there are continuing protests in India’s Northeast and elsewhere against the alleged high-handedness by the armed forces in the name of tackling insurgency. The charge is that the army can afford to commit excesses because they get enough immunity in accordance with the provisions of the stringent AFSPA.
The directive clearly indicates that people are frustrated and angry at the failure of the state government in taming the insurgents or towards keeping a check the depredations they cause. For instance, while directing the Centre to consider using the AFSPA to deploy the Army and the paramilitary, the Court says the forces must be out to aid the local civil and police, but must not be put under their command until normality is restored. There are reasons for the Court to turn so stern.
Statistics furnished to the Court by the Meghalaya Government shows that between January-October 2015, insurgents had abducted 87 people in Garo Hills primarily for ransom. This includes 27 businessmen, 25 private sector employees, five government employees, and five teachers. The Block Development Officer (BDO) of Chokpot in South Garo Hills district, a Meghalaya Civil Services officer, was released on 03 November 2015 after a week in captivity of the dreaded Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA). An Intelligence Bureau official too was kidnapped and killed in the area in recent weeks.
This unusual Court directive has not come overnight. The GNLA has crossed all limits of violence attributed to insurgents in the Northeast. For example, the rebel group made the region witness the first Taliban-style execution on 03 June 2014. Five GNLA militants armed with AK 47 rifles barged into a family’s home in a remote village of Raja Goera Rongat, near Chokpot, in South Garo Hills district. They locked the father in a room, and, according to the police, tried to molest and rape the mother. When she resisted, two of the five rebels opened burst fire on her from point-blank range, in front of her four children, all minors, killing her on the spot. “Her head was almost blown off her body by the impact of the gun shots,” a police officer had said.
It is the brutality of the crime that has made people compare the killing to assassinations carried out by the medieval Taliban in Afghanistan. And yes, a defiant GNLA claimed responsibility for the cowardly killing claiming the woman was a police informer. A GNLA statement at the time said she was ‘responsible’ for the death of the outfit’s training instructor named Kram. The man was killed in an encounter with security forces in the first week of May 2014. One is aware of the treacherous terrain of the Garo Hills and the region’s proximity to Bangladesh. However, what is surprising is the inability of the police and the paramilitary in checking the activities of the GNLA that is officially stated to have fewer than 300 members. If the GNLA’s terror run cannot be controlled by Meghalaya Police units like the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics Team) – who were trained by the Indo Tibetan Border Police – or the specialised CRPF units, then we would be forced to conclude that the counter-insurgency strategy in the area requires a drastic review or overhaul. Army operations to neutralise the GNLA is the ‘last option’, and with the recent Court directive, the government may be forced to use it.
The Meghalaya government has a lot to answer as to why it has failed to achieve results in the operations against the trigger-happy GNLA. The Court appears to mean real business and has also directed the Union Home Secretary to place the matter before the Centre besides asking the Principal Secretary at the Prime Minister’s office to bring the matter to the Prime Minister’s notice. However, the real need of the hour is to take stock of the measures undertaken by the security establishment to deal with the situation over the past months. Questions also arise about the end-use of the funds allocated by the Centre for police modernisation, which includes training and weapons upgradation.
Furthermore, if there is to be a probe ever, one of the aspects that must be looked into on whether or not there has been a politician-militant nexus in the Garo Hills like several other regions in the Northeast. Answers may not be forthcoming, but questions will have to be raised again and again to ascertain the truth.
One hopes, the political class in Meghalaya does not decide to sing the ‘we-are-ready-for-talks’ line as a strategy to tackle the situation. For its part, the Centre has already indicated that it could move the Supreme Court against the Meghalaya High Court directive with sections in the security establishment saying the situation in the Garo Hills is ‘not serious’ enough to warrant the deployment of the Army.
This section maintains the State Government is fully competent to deal with the ‘local’ law and order situation. The apex court’s verdict, if it has to take up the issue, will be interesting.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS
By abrogating a 14-year-long ceasefire and turning its guns once again on the Indian security forces, the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) has robbed New Delhi of its happiness over the signing of an otherwise vague ‘framework agreement’ with the rival Isak-Muivah-led NSCN group (NSCN-IM). Not only has the NSCN-K emerged as a spoke in the Naga peace process, it is also threatening to sour India-Myanmar relations, pulled back on track by New Delhi with much difficulty in the past few years.
Currently, Myanmar is actively engaged in peace talks with the NSCN-K whose cadres straddle the densely wooded international border at a time when New Delhi has clamped a ban on the rebel group. Naypyidaw’s decision to hold talks with the NSCN-K - the last round held as recently as 16 September - is part of President Thein Sein government’s bid to clinch a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) with more than 15 ethnic rebel armies ahead of the 8 November national elections in Myanmar. The NSCN-K already has a bilateral understanding amounting to a truce with the quasi-military government, reached in April 2012, but if the outfit now comes to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement, along with other ethnic rebel groups in Myanmar, it would lead to a tricky situation for India.
It is now clear the Government of India is not keen to include the NSCN-K in the overall Naga peace process that got a boost when, on 3 August, New Delhi’s interlocutor RN Ravi signed a ‘framework agreement’ with the NSCN-IM in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Coming after a dialogue process that began 18 years ago, the ‘framework agreement’ led to some euphoria in government circles, and was seen as the beginning of a new era in the Naga areas in the Northeast. The Naga civil society, as well as others, immediately realised that there was a need to reserve the euphoria because the NSCN-K, a key Naga insurgent group, and perhaps the most heavily armed at the moment, was already out of the peace process, having abrogated the rather long truce with New Delhi in March.
What cannot be missed is the fact that New Delhi made no effort whatsoever to prevent the NSCN-K from calling off the truce or to address the issues that led the outfit to take such a decision. This is rather surprising because everyone knows there cannot be permanent peace in the Naga areas unless the major Naga insurgent factions are part of the peace process or the eventual peace deal. According to one school of thought, the Centre wanted to sideline the NSCN-K at the behest of the NSCN-IM which argued that it would not be prudent for New Delhi to involve a group headed by a Burmese Naga in any formal peace agreement at any point in time. SS Khaplang, the chairman of the NSCN-K, is a Myanmar national, and so are hundreds of other cadres of the outfit. One would be surprised if this were to be the reason because the truce with the NSCN-K survived 14 long years and Khaplang’s nationality was known to all.
When voices from among the Nagas started getting shriller, with arguments in favour of fresh efforts to get the NSCN-K back on ceasefire mode, New Delhi gave the impression that it had no problem. So, in end-August, a four-member delegation of the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), a frontline Naga women’s group, walked across to Myanmar from Pangsha, in Nagaland’s Tuensang district, and held talks with the NSCN-K leaders. NMA Adviser Rosemary Dzuvichu said after the meeting that the NSCN-K was not averse to reconsidering its decision. But, the turn of events preceding the NMA delegation’s Myanmar visit and after their return clearly indicated that an influential section within the Government of India wanted to pursue a zero-tolerance policy towards the NSCN-K. This naturally gives rise to the question, is New Delhi talking in more than one voice on the Naga peace issue?
Forty-eight hours before the NMA team was to cross over for the talks, Assam Rifles personnel opened fire on a group of civilians and ‘unarmed NSCN-K cadres’ at Pangsha, killing 9 people. The NMA provided details of the incident during a meeting with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. The shootout on the eve of the NMA team’s peace mission did vitiate the atmosphere. But, soon after the NMA team returned, the Union Home Ministry sprung another surprise. The National Investigation Agency (NIA), which reports to the MHA, announced a reward of INR 7 lakh on the head of the 75-year-old NSCN-K chief Khaplang, and another INR 10 lakh on the head of Niki Sumi, another top leader of the outfit. The NIA declared Khaplang and Sumi ‘wanted terrorists’ for killing soldiers in Kohima and later in Manipur’s Chandel district on 4 June where 18 troopers were shot dead.
New Delhi, as per the NIA notice, wanted “reliable information from people about the whereabouts of these hardcore terrorists.” This is funny to say the least because Khaplang is based in Myanmar and his representatives are talking to the Myanmar government on the issue of signing a broad ceasefire agreement with Naypyidaw. Recently, there was a photograph of Khaplang undergoing treatment at a Yangon hospital with a few of his aides attending to him. On 16 September, the Union Peace-making Working Committee (UPWC), a body set up by the Myanmar government to pursue peace with the country’s ethnic insurgents, met with the NSCN-K at the Myanmar Peace Centre in Yangon. The NSCN-K had earlier attended ceasefire meetings in Myanmar five times as an observer.
So far, the NSCN-K has only had a bilateral understanding with the Myanmar government. Now, if the group comes to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement, it would enter a stronger bond with Naypyidaw. In such an event, the Myanmar government too would be required to stick to the ceasefire ground rules and not indulge in military action against the NSCN-K. In this backdrop, can the Indian Army make forays into Myanmar as it did a few times recently to neutralise the NSCN-K bases inside that country? Can India hope to receive Myanmar’s support in dealing with these rebels in the coming days? Myanmar will be bound after the truce with the ethnic insurgents to prevent any military action in areas dominated by these ethnicities. Certainly, in this scenario, Myanmar will find it difficult to let Indian troops cross over in the days ahead in hot pursuit. This is a new front that New Delhi will have to deal with, a front that will see a tussle between the Indian military and the diplomatic corps. As for the Naga women leaders from the NMA, they are bent on crossing over to Myanmar again, this time to speak to Khaplang himself. “We have informed Home Minister Rajnath Singh. He asked us to go ahead,” an NMA leader said. Well, a bounty, a ban, and then, a go ahead for talks! The turn of events clearly suggests that New Delhi’s peace policy in the Northeast, if there is any, is flawed, to say the least. The moral of the story, simply speaking, is that there can be no piecemeal solution to as tricky a problem as insurgency in a region that has porous international borders.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS
On 3 September 2015, China displayed its massive military might in a parade unseen in recent years. It is for the first time since 1949 that so many senior military officers of the rank of generals had actually taken part in such a parade. Wearing a black Mao suit, Chinese President Xi Jinping kicked off the spectacular Stalinist-style parade in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, with a 10-minute, carefully worded, opening address saying, “We (Chinese) love peace.” As if to allay the fears of friends and foes alike, Xi added, “No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never push for hegemony or expansion.”
He may have used the word “peace” 17 times in that brief address, under possibly scientifically managed cloud-free blue skies, but the parade itself was organised to demonstrate China’s military muscle to the world. And, of course, coming in the wake of the tsunami in the Chinese stock market and Beijing’s questionable handling of the stock market meltdown, the parade is also seen as an attempt to project China as a strong political and economic power that has the ability to withstand pulls and pressures.
No one missed the point that the parade had a strong domestic motive as well because both China’s neighbours and the world at large are in any case aware of the lethality of Beijing’s military hardware, developed and upgraded over the years. It certainly was President Xi’s move to boost his power and position at home. Among the first things Xi did after assuming office in 2012 was to take control of the Central Military Commission (CMC) – by far the key instrument to control the country’s military establishment, one that has a 2.3 million-strong active on-duty army. The crackdown against corruption in the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is something no predecessor of Xi had ever tried. The investigations charged several generals, including the two highest-ranking officers under his predecessor—Xu Caihou (since dead) and Guo Boxiong, of corruption. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to assume President Xi is moving towards establishing himself with an image of being the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. What better way in trying to move closer to this objective than holding the massive parade that is expected to further consolidate his grip over the army?
Ostensibly, the event was organised to mark ‘Victory Day’, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the successful People’s War of Resistance against Japanese aggression or occupation (1937-45). But it was the first time such a huge military parade was held for reasons other than celebrating the CPC’s rule or ‘achievements’. Therefore, one can actually ask whether China really wants to pursue an open strategy to deter Japan. The answer perhaps is yes because President Xi, who has already been demonstrating his aggressiveness and is unapologetic about China’s big power ambitions, could be trying to reinvigorate the nationalist fervour among his countrymen by an open demonstration of anti-Japan sentiments. Could Xi be actually trying to change the Asian order and make things revolve around China, and thereby goad everyone to ignore rising powers or rising economies like India? Such a possibility cannot be ruled out.
As many as 30 heads of state and/or governments were in attendance at the reviewing stand with President Xi during the parade; but no significant leader from any democracy, including India, were present. India’s Modi government deputed Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen. (Retd.) VK Singh, whose other identity is that he is a former chief of the Indian army. Other than showing the minimum courtesy, India did nothing to antagonise Japan. Beijing may be worried about an India-Japan-US axis, but New Delhi has actually gone out of its way to signal that it was keen to improve ties with Japan and China at the same time, while consolidating relations with the US and all of India’s neighbours. New Delhi couldn’t have played ball to the covert corner-Japan plan as it was obviously aware of the Chinese design behind the gala parade.
In fact, the grand parade and the careful use of imagery could even be interpreted as China’s provocation to its neighbours, including India. The public display of its intercontinental ballistic-missile arsenal is surely a warning to the US, whose military might is still believed to be superior. The Dongfeng missile series was among the key display items at the show. Making its public debut was the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, seen as a threat to the US aircraft carrier strike groups.
It remains to be seen whether China, the highest military spender in the world after the US, triggers an arms race in its neighbourhood following the display. But President Xi made a good attempt at neutralising the visual impact by publicly announcing a troop cut of up to 300,000 personnel in the coming days. This is expected to happen by 2017 and would then enable Beijing to spend more in modernising the military; and making the PLA leaner and more efficient.
Whether or not President Xi can handle the large number of decommissioned military men is left to be seen, but during the parade, he certainly relished 12,000 of his soldiers and 50 generals leading troop formations greeting him.
Noticeably, the clear blue skies over Tiananmen Square had disappeared soon after the parade got over. Now, the world has to wait and see if China, having demonstrated its military might, continues to pursue a seemingly expansionist campaign across the Himalayas as well as on the East and South China seas. One would like to believe President Xi that he and his fellow Chinese “love peace” and do not believe in “hegemony or expansion.” India on its part cannot afford to be taken in by Beijing’s rhetoric and has to remain guarded while pushing for better ties with a level playing field.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS
The signing of the ‘framework agreement’ between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland’s Isak-Muivah faction (NSCN-IM) in New Delhi on 3 August 2015 is certainly a landmark development because it has confirmed that the two sides have succeeded in narrowing down their differences and are on the verge of reaching a Peace Accord. The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi can, of course, take credit for having been able to break the logjam with the NSCN-IM and reaching a point from where a solution to the six-decade-old Naga insurrection looks bright. After all, peace talks between the two sides have been ongoing for the past 18 years in India and abroad, ever since the NSCN-IM entered into a ceasefire with New Delhi in July 1997.
If the Modi government, led by its astute Naga peace interlocutor R. N. Ravi, could achieve this breakthrough, it was because it recognised the ‘unique history of the Nagas’, and agreed to pursue a ‘relationship of equals’. Right from the time of the legendary Naga rebel leader Angami Zapu Phizo, the Nagas have been insisting that they be left alone once the British leave India. The Nagas’ ground was that they have been an independent race and, therefore, wanted to stay outside after India attains freedom. That was not to be and the Nagas continued with their fight for an independent homeland. In this backdrop, the NSCN-IM and R. N. Ravi, who is otherwise the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, also deliberated on the Naga ‘sovereignty’ issue as also the toned down demand for integration of all Naga-inhabited areas in the Northeast into the state of Nagaland. A compromise has been reached on this and a ‘formula’ worked out which is going to be reflected in the final Accord. It is possible the Nagas living in areas outside the state of Nagaland (for instance, in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh) could also benefit from the Naga Peace Accord although existing state boundaries are not going to be re-drawn.
That the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has chosen to emphasise on the ‘equality’ issue insofar as the relationship with the Nagas is concerned gives rise to the question as to whether ‘sovereign power’ could be shared. When the Accord is actually worked out in a couple of months’ time, one won’t be surprised if Nagaland comes to have a Jammu & Kashmir-type of a status where there could be a separate flag and so on. This may be symbolic but for the Nagas or the NSCN-IM it could mean restoration of their pride, something New Delhi is not against conceding. For instance, The Nagaland Post quoted R.N. Ravi as saying, “Nagas have suffered all these years because of lack of understanding. Their dignity and pride has to be restored. Their uniqueness will be reflected in all the competencies.”
The liberal tone with which Prime Minister Modi addressed the gathering on the occasion at his official residence demonstrated the confidence and spirit of accommodation with which he and his government has been able to tackle the issue. After the agreement was signed, Modi said “Today's agreement is a shining example of what we can achieve when we deal with each other in a spirit of equality and respect, trust and confidence; when we seek to understand concerns and try to address aspirations; when we leave the path of dispute and take the high road of dialogue.”
Despite these positive signals, one significant aspect of the over 80 rounds of peace talks between New Delhi and the NSCN-IM, spanning 18 years, has been its secretive nature. Therefore, when the ‘framework agreement’ was signed in the presence of Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, R. N. Ravi and the top NSCN-IM leaders led by its general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, everybody was caught by surprise, including people in Nagaland.
That means, the NSCN-IM, too, did not give any inkling to the Naga civil society that the ‘framework agreement’ was actually going to be signed on 3 August. This has led to a huge amount of scepticism among the Naga civil society and others who are eager to know if New Delhi or the NSCN-IM would ever consult them when the final accord is reached.
One would argue that the cause for euphoria at the clinching of this ‘framework agreement’ with the NSCN-IM is just not there because there are other Naga rebel factions, particularly the Khaplang-faction of the NSCN or the NSCN-K that is now outside the purview of the peace process. The NSCN-K had abrogated its 14-year-long ceasefire with New Delhi in April 2015 and has since carried out the biggest attack on the Indian army in two decades when it ambushed and killed 18 soldiers of the Dogra Regiment in Manipur’s Chandel district on 4 June 2015. The NSCN-K could now try and strike in a bid to demonstrate its presence and relevance, and that is precisely the reason why the Naga civil society is stressing on the need to once again try and get the outfit back on the road to peace.
There is a belief that the agreement with the NSCN-IM could impact on the insurgent groups in states like Assam, Meghalaya or Manipur and encourage them to shun violence and join the peace bandwagon, but that will turn into reality only if the final deal with the Isak-Muivah faction is reached fast. That, of course, may not happen as fast as one might tend to believe.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS
It is time for fresh national elections in Myanmar. The much-hyped polls to the 664-member Parliament - finally fixed for 8 November 2015 - will be a test for both democracy in the former pariah state ruled by a military dictatorship as well as for the icon of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi. This is expected to be a landmark general election because the exercise is being held under the military-backed quasi-civilian government which is engaged in restoring a semblance of democracy in the nation of 51 million people since it assumed office in 2011.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), by all accounts, is expected to bag a large bloc of seats, but whether the military-influenced ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of President Thein Sein is going to wholeheartedly accept the people’s verdict is left to be seen. It is this lurking doubt over the military’s intent that has prompted many, including some key American Senators, to go on record to say the US should not provide trade benefits to Myanmar until after the November elections that will indicate the state of political reform.
The USDP or the military itself will be under the scanner this time because the international community has not forgotten how the unpopular military junta refused to accept the verdict in the first multi-party elections in 1990 where Suu Kyi’s NLD won a convincing victory. Western governments pushing for true democracy in Myanmar are more than happy that the NLD, that had boycotted the 2010 national elections, is in the fray this time, but are keeping their fingers crossed over possible election-time or post-poll political combustions. Suu Kyi confirmed on 11 July after a party meeting that the NLD would contest the upcoming polls to “continue the unfinished democratic reform process of the country.” The NLD had kept away from the 2010 elections because of rules barring Suu Kyi from contesting. But even today, Myanmar’s military-drafted Constitution has provisions that bar Suu Kyi from running for presidency because it has a provision that prohibits any person from becoming president if their family members are foreigners. Suu Kyi's late husband was British, and her two sons hold British passports.
Myanmar has been claiming it has made good strides on the road to democracy, but actions of parliamentarians or the military speak otherwise. In recent weeks, MPs voted down a motion to amend the clause barring Suu Kyi to run for presidency on the ground that some of her immediate family members are foreign nationals. The parliamentarians also voted in favour of the army's veto over constitutional change, dealing a blow to hopes for fuller democracy. The verdict of the MPs has not come as a surprise because the army holds 25 per cent of the seats in the Myanmar Parliament and as per current provisions, changes to the Constitution require more than 75 per cent of the votes.
Technicalities aside, Suu Kyi’s bargaining powers would increase considerably if the NLD manages to win the elections. Suu Kyi has herself said her party knew she was going to be “debarred” from the presidency and that they have plans in hand to handle the situation in the event of an NLD win. The party has, of course, not yet announced an alternative presidential candidate. If the numbers are on the side of the NLD in Parliament, the powerful military, too, may not be able to block efforts outright to amend the Constitution to remove the clause barring candidates with foreign spouses or children who are foreign nationals from becoming president. In fact, Suu Kyi has made no secret of the NLD’s intent to amend the Constitution if it wins the polls. "If the NLD wins in the election, we will amend the constitution," she told journalists on 11 July. The military and the ruling USDP know they cannot repeat a 1990 this time around as such a move would once again attract a global squeeze on funds to put it mildly, and, of course, trigger a fresh bout of public unrest.
Everything, including Suu Kyi’s future, as also the future of democracy itself in Myanmar, depends on the NLD’s performance at the polls. Suu Kyi and her party are not without hurdles in the run-up to the elections. In fact, during the past year, democracy icon Suu Kyi has maintained near silence on several issues concerning the masses. For instance, she and her party had backed the controversial Education Bill last year that prohibits student politics by not letting the formation of students unions in educational institutions. She had also remained largely silent on the issue of Rohingya Muslims that concerned most in South Asia. This has been a big irony that has either upset or surprised the common masses. But, Suu Kyi had obviously adopted such a stand because she was seeking the support of the Government in revising Myanmar’s Constitution, a move blocked by the MPs recently.
The NLD would like to win as many seats as possible but there are doubts if it could perform as well as it did in 1990 in Myanmar’s ethnic regions where fighting between the rebels and Government forces have intensified, of late. If the Myanmar military has launched the largest war effort, including air strikes in the Shan state’s ethnic Kokang region, there has been fierce fighting between the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Government troops in the northern Kachin state. Suu Kyi has said her party’s key agenda would be to bring about Constitutional amendment, pursuing the rule of law, and bringing about a national ceasefire with ethnic insurgents. Aside from this broad promise, the NLD has not spoken out its mind on how it plans to deal with ethnic aspirations in the nation. Whether Suu Kyi will spend time herself campaigning in these disturbed regions is unclear so far but there are reports she would keep away from the Rakhine State, where vast numbers of Rohingya have been disenfranchised with the cancellation of their identification documents.
A Buddhist monk movement with a sharp nationalistic fervour has threatened to reduce the NLD’s influence among the Buddhists. Besides, a plethora of political parties drawn from ethnic groups have sprung up in the troubled regions, challenging the dominance of the NLD. These will be factors which Suu Kyi and her party cannot ignore, making their fight with the USDP or the military itself all the more difficult. President Thein Sein has promised a ‘free and fair’ election in the presence of international observers. But, with reports of large-scale irregularities in the voters’ list that have been published, things may not be smooth sailing. Suu Kyi, obviously, is aware of the odds, and at the same time knows this is possibly her final chance to wrest control in Myanmar. Whether that can speed up the march towards total democracy in a nation dominated for decades by the military is left to be seen. The polls also presents New Delhi with an opportunity to try and test its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy by way of convincing the key players in Myanmar on the strength and benefits of a form of governance based on democratic ideals.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS
His oratory might have wowed the Bangladeshis, but rhetoric aside, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also demonstrated his intent to consolidate New Delhi-Dhaka ties and take it to a high point from where there would be no looking back. During his 40-hour visit to Bangladesh, Modi tried to strike a chord with Bangladeshis with enough quotable quotes: “Hum pass pass hain/Hum sath sath bhi hain (We are geographically close, we are also closely tied).” Modi told his audience he and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina spoke the same language - that of development.
His intent was reflected in the 22 agreements the two neighbours signed on issues of connectivity, education, infrastructure, maritime and energy security, and trade, among others. He didn’t forget to assure Dhaka that the contentious water-sharing issue would be pursued. “Panchi, Pavan aur pani” (birds, air and water) do not need visas, he said, to chants of ‘Modi, Modi’ by the audience. This was hint enough that there would soon be movement on the Teesta water-sharing issue. The Prime Minister spoke a language the Bangladeshis love to hear, leading to enough euphoria with which to sign off his visit.
New Delhi hopes to tread on the path laid out by Modi, riding on the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) that has become a reality with the prime ministers exchanging the instruments of the deal that is on the verge of resolving the 41-year-old boundary dispute. India and Bangladesh are supposed to begin the enclave transfers on 31 July. Having resolved the thorny issue of the land boundary dispute, it was time to move on. One would like to mention two sectors that New Delhi and Dhaka picked to top the cooperation agenda - energy and maritime issues.
If the deals are taken forward, India has the potential to emerge as the key partner of Bangladesh in the energy field. Dhaka has set itself a target of achieving an installed capacity of 24,000 megawatts (MW) by 2021. New Delhi expects Indian companies to get into power generation, transmission and distribution in Bangladesh. While India has agreed to raise power exports to 1,000 MW, from the existing 500 MW, Reliance Power, in the private sector, signed a deal to generate 3,000 MW of electricity at a cost of US$3 billion with the state-run Bangladesh Power Development Board. Besides, two coal-fired plants with a 1,600 MW total capacity will be set up by Adani Power Ltd at an estimated cost of over US$1.5 billion.
Of the 22 deals signed, perhaps the most significant was the Memorandum of Understanding on the use of the Chittagong and Mongla ports by Indian cargo vessels. Like some of the civilian ports in India’s neighbourhood, including Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, the Chittagong and Mongla ports in Bangladesh too have been under the Chinese shadow. Not only does this deal letting Indian vessels use these ports come in handy for servicing the land-locked Northeastern Indian states, it also signals the growing bond between India and Bangladesh and a lessening of the trust deficit. And yes, it would help India offset some of the Chinese influence on Bangladesh. After all, New Delhi cannot ignore the fact that Sheikh Hasina has chosen to call China one of Bangladesh’s “most dependable partners.” China, of course, is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and supplier of military hardware. One must also put on record the fact that New Delhi is keen to be in Bangladesh, building a deep sea port at Paira in Patuakhali district, a project that could cost over US$2 billion. China, UK and the Netherlands, too, are eyeing the project.
Modi’s politically correct behaviour in Dhaka has not really impressed the political class as well as the civil society in the Northeast, a region that shares 1880 km of the 4096 km long India-Bangladesh border. First, he chose to let West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accompany him during the visit, and not one chief minister from the Northeast. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, a veteran Congress leader, said the decision to leave aside chief ministers from the Northeast goes against the spirit of cooperative federalism. He said Modi’s decision to only take Mamata Banerjee gives an impression that the Northeastern chief ministers are against good ties between India and Bangladesh.
The bigger point, however, is that Modi did not raise the critical issues of infiltration, repatriation, smuggling and illegal trade with his Bangladeshi counterpart. Dhaka has always maintained that there has been no illegal migration of Bangladeshis to India - which is another story - but the issue continues to frustrate those in the Northeast. In fact, during the 2014 Parliamentary election campaign, Modi managed to arouse people’s passion by saying that once the BJP Government came to power in Delhi, ‘Bangladeshis’ (meaning illegal migrants) would have to pack their bags and leave India. The BJP in Assam, hoping to grab power from the Congress in the 2016 Assembly polls, is actually on the back-foot over Modi’s decision not to raise this ticklish issue with Sheikh Hasina. For the record, the Assam BJP was opposed to the LBA as well, but fell in line after directives from the party top-brass.
Modi was clearly on a trip of “connecting lands and binding hearts,” as the Ministry of External Affairs put it. That was reflected with the flagging off of the Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala and the Guwahati-Shillong-Dhaka bus services. Whether the “visit of high hopes,” as Bangladeshi newspapers called the trip, is able to deliver is left to be seen, but the course on which to tread has been set.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high-on-optics China visit may have generated enough signals about the two Asian giants attempting to move beyond the status quo on key fronts, but in Northeast India, the mood after the trip, if anything, has been gloomy. That is because there has been no indication that the concerns of the region - that include China building mega dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) or even planning to divert the river, or the issue of people from Northeast India, particularly Arunachal Pradesh, being given stapled visas by China - were raised by India or accepted by the Chinese of their own as matters that need consideration or re-consideration.
No wonder, as the three-day visit came to a close, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi lamented over Modi not raising the issue of China building dams on the Tsangpo, close to the Indian border as the river enters Arunachal Pradesh. “By not raising the serious issue and putting it on the backburner, the Prime Minister has done grave injustice to Assam and its people,” Gogoi said. If Gogoi did some thinking aloud on the issue of dams that can deplete the quantum of water flow on the Brahmaputra, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Nabam Tuki expressed “shock” at the “inappropriate response” from New Delhi to a section of the Chinese official media showing a map of India that excluded Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India and we expect a strong stand from the Centre to settle this (border) issue once and for all,” Tuki said.
If Sino-Indian ties have been held hostage by the events that led to or followed the 1962 war, the two nations will have to take the bull by the horns and make direct attempts to resolve the border issue. How long, after all, can China continue claiming the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, some 90,000-odd square kilometre of this Indian frontier state? Once again, during the Modi visit, one could see a status quoist approach on the subject. The joint statement only went to the extent of re-stating that the two sides wanted an early political settlement of the boundary question that serves the basic interests of the two countries. It said this endeavour must be pursued as a ‘strategic objective’ by the two governments.
Of course, there is a very interesting sentence in the joint statement that talks about the two nations reaffirming their commitment to “push forward negotiations on the framework for a boundary settlement based on the outcomes and common understanding achieved so far...” If a settlement has to be reached keeping in view the “outcomes and common understanding achieved so far,” one must remember the 2005 agreement between the two nations on ‘Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question’. Article Seven of this Agreement says: “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” If Beijing is to honour this 2005 commitment, China simply cannot or should not lay claim on Arunachal Pradesh that has a settled population along the border who have time and again expressed their unflinching allegiance to India as its citizens.
If Beijing can keep reiterating that the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is an integral part of China, New Delhi too could have reiterated during Modi’s China trip that Arunachal Pradesh is India’s integral part, a state that has a well ‘settled population’ along the border. By saying so, India would not have gone anywhere beyond the 2005 Agreement that China has been a signatory to. Modi has proved on several occasions during his one-year in office that he is a decisive Prime Minister, something India had not seen in the immediate past. It was, therefore, not surprising to find him announcing India’s decision to “extend electronic tourist visas to Chinese nationals.” Expectedly, China welcomed this move but refrained from saying whether it would reciprocate. All that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson was willing to say was this: ‘China is willing to make joint efforts with India under the Chinese laws and regulations so as to facilitate the exchanges of China and Indian people and seek for new development.’ No prizes for concluding (not guessing) that Beijing was silent on the issue of providing stapled visas to people from Arunachal Pradesh wanting to visit the country to drive home its claim on the territory.
The way market forces are beginning to dictate or determine bilateral ties between nations, the border dispute between India and China can remain on the backburner for an indefinite period and there can be business as usual on other matters. But that may not be the case on the issue of waters of shared rivers between the two neighbours. China has already operationalised a unit of the 500 MW Zangmu dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo, 3300 metres above sea level. Besides, Beijing has already cleared the construction of three new dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo. A 640 MW dam, obviously bigger than the Zangmu project, is to come up at Dagu, around 20 km upstream of Zangmu. Two smaller dams are on the cards at Jiacha and Jiexu, also on the middle reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo. China has made it clear it would ‘vigorously’ push hydropower projects in Tibet in its current Five Year Plan (2011-15) to reduce the energy shortfall in the region. Northeast India aside, China’s massive plan to dam the Yarlung Tsangpo has raised serious concerns in other lower riparian states like Bangladesh. Green groups at home are mounting pressure on New Delhi to respond because they fear this would lead to reduction in the water flow on the Brahmaputra and cause other disasters like massive siltation.
New Delhi is disadvantaged because of the absence of a water treaty between the two nations. The only agreement that India and China have on the subject is over hydrological data-sharing. Once again, the Chinese have made no effort to indicate it was ready to share its plans about building dams on trans-boundary rivers. The only official mention of the subject during the Modi visit was a reiteration on providing flood-season hydrological data and “assistance in emergency management.” The two sides, of course, agreed to further strengthen cooperation through the Expert-Level Mechanism on the provision of flood-season hydrological data and emergency management, and exchange views on other issues of mutual interest. This actually means nothing as Beijing has been less than transparent on what its plans are on rivers that flow out to India, particularly the Yarlung Tsangpo.
Yes, New Delhi and Beijing did note the increasingly important role played by Indian states and Chinese provinces in advancing the bilateral relationship. The two sides agreed to establish a State/Provincial Leaders’ Forum and the first meeting of the Forum, attended by Prime Minister Modi and Premier Li Keqiang, was held in Beijing on 15 May 2015. Whether the possible role of states in India’s Northeast figured in this Forum is not known, but unless border regions are factored in any confidence-building measures, the desired results may not really be achieved.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS
That New Delhi’s Naga peace policy has flopped has become evident with the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) calling off the 14-year ceasefire on 27 March and immediately targeting security forces, killing eight soldiers of the Assam Rifles on 3 May. There have been two other recent attacks on the Assam Rifles in Nagaland, with one in the heart of capital Kohima, where an on-duty soldier was shot dead. Earlier, on March 26, four Assam Rifles troopers were injured as armed gunmen attacked the Company Operating Base and outpost in the outskirts of Kohima. The NSCN-K is suspected to have carried out these attacks.
These incidents have broken the rather long lull in Nagaland, Northeast India’s hottest insurgency theatre until the Government of India managed to strike a ceasefire deal with the Isak-Muivah faction of the NSCN (NSCN-IM) in 1997 and began peace talks. Within four years of the truce with the NSCN-IM, New Delhi succeeded in having a similar ceasefire agreement with the rival NSCN-K. But unlike the movement on the peace efforts with the NSCN-IM, the NSCN-K was not invited for formal negotiations, making the Myanmar-headquartered outfit led by SS Khaplang restive.
In fact, New Delhi began watching the NSCN-K rather closely after it signed a ceasefire deal with Naypyidaw in April 2012. Apart from India, which was uneasy with this move, both the NSCN-IM and the NSCN (Khole-Kitovi) opposed this truce with Myanmar. They felt the NSCN-K cannot behave or consider itself as a group that has relevance in both India and Myanmar.
What eventually might have firmed Khaplang’s resolve to call off the truce with New Delhi could be the actions of two of its senior leaders who have been accused of compromising the NSCN-K’s and the Naga cause. While Khaplang wanted to abrogate the truce, the two leaders, Wangtin Konyak and T Tithak, wanted the ceasefire to be extended beyond 28 April – the day the term was to end. The picture is still hazy, but the haste with which Wangtin Konyak and T Tithak, were expelled from the NSCN-K, and the duo formed a new rebel group, the NSCN-R (Reformation), indicates that they had already arrived at some sort of an understanding with the Government of India.
New Delhi appeared working to a plan because it did nothing to either save the truce or prevent a split in the NSCN-K. Take a look at the swift turn of events: on 17 April, the new-born NSCN-R signed an initial one year ceasefire agreement with New Delhi. The latter followed this up by cancelling the ceasefire agreement that it had with the NSCN-K, making the ground clear for a direct confrontation with the now belligerent insurgent faction. The whole thing looked like part of a plan to sideline the NSCN-K and paint it as an outfit with no relevance to Nagas in India.
Recently, there are have been several other significant developments that indicate that New Delhi is treading a slippery path. First, although the truce with the NSCN-R, like that with the NSCN-IM, is confined to the state of Nagaland, leaders of the new faction claimed that the government ‘verbally assured’ them that the ceasefire is being extended up to Arunachal Pradesh. These leaders have also claimed that New Delhi has agreed to let the NSCN-R set up a camp in Arunachal Pradesh.
If true, this will have serious ramifications because the NSCN factions are having a free run in several parts of Arunachal Pradesh. Besides, the route the rebels take to Myanmar is via Arunachal Pradesh and any extension of the truce to Arunachal Pradesh will prevent the army and other security forces to engage with these rebels. Moreover, in a jungle warfare scenario, it is next to impossible to ascertain which group or faction a rebel contingent might belong to unless there is a liaison with the security forces.
In the wake of the NSCN-R leaders’ claims, the Centre must clarify the exact facts. If the ceasefire with the NSCN-R is extended beyond Nagaland, the same must apply to the NSCN-IM as well, with whom New Delhi is engaged in peace talks without a breakthrough for the past 18 years. There cannot be different yardsticks for different factions of a same militant group, but unfortunately that is happening and derailing peace processes.
Despite eighteen years of dialogue with the NSCN-IM, desired results have not been achieved. Both New Delhi and the NSCN-IM leadership are either ambiguous or have kept the people in the dark about the progress or otherwise of these deliberations. Additionally, while grappling with the NSCN-IM, New Delhi has not bothered to engage with other Naga rebel groups and factions, particularly the NSCN-K. This gave an impression that New Delhi regarded the NSCN-IM as the sole or principal rebel group representing the Nagas. However, the NSCN-K too has considerable influence in several Naga areas, particularly those bordering Myanmar. If New Delhi has decided to ignore the NSCN-K because it had entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Naypyidaw, then it would only expose the Government’s lack of foresight.
These are certainly not welcome developments insofar as the Naga insurgent politics is concerned as it will make things more difficult for New Delhi in its bid to resolve the Naga issue.
The questions for New Delhi are: after not formally speaking with the NSCN-K all these years, would you start formal talks with the brand new NSCN-R now? If not, is this the Centre’s old and unproductive strategy of postponing peace yet again? Is the NSCN-R, unlike the NSCN-K, willing to accept the NSCN-IM as the big brother and accept a possible agreement with them? Have you encouraged the formation of the NSCN-R to side-line the NSCN-K?
If the recent attacks are any indication, the NSCN-K will try to keep demonstrating its strike potential in the coming days with security forces being the main target. The group wants to include parts of Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, where it is based, in its scheme of a united Nagaland. With an estimated at 1500 fighters, its cadres are mostly based in Sagaing’s northern Lahe and Nanyun townships and thrive on funds collected via kidnapping, extortion and other anti-social activities.
At the end of the day, the Naga peace process shows clear signs of having gone off track.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS
Signals emanating from Myanmar indicate the country’s semi-civilian government is pursuing democracy with the brakes on. The brutal crackdown of a student protest by the authorities in early March has once again brought the spotlight back on a nation that was under military rule for 49 years until 2011. Apart from sowing seeds of doubt among the citizens about the possibility of actually experiencing a democratic free spirit in the days ahead, Naypyidaw’s decision to put down the student movement against the National Education Bill has upset donor countries and human rights groups across the world.
The student protestors, led primarily by the All Burma Federation of Students’ Unions (ABSFU), have a set of 11 main demands that include the right to establish student unions at their institutions, freedom to study the country’s ethnic languages and greater funding for education. The National Education Bill passed by Parliament in September 2014 prohibits student politics by not allowing the formation of students unions. On 10 March, the police used brutal force to break a protest by students and monks in the city of Letpadan, some 140 km north of Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial hub.
The government’s action on the students may have been disheartening for Western countries that have supported Myanmar’s rather reluctant march to democracy, but many would think four years on the slippery road to a democratic form of governance is a bit too early to give a verdict on the intentions of the people at the helm of affairs, which includes the military. The biggest irony in the whole story is the near silence of the country’s best-known symbol of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD had in fact backed the controversial educational bill last year.
If Ms Suu Kyi has refrained from demonstrating her sympathy for the students’ protest, except for urging all sides to keep away from violence, she has also not bothered to lend her voice against human rights violations by the country’s government. It is not difficult to see through Ms Suu Kyi’s game-plan as she and her party is seeking the support of the government in revising Myanmar’s constitution which currently bars her from running for president. The military-drafted constitution has a clause preventing anyone with a spouse or children of foreign citizenship from becoming president. The daughter of independence hero General Aung San, Ms Suu Kyi’s sons are British nationals. She and her sons, of course, have a huge following in Myanmar.
Despite the ban on Ms Suu Kyi from becoming president, the NLD is planning to contest the national elections later this year. If this is the case, backing the students in their genuine demand for more freedom in matters relating to affairs at educational institutions would have been a good strategy for Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD to adopt. After all, the role of students as a moral and political force is rooted in the 1920s and 1930s when Ms Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San was at the forefront of a movement that sought autonomy for universities and the right to set up student unions. The democracy movement that Myanmar witnessed subsequently has its roots in this students’ stir.
Ms Suu Kyi’s silence on the students’ protest may have anguished her supporters as of now, but they know she is Myanmar’s best bet to usher in true democracy, and are expected to rally around her in any case. The NLD, too, is aware of this fact and have therefore taken the decision to contest the elections. Ms Suu Kyi and her colleagues seem to be convinced that if the NLD were to win the polls, it would give them greater power and authority in parliament to bring about further amendments to the junta-drafted constitution and do away with the controversial clause that bars her from becoming president.
The current semi-civilian establishment in Naypyidaw, too, would obviously want the opposition NLD to contest the national elections later this year because without that the polls would look like a sham electoral exercise in the eyes of the international community. That may hurt Myanmar’s interest in view of the liberal aid now pouring in for the country’s development after years of sanction against the brutal military regime. Moreover, this would be the first election under the country's new democratic system, and as such is very significant. In March, therefore, Myanmar President Thein Sein met Ms Suu Kyi for the fifth time since the Nobel laureate's release from house arrest in 2010. Presidential spokesman and information minister Ye Htut said, “It was a one-on-one meeting and they discussed matters concerning constitutional amendments and holding a free and fair general election.”
The latest crackdown on the students reminded everyone of the 1988 student uprising in the country that was quashed by the government, with hundreds killed and imprisoned. The crisis drew international attention on Myanmar’s struggle for democracy and freedom from a brutal military-led dictatorship. That was supposed to have been history when in 2011 Myanmar’s generals stepped down, and the government began a process of reforms, with the backing of the US. The impact of this transition has been felt on the economy that is fast evolving, but the country’s road to democracy has been rocky to say the least.
The US has built its case for extending liberal aid to Myanmar keeping in view the aspirations of the Burmese people. The US has been saying it is providing assistance to deepen and accelerate Myanmar’s political, economic, and social transition; promote and strengthen respect for human rights; deliver the benefits of reform to the country’s people; and support the development of a stable society that reflects the diversity of its people. Total US assistance to Myanmar between 2012 and mid-2014 is estimated at US$ 202,185,000. But, contrary to expectations, national reconciliation is not happening and the road has been thorny. There has been fighting recently between ethnic Kokang rebels and the Myanmar army in north eastern Shan state that sent thousands of refugees fleeing across the border into China.
India’s stakes in Myanmar, too, are heavy. As the world’s largest democracy, India is expected to aid Myanmar in consolidating its transformation into a true democracy. If it succeeds in doing so, New Delhi will not only have a democratic neighbour, but will have managed to wean Myanmar away considerably from the grip of the Chinese. The attempt by the Narendra Modi government to raise the bar on India-Myanmar relations is a good effort in this direction. Myanmar is already showing signs that it could actually be against becoming a strategic pawn of China. New Delhi’s strength lies in the fact that while recognising and backing Ms Suu Kyi in her struggle for democracy, it maintained more than cordial relations with Myanmar’s military establishment. What is needed is consolidation of the ties, demonstrated by Prime Minister Modi’s November 2014 visit and talks with Myanmar’s leaders, and, of course, a continuous nudge not just to march along but value the true ideals of democracy.
Dimapur Lynching: Mirror to Nagaland’s Security Scene
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS
In a blatant defiance of the country’s justice system and the rule of law, a 5000-strong mob stormed the central jail in Nagaland’s commercial hub, Dimapur, on 05 March, dragged a rape accused out, paraded him through the streets after stripping him naked, and then watched him succumb to a fatal assault by the frenzied men. Not satisfied with his death, the attackers hanged the body on the clock tower in the middle of the dusty, garbage-filled town, with many clicking photographs of the macabre scene on their mobile phones. For a long time, one had heard of the murderous ISIS carrying out such merciless assaults or the Taliban meting out instant justice.
The charge against Syed Farid Khan alias Sarifuddin (27), who hailed from Bosla village, under Badarpur police station in southern Assam’s Karimganj district, was that he had raped a 20-year old Naga girl at a hotel in Dimapur on 23 February. Following a complaint, the police arrested Farid, who ran a small automobile shop in the town, the next day. A local court forwarded him to judicial custody. It was from the supposedly high-security Dimapur Central Jail, where the accused was lodged, that the mob extricated him after breaking open two of the prison gates. The jail security remained a mute witness to the rampage. Farid’s family have since claimed he was innocent and that the alleged ‘victim’, the 20-year-old girl who was known to the family, was blackmailing him with a demand of Rs 200,000.
The entire episode has once again exposed the poor governance and extremely poor law and order situation in Nagaland. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has called for a report and the Nagaland Government has instituted a probe, but the investigations must go beyond where the police or the local Dimapur district administration had erred. It is a fact that tension had been mounting since 24 February, the day Farid was arrested on the basis of the rape charge. Despite this, no additional precautionary measure was taken by the administration or the jail authorities to boost security around the prison complex. A local student group had even held a rally on the morning of the jail break-in to seek justice following the alleged rape. Even this did not move or shake the Dimapur administration. It is fine that the moribund Nagaland government, currently facing a political tug of war for chief ministership, has since placed the Dimapur Deputy Commissioner, the Superintendent of Police and the jailor on suspension, but the probe needs to examine whether more serious factors were behind the jail break by the mob and whether a section of the jail staff, as suspected, are hand-in-glove with the protestors.
One must factor in the fact that Dimapur is virtually Nagaland’s crime capital. Various factions of the rebel NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland) and other Naga insurgent groups raise ‘annual tax’ from traders and businessmen who operate in Dimapur. This is an open secret. Nagaland’s new Governor, PB Acharya, told this writer in the last fortnight, although in a different context, that the daily turnover in Dimapur is to the tune of Rs 500 crore. One must also note that the headquarters of the Isak-Muivah faction of the NSCN or the NSCN-IM, called Camp Hebron, is on the outskirts of Dimapur. The NSCN-IM’s writ runs large in Dimapur. It is another matter that the rebel group has not been able to clinch an agreement with New Delhi after 18 years of the so-called ‘peace negotiations’.
The NSCN-IM may not have triggered the mob upsurge that led to the jail break-in but its influence in the area may be the prime reason for the emergence of other rag-tag outfits around Dimapur. A couple of months ago, a new group called ‘Survival Nagaland’ has come up. Largely comprising Sema Nagas, the group has been going around preparing lists of people from outside Nagaland working or carrying out business in Dimapur. According to officials in the Union Home Ministry, which is aware of the development, members of the group have been issuing ‘residence certificates’ to such people for a fee. The MHA has since provided the Nagaland Government with the details of this group called ‘Survival Nagaland’ as well as the names of around four of its key leaders. It is important to crackdown on such loose groups because they help spread and channelise xenophobia in volatile areas like Dimapur.
The Centre’s inability to clinch an acceptable Naga peace agreement even after engaging in talks with the NSCN-IM for 18 years has added to the deteriorating situation in Nagaland. Therefore, it is heartening to find Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling for fixing a time frame by which to end peace talks with all insurgent groups, and to not engage in such talks with new groups or factions. Rampant corruption is another major reason for lawlessness and lack of public order in Nagaland, particularly in Dimapur. As Nagaland Governor Acharya said during the conversation with this writer, “There is king size corruption in the Northeast.” Unless measures are initiated to tackle all these issues holistically, the problems in Nagaland, too, would turn king size, so much so that it may veer out of control.
Already, groups and individuals in Assam are engaged in protests and blocking roads leading to Nagaland. With tension along the Assam-Nagaland border over disputed territory becoming a constant phenomenon, the situation needs a holistic management. Another dimension to the ‘insider-outsider’ issue in Nagaland is the general perception that all Bengali-speaking Muslims are illegal ‘Bangladeshi’ migrants. Even Farid, who was lynched, was dubbed a ‘Bangladeshi’, which is far from the truth. His father had served in the Indian Army and currently, two of his brothers are with the Army. The question is simple: the Nagas must realise that Nagaland is a part of India and just as the Nagas are free to move about or work in any part of India, those from outside Nagaland, too, are free to do the same in Nagaland. Moreover, Nagaland has the Inner Liner Permit system that requires a non-Naga to obtain such a document to enter the state. That itself is a provision to restrict the entry of non-Nagas to Nagaland. Of course, Dimapur is outside the purview of the ILP and, if necessary, the Nagas may persuade their Government to extend it to Dimapur as well to check the entry of new people in search of work. The Centre must examine all these aspects to restore a semblance of order in a chaotic and virtually unadministered town like Dimapur.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has just ended a four-day visit to China where she discussed “bilateral, regional and global issues of concern” for both countries. The range of discussions with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, that stretched to over two hours, were rather extensive: finalising the transit issue for Indian pilgrims to Kailash Manasarovar through Sikkim to the border question, to defence contacts between the two neighbours, trade and commerce, and possibly river waters, in view of the concerns in India over the massive damming of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra). What is not known, however, is whether Sushma Swaraj or the new Foreign Secretary, S Jaishankar, an expert China hand who spent four years in Beijing as India’s Ambassador there, raised the issue of official Chinese arms manufacturing companies regularly selling small arms (man-portable lethal weapons like AK series rifles, light and sub-machine guns, grenades etc) to insurgents in Northeast India. China, in fact, holds the key to the availability of weapons and ammunition among the terror groups in Northeast India that is actually keeping insurgency alive in this far-eastern frontier.
One has heard the Modi Government at the Centre talking of a ‘zero tolerance policy’ on terror, something that has not been clearly articulated as yet. Going by New Delhi’s diktat to the security establishment in Assam to go all out against the insurgents indulging in violence, in the wake of the 23 December 2014 massacre of around 80 Adivasis in the state by rebels of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit faction), one can assume that the Centre now is in favour of tough action to neutralise trigger-happy rebels. The approach seems to have yielded good results because from 23 December 2014 to 31 January 31, 2015, security forces engaged in stepped-up counter-insurgency operations against the NDFB (Songbijit) have arrested nearly 140 cadres, killed a top commander, and recovered nearly two dozen rifles, including sophisticated German HK 33 and US-make M 16 rifles and a range of AK series ones, most likely made in China. Close to 2,000 rounds of ammunition have been seized.
There is every reason to believe that unless the flow of small arms to the region is checked, insurgency cannot be eliminated or controlled in Northeast India. Any new anti-terror policy that New Delhi may formulate in the coming days would have to take this fact into consideration. It is here that the China factor will come into play, something that the Modi Government will have to confront.
In fact, if one looks at the charge-sheet filed by the National Investigating Agency (NIA) on 26 March 2011 against Anthony Shimray, chief arms procurer of the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), it becomes clear that the insurgent group was actively buying weapons from Chinese companies. The FIR lists out the plan in detail and specifically says that Shimray, accompanied by a representative of another rebel group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), visited the Norinco headquarters in Beijing. Norinco or the China North Industries Corporation, is one of China's largest State-owned weapons manufacturers. Bangkok-based NSCN-IM rebels paid USD 500,000 to Norinco and bought 1,800 weapons that landed at Bangladesh’s Cox Bazar in 1996 and were transported onwards to Northeast India, to NSCN-IM and NDFB camps. Half of these weapons, of course, were seized by Bangladeshi security forces while being off-loaded.
Around 2007, NSCN-IM faced desertion from its ranks with people going away with weapons. That was the time the outfit again decided to buy 1,000 weapons, mainly AK series rifles, light machine guns, sub-machine guns, pistols, rocket-propelled grenades etc. NSCN-IM approached another Chinese arms manufacturing company, TCL, and paid USD 1,00,000. The money was paid through a Thai arms dealer Wuthikorn Naruenartwanich alias Willy. The deal did not materialise due to the ‘disturbed situation’ in Bangladesh where the consignment was meant to be delivered. The NIA has electronic receipt of the payment.
Reports attributed to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said that a definite money trail exists as payment to the Chinese firm was made through normal banking channels via a leading private bank's branch in an African country. NSCN (I-M), according to the MHA, has parked its funds in bank accounts across several African nations. The NIA is bent on pursuing the Anthony Shimray arms procurement case to its logical end and has received a shot in the arm with the arrest in 2013 of Wuthikorn Naruenartwanich. His extradition to India was cleared by a criminal court in Thailand but Willy has since moved a higher court there and is awaiting its verdict on the matter of his extradition. What is clear is the Chinese link in weapons supply to rebels in Northeast India.
Bangladesh and Myanmar have been the key transit routes through which small arms made in China reaches the Northeast. The main conduits in Myanmar are the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). These two ethnic insurgent groups have acted as the interlocking chain for the illegal weapons flow from Yunnan in China via Myanmar to Northeast India, but the most effective illegal weapons trader in Myanmar is another armed ethnic group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
The UWSA is the military wing of the United Wa State Party (UWSP) founded in 1989 with members of the Wa National Council (WNC), which represent the Wa ethnic group and former members of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The UWSA’s biggest source of revenue is its involvement in the illegal small arms network across South and Southeast Asia. It manufactures Chinese weapons with an “informal franchise” procured from Chinese ordnance factories. The main motive is to sell these weapons for huge profit to armed groups in Northeast India.
A security situation in the Northeast that remains under control is vital to the pursuance of India’s Look East Policy. Therefore, New Delhi will have to devise a strategy to neutralise insurgency in the Northeast, and that strategy will have to factor in the flow of small arms to these groups. The ability to chock this flow right at the source of its origin could well hold the key.
India’s Northeast: Need for a New Anti-Terror Policy
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS
The Christmas-eve massacre in Assam of more than 75 Adivasi men, women and children by rebels belonging to the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB-S) has made two things clear - that it was a pure act of terrorism, not a routine incident of insurgency, and that an assortment of rebel leaders are still remote-controlling their trigger-happy foot soldiers from safe hideouts in India’s neighbourhood. By way of a response to this continuing bloodbath in Assam (46 people were gunned down by the same outfit in Baksa and Kokrajhar districts in May 2014), the new Government in New Delhi is expected to demonstrate on the ground its ‘zero tolerance’ policy on terror, besides coming up with a new anti-terror strategy that factors in the firm commitment of support from Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
The Narendra Modi Government must put its ‘zero tolerance’ policy against terrorism into immediate operation in Assam because the NDFB-S men, during their raids in Sonitpur and Kokrajhar districts on the evening of 23 December 2014, did not hesitate to kill infants by putting their gun barrels into their mouths. This explains the brutality of their crime and the commitment of this armed group to indulge in terror. The same group had killed an Additional Superintendent of Police in January 2014, shot dead 46 people in May, and killed a school girl in August because they suspected her of being a ‘police informer.’ The question that arises is obvious: what is the Unified Command of the Army, police and the paramilitary, headed by the Chief Minister, doing by way of measures to neutralise the rebels?
That the Government of India’s peace policy is flawed has been proved yet again by the latest carnage. New Delhi is already ‘talking peace’ with two other NDFB factions: the NDFB (Progressive) and the NDFB (Ranjan Daimary). For the record, the NDFB (Ranjan Daimary) group - and Daimary himself - has been clearly accused by the security establishment, including the CBI, for involvement in the October 2008 serial blasts in Assam that had killed 100 people. Now, despite the year-long killing and extortion spree by the NDFB-S gunmen, some Assam Police officers are reported to have been engaged in ‘talks’ with some leaders of the outfit. Such actions - talking peace with killer gangs - amounts to according legitimacy to such groups and their actions and only encourage newer militant groups to upscale their violent acts. It is this policy of the Centre that which among other reasons is keeping insurgency alive and kicking in the Northeast. The rebels by now know they only have to agree to sit for talks if the going gets tough for them!
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh did talk sense when he visited Assam in the wake of the latest massacre. He said there is no question of engaging in talks with killers who have shot dead even infants and ruled out any political solution to the issues of groups like the NDFB-S. Singh talked of a ‘time-bound’ security offensive to neutralise the rebels. The Centre must now make a policy statement and announce a moratorium on peace talks with newer militant groups in Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast. This will go a long way in sending out a clear message to new insurgent outfits who would realise that they are henceforth going to be dealt with as nothing but a law and order problem. After all, the Government cannot be expected to sign fresh Bodo accords with the two NDFB factions it is currently talking to. Again, for those uninitiated, the Centre had signed a Bodo Accord with the rebel Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) in 2003. The BLT thereafter transformed itself into a political party, contested local elections, and has been ruling the area for the past decade.
As usual, there have been claims and counter-claims in the wake of the carnage - central intelligence agencies have said they had intercepted radio conversations in which NDFB-S leaders were instructing their hit-squads to target Adivasis and that they had forwarded these to the Assam Police. If this is true, the Assam Government owes the people of the state an explanation as to the action taken on the information. But, killings by insurgents have become so commonplace in Assam and other Northeastern states like Manipur and Meghalaya that the local governments can afford to be complacent and unaccountable. Of course, the ongoing peace talks with a plethora of rebel groups only add to the confusion, surely even among the security forces on how to respond to a situation. Therefore, the need for a new anti-terror strategy.
The fact that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was quick to speak to Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay seeking his Government’s assistance in tackling the NDFB-S militants indicates the rebels may have once again opened shop inside the Himalayan nation or are sneaking in and out of its dense jungles. This is not surprising because the ULFA, NDFB and the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) were flushed out of Bhutan by a joint Bhutan-India military assault in 2003. The External Affairs Ministry has also confirmed that Sushma Swaraj was in touch with other ‘friendly neighbouring’ countries as part of India’s bid to tame the Northeast rebels. This means that New Delhi is in touch with Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The Modi Government’s neighbourhood push is indeed notable, but commerce aside, New Delhi must also work out institutional mechanisms with Thimphu, Naypyidaw and Dhaka to deal with insurgents who operate sans borders in their trasnational criminal journey. The question now is this: can India work out an anti-terror strategy that transcends its borders and work together with the security establishments in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan? There has been cooperation on this front but one is talking of something with standard protocols in place. One hopes Prime Minister Modi, Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj will be able to devise an India-Myanmar-Bangladesh-Bhutan security umbrella to fight terror in the Northeastern frontier, and include Nepal too in the endeavour.
Wasbir Hussain Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS
A day after China commissioned the biggest hydro-power plant in Tibet on 23 November 2014, India named National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval as its Special Representative on the boundary talks with Beijing. This means the boundary dialogue between the two Asian giants is set to resume. But today, very few would tend to believe that India and China could go to another war over issues like the boundary. Economic ties or compulsions are perhaps far too big for China to embark on another military adventure or misadventure against India. Therefore, a war over the border dispute may look remote, but that cannot be said about escalation of tensions over the securitisation of water.
The operationalisation of the first generating unit of the USD 1.5 billion Zangmu plant, located 3,300 metres above sea level, before the scheduled 2015 start date, indicates that Beijing means business in tapping the resources of the Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is called in China. Five other generating units of the plant will be operational by next year.
The event was celebrated by China with the official news agency Xinhua reporting the commissioning in detail. “The huge project, which straddles the middle reaches of the roaring Yarlung Tsangpo, will have a total installed capacity of 510,000 KW upon completion. It is designed to generate 2.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually.”
New Delhi, so far, does not seem to be unduly perturbed by the development because it appears to believe Beijing’s assurance that the Zangmu dam is a run-of-the-river project that will not involve either diversion of the river's waters nor have a major impact on downstream flows. What needs to be factored in, however, is China’s approval to the building of 27 other dams on the river.
Beijing last year cleared the construction of three new dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo. A 640 MW dam, obviously bigger than the Zangmu project, is to come up at Dagu, around 20 km upstream of Zangmu. Two smaller dams are on the cards at Jiacha and Jiexu, also on the middle reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo. China has made it clear it would "vigorously" push hydropower projects in Tibet in its current Five Year Plan (2011-15) to reduce the energy shortfall in the region.
China’s massive plan to dam the Yarlung Tsangpo has raised serious concerns in India, particularly in the Northeast, besides other lower riparian states like Bangladesh. Green groups at home are already demanding intervention by the Indian Government to prevent building of more dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo by China. They fear reduction in the water flow on the Brahmaputra and other disasters like massive siltation.
But the absence of a water treaty between the two nations will make New Delhi’s task all the more difficult in dealing with the issue. The only agreement that the two nations have on the subject is over hydrological data sharing. One of the agreements India and China signed during the Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari’s five-day visit to Beijing concerned the sharing of hydrological data of Brahmaputra River during monsoons. There had been a similar agreement but in the new one signed on 30 June - in the presence of Indian Vice President Ansari and his Chinese counterpart Li Yuanchao - Beijing agreed to provide 15 days’ additional hydrological data - from 15 May to 15 October each year.
Bluntly put, the latest MoU on the Brahmaputra flood data means nothing as an additional 15 days worth of hydrological information will not enable India to deal with the flood problem any differently. What India needs is input from the Chinese side on dams and other projects Beijing is pursuing or intends to pursue based on the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo. Even a commitment on that is not forthcoming thus far from the Chinese side.
With an unprecedented mandate and a demonstrated policy to improve ties with its neighbours, the Narendra Modi government in New Delhi can initiate the setting up of something like a South Asia Shared Rivers Commission or Authority by bringing Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal on board. Once such a commission emerges and a cooperative framework on the shared rivers is agreed upon by the concerned states, it can engage with China and try to bring Beijing on board to adopt a reasonable approach on its mega dam projects on the Yarlung Tsangpo and allay apprehensions in the lower riparian areas, including Bangladesh.
There is added concern because China also apparently has plans to divert the Yarlung Tsangpo at the Great Bend, located just before where the river enters India, also known as the Shoumatan Point, to provide water to its arid northern areas. The diversion plan is part of a larger hydro-engineering project, the South-North water diversion scheme, which involves three man-made rivers carrying water to its northern parts. If the water is diverted, the water levels of the Brahmaputra will drop significantly, affecting India's Northeastern region and Bangladesh. Estimates suggest that the total water flow will fall by roughly 60 per cent if China successfully diverts the Brahmaputra. Besides, it will severely impact agriculture and fishing as the salinity of water will increase, as will silting in the downstream area.
India’s response on the subject is awaited, and until then, speculations about the impact of the Chinese dams on the river will continue to haunt everyone in Northeast India and Bangladesh.
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