India’s experience with battling insurgencies goes back to the 1950s when Pandit Nehru ordered the Indian army to confront the Naga uprising in what eventually led to a long running counter insurgency (CI) campaign across the seven sister states of India’s northeast. However, unlike the Indian army’s CI operations in Punjab followed by Sri Lanka and then finally Jammu and Kashmir- all of which saw fairly intense military operations with long spells of routine CI operations, the operations in India’s northeast were largely ‘low key,’with perhaps one exception which saw the use of air power in the Mizo hills in the 1960s. This itself distinguishes the experience in the Northeast from that of other insurgencies.

It all started with a Naga demand for independence immediately after the British left India. Then in the 1960s it spread to Mizoram and in 1970s to Manipur. Several decades later the region has multiple insurgencies with no solution in sight, essentially for the following reasons:

  • Firstly, the lack of development of the region, that has allowed the separatists to garner support for their anti-Delhi campaign. Long ignored by New Delhi, despite its strategic location that can be India’s gateway to the ASEAN countries, these states have figured low on New Delhi’s priorities.
  • Secondly, insurgencies have mushroomed and continued to exist because of poor governance. Chairman Mao had said that the promise of a revolution will exist in any region where the formal administrative structure fails to meet the basic obligations of providing the minimum standards of life to its citizens. Furthermore, rampant corruption and poor administration in the Northeast has led to a vacuum that is filled by insurgent groups who run parallel governments.
  • Thirdly, in a variant of the politics practiced across India, political parties in the Northeast are known to have sought the support of local insurgent groups for elections and in return they share a portion of the public funds with them thereafter, giving the insurgents groups much needed funds. And finally, the region is a complex mix of ethnicities, cultures and languages, that requires an understanding of sensitivities of its people. This has been ignored by the authorities in New Delhi. The influx of migrants and the creation of States, with interstate boundaries arbitrarily drawn without consideration for the sensitivities of the local tribal groups, has also led to conflicts.

A RAND corporation study (2010) has confirmed that no insurgency can last over 10 years without external support or sanctuaries. In India’s northeast, insurgent groups had earlier received the backing of the Chinese government including arms and military equipment and in later years have enjoyed sanctuaries in Bangladesh and Myanmar. However, it was only in recent years that New Delhi had sufficiently favourable relations with these neighbouring countries to act decisively against these insurgent groups based across India’s borders. The most dramatic Indian response against a cross border attack on Indian troops was the special forces raid on insurgents camps across Manipur’s borders with Myanmar following an ambush of an Indian army convoy in 2016.

However, apart from the causes stated above, the one major reason that there has been no solution to the multiple insurgencies across India’s northeast has been the absence of a comprehensive politico military approach to the region. This requires bringing all the military and paramilitary units under one commander who works closely under the direction of a single point political authority in Delhi to address all the security challenges comprehensively. At present, there are multiple forces with separate chains of command adding to confusion. Worse still is the political situation, with multiple stake holders, as each State has its own elected government that has its own agenda and a police force which often operates to suit the political agenda of the State government. Unless there is a comprehensive politico-military template that is adopted forthe entire northeast, the problem will continue to fester.

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