by Diptendra Raychaudhuri
THE turning point came on the 4th of June, 2015. On that day, after being dormant for fifteen years, the North-East rebels proclaimed with vengeance their return. A Dogra Regiment convoy of four trucks faced rocket propelled grenades and barrage of firing from all sides on a Manipur road. The mighty Indian army lost its 18 soldiers. Formally, the Naga rebel outfit NSCN-K claimed credit for it, but Indian intelligence had evidence that the deadly attack was perpetrated by a team of guerrillas consisting of cadres of different organisations of the North-East.
The Indian army and the intelligence agencies woke up to the danger immediately. Just six days later, on June 10, India conducted the first surgical strike under the Narendra Modi regime, targeting terrorist camps on both sides of the Indo-Myanmar international border. Seventy commandoes of the Indian Air Force and 21 para (Special Force) destroyed two camps, one each of NSCN-K and KYKL (a Meitei Manipuri terrorist organisation). According to media reports, the casualty on the rebel’s side stood as high as 158. And, it was not a one-off incident. Though not so much publicised like this one, such surgical strikes have been carried later too. The last one that was reported in the media took place in June last year. Indian army claimed the camps on the other side of the border were being raided off and on.
However, the success has been limited. The rebels too are attacking, off and on, the security forces in different States, particularly in Manipur. On June 15, 2017, a jawan was killed and three others were injured when militants ambushed an Assam Rifles party in Ukhrul district of Manipur. Before that, on May 8, two Territorial Army personnel were killed and as many injured in an IED explosion carried out by militants in Tengnoupal district of the same State. In December last year, A group of around 70 terrorists attacked a police post in Manipur and stole nine automatic weapons and leaving two policemen injured. Security forces are being attacked in Arunachal and Assam too.
The situation is not quite heartening. Worse even, the Indian authorities know the reawakening of the rebels of North-East is being sponsored by China. For Beijing, it serves two purposes at one go. First a disturbed North-East, particularly Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, serves them good, for the whole region then acts as a deterrent to India’s attempt to go against China. Second, a corridor in Myanmar along the India border, ruled by Indian and Myanmar rebels, gives them a secured access to Bay of Bengal that they may need to use in distress. A far-sighted game really.
AT this moment Indian intelligence is watching at the developments more wearily. One of the two faithful associates of China, SS Khaplang (head of NSCN-K) breathed his last on June 9 in his base in Kachin state of Myanmar at the age of 77. Khaplang was the patriarch, a Hemi Naga from Myanmar, and the top leader of a confederation of NE rebel groups, including the Nagas, the Manipuris, the Assamese, the Bodos and some others. But he was too old to plan it out on the ground and that was being done by the other associate of China, Paresh Barua. This enigmatic man, known as an arms mafia, has recouped a tiny ULFA, whose all known leaders have either surrendered or got arrested. It is said that he was the brain behind bringing together all the rebel groups existing beyond the Chicken’s Neck of North Bengal. The process was going on for some years when Baruah managed to stay off radar. Now, with the demise of Khaplang, the 60-year-old Baruah was all set to become the top man of the rebel conglomerate. To the new chief of NSCN-K, Akhio Konyak, he will be sort of a guide.
The intelligence agencies feel, if Baruah really becomes the sole top leader, the situation may turn from bad to worse. Khaplang too was daring, a maverick who once killed 60 comrades of his rival Naga faction, and had a home in China’s Yunnan province. But he belonged to Myanmar and towards the end he realised a great Nagaland State would remain a dream. He declared truce with Delhi in 2001, and abrogated it in 2015. Many believe Baruah was instrumental in it. Baruah is an Assamese rebel, well-connected with the Chinese military, and is uncompromising in his attitude. A much more dangerous person.
INTERESTINGLY, just five years ago, Baruah was reduced to a loner. Indian authorities almost got him in Bangladesh, where Indian intelligence and Sheikh Hasina’s police entrapped the entire ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) leadership. But just like it happened in Bhutan another five years ago during a military operation in which Indian commandoes took part in disguise, Baruah again escaped unscathed. From Chittagong he reached the coast of Myanmar on a boat, and then trekked some 700-800 hundred kilometres to reach the rebel base of the Nagas. At India’s request, a year later (2011), Myanmar army chased him through the anarchic hills and jungles of North Myanmar. Reportedly he was shot at.
Unconfirmed news even claimed he was killed. Smug Indian intelligence bosses wrote him off as they boasted about a ‘negotiation’ with the rest of the ULFA. But then a top Manipuri militant caught in Bihar revealed he met Baruah at Shanghai and discussed with him about a joint front of the Naga, Bodo, Manipuri, Kamtapuri, and newly-recruited ULFA rebels to carry out joint guerilla operations.
Over decades, starting from the ‘80s, as top military man of ULFA, Baruah forged proximity with the Naga and Kachin rebels of Myanmar. The Naga rebel organisation, ‘National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN)’, was split in 1985 and the group led by SS Khaplang was always close to Baruah. But regular joint operations of guerrilla organisations were never considered. Yet, the Indian bosses refused to deem the effort as a major threat, discounting it as a ploy for Baruah to smuggle arms from China and selling those to the rebels.
Ferrying arms was, of course, Baruah’s forte for many years. A Bangladesh court awarded him the death sentence in January of 2014, in absentia, for smuggling in arms from China. Those arms, brought years ago, were reportedly being sent to LTTE.
The year 2011 onwards, Baruah created smokescreens to cheat on the Indian intelligence. When he was supposed to be in China and Indian authorities pressed the Chinese on it, he was sighted in Nagaland, playing football in a match between two teams of guerrillas! Once he dispatched a video to the media in which he was seen celebrating bihu with his cadres in Assam. In 2012, he made Abhizeet Asom the chairman of ULFA (independent). Like him, Asom too is an elusive person. Some even speculated Asom was actually a London-based doctor and human rights activist Mukul Hazarika, who often raised the issue of N-E in different international forums.
Meanwhile, Narendra Modi’s government went ahead to sign a framework agreement with the other faction of the Naga rebels, the NSCN-IM, in August 2015. The dialogue between the centre and the NSCN-IM, that preceded the draft treaty, provided Baruah an opportunity to impress upon Khaplang to push on his fight for freedom. By then the coalition of guerrilla forces (United Liberation Front of Western South-East Asia) had materialised. Now they undertook joint operations, striking at Indian army in different states of the North-East.
But, Baruah still does not have a formidable team with him. None of the rebel groups with him has the strength of waging a real war against the State. Sporadic gun battles, blasts or ambush is not something new in the North-East. Thirty years ago, the region was much, much more dangerous place. The Naga rebels were in a real belligerent mood. ULFA was swaying the minds of a section of youths of Assam. There were rebels with striking power in almost every State of the region.
SO, what is so dangerous about Baruah’s new avatar that the intelligence is relentlessly after him? Sources say, they are not concerned about Baruah’s present strength. It is all about his potential.
Everybody knows, signing accords will not solve the Naga problem. A treaty between the Naga guerrillas and India, referred to as Shillong Accord, was signed in 1975 too. It brought into force a new set of rebels, known as NSCN (then founded jointly by Isac, Muivah and Khaplang, who later split in two opposing groups). The Nagas reside in Nagaland, in adjacent States of Manipur and Mizoram, and also in Myanmar. What they desire to achieve is a unified Nagalim (Greater Nagaland). But India does not have the authority to offer them lands belonging to Myanmar.
Khaplang is from Myanmar while his rival Muivah is a Thangkul from Manipur. With neither of the rivals having roots in Nagaland, any package limited to Nagaland cannot satisfy the entire Naga community. Alternatively, if the government goes for curving out Naga-dominated slices of Manipur and Mizoram to form a Greater Nagaland of sorts within India, the Meiteis (the dominant tribe of Manipur) and the Mizos will be up in arms. Same will be the case about other insurgencies who all demand sovereign states. So, India’s plan is to buy time so that the old leadership fades out and the movements die a natural death. Baruah, however, has emerged as a thorn in the plan. He is trying to stoke up a new rebellion. And Baruah has full backing of the Dragon.
Thirty years ago, China had limited direct role in the rebellions of North-East. But now, the mighty neighbour is not only supplying arms, its army is training and giving shelter to the rebels from India. It is still limited to a few. But, if in near future China wants to play Pakistan on the eastern border, they may find their Dawood in Paresh Baruah. The entire region has easy access to China as Arunachal and Sikkim share border with it. Again the whole region is bordered by Bangladesh and Myanmar. If for some reason someday either Bangladesh or Myanmar stops cooperating with India, the rebels will have a field day in those countries. That is why India is trying its best either to make Baruah surrender and play an important part in Assam politics, or eliminate him. Without any luck yet, though.
– STATE SCAN / north-east / July 2017