Manipur ambush: The writing has been on the wall
The aggressive posturing of NSCN (K) and a 'new' umbrella group have been building up over the past few years.
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Thursday’s attack, which claimed the lives of 18 soldiers of the 6 Dogra Battalion, was the third major attack on the Indian Army, in as many months. Led by the Myanmar based SS Khaplang faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), which recently abrogated a 15-year ceasefire with the Indian government, these three attacks have collectively claimed the lives of 30 Indian Army soldiers, shattering the decade-long relative calm the Indian Army had become accustomed to in the region.
However, the writing has been on the wall and the aggressive posturing of the NSCN (K) and a "new" umbrella group, the United Liberation Front of Western South Asia, a conglomerate of regional bad boys, have been building up over the past few years. In fact, it dates back to the 2011 split in the NSCN (K).
On June, 7, 2011, in an internal coup, a power play by a section of the NSCN (K) leadership, the Tahtar Hoho, or the group’s "parliament", impeached Khaplang stating that "no man is larger than the nation". What eventually emerged was a new group, NSCN Kitovi and Khole. While NSCN (KK) has been unable to establish itself as a big player in the fragmented and ever evolving space of the Naga political struggle (there are six different groups, each claiming their own legitimacy and share of the Naga pie), the group's creation has gone on to upset the decade-long balance of power between the NSCN (K) and NSCN (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (IM).
It is important to understand that each group in Nagaland has its own parliament with its ministers and therefore its own "taxes". The more territory you control, the larger your share of the taxes, with Dimapur, the state’s entry point and financial hub being the most lucrative. To put things into perspective, according to reports, the groups amass close to Rs 600 crores from their system of TDS (tax deducted at source) from the salaries of government employees as well as government tenders, and the larger groups have annual budgets that run into thousands of crores of rupees. Apart from tax collection, there are widespread fields of opium and cannabis in Naga areas and the groups get a percentage from drug cartels transporting drugs to and from Myanmar.
Until the spilt, most of the Naga territories were chalked up between NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K). While Khaplang, who is a Burmese Naga, controls large sections of land in northwestern Burma, according to his ministers, the group remained dependent on the Indian territory for income. After the split, NSCN (KK) took control of Khaplang’s share in Dimapur as well as other parts of the state and opened the doors for NSCN (IM) to push into eastern Nagaland and eastern districts of Arunachal Pradesh, territories that had been previously held by Khaplang. This isolated Khaplang across the border in Myanmar without a steady flow of income. In return, NSCN (IM), the only group that is involved in the decade-long negotiation with the Indian government, has started to make a concerted effort to include other groups in the talks, including NSCN (KK).
Just after the spilt, I had a telephonic conversation with a former minister in the Khaplang government, shunted out by the NSCN (KK). He had been travelling between Delhi, Kolkata, Assam and eastern Nagaland to broker a deal with the Indian government and give his assurance that Khaplang was still in control. He categorically told me, "This move of theirs (NSCN-KK) is a big mistake. Say things don’t workout with India, the negotiations fail, they no longer have bases or safe havens, how will they fight? We control the base in Burma, we are the only group that can fight."
And he was right. In 2012, Khaplang, who was stuck across the border and had become irrelevant to India (it's hard to negotiate with a group operating in another country), signed a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government that granted autonomy to the NSCN (K) in three districts. According to intelligence sources, one of the reasons the Myanmar government won't act against Khaplang is because he pays "taxes" to it.
Having created his own political space in Myanmar, it would only make sense that Khaplang would act to secure his financial future. Shortly after this deal, NSCN (K) started to push into Manipur, the interiors of which are home to thousands of villages growing opium and cannabis. Another well established revenue stream for the Naga underground groups has been through providing training and camp space to other groups in the region. This is something that was explained to me by my contacts in the NSCN (KK) as well as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) of Assam, and the going rate was Rs two lakh per solider and of course, you pay extra for arms and ammunition. After training with the Chinese in late 1960s, in an attempt to create chaos in the region, the Nagas have offered these services to underground groups in every state and even the Maoists.
Even before the split, Paresh Baruah and his faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the NDFB, as well as smaller Manipuri rebel groups shared a joint camp with Khaplang. There has been chatter in the intelligence circuits of a unifying umbrella for all groups in South Asia under the label of Corcom for some time now and it makes sense for them to unite. As a united front, they can create chaos in multiple directions and catch the Army, which has started to switch off mentally and slacken in parts of the region, off guard as they did on Thursday. Through this chaos, NSCN (K) will once again find relevance with the Naga people on the Indian side of the border as well as space on the negotiating table with the Indian government and as a former NSCN (K) member told me after switching over to the NSCN (KK), "For a solution, we have to approach India, but you can never rule out the China angle, they are always ready to help us."
What should be of great concern to the Indian government is that its strategy of divide and rule hasn’t worked. Since the sixties, where BN Mullik and the intelligence bureau (IB) realised that the solution would not come through a military offensive but by creating a faction within the Nagas that was not opposed to remaining within the Indian state, the Indian government has actively worked to create further divisions within the Naga movement; the logic being two-fold.
Firstly, if the Nagas are divided, the Indian government can keep delaying a solution, placing the blame on the Nagas and secondly, by keeping them divided and fighting with each other, the Naga movement will remain weak. While this strategy has played out beautifully, buying the government decades of time, it has forgotten to address the aspirations of the Naga people. Had they created jobs, basic infrastructure, connectivity and worked towards integrating the region into India’s "growth story", the Indian government would have benefited greatly. Rather, the Nagas and the rest of region face alienation and discrimination, crores are poured in but there is no real development to speak of (except for the fancy houses and cars that can be seen across the region from ill-gotten wealth). Until, we as a nation, address key issues and not only highlight the day-to-day problems but address them, there will always be violence in the northeast.