Equations change in Northeast India’s rebel underground

NSCN-K. Photo: Burma Link

The burning down of 9 crude oil tankers in Upper Assam this week points to a change in equations between rebel groups in India's Northeast.

Indian intelligence agencies now confirm that this violent action was carried out by joint squads of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and National Socialist Council of Nagaland - Issak-Muivah (NSCN-IM).

However, ULFA is in the rebel coalition United National Liberation Front of West South East Asia (UNLFWSEA) that was formed last year by the Burmese leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland - Khaplang (NSCN-K) S S Khaplang who died last year.

So why would the ULFA change course and work together with Khaplang's rival Muivah who is negotiating with India and why would Muivah ask his guerrillas to assault Indian assets?

Muivah is very frustrated with the Modi government because of his failure to sign a final settlement with the Modi government, though more than two years have passed since he signed a 'framework agreement' with the Indian government.

Muivah has claimed that he will get a settlement which will give the Nagas a separate flag, a separate currency and many other trappings of sovereignty. He has said the final settlement would be based on 'shared sovereignty'. However, now with another Christmas gone, Muivah seems to be stuck in a nightmarish deadlock.

Delhi is not in a hurry to sign a deal with Muivah. For a comprehensive settlement, Indian intelligence has established contact with all NSCN and NNC rebel factions, small and big.

Recently, a senior former Indian intelligence official met leaders of the Khaplang group in Myanmar and gave them a copy of the draft agreement reached with Muivah, asking them to reply within one month. The Khaplang group leaders promised they would.

Intelligence officials based in the Indian embassy in Yangon have been tasked to reach these leaders and get their opinions and forward it to Delhi. 

The view in Delhi is that all Naga rebel factions must be involved in endorsing the final agreement to ensure that a repeat of 1975 does not happen which was when Muivah opposed the Shillong accord and formed the NSCN to fight Indian forces.

That is something Muivah hates because, after his political and military training in China, he has come to believe that there can be only one sun under one sky, as goes a Chinese proverb.

So far, the Muivah group has 'managed' all interlocutors including the current one R N Ravi.

However, with the advent of former intelligence (RAW) chief Rajinder Khanna as Deputy NSA, the push for a comprehensive settlement has gained ground.

Khanna has been a former RAW resident in Yangon and has a solid understanding of the Burmese Naga scene, as well as he knows the Indian Naga rebel groups because he headed the RAW Northeast desk for a long time. 

The ULFA, which has drawn close to Chinese intelligence in recent months, is understandably upset with Khaplang group leaders reviving secret negotiations with India, though not yet owning up.

The NSCN-K group leaders are now mostly Indian Nagas, including chairman Khonga Konyak and commander in chief Niki Sumi. So Delhi has no reservations talking to them as they would have when Khaplang was alive because he was a Burmese citizen.

The ULFA  has very few fighters left and ULFA chief Paresh Barua was trying to become the leader of the NSCN-K by default by dictating to them their future course of action.

Since they have failed to do this, Paresh Barua seems to be opening up a new relationship with Muivah and Muivah is trying to send home the message to Delhi that he cannot be taken for granted.

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