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When India gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, it was faced with several vulnerabilities along its northern, eastern, and western borders. Transfer of power from the British was not only about birth of India as an independent modern nation but also about the carrying forward the international treaties the rulers of British India had signed with its neighbouring countries.

As newly independent nations, several former colonies in Asia found themselves in a rather weak position in handling mutually overlapping territorial claims, differences and disputes with local administrative agency of a neighbouring country, and unhindered movement of ethnic communities oblivious to necessities and procedures of entering a modern nation state’s sovereign territory. Put together, more often than not these challenges capped government agencies’ enthusiasm towards modernization, and steps to boost connectivity and economic development. Attempts to bring lasting peace to peripheral regions fell prey to insurgency, separatism, and armed violence against the State itself. India was no exception to any of these features.

During the Cold War years, especially after the 1962 India-China war, ethnic-based irredentist separatism in several north-eastern states was funded and supported by Communist China to keep India occupied in the Subcontinent. Some of the leading separatist leaders, such as Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah—leaders of NSCN-IM (Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland- Isak Muivah)—and even Paresh Barua of the United Liberation Front of Assam, were trained in China. Small arms supply, funding, and support to some of these groups came from China, and Myanmar-based separatist groups.

Lack of enough resources, poor border infrastructure, and boundary disputes with China leading to the 1962 war compelled the Indian State and central government to become more inward looking and turn even its north-western and eastern borders into frontiers rather than bridges and trade corridors. For decades, India kept its bordering areas underdeveloped so that the Chinese troops could not gain easy access if Beijing ever tried to repeat the brief 1962 border war and encroach into Indian territory.

With the launch of its Look East policy in 1992, preceded by a number of peace agreements with rebel groups, India adopted a multi-pronged approach in dealing with a slew of measures, including infrastructure, connectivity, and financial initiatives. Cutting off linkages between local rebel groups and their foreign sponsors was an important part of this objective. As a part of this mission, India sought assistant from its eastern neighbours—Myanmar, Bhutan, and Bangladesh—to flush insurgents and separatists out.

Over past three decades, bookended by its Look East (1992) and Act East (2014) policies, India not only made attempts to link its north-eastern states with neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, but also strove to bring north-eastern states to the forefront of developmental discourse in India. This has particularly been the case over last seven years under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

However, despite steps taken by the government, the struggle to strike a balance between development and peace still remains a critical challenge for the north-eastern states of India. What makes the situation even more complicated is the fact that several of these insurgent groups are still supported by neighbouring countries, including China. In this regard, a new chapter was opened when terrorists ambushed a colonel of the 46 Assam Rifles and his family in Manipur in November 2021. Six jawans of the Assam Rifles were also injured in the incident. Two Manipur-based terrorist organizations, the People’s Liberation Army and the Manipur Naga People’s Front, claimed responsibility for the attack. It is believed that most of the work of these organizations is done by Myanmar.

Sources also believe that the terrorists responsible for the attack had entered India’s border from Myanmar. It is hardly surprising considering that India and Myanmar have a border of more than sixteen hundred kilometres. This border area is mostly porous. Moreover, a large part of the border has not been fenced; it may not even be possible to do so. These factors complicate the situation for Indian forces, sometimes leading to unfortunate incidents emanating out of mistrust and miscommunications between the forces and common people. In December 2021, for instance, more than a dozen civilians and one member of the security forces were killed in Nagaland after Indian forces mistook a group of labourers for militants and opened fire.

Instability in Myanmar

A sizable chunk of India’s security anxieties along the eastern frontier emanate from ethnically-volatile Myanmar. Ever since its independence in 1948, Myanmar has been facing inter-ethnic conflicts and turbulence related to a lack of national ethnic reconciliation. These differences within Myanmar territory have been spilling over to neighbouring India, often leading to similar sentiments on part of some ethnic groups against the state machinery.

The strings of insurgent attacks on Indian forces and common people are also attached to Myanmar’s domestic political and law and order situation. Myanmar has been in a state of civil war since the coup in February 2021—a situation that has only quantitatively escalated as the Tatmadaw-rebel group conflict is already a seven decades-old feature in the country. Myanmar’s military—the Tatmadaw—is busy fighting dozens of separatist and anti-military, anti-regime armed tribal groups. In the midst of this increased violence, it is a standing danger that the separatist groups of northeast India will become active and violent.

Myanmar-based Naga separatist organizations have played a major role in fuelling separatism in north-eastern India. According to government sources and security experts, the Manipur People’s Liberation Army has the support of the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) is a separatist organization led by Khaplang, split from the parent organization, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah), whose stronghold is in Sagaing province of Myanmar. Sagaing province is adjacent to the border of India. The Khaplang group has carried out several major attacks on the Indian Army in the past, in which the attack in June 2015 is notable.

Significantly, both the Manipur People’s Liberation Army and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang faction) have not signed any peace agreement with the Indian government. Like many other organizations operating in the north-east, the strings of these groups are directly pulled by the Myanmar state itself. Although the Khaplang faction is not directly connected, its role in the incident was clear.

The unrest in Myanmar, which has been in a state of civil war for decades, and the fierce fighting between various tribal groups and the Myanmar army, have a direct impact on the separatist groups on the Indian side of the border.

The China Connection

China’s logistical and moral support to separatist groups in India and Myanmar is not a new phenomenon. This has been a big challenge for the Indian armed forces and security agencies.

The northeast’s separatist organizations have always had links with Myanmar, China, Thailand, and sometimes even Bangladesh. For example, in 2017, the Khaplang faction leader SS Khaplang had also gone there for his treatment at Chinese expense (he died of cardiac arrest shortly after his arrival). A major reason for the problem is that most of these separatist groups operating in India and Myanmar get small arms and light weaponry from China. For China, it is an easy and effective source of resource generation.

Arguably, China has been trying to flare-up separatism in India’s north-eastern states, particularly in Nagaland, Manipur, and Assam, as part of Beijing’s effort to contain India. This is undoubtedly a major reason, but China’s interest and hand in illegal arms market, drug trafficking, and exploitation of natural resources through separatist groups in India and Myanmar has been going on for several decades. Unfortunately, both India and the government of Myanmar (i.e. the military) have not been able to stop the smuggling, and inflow of other illegal items. Perpetuation of armed rebellion against India is clearly motivated in part by ensuring the continuation of this illegal revenue stream for China. It is important to mention here that Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, which is considered a major centre of illegal arms smuggling in South Asia, also has links with China.

The Narcotics Industry Fuelling Crimes against the State

The sub-region joining Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar is called the “Golden Triangle” because it is a major source of illegal drugs. Drugs worth millions of US dollars have been confiscated in the north-eastern states of India over past few months and members of separatist groups have also been caught in all these raids by security forces.

Clearly, drug trafficking is another major source of income for insurgent groups and also a means of cooperation with their partners outside India. Thus, to deal with the problem of separatism in an effective manner, it is necessary that systematic and multi-pronged approach is adopted to cut-off the links of local armed separatist groups with Myanmar, China and other countries.

The Way Forward

Lasting peace and stability has been a distant dream for the people of north-eastern states of India since independence. The difference between the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first century is that earlier the narrative about north-east India was “security vs. freedom of expression”; it has now changed to “development versus security”. Another key change is that unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, more than half of north-eastern states are relatively peaceful and are making advances in terms of economic growth and development. The trouble largely resides in Nagaland, Manipur, and to a certain extent in the Assam state of north-eastern India.

Today, most of the north-eastern states are ready to participate in the mainstream of development and infrastructure development in India with as much vigour and enthusiasm as any other state of southern or western India. Over past seven years, the Modi government has also paid a considerable political attention to this area, while consistently focussing on the field of infrastructure; a lot of progress has been made.

However, much still remains to be done as the goals of maintaining law and order, and ensuring fool-proof security, remain challenged by cross-border infiltration and illicit markets. India’s internal security challenges in the north-east are not just about security and law and order problems, they are a compound of inter-related challenges: drug trafficking, illegal small arms trade, human trafficking, natural resource exploitation, and state-sponsored violence against India. So far, neither the central nor state governments have been able to find a panacea to deal with these challenges, certainly not while ensuring a balance with growth and development. With greater political stability in the country and thinning political differences, it seems plausible for centre and state governments to show greater resolve in battling such perennial challenges.

Dr. Rahul Mishra is a Senior Lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Malaysia. He is also associated with the University’s Centre for ASEAN Regionalism. His latest publications include Asia and Europe in the 21st Century New Anxieties, New Opportunities (Routledge, 2021) and India’s Eastward Engagement from Antiquity to Act East Policy (SAGE, 2019). He tweets @rahulmishr_

Article was first published at European Eye on Radicalization.

Last Update: 17/01/2023