Dialogue  October-December, 2009 , Volume 11 No. 2


Terrorism in the Northeast


D. N. Bezboruah*



On the last two days of October 2009, Shillong hosted a meet of the DGPs and IGPs of the Northeast. Quite expectedly, there was unanimity among the senior most police officers of the region on the jihadi threat to the region due to the unabated illegal influx of Bangladeshis and a gamut of other concomitant problems the region is facing. So the Shillong conclave of police chiefs of the region decided to form a high-level police committee headed by the Assam DGP to make recommendations to the Centre to tackle the Bangladeshi menace. This initiative would seem to have come rather late in the day after the Bangladeshi immigrants have already become the majority population in about 12 of the districts of Assam. Besides, 22 years of a perverse immigration law like the IM(DT) Act, enacted for Assam alone to the exclusion of all the other Indian States, has already done the damage it was intended to do. In any case, police chiefs of the Northeast would do well to realize that regardless of immigration and emigration being subjects of the Union List under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, the ground reality is that States will have to depend more on their police forces in order to prevent illegal immigration from neighbouring countries, especially after the restoration of the Foreigners Act of 1946 as the immigration law for Assam.

      Equally expectedly, the deliberations of the Shillong conclave led to a debate that sought to identify and demarcate the hazy line between terrorists and insurgents operating in the Northeast. However, the consensus arrived at was both bizarre and amusing. Senior police officers finally agreed to accept the postulate that terrorists were those who wanted to destabilize the country with support from inimical forces outside the country without local help, while insurgents were those from local groups operating with local support. It would be difficult to arrive at a definition that is more naïve and simplistic and more divorced from the world of reality than this. In the first place, such a distinction rules out the possibility of India ever having the home-grown variety of terrorists, when in actual fact the country is teeming with such terrorists masquerading as insurgents who are helped to prop up this pretence by our leaders, bureaucrats, police officers and army officers. In fact, the pretence that our polity habitually resorts to whenever it is confronted with difficult situations has long proved to be one of our worst hurdles in coping with adverse situations. But more about this a little later. The first task is to identify the terrorist and to take off the mask of the insurgent that terrorists of the Northeast wear all the time in a futile attempt to keep the people on their side.

   In our understanding of things, the insurgent is a rebel or a revolutionary who rises in active revolt. In the Indian context, where our democratic government routinely quells all peaceful modes of dissent and protest with lathi-charges and tear-gas and sometime even with real bullets, the insurgent is obliged to be armed at all times. Quite naturally, this makes him an armed militant like the terrorist. However, what characterizes the insurgent is that he has a cause, he has a fairly large section of the people supporting him in that cause and that the cause (legitimate, justified, rational or otherwise) is the principal motivating force of his insurgency or revolution. Quite obviously, therefore, the insurgent cannot loot, abduct or gun down the very people whose support he depends on. He cannot turn his own people into soft targets. And a true revolution or an insurgency may receive moral or even material support from supporters of the cause in other countries or from patriotic expatriates. If this support does not take the form of armed intervention or sabotage or terrorist activities calculated to bring about the overthrow of an elected government, we cannot talk about the activities as being terrorist activities. And what about the Maoists (with practically no help from outside) who have even been beheading policemen? Are they not terrorists?

     The terrorist constitutes a very different kettle of fish. And the identity of the terrorist has changed very radically over the last few years. There was a time when we could clearly distinguish between the political terrorist and the narco-terrorist (involved in drug-related terrorism). Then there was a phase when the two co-existed happily to help one another. But today we have arrived at the age of superterrorism and criminal terrorism where the motive of the terrorist is of no consequence at all. All that seems to matter is the method used. There is a seminal essay on terrorism that is important reference material today. It is an essay titled “The Future Face of Terrorism” written by Marvin J. Certon with Owen Davies. Dr Mervin J. Certon, Ph. D. is president of Forecasting International Ltd, which, for four decades, has been tracking the key forces changing our world. Owen Davies is a former senior editor of Omni magazine and is a freelance writer specializing in science, technology and the future. The essay I refer to appeared in The Futurist, November-December 1994, and is already 15 years old. I remember reproducing it in three parts in The Sentinel soon after it was published when I was editor of that daily. Perhaps the two most important things about that remarkable essay are that what was called the future face of terrorism is now in its present face, and that we have had this brand of superterrorism or criminal terrorism in the Northeast for quite a few years now. I mention this seminal essay because I am quite convinced that anyone who had read the essay carefully could not have made those naïve and simplistic statements about insurgency and terrorism at the Shillong conclave of police chiefs. It is even possible that some police chiefs have not read the essay at all. An excerpt from the opening paragraphs may be quite in order not only to see what was predicted about the terrorism of today 15 years ago, but also to let my readers appreciate how closely the predictions match what we already have in the Northeast masquerading as insurgency. 

    ‘In the past, terrorists have been ruthless opportunists, using a bloody, but relatively narrow, range of weapons to further clear, political acts. The next 15 years may well be the age of superterrorism, when they gain access to weapons of mass destruction and show a new willingness to use them. Tomorrow’s most dangerous terrorists will be motivated not by political ideology, but by fierce ethnic and religious hatreds. Their goal will not be political control, but the utter destruction of their chosen enemies. Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons are ideal for their purpose.

      ‘They will increasingly be joined by another variety of terrorist – criminals with the goal of maximizing profit, minimizing risk, and protecting their enterprises by intimidating or co-opting government officials. We have already seen their brand of terrorism in Columbia and holy war “criminal terrorism” has not yet been fully accepted as a legitimate target for the antiterrorist community. We use counterterrorist forces against “narcoterrorists,” for example, but still believe we are diverting resources to aid the war on drugs.” Before the 1990s are over, we will be forced to recognize that it is the method, not the motive, that makes a terrorist

    ‘Alongside all of these developments, the traditional brand of terrorism – seeking political power through the violent intimidation of the noncombatants – will continue to grow at the global rate of about 15% per year. Instability, bred by the proliferation of the more violent religious and ethnic terrorist groups, coupled with an almost exponential growth in “mini-states” in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, could produce a two- to three-fold increase in international terrorist incidents by the turn of the century.”

   ‘Technology in particular has made terrorism more attractive to dissident groups and rogue states. In the high-tech global village that the world is fast becoming, modern telecommunications provides near real-time coverage of terrorist attacks, whether in Beirut, Buenos Aires, Khartoum or New York. As terrorism expert Brian Jenkins has noted, terrorism is theater and terrorists can play to a global audience. As we move into the twenty-first century, new and even more powerful communications links will give terrorism still greater power and appeal.’

    It is in the context of the introductory paragraphs of this seminal essay on terrorism that I would like those who talk about  ‘insurgency’ in the Northeast to ask themselves if they recognize the terrorist or the superterrorist of the 21st century still masquerading as an insurgent because we have helped him to do so. Look at several of the terrorist groups of the Northeast that regularly abduct, loot and kill their own countrymen in situations where their extortions, abductions and loot do not move their ‘cause’ forward even by an inch. Terrorist outfits like the ULFA, the DHD(J) (more commonly known as the Black Widow) and the NDFB have ceased to have causes. What is much more important as a deciding factor is that they have ceased to have the support of the people who they pretend to represent. Take, for instance, the ULFA. For years together now, the outfit has ceased to have any cause, it has indulged in extortion, loot and abduction merely to raise funds for its leaders who are in asylum. The hiatus between the top brass of the ULFA and the cadres has increased every day until we now have a split between the pro-talks and anti-talks factions, the latter languishing in designated camps. Over almost three decades, the ULFA top brass has been trained in Pakistan by the ISI, it has been engaged in sabotage, disruptive activities and bomb blasts at the bidding of the ISI. It has killed the indigenous people of Assam including women and children, making the most of such soft targets to instil fear among the people. In nearly three decades it has terrorized people into staying away from the Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations, thus effectively taking away from an entire generation their national flag. If it is still able to recruit new cadres, it is because of the very acute unemployment situation in the State. The people do not often speak up because they are naturally afraid of reprisals by a very well-armed terrorist outfit without any qualms about killing its own people. This is a typical terrorist outfit.

      Take the case of the Jewel Gorlosa faction of the Dima Halam Daogah known as the DHD(J) or the Black Widow that shot into prominence recently for two reasons: its ruthlessness in killing its own people and burning down rows of human habitations at night with all the inmates and also because it has been able to extract something like Rs 100 crore from the political executives of the North Cachar Hills District Autonomous Council to buy weapons and ammunition! Here is a unique case of a terrorist outfit being able to siphon money out of the exchequer in order to arm itself. In other words, the political executive of the district has been knowingly subsidizing a terrorist outfit!

     Or take the numerous terrorist outfits of Manipur (most of them are just called the ‘underground’) who dictate to the lawmakers how the affairs of Manipur shall be run and who have exacted a monthly ‘tax’ from all government employees (not to speak of business houses) for as long as people care to remember. No government employee can escape paying this tax even though they will all tell you that they pay no such taxes. In other words, there is a well-established cold war between the diverse terrorist groups and the government with well-defined ground rules that both sides respect. As a consequence, there is a lot of unearned easy money for many people in the State. In fact, a contractor working in Manipur is told about the cut that he will have to pay to the underground and also told that the government will pay that extra amount and also have it safely delivered to the underground!

     The monthly ‘taxes’ are there also in Nagaland. And the Issak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – popularly known as the NSCN(I-M) – is also the most powerful militant outfit of the Northeast that has often come to the aid of virtually all other terrorist outfits of the region at different times in matters of training, weapons, funds and asylum. In fact, if the NSCN(I-M) were to bid a farewell to arms tomorrow, the bottom would be knocked out of most of the terrorist outfits of the region. And yet I am inclined to view the NSCN(I-M) and the Khaplang faction of the NSCN as insurgent outfits for at least two reasons. The first is that the two factions of the NSCN still have a cause: a sovereign Nagalim which envisions all the Naga-inhabited regions of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Myanmar as part of that sovereign country. This means that the Nagas have a ‘cause’ from which they have not wavered since August 14, 1947 – the day on which they declared themselves independent. The second reason why the two factions of the NSCN cannot quite be called terrorist outfits is that they have never made soft targets out of Nagas in order to get a coercive political advantage – imaginary or real. Besides, the NSCN has obeyed the mandate of the people (relayed through the Mothers’ Group and the church) that there has been enough violence and it must all end now. The ceasefire with the Union government has held very well for several years even if the peace talks have not progressed to the satisfaction of the NSCN. However, all this does not prevent me from asking my Naga friends why they take grants from New Delhi, why they participate in Indian elections and why they approach Indian courts for justice if they value their independence at all and really want a separation from India. I have never had a satisfactory answer yet.

     It is interesting that the other ethnic group that took up arms early to carve out a separate State were the Mizos. The Mizo National Front took up armed insurrection and eventually came to power in what became Mizoram. There is no way of calling the MNF a terrorist outfit because the Mizo people were always with the MNF, the MNF attacked only the government (the army and the police) and never lifted a finger against its own people. Not surprisingly, after Laldenga was able to create a separate State for the Mizos within the Indian Union, Mizoram has been one of the States that that has had no insurgency or terrorism. Today even Tripura is on the mend and Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh are virtually free from terrorist activities.

    Without going into statistics (which is not always helpful in understanding what impels ethnic groups to terrorism) I would say that the three States of the Northeast that we need to worry about are Manipur, Assam and Nagaland. There is every hope that Nagaland will eventually agree to remain part of India as a constituent State of the Union with a much higher level of autonomy than other States and that the present break with militancy and violence will become a permanent feature when the farewell to arms is announced. Manipur and Assam will continue to burn for quite some time longer. But the three States share a common feature that has deeply affected the very ethos of these States: they have turned terrorism/insurgency into an industry.

     It is naïve to pretend that insurgency sours to terrorism for the same reasons all over the world. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Generally there is a combination of factors that vary from place to place. What is common is the residue of grievance and resentment arising from a sense of acute social injustice. In the case of Assam, we have had the telling combination of lack of development, a very high level of unemployment (close to 10 per cent of the population), poor education and health care and an alienation from heartland India that was both physical and psychological. But that was not all. In the early stages when insurgency had not metamorphosed into terrorism, there were high levels of state terrorism in Nagaland, Manipur and Assam. There were any number of fake encounters, and a large number of innocent youths were gunned down by the security forces. There could be no greater example of serious injustice than state terrorism, and terrorism needs no better fuel. The Centre provided that fuel through its security forces. To top it all, there were the two draconian laws that gave the armed forces overweening powers in States like Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura. I am referring to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Disturbed Areas Act. It was heartening to find Meghalaya Governor Ranjit Shekhar Moosahary proposing that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act should be repealed during the valedictory function of the two-day Police Chiefs meet that I referred to at the beginning.

      There have been many instances of terrorists tiring of violence and seeking a return to peaceful ways. However, the return to peace in Assam and Manipur could well take much longer because of another perversity that has vitiated the process. In these States (as well as in Nagaland) terrorism itself has been turned into an industry of sorts. The ability to siphon out development funds and use such funds to support terrorist groups has gained ground. The techniques for this have been well honed and so we have a lot of easy money to be picked up without any work. And because the beneficiaries of this industry called terrorism are there among politicians, bureaucrats, police officers, businessmen and even student leaders, there is a vested interest in letting terrorism continue. And even if terrorism were to end one of these days, the incalculable harm done to the youth — of leading them to believe that money could be earned without work — is likely to destroy our work ethics for all times to come. This is another form of terror that we shall need to address ourselves to.


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