In popular imagination, India’s Northeast evokes images of a region racked by separatist violence. These days, it is in the news because of the resurgence of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), especially in Assam and Manipur. Many people have been killed, maimed and incarcerated by the security forces in Assam owing to suspicions about their Maoist connections. The National Investigation Agency has arrested some members of the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur and has laid a chargesheet in its designated court in Guwahati alleging that the accused have an operational nexus with the Maoists.
The resurgence of the CPI(Maoist) in the Northeast may alter the basic character of insurgency in the region from an ethno-nationalistic war to a class war. It will have profound implications for the stability of India. In a conflict zone, truth is often elusive and popular discourse is crippled by a lack of crucial facts, which are usually known only to those directly involved in the conflict and to their cohorts. The relevant facts should be culled and marshalled to facilitate informed debates.
Contrary to insinuations in recent media reports, the ultra-Left is no stranger to the Northeast. The rise of communism in China and its resurgence in Myanmar had fired the imagination of the youth in Manipur and the Assam valley. The aborted peasants’ revolt in the 1940s for the abolition of monarchy and the introduction of radical economic and political reforms, under the stewardship of Hijam Irabot Singh, was a leftist movement. The ham-handed manner in which India merged Manipur to the Union in 1949 gave birth to a resilient armed rebellion in the state.
The liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 was a setback for the rebels, who were then compelled to look to China. N. Bisheshwar Singh led a group to Lhasa in the 1970s. After undergoing ideological indoctrination and training in guerrilla warfare, they formed the People’s Liberation Army in 1978. The PLA was a sort of replica of its namesake in China. Its mouthpiece, Dawn, exhorted the masses to join a Maoist revolution in successive editions. It attributed the ‘failure’ of the Naga nationalist movement led by Angami Zapu Phizo to the latter’s use of Christianity as a ‘political weapon’ instead of aiming for a class struggle in tune with Marxism-Leninism and Maoism. Its recent assertions to the media reaffirm its long held position.
The PLA’s insurgency is essentially limited to urban areas whereas the uprisings of the CPI(Maoist) are a rural phenomenon. Their experiences are complementary and useful. The PLA’s proximity to Southeast and East Asia and its access to the international illicit arms market hold promises for the Maoists, who are always looking for new sources of ordinance and a larger network. Together they have the potential to harm the Indian State morally and militarily.
Some PLA cadre who fell into the Indian security net have revealed the relationship that the PLA and the Maoists shared in recent years. At least 80 sophisticated arms, including AK rifles, RPG and lethod guns were supplied to the Maoists till June 2010. Wangba, the PLA’s chief coordinator with the Maoists, spoke of the latter having placed an order for 1,000 arms and a large number of radio communication sets. They made payments in advance for the consignment.
Recently, the two have closed ranks to take on their common adversary — the Indian government. The terms of their strategic relations, spelt out in a memorandum of understanding reached on October 22, 2008 at the PLA’s council headquarters in Myanmar are the following. “i) Both sides will honour and support the sovereignty of the two countries (India and Manipur). ii) Both sides will extend full moral and political support to each other in their liberation struggles. iii) Both sides will recognize and honour the historically endorsed territorial integrity of the two countries.” Thus each will assist the other without poaching on the people or territory. Any suggestion of the Maoists’ footprints, let alone their resurgence, in Manipur is far-fetched.
Although the CPI(Maoist) recognizes the ‘sovereignty’ of Manipur, it views Assam differently. It considers Assam to be within its potential arc of influence. An incipient ultra-Left in Assam was smothered by the resurgence of militant Assamese nationalism in the 1980s and its aftermath. The movement targeted the ‘outsiders’, specially Bengalis, who were also perceived as belonging to the Left and the ultra-Left. While the radicals among the Assamese nationalists formed the United Liberation Front of Asom in 1979 to wrest a swadhin Asom through an armed struggle, the All Assam Students’ Union, the vanguard of the movement, got ensnared in an ill-conceived accord in 1985 that was contrived by Delhi and Dispur. Its aftermath unleashed numerous militant ethnic nationalistic movements among the Bodos, Dimasas, Karbis, Mishings and Rabhas. All of these were directed against the perceived hegemony of the Asomyas. The state was pushed into a spiral of negative ferment.
For the ultra-Left, the precipitous eruptions of militant ethno-nationalism were artificially engineered by the middle class and were unsustainable. It decided to wait. Meanwhile, it maintained contact with Ulfa, the strongest and the most resourceful among the non-state militias of Assam. Both were pitted against a common enemy. The Ulfa has had access to the international illicit arms market. It sold weapons to the Maoists. It had overwhelming confidence in itself and did not consider incursions by Maoists in Assam as feasible.
Over the years, Ulfa has lost much of its social resonance as well as its military muscle. It is in disarray even in the region where it was born and once entrenched — upper Assam. Although the decline of Ulfa may hold promise for the growth of the CPI (Maoist), the latter would not consider the time as being opportune for an aggressive push. A reckless attempt will be suicidal. It will inevitably attract severely hostile responses from ethno-nationalists and the wrath of the State.
It is Assam’s misfortune that the state government, amply aided and abetted by the Centre, panders to the armed militias — several of which are created by government agencies — while remaining insensitive to the pains and aspirations of the common people. Successive governments have thrived on the mobilization of fear, which is often either imaginary or grossly exaggerated. It is ironic that even after soliciting explicit or tacit truces with militants and pseudo-militants, the state resists the attempt to shed the shameful tag of a ‘disturbed area’ and its benighted citizens face brutal violence.
The Union home minister, P. Chidambaram, is somewhat realistic in assessing the presence of the Maoists in the Northeast as ‘minimal’ till now. However, the chief minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, seems to think that they are lurking behind every popular protest against his regime. For him, fear is a political weapon used to quell democratic dissent. He would do well to reject the regressive politics of appeasing militant ethno-nationalists, resuscitate the collapsed criminal justice system, remove the ignominious tag of a ‘disturbed area’ from Assam, restore basic human dignities to his people, ensure equitable development in the state and stop crying wolf, lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy sooner than later.