It would be a mistake to disregard the possibility of a connection between the revival of separatist activity in the north-east and the rise of the Hindutva sentiment. Attacks on churches, ghar wapsi campaigns and moves against customs and celebrations that are regarded as Christian – like the ill-advised decision regarding Christmas day – can only bring home to Nagas, Mizos, Meteis, Bodos, Khasis and other peoples of Mongolian origin the ethnic and cultural gulf that separates them from the Hindu-Hindi heartland.
This diversity is all the more reason why New Delhi should be careful in framing and executing inclusive policies. Jack Lynch, Prime Minister of Ireland in the late 1960s, used to say that someone with a full pitcher on his head had to walk with care. That word of caution comes to mind amidst the triumphalism of the June 9 raid by Para Commandos of the 21 Para Regiment Special Forces across the border into Myanmar. Apparently, the “surgical strikes” – the phrase used gloatingly by Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Minister of State for Information & Broadcasting– killed between 20 to 50 people, in two camps occupied by the Khaplang group of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland or NSCN(K), as it is called.
The operation may have been necessary. But bearing in mind how full India’s pitcher of ethnic and communal problems is, and that we are surrounded by countries that are “adversely interested”, much greater circumspection is called for. The example to follow is that of the secrecy of Israel’s Operation Opera (also called Operation Babylon) which destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction near Baghdad on June 7, 1981 without anyone being any wiser.
Given our tough neighbourhood, India can neither afford to emulate the alternative of George W. Bush’s highly publicised Operation Enduring Freedom against Taliban-dominated Afghanistan nor can India afford to be as open as Israel’s Begin Doctrine which described the strike against the Iraqi reactor as “a precedent for every future government in Israel.” We must let the action speak for itself, and hope that hostile neighbours will read the correct message from the June 9 strikes.
No doubt many Indians, in the military as well as in the political establishment, would prefer a more openly muscular response to outrages such as the June 4 ambush when the Indian army suffered one of its worst peacetime tragedies – the death of some 20 soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment, while many others were injured, in Manipur’s Chandel district. The recently formed United National Liberation Front of Western South-East Asia attacked their convoy using improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. There have been similar attacks in the past, notably in 1982 when more than 15 jawans were killed, but this one took place at a time when relations with Myanmar were at their best and India seemed confident of having mastered insurgencies in the north-east.
Obviously, we were lulled into false complacency. Obviously, too, the authorities failed correctly to gauge sentiments in the north-eastern states. Many incidents and episodes come to mind. Most recently in Aizawl, after my Manipuri guide had persuaded the police to let my car through a roadblock, he returned to the vehicle muttering that everything is open to outsiders while locals get only a slap. As many as 33 militant organizations are active in Manipur alone.
I had an equally revealing experience in Nagaland several decades ago. Travelling with a high official, we avoided the “hostile” khels (as village communities are called) and visited only loyal khels. But to my mind the welcoming speeches made by the supposedly loyal elders and headmen (gaonburas, they are called) were anything but loyal. They said things to the effect that when the British ruled in New Delhi, they treated the Nagas fairly. But their Indian successors are not fair although the Nagas are obedient to India.
Mizoram, which fought a long and bitter war against integration, is said to be the one place in the north-east without any insurgency but the discovery by so many Mizos of their supposed Jewish identity – they are supposed to be one of the lost tribes of Israel – and readiness to migrate could also be a manifestation of discontent. It bears recalling that the increasing rate of conversion to Christianity among Nagas was an expression of mute dissatisfaction with what they saw as Hindu India’s supremacy.
Obsessed by their own inhibitions, Indian strategists blamed the trend on foreign missionaries. But the conversions only multiplied after the last foreign missionary had died or been driven out. A Naga explained to me that native-born Indian missionaries were far more effective proselytizers because they combined the convert’s zeal with the ability to travel to remote areas and live and eat with the villagers.
It’s a major failure not to have made any serious attempt to win the hearts and minds of the north-eastern people. New Delhi has thrown lavish funds into the region (as it now does into Sikkim) which the locals see only as a bribe to remain quiet. Local ruling parties are also pressurized to merge with the ruling party at the Centre, which is seen as another form of bribery. But there has been little emotional integration. People are not really interested in the north-east’s culture and customs. Most of the research into tribal life was done during the time of the British in India. The spate of attacks on north-eastern peoples in places as far apart as New Delhi and Bangalore confirm they are still looked upon as strangers.
It’s also a major failure of both military and civilian intelligence not to have anticipated the Manipur attack. The NSCN(K)’s unilateral decision to abrogate the ceasefire should have warned of a possible recrudescence of violence. So should have the formation of the so-called “rainbow” coalition of several militant groups like the NSCN(K), the Paresh Baruah faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam or ULFA, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland led by Songbijit, called NDFB(S), and several Meitei outfits from Manipur. Each of these organizations can potentially reach out to Pakistan and China which are not always well disposed towards India.
Such links may not actually exist at the present time but it should not be forgotten that even smaller and now friendly neighbours can see asylum for a hostile group, as a reserve card. Not all our neighbours are like Bhutan whose former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck personally led the campaign against rebel Bodo camps. The usual response is of Bangladesh under Mrs Khaleda Zia when anti-Indian insurgents were seen as a form of insurance.
Finally, Islamabad’s immediate “Pakistan is not Myanmar” warning was a reminder that nuclear-armed Pakistan’s Shaheen missiles are capable of targeting most parts of India. It should convince our planners that however heroic “hot pursuit” might seem to be, winning a battle here and there is no substitute for winning the peace.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray