In December 2021, a truck carrying coal miners on their way back from work was mistakenly ambushed by Indian security forces in Nagaland state, in northeastern India, along the border with Burma. Eight of the miners were killed, and another six civilians died in the following days amid protests and clashes with the military. The violence came less than a month after rebels ambushed an Indian paramilitary convoy in the neighboring state of Manipur, killing an army colonel and his entourage. Both events highlight the continuing instability in northeastern India, heightening concerns about a region where a decades-long insurgency may be intensifying.
Over the past several decades, India has successfully co-opted many of the guerrilla movements in the restive Seven Sisters northeastern states, surrounded by China, Burma, and Bangladesh. But the region remains fragile. While China aids these destabilizing insurgencies, India’s Quad partners—Japan, Australia, and the United States—share a strategic interest in stability in India’s northeast so that the country can shift focus to providing greater regional security.
A constellation of factors increases the risk of renewed insurgency in the northeast. Perhaps the most pernicious is China’s support to northeastern guerrilla groups as leverage in its competition with India. Burma’s civil war, meanwhile, has had spillover effects into India’s northeast. Finally, missteps from the Indian government—including the religious persecution of minorities, the application of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to much of the northeast, and a crackdown on civil society—have all contributed to making the Seven Sisters more volatile.
Beyond the political and moral imperatives for the world’s largest democracy to better integrate its northeast, there are economic benefits to reducing the corruption and lack of development fostered by low-level insurgencies. An assimilated northeast could serve as a gateway to Southeast Asia and reduce the material and social costs of garrisoning the region as a police state. India deploys an army corps to pacify the territory, resources that could otherwise be directed toward external security. Following the 2017 Doklam standoff, June 2020 skirmishes in Ladakh, and continued Chinese construction of settlements inside India, Nepal, and Bhutan, New Delhi is very aware of the threat China poses to India’s northeast. The region is an exposed salient, cut off politically and physically from the Indian whole. Renewal of insurgency will complicate Indian efforts to focus attention on the manifest threats it faces.
The Northeast: A History of Isolation and Volatility
The northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram, and Sikkim (created in 2002) are connected to the rest of India by the narrow Siliguri corridor, known as the “chicken’s neck.” The northeast’s population suffers from lack of development, crime, corruption, and racism—they are often seen as foreigners by those living in the rest of India. Fights over ethnic and regional power are common. For instance, in July 2021, six police officers were killed and sixty people were wounded in a fight along the Assam-Mizoram border.
The most virulent insurgencies have been in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram, and Tripura. The origins of the various rebel bands have been different, as are their aims, varying from the ethnoreligious Christian agenda of the Nagas and Mizos to the Marxist ideology of several groups in Manipur. The ideological motivations have worn off many groups, who instead engage in criminal enterprise, often partnering with related ethnic armed groups in Burma. India has quelled many of the most violent insurgencies, yet others continue to simmer. For example, New Delhi is engaged in peace talks to end its longest-running rebellion, fought in Nagaland since 1953, but efforts to extinguish Naga resistance are hindered by the existence of over a dozen Naga splinter factions. This network of autonomous insurgencies has hindered collective solutions and has presented foreign instigators with an opportunity to selectively target ripe factions to make mischief for India.
A History of Chinese Support to Northeastern Insurgents
Declassified US intelligence reports document how China has long used Indian separatists to destabilize its erstwhile ally. An April 1968 report noted that Chinese state organs were promoting Indian insurgencies in the spring of 1967, and a June 1968 report highlighted China’s provision of weapons and training to multiple guerrilla groups. The 1976 death of Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong led to changes in China’s foreign policy, and the country ended its official support to Indian rebels.
But while direct Chinese support decreased in the decades following Mao’s death, ties between guerrilla groups and Chinese military and intelligence services continued. In 2009, a captured insurgent claimed that sixteen platoons had been trained by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In 2015, Indian intelligence intercepted phone calls from a Chinese PLA officer to Naga separatists. That year, regional expert Bertil Lintner wrote of Chinese intelligence officers engaging representatives of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), Naga groups, and rebels from Manipur in the Burmese village of Taga. An Assam-based journalist published similar reports of liaison meetings between Chinese intelligence and rebels in Taga until the camp was dismantled by the Burmese military, also known as the Tatmadaw, in 2019. Under increased pressure in 2020 many guerrilla leaders reportedly fled to Chinese safe houses and hospitals. By November 2020, Indian intelligence agencies concluded that multiple northeastern groups received training and weapons from China.
Regional analysts believe that Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) regularly sell arms to northeastern insurgents. One such shipment—over four million dollars’ worth of Chinese-manufactured assault rifles, grenades, and ammunition—intended for the ULFA was seized in Chittagong, Bangladesh in 2004. A 2011 Indian indictment of the chief arms procurer for a Naga group highlighted his visit to the Beijing headquarters of the China North Industries Corporation (better known as NORINCO), where he negotiated a $500,000 purchase order. The origins of shipments to rebels over the past several decades are often unclear. Some appear to have direct PLA sponsorship, whereas other gray-market sales from SOEs may have arisen from the persistent corruption in China: enterprising managers may be engaging with security officials in profitable illicit trafficking.
Exploiting Burma’s Unrest through Chinese Proxies
At least in part out of concern about Beijing’s growing influence in Burma, New Delhi offered no criticism of the genocidal attacks on the Rohingya, which displaced more than 850,000 people. Moreover, in 2018, India and Burma held their first bilateral military exercises. Demonstrating Naypyidaw’s recognition of New Delhi as a counterweight to Beijing, Burma’s military conducted raids on insurgent camps in 2019, and extradited twenty-two Indian guerrillas in May 2020. But the ongoing civil war seemingly changed the Tatmadaw’s calculus. Indian officials believe that in exchange for their assistance fighting ethnic armed groups challenging the junta, northeastern Indian separatists have been given free rein to reestablish bases in Burma. India is also facing cross-border inflows of refugees, some of whom are rebels fighting the Tatmadaw, using territory in Mizoram and other border states as a safe rear area.
Burma has never been a cohesive state, and the regime has faced a variety of revolts. Large regions outside the control of Naypyidaw are administered by powerful armed groups that cooperate against the central government. The United Wa State Army (UWSA), with over twenty-five thousand troops, is the most powerful group in Burma and a Chinese proxy. While the UWSA observes a truce with the junta, it is simultaneously the largest conduit of arms to other ethnic militias fighting the Tatmadaw. In January 2020, Burma’s leader Min Aung Hlaing complained to Chinese President Xi Jinping that the UWSA had provided regime opponents with sophisticated Chinese weapons, including antiaircraft missiles that downed a government aircraft.
Indian officials, meanwhile, accuse the UWSA—“the most effective illegal weapons trader” to Indian insurgent groups—and the Arakan Army (AA) of serving as Chinese proxies and providing weapons and shelter to northeastern rebels. The AA was founded in 2009, reportedly with the assistance of the Kachin Independence Army, the second most powerful ethnic armed group after the UWSA. Some journalists in the region claim that China is the major sponsor of the Arakanese group. Supporting this assertion is the fact that the group regularly attacks Indian-sponsored development projects while sparing Belt and Road Initiative projects connecting western China to the Indian Ocean via a multibillion-dollar China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. Given Burma’s active support to various Indian rebel organizations, absent a significant escalation by Indian special operations forces from periodic cross-border raids into Burma, these rear-area safe havens will continue to fuel Indian guerrilla groups.
The December 2021 Indian government ambush of Naga miners and subsequent clashes with local villagers that resulted in fourteen deaths demonstrated how quickly a poorly executed operation can undermine New Delhi’s regional pacification efforts. In the days that followed, angry crowds threw stones and set fires outside of an army camp, killing at least one soldier and at least one additional civilian. Massive rallies, demonstrations, and business closures erupted across the state. Questions have been raised about the intelligence the army relied on as well as why the 21st Para, an elite commando unit, deployed instead of the local paramilitary Assam Rifles. The retired commandant of the Counter-insurgency and Jungle Warfare School stated that the paras should only be used for cross-border missions, and their actions set back counterinsurgency efforts in Nagaland by several years.
The killings also highlighted the continued application of the Armed Forces (Special Power) Act (AFSPA) of 1958, which grants immunity to the army while maintaining public order. The act remains in effect in portions of four northeastern states. Days after the clashes, AFSPA was renewed in Nagaland through June 2022. Critics believe the act promotes rights violations and a culture of impunity. The opposition Congress Party has accused the government of pushing the northeast “into an abyss of lawlessness, insurgency, and chaos.” Local activists have conducted long-running hunger strikes over AFSPA, but the December ambush focused renewed international attention on the law. Even supporters of the government now question if it is not counterproductive. It is frequently assailed by critics as promoting “lazy soldiering” as troops choose violence as their first course of action, making them appear to be an occupation force rather than deployed to protect the citizenry. In early April 2022, in an apparent effort to defuse continued regional tension, New Delhi lifted the application of AFSPA from many of the districts in the northeast claiming that the reduction in insurgent activity allowed the relaxation of the local security posture. The relaxing of AFSPA, however, may be undone by new government mandates requiring Hindi language instruction in northeastern schools through the 10th grade, which has alienated residents who do not generally use the language.
Equally troubling for India’s pacification efforts is the fact that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may be disaffecting the region’s minorities through religious discrimination—the Naga and Mizos are 90 percent Christian, and Tripura has a sizeable Muslim population. Critics claim the party has long relied on anti-Muslim rhetoric, but recent anti-Christian persecution has also increased. This follows the passage of an Indian citizenship law in 2019 that distinguishes Christians and Muslims from Indians who adhere to religions that originated in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has even blocked the charity founded by Mother Teresa from accepting foreign donations. In October 2021, a campaign of violence in Tripura organized by a group close to the BJP against Muslims led to days of rioting, although the government implausibly denied that any violent outbreaks had occurred. And since mid-March 2022, there have been multiple incidents of mob attacks, apparently instigated by Hindu-supremacist groups aligned with the BJP directed against Muslims across India.
India increasingly cracks down on a free press via a variety of methods, including tax raids and the withdrawing of broadcast licenses. Journalists and bloggers covering the unrest in Tripura were arrested for “promoting enmity” under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act after a complaint was filed by an individual connected to the BJP. In 2021 India fell to 142 out of 180 countries (from 122 in 2010) on the World Press Freedom Index. The government has also turned against foreign NGOs, with Amnesty International one of the most prominent to leave India following frequent government raids, false media reports, and general harassment. Government leaders have even been accused of inciting mob violence against journalists, while police stand by, as a means of intimidating the press. Persistent and low-key diplomacy from India’s Quad partners could push New Delhi to take steps to reduce these self-defeating actions. Unfortunately, Modi appears to personally support these policies and key constituencies are demanding the consolidation of a Hindu chauvinistic state.
Fuel Primed for Accelerated Insurgency
Western military and political leaders would do well to study the ongoing situation in the Seven Sisters. China’s low-key assistance to Indian insurgent groups, as well as its aid to proxies in Burma that support Indian rebels, do not generate headlines or much attention from international observers. Instead, these methods provide a low-cost, high-deniability asymmetric tool for China’s intelligence services and military to harass India in their ongoing gray-zone conflict.
In addition, the continued chaos in Burma is undermining regional stability. Whatever understanding India had with the Burmese junta to crack down on northeastern guerrillas appears to have been vitiated by the Tatmadaw’s need for allies in its ongoing civil war. Despite stepped up Indian border enforcement efforts over the past several months, India’s northeast remains awash in guns and drugs originating from cross-border ethnic armed groups. These criminal activities and continued lawlessness create an environment that supports Indian guerrillas. Rather than choose a constructive approach to addressing Chinese behavior and the situation next door, the Modi government has adopted policies that play well with its populist base but are likely counterproductive. Given these circumstances, it appears more likely than not that the stage has been set for greater insurgency in India’s northeast.
Christopher D. Booth is a national security professional, formerly a US Army officer, and a distinguished graduate of Command and Staff College–Marine Corps University. He graduated from Vanderbilt University Law School and the College of William and Mary. He has written about conflict between China and India for the Modern War Institute; written about the United Wa State Army in the South Asia Journal; and authored a chapter on China and the United Wa State Army for an upcoming book by Dr. Christopher C. Harmon, Warfare in Peacetime: Proxies and State Powers, to be published by Marine Corps University Press.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
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