In the early 1980s (when this correspondent returned to Guwahati as working journalist after an eight-year absence), insurgency in the northeast was limited to Nagaland, parts of Manipur and what was then the Union Territory of Mizo Hills. In Nagaland, the Naga National Council (NNC), political face of the oldest of the insurgencies in the region, was led by Angami Zapu Phizo, then in exile in Britain. Despite the challenge posed by a faction of the NNC that had recently split after much rancour on both sides and formed itself into the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), the NNC remained the dominant voice of Naga nationalistic assertion. In Manipur, Naga insurgency was active those days in the Naga-inhabited hill districts mainly in Tamenglong, while in the Imphal Valley, several outfits, some of them fighting one another as much as the Indian state, were active: the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA), the People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP). In the Union Territory of Mizo Hills, the Mizo National Front (MNF) arrived at the Talk-Talk-Fight-Fight stage, and was on the way to give up its secessionist agenda, sign a peace accord and become a legitimate party of the government. Insurgency had not become a generalised fact of life in the region including Assam, though formally the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) had been founded in April 1979.
The objectives of all these organisations, including the nascent ULFA, were broadly the same: independence and sovereignty, the restoration of sovereignty that ‘lapsed' to the people these organisations claimed to represent when the British left India but which India refused to concede.
The undeniable historical fact underlying this idea of ‘restoration of sovereignty' as against the ‘demand for sovereignty' is that beginning with the British annexation of Assam following the defeat of Burma in 1826 in the First Anglo-Burmese War, the colonial government had embarked on consolidating the boundaries of these newly acquired vast territories, progressively annexing more of these borderlands and extending its own boundaries. The annexation process was neither painless nor fair; nor even conclusive, the last most evident in the description of some of the ‘new' territories in the old maps as “excluded,” “partially excluded” and “unadministered” areas. The bland bureaucratic prose of the introductory chapter of the Assam Land Revenue Manual says it all.
However, received wisdom had it even those days that the resolution of Naga insurgency was central to resolving other insurgencies, actual and incipient. Long before such disaffection manifested itself among other people of the region, tribal and non-tribal, Phizo himself had tried on the eve of Independence to enlist the support of the largest and most advanced of the people, the Assamese, as well as other tribal people who, in course of time, were to form the core of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram — the last two then politically and administratively part of Assam — for realising his plan for an Independent Nagaland. He also urged them to seek an independent status outside India.
Being the oldest insurgency in the region, which had also lent some material support to other disaffected elements, this perception was somewhat justified. This has been especially so since the NNC split and the formation of the NSCN in early 1980. Even though the NSCN in due course also split into two factions, and the NNC has refused to fade away, the NSCN (I-M) bearing the initials of chairman Isak Swu and general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah remains the dominant voice of the sovereignty aspirations of the Naga people.
However, all these insist that settlement of the “Naga political issue,” that is restoration of Naga sovereignty and independence — the resolution of what has come to be known in the Naga nationalist rhetoric as “the mother of all insurgencies” in the region — is central to resolving the other problems in the region.
This perspective has been expressed several times by Muivah since the NSCN (I-M) began talking directly to the Government of India nearly 15 years ago. During this period, the NSCN (I-M) leaders have met several Prime Ministers in foreign lands and in India, and have had prolonged dialogue with ‘interlocutors,' initially in cities in Europe and South East Asia, and later in Delhi. Peace of a kind has prevailed in Nagaland and in the Naga inhabited areas of Manipur, though the “Naga political issue” remains unresolved. The other side of this peace is the parallel administration of the NSCN (I-M), which is evident to the most casual visitor to Nagaland and the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur. Perhaps one can see this as the Naga people's unique way of reconciling the irreconcilable, the “resolution of the Naga political issue” without actually getting the lost sovereignty restored. By simply putting these tricky issues on the back burner, the State government and the Government of the People's Republic of Nagalim coexist in Kohima and near Dimapur. Situations where legitimately constituted State governments face challenges far more dire prevail in many parts of eastern and central India.
How has this unique “resolution of the Naga political issue” impinged on the ferment in the rest of the region? Has the “mother of all insurgencies” in the region, whose leaders now travel on Indian passports with all implications of securing such a document, come to terms with its unrealised and indeed unrealisable sovereignty aspirations and injected a dose of realism into the sovereignty aspirations of other groups with far less legitimate claims than the Naga people who, under Phizo, formally declared Independence on August 14, 1947?
One significant development in the insurgency scenario is the “arrest” of senior leaders of ULFA and their resolve to hold talks with the Government of India without any precondition. Another is the “arrest” of UNLF chairman Rajkumar Sanayaima, who maintains that he was abducted by Indian agents in Dhaka and brought to India. Unlike ULFA leaders who are on bail, Sanayaima remains in prison, defiant about not talking to the Government of India except on four preconditions being accepted, the core of which is a plebiscite under U.N. supervision to ascertain if the people of Manipur want to remain part of the country. The differences in the government's approach to the NSCN (I-M), the ULFA and the UNLF are as striking as is the relatively realistic approach of the first two which too were insisting that the core issue in any talks with the government had to be sovereignty. Like the lady in the song, the NSCN (I-M) and ULFA leaders kept saying they would never consent, and yet consented. Will the UNLF follow suit?
There are other interesting developments on the insurgency front. Since the mother of all insurgencies began speaking to the government, other insurgent or terrorist groups have become active; these outfits have survived and even prospered by their capacity to reinvent themselves, though not their stated aims and objectives, and are carrying on. The most curious instance of such reinvention is the path taken by Dima Halong Daoga (DHD), based in the North Cachar hills of Assam, one of the two Autonomous Hills Districts of the State, the other being Karbi Anglong where too the United Peoples Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), like almost every similar outfit, split into pro-talks and anti-talks factions. The DHD's reinvention of itself by using a section of the Indian state, in this case, the administration of the North Cachar Autonomous District Council, a constitutional body, to channel development funds meant for the district to itself, an outlawed outfit, is indeed breathtaking. The charge sheet by the National Investigative Agency available on http://nia.gov.in/niacases.aspx provides the most salutary education on the reinvention of insurgencies.