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Is Armed Insurgency In NE India As ‘Alive’ As News Anchors Claim?

Even when stats tell you otherwise, news anchors burst into predictable song about how ‘alive’ the NE insurgency is.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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An attack on a central Indian security unit in the hills of Northeast India has media and politicians rushing – the former to highlight what it continues to assert is continuing insecurity in the area, and the second lot to dash to comment to proclaim similar things.

But the region we call the ‘Northeast’ is far more complex than that. Thus, an incident in one place may have little bearing on conditions in other parts of the same state. So, last week’s bomb blast triggered by underground groups in the hills of Manipur, in which three Assam Rifles jawans lost their lives, had little visible repercussions in the Imphal Valley which dominates the state. And the tragedy was that all three soldiers were from the Northeast: a Manipuri, a Naga and an Assamese.

What News Anchors Fail To Address

This was quite unlike the huge attack on a convoy in the same area five years back when over 20 soldiers lost their lives, and three armed groups claimed it was a joint operation. Years later, the blast was but a distant memory, as communities, governments and the media grappled with a deadly pandemic, and in Assam with some of the most devastating floods in living memory.

Familiar images have emerged again on national and regional media, of Kaziranga National Park, displaced people, struggling rhinos, and children steering their tiny flimsy vessels made of banana tree trunks (which are readily available and cheap floating material) through the flood waters.

The stories are similar or the same, with little variation, playing on bathos, pathos and pain with human tragedy mixed with desperate conditions for wildlife, which take shelter on highways. Anchors vie with each other for emotional last lines about the inevitability of the disaster. They fail to address the fact that the Centre is failing in its duties to the people living immediately south of the Himalaya in a vast swathe from Uttarakhand through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal into Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Hundreds of millions are adversely affected, many of them displaced, losing lives, land, livestock and precious documents.

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Snapshot
  • Last week’s bomb blast triggered by underground groups in the hills of Manipur, in which three Assam Rifles jawans lost their lives, had little visible repercussions in the Imphal Valley which dominates the state.
  • Anchors vie with each other for emotional last lines about the inevitability of the disaster.
  • There’s an inevitability about the news cycle around insurgency, ethnic violence and conflict in the Northeast.
  • Even when statistics tell you otherwise, our noisy news anchors burst into predictable song, about how ‘alive’ the insurgency is.
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Truth Is, Armed Revolts Are Diminishing In Northeast

Like the floods, the insurgency and news about it emerges every year – at any and all times. There’s an inevitability about the news cycle around insurgency, ethnic violence and conflict in the Northeast. Even when statistics tell you otherwise, our noisy news anchors – online as well as offline media – not to speak of social media, burst into predictable song, about how ‘alive’ the insurgency is despite many years of attrition, dialogue and discussion.

But often, most media can’t distinguish between a Naga rebellion and a Manipuri one or one by the Meiteis or others by the Kukis and Assamese.

This familiar theme is reflected in the continuing miasma of lack of sensitivity and knowledge about the region even in an age of instant communication, when the tap of a button or the click of the mouse privileges access to information.

The truth is less attractive. Armed revolts are diminishing in the region as there has been a converse growth in public fatigue.

The non-state actors too have remained divided and conflicted, much to the delight of the State, which manufactures consent and accentuates divisions. Attrition over the decades too has played a part, and the places to hide and not be seen are getting fewer and fewer.

And the theory that the State shall wither away has certainly not happened, not in the northeast at least. The State (read both Centre and states of the Union), has retained sweeping legal powers wrapped in arbitrariness. It remains hugely powerful, despite suffering casualties. And over the years, the romance and influence of insurgencies has in turn withered to the point that several former insurgent groups (now legal and unbanned) actually depend on the Central Government for sustenance. In addition, they raise ‘taxes’ from farmers and businessmen, professionals, government officers, politicians and academics.

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Why Nagaland Governor Stirred A Hornet’s Nest

It is this hornet’s nest that Nagaland Governor RN Ravi stirred recently, by accusing the state government of ‘wilful complicity’ with the major non-state group which has negotiated with the Government of India to a standstill, ie, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN). This was the group that Ravi accused of extorting taxes. The curious thing is that it is this very group with which he had had long and elaborate discussions for years on the future of the Nagas in India. The NSCN snapped back angrily, accusing him of failing to implement a five-year old accord, the Naga Framework Agreement, which had been hastily put together in 2015. There has been little forward movement on the resolution of key issues such as land and identity.

Many groups remain locked in deadlocked talks, but they are not breaking away despite provocation by either side, furious rhetoric, and angry press statements.

They are aware that those who leave the peace table or stop smoking the peace pipe have much more to lose than those who don’t. Since nature doesn’t allow a vacuum, those who stay will seize the place of those who’ve gone. So the latter will bluster and berate, but watchfully continue to linger in a room.

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Armed Units In Northeast No Longer Occupy Central Space in India’s Strategic Thinking

So, although the tragedy of occasional bomb blasts and attacks may continue, these incidents and those carrying them out – small bands of armed units based within the region, and in small bases in Myanmar – have lost the advantage of the 1990s and 2000s.

They no longer occupy a central space in India’s strategic thinking, because the core issues revolving around territory and nation, though urgent and demanding locally, are no longer as critical as they once were.

Official data shows that insurgency-related incidents have fallen dramatically over the past decade. In 2009, official data from the Ministry of Home Affairs shows that there were 1,297 violent incidents in the Northeast. In these, no less than 877 persons were killed, including 571 rebels, 264 civilians and 42 security force personnel.

Ten years later, the figures had fallen to 223 incidents in which 124 persons died, of which 108 were civilians. The biggest bulge of security-related killings was in 2015 when 22 soldiers were killed in an ambush.

In 2019, Assam, Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur did not report a single fatality among its security forces (SF). The highest number of SF fatalities was in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, with two each.

So the news cycle needs to move away from the breathlessly predictable and the immediacy of incidents. It just needs to follow the facts.

(Sanjoy Hazarika is International Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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