Northeast Terrorism: Glimmers of Hope

Barely reported in the West is the bewildering array of insurgencies that have been ticking along violently in India’s northeast for decades. There are, by some estimates, as many as 120 militant groups in the region, about a quarter of which want some form of sovereignty. That is something the government in New Delhi are never going to give them since the northeast is India’s vital strategic route into Southeast Asia and the place in which it plays out its complex relations with China, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

As always with insurgencies, the real fuel behind the movements is the poor socio-economic condition of the population. Poverty, lack of infrastructure, crime and a sense of being neglected by the federal government ensure that demands for independence (that date back over 60 years to the British withdrawal) still have the power to motivate vicious attacks, such as last week’s attacks in Nalbari that left seven dead and over 50 injured.

There is some rare optimism in the press today, however, since Bangladesh has handed over Arabinda Rajkhowa, chairman of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), perhaps the most violent insurgent group in the region and the people responsible for the recent attacks. The fact that Bangladesh has co-operated so closely with the Indian authorities is testament to the improving cross-border relations (which have been damaged in the past by a lack of counter-terrorism cooperation and alleged links between Bangladesh politicians and Lashkar-e-Toiba).

Bangladesh police arrested Rajkhowa earlier this week (Nov 30) and handed him over to Assam police today. His arrest, combined with that of secretary general Anup Chetia leaves ULFA with only one big name, the overall boss Paresh Barua, still on the loose.

The word is that Rajkhowa is considering talks, but this is only likely to push ULFA’s insurgency towards the sort of hardline splintering that always happens when some members of an insurgency decide to open negotiations before concrete steps have been taken to tackle underlying grievances. If it is true that Rajkhowa feels like talking, the fact that he’s doing so under pressure from the authorities removes much of his  credibility.

With the movement still so willing to resort to violence and the chances of a compromise with the government still so remote, the optimism in today’s press seems premature. Above all, the government does not seem interested in addressing the roots of the problem. Basic lessons of counterinsurgency are once again being ignored by the Indian government.

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