India-Myanmar relations are rooted in shared historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties. India shares a 1643 km-long border with Myanmar in the four North-Eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram with Myanmar’s Sagaing Region and Chin State.
The Singrouphos and the Tai groups such as the Ahoms, Khamtis, Phakes, Aitons, Turungs and the Khamyangs moved to North East India from the Shan state of Yunnan and Myanmar. In the same way Nagas, Kukis, Mizos, and the Lushais entered North East India from Burma. The people collectively known as Chins by the Burmese live along the border of North East India and Myanmar. Similarly, there are still a good number of Naga tribes inhabiting western Myanmar adjacent to the Indian state of Nagaland. All these people still maintain their language, traditions, arts, crafts, lifestyle as well as traditional religious practices. The interests are protected by the Indo-Burma treaty of 1951 on Border Affairs which allows free movement of the local ethnic tribals on both sides for the purpose of carrying on local trade and social visits.
Cultural & Traditional Connects
Being a neighbour, Myanmar played a significant role in the spread of Indian culture, trade, commerce, philosophy, customs, religious practices and belief systems through land to South East Asian Countries. As the land of Lord Buddha, India is a country of pilgrimage for the people of Myanmar (89% population in Myanmar follow Buddhism). A large population of Indian origin (estimated about 2.9 million) lives in Myanmar. North Eastern States of India and Myanmar had strong people-to-people contacts since ancient times and therefore had a lot of ethnic and cultural linkages. Saigang Region bordering with Nagaland and Manipur has Bamar, Chin, Shan and Naga population practicing Buddhism and Christianity.
Geo- Political Relevance of the North East Region
The peripheral location, geographical isolation and land-locked nature of the NE region has great geo-political significance in the domain of insurgency and under-development.
Peculiarities. The rugged terrain, inaccessibility and ‘psychological’ distance from rest of the country are conducive to the nurturing of insurgent ideologies in the already deprived, remote, under-developed and under-administered areas.
Neighbouring Countries. The region is hemmed in by China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan with most having vested interests in an unsettled India. 98% of the borders in the NE region (4825 km) are international borders.
Gateway to South East Asia. The region is, however, the ‘gateway’ to the South East Asian countries and holds immense promises towards India’s aspirations to establish itself among ASEAN countries.
The physiographic constraints, geographical isolation of the region and wide communication gap are the primary geo-political factors responsible for mushrooming of insurgent groups and their prolonged struggle against the Indian government.
Genesis and Evolution of Insurgency in North East India
Genesis of Insurgency. North East India has been in turmoil since independence. The oldest insurgency dates back to 1947 with the Nagas raising the issue of their sovereignty. Since then, insurgent movements have sprung up in most parts of the constituent states of the Region. Due to several common and specific abetting factors, violence mushroomed in different areas and during varied time periods.
The reasons for insurgency differs from state to state. Several factors like common ethnic stock, similar historical background and comparable geo-politics are responsible for abetting insurgency in the region. In addition, certain other factors specific to states, regions or tribes also acted as abetting factors for insurgency in the NE.
Assam. The roots of insurgency in Assam began with the protests/ agitations of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) against illegal influx of Bangladeshi immigrants. A break-away faction of the AASU formed the ULFA in 1979 with an objective of creating a ‘sovereign socialist Assam’.
Assam Agitations of the 1980s
With signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, the AASU ended its agitation and constituted the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). This regional political party participated in elections and subsequently formed the government. However, ULFA continued with its struggle, with sovereignty as the prime motive. Apart from ULFA and Bodo insurgents, the Dimasa groups of North Cachar Hills (now Dima Hasao District) had been claiming ‘Dimaraji’, a Dimasa state based on historical records and presence of Dimasas in majority.
These demands were in direct clash with the interests of Nagas who claimed the overlapping areas as parts of ‘Greater Nagaland/ Nagalim’. The Dimasa insurgency was brought under control with the signing of Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) in 2012 with consequent formation of North Cachar Hill Autonomous Council (NCHAC). However, splinter Dimasa groups continue to venture out and carry out acts of kidnapping and extortion.
Manipur. The roots of insurgency in the State date back to 1964 with the creation of United National Liberation Front (UNLF). The discontentment was for the alleged forced merger of Manipur and delay in conferring Statehood. Subsequently, groups like People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) in 1977, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1978, Kangleipak Communist Party in 1980 and Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) in 1994 emerged in Manipur. All insurgent groups propagated the idea of an independent Manipur with minor variation in ideologies.
In the Hill districts, contiguity with Nagaland and inhabitation by Naga Tribes enabled spillover of Naga insurgents into the State. NSCN (IM) has laid claim over these hill districts in the scheme of ‘Nagalim’ or Greater Nagaland. Kuki- Naga clashes in the Hill districts of Manipur in early nineties instigated the creation of several Kuki groups in the State. The groups which were initially formed to resist oppression by Nagas subsequently started demand for a separate ‘Kukiland’ state encompassing the Kuki-inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam, Mizoram and even parts of Myanmar. However, most of these groups are now under SoO with GOI.
Islamist groups like the People’s United Liberation Front (PULF) have also been founded to protect the interests of the ‘Pangal Muslims’. Links with other insurgent groups of the NE and camps in Myanmar have been corroborated. The insurgents have been broadly divided into Valley Based Insurgent Groups (VBIGs) and others comprising the Nagas, Kukis, Muslims and those representing minor tribes.
Nagaland. Nagaland is home to the oldest insurgency in the North East. The idea of a sovereign nation was conceived by the Nagas even before the independence of India. Nagaland attained Statehood in 1963 and today comprises 18 districts divided on the basis of Tribal affinities.
The Naga struggle for sovereignty commenced with the formation of Naga National Congress (NNC) in 1946. The entry of the Indian army in 1953 to prevent armed rebellion resulted in the party forming an armed wing called the Naga Federal Army (NFA). An underground government called Naga Federal Government (NFG) was also formed.
The first major effort towards peace was the signing of the Shillong Accord in 1975. However, the peace accord led to rebellion within the NNC which led to the creation of the NSCN in 1980. Difference of ideologies between the top leaders of the NSCN led to the splinter in the group in 1988 resulting in the formation of NSCN(IM) and NSCN(K). Both groups pursued the objective of creating a sovereign Nagalim encompassing areas of the present Nagaland state, Naga inhabited areas of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar. NSCN (K) further split in 2011 to form a splinter group called NSCN (Khole-Khitovi (KK) which further split into NSCN (Khitovi-Neokpao or NSCN(KN))). In the same year, a split by the Zeliangs in NSCN (IM) resulted in formation of Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF).
Prolonged violence gave way to hope for peace when NSCN (IM) entered into a Ceasefire with the Government of India in 1997 followed by NSCN (K) in 2001. On formation, NSCN (KK) also signed a Ceasefire with the government. In 2012, NSCN (K) further entered into a Ceasefire agreement with the Government of Myanmar. This agreement granted autonomy to NSCN (K) in the districts of Lahe, Leshi and Nanyun in Sagaing province of Myanmar.
The civil society also played a major role in the peace efforts. The progress of talks between underground groups and Government of India suffered a setback in 2015, when NSCN (K) unilaterally abrogated the Ceasefire agreement. This decision of the group led to another split and resulted in the formation of NSCN(Reformation). NSCN (K) further went on to join hands with ULFA (I), NDFB (S) and KYKL to form the United National Liberation Front of Western SE Asia (UNLFW).
The group has been involved in several incidents of violence in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur since formation. NSCN (IM) meanwhile went on to sign a ‘peace accord’ with the Government of India, which apparently lays down the framework for future talks/ resolution. Peripheral issues associated with the Naga insurgents include the demand by the Eastern Naga People’s Organisation (ENPO) for a separate ‘Frontier Nagaland’ state and the involvement of the Naga Rengma Hill Protection Force (NRHPF) in the ethnic clashes with the Karbis in 2013.
To be continued