Ethnic, religious and cultural differences, combined with economic underdevelopment, political ignorance and corruption, encouraged political resistance to develop in North-East India soon after Independence. This gave rise to a political underground which launched an insurgency in the early 1950s with acts of terrorism. A so-called Federal Government of Nagaland (FGN) became strong enough to spread into the four Naga districts in neighbouring Manipur in 1956.

Some of these underground organisations in North-East India were soon being supported by Pakistan and other neighbouring states; these included the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT).

The NSCN, active since the early 1950s, maintained its headquarters in North Burma, where they received support from the local Kachin Independent Organisation (KIO). The PLA, founded in 1978, moved into north Burma in order to develop training camps and sanctuaries with the help of the NSCN. The ULFA from Assam already had previous contacts in Burma, who provided training and logistics. KIO helped all three organisations with training and supplied them with weapons from the Burmese Army. Over many years, they all felt relatively secure in Rangoon, from counter-measures by New Delhi.

In the early 1990s, ULFA established an additional 14 camps in Bangladesh. These served as safe havens for fighters and families, as training grounds and also as drop-off points for weapon supplies. Not only ULFA, but also the NSCN and PLA established a presence in the border regions of Bangladesh. NSCN set up a base in Masalong; and the PLA had two camps in Burma plus a further five in Bangladesh.

Assistance from friends

In 1990, via the Pakistan embassy in Dhaka, the NSCN and ULFA developed contacts with the ISI. As far back as the 1960s, undivided Pakistan had supplied weapons for the Naga fighters. However, the turbulent developments in East Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 led to a temporary halt in this weapons pipeline. Relations were never completely broken off, however, and in the 1980s they were revitalised.

In January 1991, with the help of the ISI, several high-ranking ULFA leaders travelled to Pakistan to sign a training agreement for ULFA cadres. In the same year, two six-member ULFA groups arrived in Islamabad for training; a third 10-member group followed in 1993. The ISI’s auxiliary support for operations of this kind covered more than just the training courses in Pakistan. Well in advance, new identities and fake passports had to be procured, travel routes determined and the financing of the whole operation had to be secured. In this way, the Pakistan embassy in Dhaka became an important ISI station, the hub of its operations in North-East India.

In the ISI directorate in Islamabad, they must have been content with the results of the first training courses for ULFA fighters, since they continued through the 1990s and were extended to include other underground groups. The Indian security forces at one point arrested and interrogated a member of the NLFT, who revealed that between 1997 and 1998 some of their top brass had gone for training with the ISI in Pakistan. The detainee mentioned the names of NLFT leaders, thereby uncovering the whole structure of task distribution and kinship within the top echelons of the group.

Parallel to the Muslim resistance in Kashmir, other Islamist organisations in North-East India were also increasingly active in the 1990s. The main militant Islamist resistance groups in North-East India were: Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam, Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam, Islamic Liberation Army of Assam, United Muslim Liberation Front of Assam, United Reformation Protest of Assam, People’s United Liberation Front, Muslim Volunteer Force, Adam Sena Islamic Sevak Sangh, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Harkat-ul Jihad.

The ISI was always ready to help their friends in North-East India procure weapons. In Thailand, after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from the 1980s onwards, light weapons and light machine guns awaited prospective buyers, so new supply opportunities opened up. Thus in 1991 the ISI provided weapons from Thailand to a group of 240 NSCN members.

Small boats brought the cargo to Cox’s Bazaar, a port in Bangladesh, which became the hub for weapon supplies in the region. Consequently, two more deliveries were made. In week-long treks the NSCN and ULFA fighters themselves fetched weapons from Bangladesh and brought them back to their bases. On the land route there was the ever-present danger of interception by the Indian Border Security Force, the police in the individual states and by Army units. In fact the fourth delivery was ambushed and the group involved was mostly wiped out. They then switched to longer and more difficult routes, in an attempt to make their delivery paths more secure.

In the initial years of the new arms supply channel, the ISI was obliged to procure and finance the weapons. According to a prominent Naga fighter imprisoned by the Indians, in the 1990s he received three instalments totalling $1.7 million from the ISI for weapon purchases. Later on, the rebels often funded the purchase themselves. Bank robberies, tax extortions, black- mail and the drug trade supplied the means; thus terror began to be self-financing. Such weapons supply routes were running throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, with Bangladesh as the main trans-shipment point.

In arms procurement the ISI also received support from their Chinese colleagues. As far back as 1993, ULFA had contacts with the Chinese military. The first weapons supply came from a Chinese ship in 1995, another in 1997 by a land route through Bhutan. The end of the 1990s saw the revival of NSCN contacts with China, which had lain dormant in the 1980s.

In 2000, high-ranking officials of the organisation negotiated with the Chinese authorities in Kuming province regarding new weapons assistance. In December of that year, NSCN-IM received a delivery valued at US$750,000 via Cox’s Bazaar; and that same month a delivery by road reached the Burmese border town of Tamu, conveniently situated opposite Moreh in Manipur. The Chinese supplies were fully paid for by the underground fighters. This was proven by India, which successfully traced back a transaction of $1 million to a Chinese state company.

The outlook

In the second decade of the new millennium, underground terrorist groups remain active in north-east India. New recruits, mainly students or those from a Muslim background, continue to join the original outfits. The offer of a monthly stipend of Rs 2,000-3,000 per person at a time of mass unemployment is one enticing incentive. Moreover, the numbers of madrasahs has multiplied in Assam and the Siliguri belt and some youths there have begun to be drawn to more extreme versions of international Islamist politics.

Of the seven states in the North-East, four are still considered to be disturbed; only Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Mizoram have proven to be politically stable so far. However, they are also experiencing increasing problems due to cross-border incidents. China’s territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh, particularly the Tawang Tract, demand New Delhi’s special attention towards the state.

The most powerful and most active underground group in North-East India appears to be NSCN-IM (National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah), which today numbers between 3,000 and 5,000 armed fighters. It is organised into a political and a military wing. Its rival, NSCN-Khaplang, has at its disposal over 2,000 active members. Its headquarters lie in “eastern Nagaland”, namely Myanmar.

ULFA and PLA also continue to operate, and numerous other groups have emerged too. Occasionally, since 1997, fragile armistices between New Delhi and the NSCN have taken hold. Discussions take place abroad, on neutral ground. New Delhi woos the separatists with promises of political integration and amnesties; but it can only make such offers within the framework of the Indian Constitution. As long as ULFA leaders believe their independence is the only honourable solution, and declare North-East India to be one of the few regions in the world which yet remains to be liberated from colonial rule, such discussions will bring no permanent solutions.

Assam’s size and population make it the key state for the pacification of North-East India. It accounts for more than half of the total landmass of the North-East, and with over 26 million inhabitants it also constitutes the majority of the population. Here and in Nagaland, progress towards peace has proved particularly difficult to achieve. NSCN-IM demands all Naga areas, roughly 120,000 square km of Greater Nagaland, including parts of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar. The states concerned reject such demands, hence the long term outlook is for further demonstrations and political unrest.

Excerpted with permission from Faith, Unity, Discipline: The Inter-Service-Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, Hein G Kiessling, HarperCollins India.