After a brief lull, insurgency in the North East was back in the news last week.

It began on June 6, when an encounter between the Army and alleged militants from the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) and one faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam, on the Assam-Nagaland border, led to the death of an Army major.

This was followed by news of the death of SS Khaplang – the chairman of the Khaplang faction of the NSCN and widely considered the patriarch of militant groups in the North East. It has prompted speculation about what direction the militancy in the North East will now take.

Joining forces

It was under Khaplang’s leadership in 2015 that three militant groups from the region joined hands with the NSCN (K) to form an alliance known as the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia. The alliance breathed new life into the operations of various insurgent groups that were a part of it – the anti-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom, the a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the Kamatpur Liberation Organisation. The groups had been on their last legs, with depleting cadre strength and shrinking funds.

Since its formation, the alliance has reportedly carried out at least four ambushes on security forces, killing and injuring several security personnel in the process. According to an official of the Assam police, almost all these recent attacks were led by NSCN (K) cadres. Apart from spearheading and executing attacks and ambushes, NSCN (K) had also provided logistical support and training to new recruits of these groups.

“Last year, Khaplang played a key role in forming the “Special Elite Unit” – an assault group of experienced cadres with the mandate to gather information and identify spots for operations against the security forces,” said a recent piece by Rajeev Bhattacharya, who has reported extensively on the ULFA, on

A new surge

Over the last few months, the NSCN (Khaplang)-led militant formation’s cadre strength is said to have increased steadily. Jiten Dutta, a top former militant of the ULFA who gave up arms in 2008, said that 400-500 young men from a few Upper Assam districts had crossed over to Myanmar in just the four to five months.

“There is a growing sense of disillusionment that there is no point engaging democratically with the Centre,” said Dutta, who is now part of the pro-talks faction of the group, which had surrendered and struck a peace agreement with the government.

He blamed the cynicism on the government’s failure to make any significant inroads through the dialogue process. With the introduction of the new citizenship bill last year, he said, there is again a growing sense among many young men that only Paresh Barua, the commander-in-chief of the anti-talks faction of the ULFA, can save Assam.

The Union government had proposed an amendment to the Citizenship Act which would grant citizenship to minorities communities (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians) from the Muslim majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan after six years of residence in India. The move has not gone down well with many political groups in Assam, which shares a border with Bangladesh and has seen waves of migration over the years. With the new bill, many fear that “indigenous” Assamese will be outnumbered by Bangladeshis in the state.

A Chinese hand?

Pallav Bhattacharya, head of the Assam police’s special branch, said that recent ULFA recruits were being trained at NSCN-supported camps near Taga in Myanmar’s Hukwang Valley, with help from China.

“Our analysis says that China is indulging in a proxy war through these militants,” he said, pointing out that China even issued a thinly veiled warning after the inauguration of the Dhola-Sadiya bridge that connects Assam with Arunachal Pradesh. The bridge is expected to give India a strategic boost, improving connectivity and easing the movement of troops to the border. Beijing objected to the bridge, saying India should exercise restraint in Arunachal Pradesh, a part of whose territory it claims, till a final settlement of the border dispute is reached.

Bhattacharya added: “It is in China’s interest to have a joint group of all militants from the North East who can keep us engaged. Also, Pakistan and China are increasingly close, what with the new China Pakistan Economic Corridor.”

Dutta also confirmed Bhattacharya’s claim that China was actively sponsoring this latest wave of militancy in the North East. “There’s a simple rule in revolution,” he said. “Your enemy’s enemy is your friend.”

Bhattacharya, however, said he suspects the number of people who have crossed over recently was not as high as Dutta claimed. “We recently apprehended an ULFA cadre by the name of Ron Ahom, who used to be part of the Myanmar camp,” he said. “He claimed the number to be around 400-500 but we are still verifying it.”

Bhattacharya said it would be premature to comment on what impact the death of Khaplang would have on the recent mobilisation. “There was news that Paresh Baruah would take over from Khaplang, but that doesn’t seem to have materialised,” he said. “Now, Khango Konyak has become the head (of NSCN-Khaplang) but he operates out of the Indian side of Nagaland. There could be a new power struggle with someone from the Myanmar side staking their claim.”

The Union government, though, seemed to think it dealt a blow to militancy in the North East. On Saturday, the Union minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju told reporters in Guwahati that Khaplang’s death would affect all militant groups from the North East, including the anti-talks faction of the ULFA. Rijiju reportedly said that Khaplang was “the heart and soul” of NSCN(K) and without him, the organisation was all but over.

However, security experts advise caution. In a column on, Nitin Gokhlale, veteran journalist and security analyst, predicted that Khaplang’s death would result in China participating even more actively in the region through Baruah. “Khaplang may have gone from the scene, but the challenge he posed to the Indian State all these years, is far from over,” he wrote.