In one of the deadliest ambushes in recent times in the North East, 11 people, including a member of the legislative Assembly, were killed in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tirap district on May 21.

Tirong Aboh, who was seeking re-election from the West Khonsa Assembly seat on a National People’s Party ticket, was on his way to his constituency when suspected militants opened fire at his convoy.

Elections to the legislative Assembly and the state’s two Lok Sabha seats were held on April 11.

The last major incident in the region was in 2015, when 18 soldiers of the Indian Army were ambushed in Manipur’s Chandel district.

But the two incidents have few similarities. Unlike the 2015 ambush, the target this time were not security personnel but civilians. Also, the group suspected to behind the latest attack – National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) – is engaged in peace talks with the Centre. The 2015 attacks, on the other hand, were reportedly carried out by outfits actively at war with the Indian state.

What then explains the latest killings? A senior security official from the region said the reasons could be rooted in local electoral rivalries. But could it suggest cracks are starting to appear in the highly-touted Naga peace process?

Electoral violence and ethnic militancy

In the North East, particularly the tribal-majority states prone to ethnic conflicts, it is no secret that elections are often held under the shadow of the gun.

This year in Manipur’s hills, for instance, Kuki and Naga militant groups have been open about who they are backing. Videos had even emerged of a militant group threatening village chiefs to ensure that people voted for the party they had endorsed.

Quite often, the threat of violence turns to actual bloodshed. In 2018, a Nationalist Congress Party candidate from Williamnagar constituency in Meghalaya’s East Garo Hills was killed in an explosion in the run up to the Assembly elections. The attack was reportedly carried out by a Garo militant group.

Aboh, according to local accounts, had been a vocal opponent of militants groups interfering in electoral politics.

A long history of violence

Tirap, where Aboh and his associates were ambushed, has historically been a troubled area.

In 2007, Wangcha Rajkumar, a former parliamentarian from the state was shot dead in the district’s Deomali area, less than an hour from where Aboh’s convoy was ambushed. Later, an NSCN (IM) commander was held for his murder.

In 2014, there were allegations that militant groups were intimidating people in the area to vote for the Naga People’s Front, a party seen to be close to various Naga militias.

Incidentally, Phawang Lowang, who was the Naga People Front’s candidate at that time, contested the 2019 polls on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket, and was the only other contender in the West Khonsa Assembly seat apart from Aboh.

The days leading up to this year’s elections also saw widespread violence, carried out allegedly again by the NSCN (IM).

On March 29, not only were two of Aboh’s aides allegedly kidnapped by the group, one of them was reportedly tortured to death. A day later, in neighbouring Longing district, a former zila panchayat member, once part of the NSCN (IM), was shot dead by unidentified gunmen while campaigning for the local BJP candidate.

A troubled area

The trouble in Tirap, Longding and adjoining Changlang can be explained by their geography. Close to the once safe militant haven of Myanmar’s thick jungles and located right at the tri-junction of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Nagaland, the region’s strategic location has made it a convenient transit route for militants travelling to Assam and Nagaland from Myanmar.

In December 2016, a convoy carrying Assam Rifles soldiers were ambushed in the district, leading to the death of two troopers.

Even as the Centre has gradually scaled down on the extent of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in Arunachal, these three districts continue to be tagged as “disturbed areas” and the controversial law, which gives the military sweeping powers to search and arrest, and to open fire if they deem it necessary for “the maintenance of Public Order”, remains in place.

Big picture

Local dynamics aside, the killings also bring to fore several uncomfortable questions about the security situation in the North East and the government’s claims of reining in insurgency in the region.

If the NSCN (IM) was indeed behind the deadly attack on civilians as security forces suspect, does it mean that the Naga peace talks – the centrepiece of the BJP government’s achievement vis-à-vis North Eastern insurgency – are falling apart?

Although, there has been no official statement yet from the NSCN (IM) yet, a slew of recent developments suggest that the initial euphoria has worn off, leaving behind an army of restive cadres.