Are there moral police in India


Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik was the BBC's East India correspondent for many years. The journalist and former Queen Elizabeth Fellow at Oxford University has written several books on India's northeast, including Troubled Periphery and Insurgent Crossfire.

There have been violent conflicts in northeast India for decades

In northeast India, after independence from Great Britain, seven states gradually emerged - Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. They are affectionately called the "Seven Sisters". But "Mother India", as many say, does not mean well with her daughters. As early as 1947, the first groups in the Naga Mountains took up arms to fight the new "occupiers". Other ethnic groups also revolted. To this day, the region has not come to rest. This could change in the long term through economic development and the opening of the Northeast towards China and Southeast Asia.

Slogan of the separatist Revolutionary People's Front on a building in Imphal, capital of the state of Manipur (& copy Stefan Mentschel)

The northeast of India with its numerous mountain ranges, rivers and forests is sandwiched between Bhutan, the Tibetan highlands belonging to the People's Republic of China, Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh. Since independence in 1947, there have been separatist movements and bloody ethnic clashes in the 225,000 square kilometer region with its more than 200 different ethnic groups. In the past decades these have reached such an extent that experts speak of a durable disorder - a permanent disorder or instability. Connected to the rest of India only by a 21 km wide corridor, the often unpredictable neighbors also play a major role in the Durable Disorder in the Northeast.

Militaryization and human rights violations

The Indian state responds to the conflicts with a strategy of compromises, financial incentives, political appropriation and the deliberate division of individual movements and organizations that challenge Delhi's authority. Above all, however, the government shows military toughness. Tens of thousands of well-equipped security forces from the state and federal police, paramilitary units and regular army troops are deployed against insurgents in the region. Draconian empowerment laws like that Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) grant them virtually unlimited powers. This gives them the right to target and kill suspects - even if their own lives are not in danger. They do not have to fear consequences, AFSPA grants them protection from criminal prosecution.

"Long live Manipur" demonstration in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, 2001
Photo: Ratan Luwangcha
This militarization of the region and the associated often rampant use of force have resulted in massive human rights violations, caused by state security forces but also by the insurgents themselves. According to surveys by the Delhier Organization South Asia Terrorism Portal the conflicts in the northeast claimed more than 20,000 deaths between 1992 and 2013 alone, around half of them civilians.

Due to the tense security situation, approaches to a functioning civil society could only develop with difficulty in the region. Another reason for this is the ongoing political instability in states such as Manipur or Nagaland, which is partly caused by the often close ties between government and opposition parties with active or former rebel organizations. In addition, the northeast is a region in post-colonial South Asia, where for many insurgent ethnic groups taking up arms is usually the first and not the last option of resistance.

Uprising in the Naga Mountains

The National Council of the Naga ethnic group paved the way for the uprising against the central government in Delhi (Naga National Council, NNC). One day before Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed the sovereignty of India on August 15, 1947, the NNC declared the independence of the Naga Mountains, which were then part of Assam. However, it took almost a decade for the Naga to take up arms. The NNC invoked its right not to have to join the Indian Union. Delhi, however, refused and increased its administrative and military control over the Naga Mountains. Obsessed with the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčintegrating as much of the former British colonial empire as possible into the new state territory, the central government had no interest in entering into an agreement that would even in the slightest undermine the newly won sovereignty.

The Naga separatist movement still exists today. The legacy of the NNC and ideological standard bearer is the fact that it is split into two warring factions National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). Both groups - NSCN / Isak-Muivah and NSCN / Khaplang - have now signed ceasefire agreements with Delhi. However, they demand that today's state of Nagaland with all Naga-inhabited areas in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur become a "Greater Nagaland" - the so-called Nagalim - to unite as the greatest hurdle to a final settlement of South Asia's oldest ethnic conflict. In addition, the two NSCN factions fight each other with relentless harshness. The security forces are staying out of the feud, even though the civilian population in Nagaland is suffering severely as a result - be it directly through violence and displacement or indirectly through the lack of economic development.

Famine triggers the Mizo rebellion

Unlike the NNC-led rebellion, separatist movements developed in other parts of the Northeast mostly because of the failure or inability of Delhi to effectively counteract grievances. An example of this is a famine in the Mizo Mountains in southeast Assam around 1960. The reason for this was a natural event that only occurs about every 50 years, the so-called Mautam (analogously: bamboo death). Spread throughout much of the region, the bamboo began to bloom, which made the stems of the plant turn sweet. This in turn attracted rats, which multiplied explosively within a short period of time. With their cravings, the animals also destroyed a large part of the agricultural yields.

The central government ignored the devastating consequences for the population, there was no help and many people starved to death. Hundreds of young Mizos eventually attacked under the umbrella of the Mizo National Famine Front (later Mizo National Front, MNF) took up arms and fought a bloody guerrilla war against the Indian state that lasted more than 20 years. The conflict ended in 1986 with a peace treaty between the MNF and the government in Delhi. A year later, the Mizo Mountains became an independent state within the Indian Union. Two former rebel leaders - Laldenga and Zoramthanga - later even took over the office of prime minister in the new state of Mizoram.

Resistance to mass immigration in Tripura

The Ujjayanta Palace in Agartala, capital of the state of Tripura, was the seat of the ruling family of the former kingdom. (& copy Stefan Mentschel)
In Tripura, cadres of the Communist Party instigated the first uprising of the indigenous population in October 1949 - immediately after the annexation of the once independent kingdom to India. But soon they distanced themselves from the armed struggle and became part of the political Mainstreams. The resentment of the indigenous tribal population about the continued immigration of people from East Pakistan and later Bangladesh led to the establishment of their own armed groups in the decades that followed. Immigration has made the indigenous tribal population a minority in their own country, as around three quarters of Tripura's residents are Bengali immigrants or their descendants.

Groups like that Tripura National Volunteer Force (TNV) and later the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) wanted to stop immigration from Bangladesh at gunpoint. In some cases, they even sought the independence of Tripura from India. Most recently, however, NLFT and ATTF were mainly involved in criminal machinations, which resulted in a rapid decline in membership. The political successor organization of the TNV, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT), is currently represented by one member in the Tripura state parliament.

Unbroken influx of rebels in Manipur

Like Tripura, Manipur has been part of the Indian Union since 1949. For almost as long, members of the Meitei in particular - they make up the ethnic majority in the multiethnic state with around 2.3 million inhabitants - have been fighting against what they believe to be an annexation. After the withdrawal of the British in 1947, Manipur, which can look back on a 2000 year-old history of culture and civilization, was initially constituted as an independent state with a constitutional monarchy.

Manipur's separatist movement is still very popular today. Reasons for this are, among other things, the aforementioned demand by the NSCN to unite all areas inhabited by Nagas into a "Greater Nagaland". Out of concern for the territorial integrity of Manipur, but also out of desperation over the devastating economic situation, the extremely high youth unemployment and the ineptitude and ignorance of the politically responsible, hundreds have joined the rebels in recent years. Although the Meitei - many worship the Hindu god Vishnu as Vaishnavites - are actually culturally very close to India, an increasing alienation from Delhi has been observed for around 40 years, which has been further intensified by repressive measures by the Indian state.

However, the Indian security forces have not yet succeeded in capturing the strongholds of the Meitei rebels in the inaccessible mountain regions along the border with Myanmar. For this reason, around the turn of the millennium, Delhi initiated numerous agreements with armed groups of smaller ethnic groups such as the Kuki in order to win them over as allies against the Meitei rebels and thus bring about military success.

But this plan failed. So far, none of the large Meitei groups have agreed to talk to Delhi. On the contrary: The one founded in 1964 United National Liberation Front (UNLF), which is said to have several thousand fighters in its ranks, has been calling for a referendum under the supervision of the United Nations for years to decide whether Manipur will remain in the Indian Union. Other influential groups are the People's Liberation Army (PLA) as well as the People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK).

The Meitei rebels are also the only separatist organizations in the northeast that also take on the role of "moral police". Especially the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (analogously: Organization for the Rescue of Manipur, KYKL) has repeatedly "punished" corrupt teachers and officials or drug dealers in the past - mostly by shooting them in the legs. These actions have strengthened their support among the population.

Peace negotiations in Assam

Members of the Khasi ethnic group from Meghalaya state
While there is hardly any rebel activity in Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, the Union state of Assam has long been shaken by uprisings - fueled by those ruled by the Asomiya ethnic group United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) as well as groups of smaller ethnic groups such as the Bodo, Dimasa and Karbi. The ULFA emerged in the late 1970s from a mass movement against illegal immigration of people from Bangladesh. However, she soon turned against the Indian state, which she accused of ruthlessly exploiting Assam's mineral resources - especially oil. The organization has now split. While the faction around the ULFA leader Arabinda Rajkhowa, who was extradited from Bangladesh to India, has been conducting peace negotiations with the government in Delhi for years, supporters of the radical wing continue to fight the Indian state with armed violence from their bases in Myanmar.

Ideological and political rifts

The various rebel movements in the northeast have not yet succeeded in forming a tactical unit in the fight against the common enemy (Delhi). Rather, the ideological and political rifts that sometimes shape the relationship between the individual groups have helped the Indian secret service to successfully develop the concept of the Divide and Rule (Divide and conquer) apply.

In recent years, the NSCN's call for the creation of a "Greater Nagaland" has caused bad blood among the former alliance partners in Manipur and Assam. This example shows that there are often very different reasons for the conflict in the Indian Northeast, which has been going on for more than 60 years, and that the groups are by no means pursuing the same goals. They are similar only in the choice of means: violence.

The conflicts can be classified into three main categories: (A) Uprisings based on a deeply rooted belief in one's own independence, which has developed into a civil war against India, supported by the UNLF in Manipur or the Naga rebels, for example. In recent years, however, at least the NSCN has moved away from its demand for full state sovereignty and instead demands an "extraordinary federal relationship" within the Indian Union. (B) rebels who rhetorically strive for independence, but who strive for a certain degree of autonomy. Most of the uprisings in the northeast fall into this category, including the conflict in Tripura and the conflicts of the Bodo ethnic group in western Assam. (C) uprisings with initially sharp separatist overtones, which were ended by negotiations and concessions by the state, such as the Mizo conflict.

Principles of ancient Hindu statecraft

In order to neutralize the uprisings in the northeast, Delhi has in the past relied equally on political capture and military strength. Military operations were always a direct response, but once the insurrections were contained, a political dialogue began with the aim of achieving a complete settlement of the conflict. Finally, the peace agreement included greater political and administrative autonomy, more government funding for economic development, and an explicit commitment to promoting local culture and interests.

The release of state funds in the form of "special development packages", the talks and negotiations with rebel groups, massive military operations and the divisions caused by intelligence agents in the ranks of the rebels indicate the combined application of four principles of Hindu statecraft that Kautilya already described in his Public law book published at the time of Alexander the Great Arthashastra recommended: Sham (Reconciliation), Dam (Bribery), Danda (Violence) and Bhed (Splitting).

Joint actions with neighboring countries

India's rival neighboring states China and Pakistan and, until a few years ago, Bangladesh also played a major role in the continued existence of the separatist movements in the northeast. Help with training and arming the cadres as well as logistical and financial support are still of enormous importance for the rebels to this day. The inaccessible and difficult to control border regions to Bhutan, Bangladesh or Myanmar were and are used by the various groups as bases.

Market women in Imphal, capital of the state of Manipur (& copy Stefan Mentschel)
Over the past few years, Delhi has tried to use a mixture of persuasion, financial incentives and gentle pressure to win neighboring countries as partners in the fight against the rebels. Bhutan gave in to this pressure in December 2003 and with a massive military operation smashed the bases of various groups operating in Assam.

Since the takeover of the Awami League in Bangladesh in 2009, Delhi is also receiving support from this side. Unlike before, the security forces under the reign of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are now taking massive action against the Indian rebels. Numerous high-ranking cadres from various groups have since been extradited to India, including Arabinda Rajkhowa, head of ULFA from Assam in 2009, and Rajkumar Meghen, the influential one in 2010 Chairman the UNLF from Manipur. The tough crackdown has weakened some of the groups affected considerably. However, the UNLF, for example, managed to move its bases from Bangladesh to Myanmar, from where it is still active.

India's eastern neighbor has also stepped up its action against rebels in the border area. In return, the Myanmar government received large quantities of military equipment and other aid.The actions against the insurgents, however, were nowhere near as effective as in Bhutan and Bangladesh and have hardly taken place recently.

India's "look to the east"

There is another reason why Myanmar is of great importance to Indian foreign policy. As part of his Look East Policy In the past few years India has made increased efforts to make the Northeast a hub for more intensive economic and trade relations with the countries of Southeast Asia - which is to be done with the help of a continuous road connection, among other things.

In addition, India has agreed to participate in the development of the so-called BCIM corridor (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar). The connection should lead from the Chinese Pronvon Yunan through the northeast to Kolkata and also strengthen economic relations. The first official talks between the four participating countries took place in December 2013.

Should these cross-border connections one day become a reality, the Indian Northeast could also benefit significantly. However, after decades of violent conflict, the infrastructure in the region is in very poor condition. The political stability necessary for such projects is also not yet in sight. It will therefore not be easy for Delhi to develop the northeast as a "bridgehead" towards China and Southeast Asia.