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Review: In Pursuit Of Conflict by Avalok Langer

Based on interviews with members of various Northeastern insurgencies, In Pursuit of Conflict tries to explain why they took up arms in the first place and why so many today seek answers through talks

books Updated: Jun 15, 2018 19:58 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
Meghalaya,AFSPA,Assam
ULFA cadre in Assam in a photograph dated 20 September, 1991.(HT Photo)
250pp, Rs 399

Anyone who experiences today’s Nagaland, tranquil and picturesque, would find it hard to believe this was home to India’s longest and bloodiest insurgency – yes, worse than Kashmir. Based on a series of interviews and meetings with prominent members of various Northeastern insurgencies, In Pursuit of Conflict tries to explain why they took up arms in the first place and why so many today seek answers through talks. Avalok Langer gives a sense of the culture of violence and corruption that embedded itself in this part of India and, along the way, offers a frank and amusing account of what it’s like to be a journalist in difficult conditions.

The National Socialist Council of Nagaland is often called the “mother of insurgencies” because of its role in training and supporting similar groups in the other Northeastern states. Thenoselie Keyho, ex-commander of the NSCN, describes how the first Naga contingents walked to China in 1967 to secure Beijing’s support. “The Pakistanis had given us basic weapons training and a few arms, but the Chinese not only trained our boys to fight, but taught us military strategy and imparted political and psychological training,” he says. Beijing promised the Nagas air-dropped supplies and diplomatic support if they “liberated” a bit of territory. It never happened. Indian intelligence won over one Naga group who betrayed the rest.

The Nagas continued fighting, but their own internal fissures kept them from being genuinely effective. In a pattern seen with other insurgencies, the longer they failed to reach their political goals the more they descended into simple criminality.

Langer details the extortion system the Naga insurgencies ran. This included imposing “taxes” on Indian government departments whose financial officers quietly subtracted the requisite amount from employees’ salaries. The NSCN (Isak-Muivah faction), for example, had an estimated budget of Rs 2.5 billion a year. The cadre were enriched, but the cause corrupted. The NSCN have since been in interminable negotiations with New Delhi. One of the NSCN’s founders, Thuingaleng Muivah, speaks of the need to find a “middle ground” between India’s security and territorial needs and Naga demands for sovereignty. Langer ascribes this to an ageing leadership but misses the role played by Chinese abandonment and Indian-Myanmar military cooperation.

Other insurgency leaders faced similar bouts of soul searching. Julius Dorphang, ex-chairman of the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Front, helped orchestrate brutal riots against non-locals in Shillong before taking up arms against India. He recognized independence was an impossibility and now seeks only greater rights for Khasis and other tribals through talks.

B K Hrangkhawl of the Tripura National Volunteers, one of many Tripura tribal outfits that fought India from the 1970s onwards, came to a similar view despite being horribly tortured by Indian security personnel. “We picked up arms to get the attention of the government, to show them that we were serious. But violence is never a solution. Also, I strongly believe that after a period of ten years, no armed struggle can survive…with time, an armed struggle starts working against the people.”

There are those who have yet to accept this law of guerrilla entropy.

Ibotombi Khuman of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangliepak, a byproduct of Manipur’s history of alternating independence and subjugation, speaks of continuing the fight. He talks of coal and oil reserves that would provide for an independent Manipur. He waffles when asked about his movement’s steady decline into banditry, admitting only “we are going through a grey and murky phase where nothing is clear.”

Ranjan Daimary, head of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, “the most ruthless and violent group in the Northeast” demands a Bodo homeland “within the Indian Constitution” yet his organization continues to kill and pillage. Daimary, presently on trial, targeted Bangladeshi Muslims, but his fight was not driven by religion or independence but the more intractable issue of immigration and demographic change.

Author Avalok Langer (Courtesy Westland)

Langer complains how an apathetic political leadership and faulty law and order system have allowed the migration issue to fester. The police find deporting illegals inconvenient and pointless. He accepts local groups also use the migrants as scapegoats. “In the Northeast, it is politically convenient to keep the insider vs outsider debate alive and pull the wool over the eyes of its people.”

Though from a distinguished army family, Langer is critical of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. While there were legitimate reasons for imposing it, the longer Indian security forces function under its sweeping powers the more they become prone to abuse and arbitrariness – a mirror of what happens to insurgencies over time.

Read more: Review: Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast by Sanjoy Hazarika

Northeast specialists will not find all that much new and there are gaps. The United Liberation Front of Assam and the Mizos get only a passing mention. The fighters are one-by-one accepting talks and AFSPA has been withdrawn from Meghalaya. A different Northeast is emerging. “In five years, a new generation had obviously come of age. A post-conflict generation. The ceasefire had given rise to youths who hadn’t grown up in active conflict, hadn’t lived through the killings…For them, those were just stories...”

First Published: Jun 15, 2018 19:55 IST