India's Northeast: The Threat of Islamist Militancy

03 Mar, 2013    ·   3832

Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman discusses the need to contextualise broader linkages in the region to better understand and counter prospects of Islamist militancy

The demonstration by Muslim advocacy groups, which resulted in violent clashes in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan on 11 August 2012, leaving 2 dead and over 65 injured, was held to protest against the killings of Muslims in Kokrajhar (the inter-community clashes between Muslims and the Bodo community) and in the Arakan state of Myanmar (the inter-community clashes between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine community). The linkage of these two separate inter-community clashes to a single protest march in Mumbai may be symbolic, but the threat of the rise of Islamist militancy in parts of Northeast India, and the larger international neighbourhood encompassing Myanmar and Bangladesh, has to be seen in context.

It has been well documented that Islamist militant groups and networks have had links with insurgent groups in many states of Northeast India, especially in Manipur, Assam and Nagaland; and this had been oscillating between tactical support in arms dealing, narcotics, illegal and fake currency networks, and anti-government sabotage activities over the past few decades. This trend, however, does not indicate by itself the threat of Islamist militancy. While many commentators have described the threat of the rise of Islamist militancy in Northeast India as unfounded and being alarmist, the ground conditions in the larger region cannot be ignored.

The People’s United Liberation Front (PULF) has been operating in parts of Manipur, Assam and Nagaland for the past two decades, and has been splintered, as has been the trend with many other insurgent organisations in Northeast India. Though split into many smaller factions over time, it is one of the major Islamist militant organisations currently active in the region. Apart from this, the role and support of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) to many insurgent organisations and networks in Northeast India, has unabatedly continued. There is a sort of an ideological vacuum in many of the ‘home-grown’ insurgent organisations in Northeast India. They have suffered huge losses in tactical and public legitimacy accounts in the past decade or so and are not in a position to prevent the growth of Islamist militancy in Northeast India, as to guard their own turf.

The entry points for Islamist militancy in Northeast India are not hard to comprehend. The presence of a large ‘illegal’ Muslim immigrant community in Assam, which has been a source of perennial political activism, and was one of the motivations behind the formation of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), became fertile ground for an entry point to the Islamist militant groups. The political uncertainty that has engulfed this migrant community over more than four decades now, has made them vulnerable to such militant influence, as a way to survive the political threat. Further enhancing the political aspect of an ever-looming ‘threat to their survival’ versus their responses to ‘surviving the threat’ over the past decades; the instance of large-scale riots and inter-community clashes in the past, such as the Nellie riots and the recent instances in Udalguri in 2008 and Kokrajhar in 2012, have made the case for militant responses an usable instrument in the evolving politics of the region.

The recent riots in Kokrajhar saw the use of sophisticated weapons by the Bodo militant groups, who took advantage of the situation. Stemming from the flawed surrender policy of the Indian counter-insurgency establishment, there is a possibility of these weapons finding their way into the hands of the Muslim groups, by jihadi groups across the border. The threat of the rise of militancy amongst the Muslims affected by the Kokrajhar violence, was raised by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), in its report to the Assam government after a field visit in the violence affected areas of Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) areas in August 2012. The overall political, economic, and living conditions of the Muslim community in BTAD areas has been described as a fertile ground for jihadi influence.

This brings into context the rise in militant activities amongst the Rohingya Muslims in the larger region of Arakan state of Myanmar, South Bangladesh, and parts of Tripura and Mizoram. In the face of deportation by Border Guards Force along the Bangladesh border, and political and ethnic clashes in Myanmar, the links of Rohingya militant organisations with Al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba have been substantiated in the past. There have been reports of Rohingya Muslims trying to make their way into Northeast India, and this seems not a distant possibility, given the state of our borders and the manner in which we treat our sensitive and ‘peaceful states’ border, especially in Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura.

The government of India needs to brace itself to counter the threat of Islamist militancy in the larger region through proactive diplomacy and a better understanding of larger issues and linkages. It should not be content in ‘managing’ the home situation. The trends that are emerging cannot be ignored for the lack of actual ground instances; rather, we must prepare and remedy the conditions for such entry points to Islamist militancy.