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EFSAS Commentary

Timing of differences between NSCN (IM) and the Indian government raises suspicions of a Chinese hand


Several unusual or unnaturally driven events over the past couple of months have hinted at a disquiet in the Chinese leadership over the multitude of challenges that President Xi Jinping and his henchmen have invited upon themselves. Among the multitude of such events that China is believed to have instigated or engineered, several have been directed against India. With each subsequent event targeting India that China has concocted, its frustration and concern over the unwavering resoluteness displayed by the Indian government in its negotiations with China on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that divides the two countries has become more evidently palpable. The latest in the string of Chinese irritants appears to be its efforts to impede the long-running peace talks being conducted by the Indian government with the insurgent group the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac Muivah), better known by the acronym NSCN (IM).   

That the China-inspired events have been unusual is evident to South Asia watchers. A hapless Nepal, helmed by a pro-China Prime Minister on whom realpolitik and practical realities both seemed oddly lost, had not only been nudged to raise claims on territory with India but also to propagate avoidable and unnecessary absurdities on emotive socio-religious issues that have historically served as a binding force between the people of India and Nepal. A backlash from within his own party led Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli to reconsider, and he reached out to his Indian counterpart through a phone call on 15 August. A day later, Nepal’s Ambassador to India Nilamber Acharya described relations between the two countries as “close and friendly”, and added that the “Telephonic conversations confirmed that we have close ties, and we can sit together in proper times and solve any problems or discuss shaping our relations. Talks show we are close and friendly. We may differ, or have a problem in one or two aspects of relations but that can’t impact the entire spectrum of relationship. Our problems, small or big, we have to solve through friendly dialogue”. On 17 August, India and Nepal held the 8th meeting of the Oversight Mechanism (OSM) for bilateral economic and development cooperation projects. The holding of this meeting signaled the desire of both countries to return to normalcy in bilateral relations.

Moving on to another Indian ally, China on 29 June objected to Bhutan’s application for a grant for the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). It, for the first time, described the sanctuary as “disputed”. It mattered little that even official Chinese maps had in the past shown the sanctuary to be in Bhutan. As Tenzing Lamsang, the editor of The Bhutanese newspaper, tweeted “1977 Chinese map showing Sakteng well within Bhutan… Yet to hear of any country in the world disputing its own official maps issued for decades”. The curious new Chinese claim over the sanctuary even prompted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to describe it as “a pattern of instigating territorial disputes”. Pompeo added, “There aren’t many neighbours that could satisfactorily say that they know where their sovereignty ends and that the Chinese Communist Party will respect that sovereignty. That’s certainly true now for the people of Bhutan as well”. Quite expectedly, Bhutan's Embassy in New Delhi issued a demarche to the Chinese Embassy over Beijing's claim over the sanctuary. The GEF Council has also reportedly shunned China’s claim and has cleared the funding for the Sakteng sanctuary. The sanctuary lies close to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China also claims, and analysts believe that this Chinese move is actually aimed at India.

The NSCN (IM) has been in talks with the Indian government to find a political solution to the Naga issue for several years now. The two sides had agreed upon a ceasefire in 1997, which although not adhered to in letter and spirit by either side has nevertheless held till date. It yielded peace, even if imperfect, in Nagaland and the adjoining states of northeastern India. In a major development, within just over a year of coming to power Indian PM Modi in August 2015 signed a framework agreement with the NSCN (IM)’s top leadership that set the parameters within which the two sides would negotiate a peace agreement. Talks were proceeding smoothly, and a majority of the 31 NSCN-IM demands had largely been met by the Indian government. On 16 August, however, the NSCN-IM abruptly made public the framework agreement that both sides had agreed to keep under wraps. It accused R.N. Ravi, the Indian government’s interlocutor for the talks with the NSCN (IM), of distorting the framework agreement and of signing parallel agreements with other Naga groups to “divide the Nagas”. Ravi had in 2017 signed a separate agreement with the working committee of Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs), a conglomerate of seven other outfits.

The NSCN (IM) had been critical of Ravi for the past several months. As for the parallel agreements signed by Ravi, the one with the NNPGs had been inked in 2017, almost three years ago. If its differences with Ravi stretched back to close to a year, and Ravi’s agreement with the NNPGs to about three years, these certainly did not explain what it was that caused the NSCN (IM) to react abruptly at this particular time. Given that rebel Naga groups had established relations with China way back in 1966 when a few members of one of the predecessor groups of the NSCN (IM) had undertaken the arduous journey there, and considering that ever since the clash at Galwan near the LAC in June China has been running helter-skelter digging out any and all of its assets in South Asia that could possibly help put pressure on India and get it to soften its stance on the LAC, the suspicion for the NSCN (IM) outburst cannot but fall on China.

China analyst Lyle Morris had titled an article that he had written for The Diplomat on 22 March 2011 as “Is China Backing Indian Insurgents?” Morris had, almost a decade ago, highlighted the links between China’s intelligence agencies with insurgent groups in India’s volatile Northeast region”, which he suggested were aimed “by Beijing to step up efforts at undermining peace and increasing leverage over India as both countries grapple with sensitive border negotiations”. Morris had pointed out that “in November 1966, China covertly trained and procured weapons for a 300-strong contingent of Naga rebels in support of Maoist revolution. The group returned to India in January 1968 and established a camp in the Jotsoma jungles. When Indian forces attacked their haven in June that year, they reportedly recovered Chinese weapons and a trail of documents leading back to Chinese support”.

Referring to Anthony Shimray, a key member and major arms procurer of the NSCN-IM who had been apprehended by Indian security forces in October 2010, Morris described his revelations regarding the breadth and complexity of ties between Chinese intelligence agencies and NSCN-IM operatives as shocking. Shimray had disclosed that he had first visited China in 1994 for a joint arms deal with another northeast Indian insurgent group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). This was followed by several subsequent visits by Shimray, including one in 1996 and another in 2007, during which deals for the supply of huge quantities of Chinese weapons and ammunition for the NSCN (IM) and other northeast Indian insurgent groups were struck.

Shimray also informed that in December 2009, the NSCN-IM had been offered the opportunity to purchase surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) by Chinese agents working on behalf of the Chinese intelligence agencies, with these agents asking for $1 million for the missiles. This offer was not accepted as the NSCN (IM) could not raise the money. Relations between Chinese intelligence agencies and the NSCN (IM), meanwhile, had grown to the extent that in 2008 China had agreed to host a permanent NSCN-IM representative based out of Kunming, Yunnan Province. Kholose Swu Sumi, a NSCN (IM) member belonging to the Sema Naga tribe, was posted as the permanent representative of the outfit in China.

Shimray, significantly, had admitted that in return for Chinese support, the NSCN (IM) had been passing on to Chinese intelligence operatives details of Indian army deployments in the India-China border region of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, including positions of Indian aircraft and missiles. These revelations led Morris to conclude a decade ago that “The scope and scale of Chinese ties with the NSCN-IM should give New Delhi pause as it pursues closer relations with Beijing, because they could imply a willingness on the part of Chinese intelligence to covertly undermine peace negotiations between the NSCN-IM and the Indian government”. That Chinese willingness has certainly not been diluted over the years, as the present imbroglio that the NSCN (IM) has raked up would seem to indicate.

Recent reports in the northeast Indian media suggest that the NSCN (IM) has been consulting closely with its Chinese interlocutors even while it was negotiating with the Indian government pursuant to the signing of the framework agreement. Biju Kumar Deka in an article on 22 November 2019 reported that senior NSCN-IM leader Phungting Shimrang had in mid-October gone to Yunnan province in China for discussions with Chinese authorities. Writing for Northeast Now, Anirban Roy on 23 January this year also reported Shimrang’s presence in Yunnan, and observed that the NSCN (IM) had neither confirmed nor denied the earlier reports that had suggested the same.

The NSCN (IM), however, did give a lot away in its reaction to the killing of six of its armed cadres in the Arunachal Pradesh state of India last month. Differing interpretations on whether the ceasefire applied only to Nagaland or also to Naga inhabited areas of neighbouring Indian states meant that both the NSCN (IM) and Indian troops have sporadically attacked each other over the years. The NSCN (IM) in a statement issued from its headquarters in Hebron in Nagaland on 12 July expectedly and understandably raised the issue of the sanctity of the 1997 ceasefire. However, surprisingly and inexplicably, the statement made the wild allegation that the action against the six NSCN cadres was a means for the Indian army to “vent its frustration” against China in the context of the ongoing tensions along the LAC. The language chosen and used by the NSCN (IM) in its statement that unnecessarily brought in China and suggested its relative strength over India said a lot to those who had their antennae up. 

Chinese complicity in the proliferation of illegal weapons in the region was the theme of the EFSAS Commentary of 24-07-2020. It was underlined that the seizure on 23 June of a large consignment of Chinese-made weapons in the Mae Sot district on the Thai side of the Myanmar-Thailand border had reignited the serious questions that had existed for long about the scope and depth of China’s support to terrorist groups in the region in pursuit of its policy of what a Thailand-based organization termed “diplo-terrorism”. The argument that the confiscation of the illegal Chinese weapons in Mae Sot could represent the start of yet another attempt to rekindle the fagging insurgency in India’s northeast had also been made in the commentary.

The attempts to infuse a large volume of Chinese weapons into Myanmar, where the NSCN (IM) is known to have a large presence, and into India’s northeastern states, preceded the NSCN (IM)’s outburst at the peace talks. The timing would indicate that the Chinese weapons seized in Mae Sot, or a substantial chunk of it, could actually have been meant for the NSCN (IM). The Chinese design could have been to bolster the outfit’s armed wing and instill enough confidence for the group’s leadership to actually attempt to rock the boat at the peace talks with India. It could be that payback time for the NSCN (IM) has begun in earnest and what we are now witnessing is the climax of China’s operation NSCN (IM).

Having very recently witnessed how short-lived the actual impact of its operations have been in Nepal and Bhutan, China is yet again likely to find out the hard way that in the final analysis the NSCN (IM) will know where its interests lie and exactly whom it has to co-exist with.