North-East of India: Expanding Challenges

AFSPA was withdrawn from Meghalaya in 2018, from Tripura in 2015, and from Mizoram in the 1980s.

by Afsara Shaheen

On April 2, 2024, the Government extended the imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in the whole State of Manipur, except for 19 Police stations, for another six months with effect from April 1, 2024. The areas under the Police Stations excluded from AFSPA are Imphal, Lamphel, City, Singjamei, Sekmai, Lamsang, Patsoi, Wangoi, Porompat, Heingang, Lamlai, Irilbung, Leimakhong, Thoubal, Bishnupur, Nambol, Moirang, Kakching and Jirbam. Thus, there has been no change in areas covered under AFSPA in the notification dated September 27, 2023, though the security situation has worsened in the State in the recent times, primarily due to the abrupt escalation of ethnic violence.

Nagaland is a hilly state in the North East of India and is home to several tribes. [ Photo: Wikimedia]

Earlier, on March 27, 2024, the Government extended AFSPA in three Districts of Arunachal Pradesh for another six months. The districts included Tirap, Changlang, and Longding District (TCL Districts). AFSPA was extended in specific areas under the jurisdiction of Namsai, Mahadevpur, and Chowkham Police Stations in Namsai District, as well. The extension is slated for a duration of six months, effective April 1, 2024, unless withdrawn earlier by the authorities. This extension maintains the earlier notifications, as there is no change in the security situation in these areas of Arunachal Pradesh, which continue to pose security challenges as a result of their use as a transit route by insurgents from other states.

On the same day, March 27, 2024, the Government also extended AFSPA in four Districts of Assam for six months from April 1 – Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Charaideo and Sivasagar. In accordance with the earlier notification dated September 27, 2023, the latest notification excludes four Districts – Jorhat, Golaghat, Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong – from the purview of AFSPA, a s result of improvements in the law-and-order situation in these areas.

Also, on March 27, 2024, the Government issued a notification extending AFSPA in eight Districts, as well as 21 Police Stations across five other Districts of Nagalan,d for a period of six months starting April 1. The districts include Dimapur, Niuland, Chumoukedima, Kiphire, Phek, Mon, Noklak and Peren. The earlier notification issued on September 30, 2022, imposed AFSPA in nine Districts as well as 16 Police Stations in four other Districts. The Zunheboto District has been excluded in the latest notification.

AFSPA was withdrawn from Meghalaya in 2018, from Tripura in 2015, and from Mizoram in the 1980s.

The notifications clearly indicate that security concerns in the region persist, though the overall situation has improved gradually over the period, with the exception of Manipur, which has recorded a sudden and abrupt deterioration since May 2023. From a peak of 1,165 fatalities in 2003, the Northeast region recorded a low of 21 fatalities in 2022. For five consecutive years between, 2018 and 2022, fatalities across the region remained well under a hundred. In 2023, the rest of the region recorded just 17 fatalities, while Manipur alone saw 163 insurgency-linked fatalities. On February 28, 2024, Manipur Governor Anusuiya Uikey disclosed that 219 people had been killed in ethnic violence in Manipur since May 2023. No further details were provided, and it is likely that there would be significant overlap with the SATP category of insurgency-linked fatalities. In 2024 (till April 7), Northeast India recorded a total of 29 fatalities, of which Manipur alone accounted for 27. The remaining two fatalities occurred in Nagaland (both militants). 

The improvement in the overall security situation has primarily been due to the actions of the SFs on the ground over a period of time, which has weakened several groups forcing them to surrender and enter into peace talks with the government. Two major peace agreements were signed with two prominent insurgent groups in the North-East in 2023:

Agreement with the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) in New Delhi. UNLF was the deadliest among the active insurgent groups in Manipur. Union Home Minister (UHM) Amit Shah termed the signing of the peace agreement a “historic milestone” and expressed the hope that this would encourage other Valley-based insurgent groups (VBIGs) to participate in the peace process.December 29: A tripartite Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) was signed between the pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-PTF), GoI and the Assam Government, in the presence of Amit Shah and Assam Chief Minister (CM) Himanta Biswa Sarma, at New Delhi.

Meanwhile, the sudden surge in fatalities in Manipur was linked to the outbreak and persistence of ethnic clashes between the Kuki and Meitei communities in Manipur, which commenced on May 3, 2023, in Churachandpur District, and which spread rapidly across the state and continues till date. Since the outbreak of the ethnic clashes in Manipur on May 3, 2023, at least 186 insurgency-liked fatalities have been reported in the state, including 94 civilians, 19 Security Forces (SF) personnel, 72 insurgents, and one in the Not Specified (NS) category. Of these, 27 have been reported in 2024: 23 civilians, two SF personnel and two insurgents. It is important to note that Manipur recorded just seven fatalities, including five civilians, one trooper and one militant, in 2022, a significant drop from 27 fatalities, including eight civilians, five SF personnel and 14 militants, recorded in 2021. The 2022 tally was an all-time low since 1992, along with 2020, when there was an equal number of fatalities. In 2023, Manipur recorded 163 insurgency-linked fatalities – 72 civilians, 73 terrorists, 17 SF personnel and one in the non-specified category – in 77 incidents.

It has been almost a year since the ethnic violence started in Manipur, and the current scenario in the State is far from satisfactory. Occasional incidents of killing of civilians as well as SF personnel at the hands of insurgents or unidentified miscreants continue to occur from time to time. Though the situation in Manipur has seen some improvement since the initial outbreak of violence, sporadic incidents persist, and the ethnic borders that have been established between the Valley and Hill areas continue to be policed by SFs as well as by armed ethnic militia.

In Assam, eight insurgency-related fatalities were recorded in 2023, as compared to six in 2022. The terrorist groups active in the State and across its borders include the United Liberation Front of Asom – Independent (ULFA-I), Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and its factions. The state’s security situation has improved significantly  and a succession of peace agreements has largely contributed to stabilization. However, ULFA-I remains an enduring challenge.

The troubles in Arunachal Pradesh are an overflow from other states of the region, including Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, which continue to disproportionately affect the TCL Districts of the State –– all lying on the Indo-Myanmar border. Arunachal Pradesh is used as a transit route by various militant groups, whose camps are situated in the Sagaing Region of Myanmar. TCL remains the ‘axis’ of conflict in the state. Five fatalities were recorded in these districts in 2023 (one civilian, one SF and three terrorists). The Yung-Aung faction of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K-YA) remains violently active in the State. On December 16, 2023, NSCN-K-YA cadres killed a former Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) of the State, Yumsem Matey, in Tirap District, along the Indo-Myanmar border. Further the outfit continues to engage in abduction and extortion, mainly in the Longding District.

 Nagaland has experienced a marked improvement in the security situation over the past years, with just three insurgency-linked fatalities recorded in 2023 (all terrorists). There were no fatalities in the state in 2022. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) remains active in the State, despite its engagement in peace talks with the Government, and is still adamant on its demand for a separate flag and a separate constitution for the Naga people. The Union Government has insisted that any agreement with the rebel group would be within the purview of the Indian Constitution. On December 9, 2023, NSCN-IM rejected the Government’s position, declaring,

Despite government of India’s wavering stand, nothing could be further from the truth, as flag and constitution are the integral parts of sovereignty. Sovereignty without flag and constitution is a form without content.

The security situation in Meghalaya is peaceful and the State recorded no insurgency-linked fatalities in 2023 and 2022. There were eight fatalities in 2017, seven in 2018, two in 2019, none in 2020 and two in 2021. The Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) is the only active insurgent group in the State and there have been uncertain negotiations between this group and the Meghalaya Government. On April 4, 2024, Meghalaya Deputy Chief Minister (CM) Prestone Tynsong asserted that the door was still open for HNLC to engage in peace talks with the state government and asked the group’s leaders to reconsider their stance and return to the negotiating table. He further stated that, if the HNLC chooses not to pursue dialogue, then the law of the land would prevail. It is to be noted here that, on December 31, 2023, HNLC had decided to withdraw from peace talks with the Central government, citing a complete lack of attention to their demands.

The security scenario in Tripura remains stable and the state recorded just one insurgency linked fatality in 2023. The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) remain active in the state, although their capacity to mobilize and to carry out terrorist operations has declined over the years.

Mizoram has remained free of insurgency-related violence since 2015, but the State continues to be disturbed by rising incidents of weapons and explosives smuggling. Incidents of recoveries of arms and ammunition in Mizoram have increased considerably in recent times. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, four such incidents in the state have already been recorded in 2024 (data April 7), while there were at least 11 such incidents in 2023, and 13 in 2022.

The Northeastern region has been struggling with internal security challenges for several decades. There has been sustained and dramatic improvement over the years. The region has suffered from a range of afflictions, including insurgency, ethnic conflicts, economic marginalization, and cross-border infiltration. The decline in the multiple insurgencies of the region has principally been a consequence of sustained SF pressure over the decades, and cannot be attributed to any extraordinary shift in policy under the present regime. In fact, the current violence in Manipur is the result of the erroneous and polarizing politics pursued by the government, and this crisis has once again raised the spectre of a possible revival of insurgency across the region. It is crucial that the enormous costs of the region’s stabilization, particularly in terms of the sacrifices of the SFs, be recognized, and policies in the region be defined by the imperatives of the situation, and not by self-serving partisan political calculations.

Afsara Shaheen is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, India