China, Pakistan, Destabilizing India's Northeast?

An upward spiral in terrorist incidents in India’s northeast has become a growing cause of worry for Indian intelligence agencies, who blame India and Pakistan for fomenting the violence. Five blasts have ripped through different northeastern states in the last two months. In Assam, more than 80 people lost their lives in August due to violent clashes between Muslims and tribal Bodo people.

The unrest triggered a panicked exodus of over 400,000 people, mostly of Mongol stock, from their homes all across the country. Hordes boarded trains in alarm, catapulting the region to global headlines.

Rumors were rife that it was the doing of Islamic extremists in Pakistan. However, India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing, has charged that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence is at least partly responsible, conspiring with China to foment trouble. Chinese agencies, according to a new report that received widespread notice recently at a conference of the Director Generals of Police in New Delhi, are using the ISI as a surrogate to bankroll Indian terrorist groups.

“In the mid-1970s, the Chinese were directly involved in creating trouble in the northeast,” Ved Marwah, a former police officer who also served as governor of Manipur and Mizoram, told Mail Today, the newspaper which broke the story. “Later the ISI started building a network. Now what we have is a deadly mix of Chinese motivation and ISI hostility that is supporting insurgent groups. The situation is getting from bad to worse and senior politicians in these states are also linked,” he told the newspaper.

Too often, Indian authorities charge both the Chinese and Pakistanis with meddling in violence-prone areas when the real causes are government neglect, corruption and usurpation of tribal lands by vested interests. The report provides no direct evidence of involvement, such as through captured insurgents or document intercepts. However, in this case the allegation gained credibility by the fact that last year Pakistan’s former ISI Chief Assad Durani made an astonishing admission before the Pakistan Supreme Court by stating that the ISI had indeed been “meddling” with India’s North East.

The proximity of the ISI – particularly well-entrenched in Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Manipur – to Chinese agencies is hardly surprising, intelligence analysts say, as it serves the agenda of both countries quite well.

“The ISI doesn't have to dip into its own meager resources to destabilize India,” a home ministry source who declined to be named told Asia Sentinel. “Beijing is the moneybags here. And it can simultaneously maintain its non-involvement as there is no direct evidence against it,” said the official.

For decades, India’s northeast, comprising the `seven sisters’ (or the seven states) of Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland – has been a hotbed of communal strife, ethnic insurgencies and illegal immigration. Since 1980, the region has also been a fertile ground for a Naxalite-Maoist insurgency, an ongoing conflict between Maoist groups (known as Naxalites or Naxals) and the Indian government described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as "the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country."

According to the BBC, more than 6,000 people have died during the rebels' 20-year fight between 1990 and 2010 in the northeast. Overall, 11,500 people have been victims of insurgency violence since its start in 1980, of which more than half died in the last ten years. The year 2012 has seen 22 civilian deaths so far.

Last year, the Indian police accused the Chinese government of providing sanctuary to leaders of the Naxal movement, and Pakistani ISI of providing financial support. Home Ministry sources acknowledge anonymously that both countries have been leveraging the Naxalites’ disenchantment with the Indian government for not developing the region adequately and failing to provide for its people.

“The insurgents follow a strategy of folk rebellion targeting tribal, police and government workers in what they say is a fight for territorial rights, more employment for neglected agricultural laborers and the poor. Their crusade naturally makes them vulnerable to the nefarious designs of foreign powers,” said a former Maoist rebel.

Security analysts say Pakistan and China are bound by a commonality of interest. They are keen that the North East continue to remain chaotic to thwart Delhi’s ambitions to become a regional heavyweight. “Towards that end, Pakistan’s protracted battle over Kashmir with India, by fomenting terrorist activities through cross-border infiltration, is being bolstered by China,” adds the Maoist.

“As most of the terror strikes in the northeast are carried out by homegrown elements, this serves as a perfect alibi for the ISI,” argued Pradeep Khanna, a Mumbai-based security analyst who is working on a book on the 26/11 attacks. “Infighting is far more deadly and causes more instability than an external attack. Besides, an external attack carries global and diplomatic ramifications.”

Khanna suggests that the Indian government tackle the root of the problem by equipping Indian intelligence agencies, anti-insurgent forces and the troops stationed on the borders with sufficient resources to take on the threat of foreign-backed rebels. “The government must expedite the development of the region which will bring lasting peace and dissuade people from joining or supporting insurgencies in future,” he said.

While China may not be interested in reigniting any large-scale insurgency in India’s northeast, it certainly doesn’t hold back from inciting trouble in an area where it has substantial territorial claims. China continues to occupy 14,600 sq miles of Indian territory annexed during the Sino-Indian War and shows no intention of returning it.

However, China scholars like Dr Rakesh Datta are of the opinion that in the India-Pak-China dynamic, the feasibility of Pakistan being used as a “stooge” by China is far higher. The logic is simple: the possibility of a politically and economically unstable country carrying out operations of such magnitude on a sustained basis with its own meager resources is limited.

“Keeping in view Pakistan’s socio-economic perspective,” Datta wrote in his thesis Beijing, Mind Behind Pak Terrorism, “the country is hard-pressed in terms of economic growth, high inflation, rising debt, increasing poverty, growing unemployment and low literacy. It is, therefore, hard to accept that Pakistan is managing the confrontationist posture against India exclusively, without getting help from outside.”

China and India fought an armed war in 1962. But Beijing has since refrained from launching a frontal attack on its Asian neighbor. However, given India’s geo-strategic primacy and its position as a formidable neighbor and a security threat, Beijing has never failed to maintain a posture as a strategic adversary to its arch rival. Teaming up with Pakistan has further helped it create the synergy to keep India on edge.

(Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist. Email: neetalal@hotmail.com)