The Chinese state media’s threat had laid bare a truth wrapped in many layers of deniability in the past – links between North-East insurgent groups and Beijing.
An ambush in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tirap sector that led to the death of an Assam Rifles soldier on Tuesday has put the spotlight back on China’s role to fuel the insurgency in the northeast. Tuesday’s attack by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) came a week after China’s propaganda arm warned the Narendra Modi government against signing a much-speculated trade pact with Taiwan, threatening that Beijing could retaliate by supporting North-East separatists and stop recognising Sikkim as a part of India.
Indian security officials said the timing of the attack by the NSCN-I-M, which has had a long history of links with the Chinese state actors, was mostly probably a coincidence but the Chinese state media’s threat had laid bare a truth wrapped in many layers of deniability in the past – links between North-East insurgent groups and Beijing.
Although the links between Naga and Manipur insurgents to elements in the Chinese establishment date back to much before the 1971 war, the 1975 Shillong Accord between Government of India and Naga National Council was opposed by leaders such as SS Khaplang and Thuingaleng Muivah, who were then called the China Return Gang. Together, Khaplang and Muivah formed the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) in 1980. They parted ways eight years later in 1988 to set up their own outfits; Muivah formed the NSCN (I-M) faction along with Isak Chishi Swu while Khaplang called his faction NSCN (K).
To be sure, the NSCN (I-M), which is currently in talks with the government for resolution of the Naga issue, maintains that it does not have any links to the Chinese government. This claim, however, has been furiously contested by security officials and independent experts.
Like Swedish-born northeast expert Bertil Lintner who, in his 2016 book “Great Game East: India, China and the struggle for Asia’s most volatile frontier”, documented how the leadership of first, the NSCN (I-M), and later Manipur’s People’s Liberation Army, were feted by the Chinese leadership for years. NSCN (I-M) co-founder Isak Chishi Swu, who died in 2016, had last made a quiet trip to Beijing as late as 2009.
Nearly 15 years earlier, a top leader of insurgent group United Liberation Front of Asom Lohit Deuri had given security agencies graphic details of how unmarked Chinese weapons were transferred from Chinese ships to Bangladeshi dhow on the high seas and brought to India’s north-east, particularly Mizoram via land route during the Indo-Myanmar joint crackdown in the mid-nineties, codenamed Operation Golden Bird. Deuri, who belonged to the Paresh Barua group now called ULFA Independent, surrendered in 2000.
The Chinese link with north-eastern groups was raised by Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon with State councillor Dai Bingguo at the 15th India-China Special Representative talks in January 2012. Dai totally denied the Chinese involvement and instead accused India of training and funding Tibetan insurgents against China.
One of India’s most-senior experts on the north-east insurgency said the Chinese links with insurgent groups often used Pakistani deep state’s links in Bangladesh and the region. “But it is common knowledge that China wants to keep the pot boiling for India in the north-east with calibrated escalation,” added another top north-east expert in the national security system.
The Chinese propaganda machine just spelt out the truth.