New Delhi: China has, in recent months, reverted to a time-tested tactic to try and ease India’s pressure on Pakistan: create trouble in Northeast India to divert attention from the India’s western front.
The three attacks on security forces by rebels in the north east over the past three weeks is a clear indication of this. On 19 November , militants belonging to the Paresh Baruah-led faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the S S Khaplang-led faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) attacked soldiers belonging to the 15th battalion of the Kumaon Regiment who were engaged in counter-insurgency operations in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district, which is not far from the Indo-Myanmar border. Three soldiers died in the attack and four were injured.
Exactly a week after that (on 26 November), militants of the United Liberation Front of Western South Asia (ULFWSA) attacked soldiers of the 21 Para (Special Forces), injuring five of them, at Manipur’s Chandel district bordering Myanmar. As the soldiers retaliated, the rebels fled across the international border.
And again, just one week later on 3 December, militants of the ULFA’s Paresh Barua faction and NSCN’s Khaplang faction ambushed a large patrol party of the 16th battalion of the Assam Rifles, killing two soldiers and injuring eight, at Wakka in Arunachal Pradesh’s Longding district bordering Myanmar.
All this has been happening while the nation’s attention has been on the western frontier with Pakistan. And the common factor in all the three attacks was the ULFA faction (known as Ulfa-Independent or ULFA-I) led by Paresh Barua, who is said to be sheltered in a safe-house in Ruili (a small city) in the western part of China’s western Yunnan province. He has been sighted in western China many times and even electronically tracked down to Ruili by Indian intelligence agencies.
Barua and the top leadership of the ULFA, as well as those of many other militant groups of Northeast India, were safely ensconced in Bangladesh during the decades when the military and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) were in power in that country. However, after Awami League under Sheikh Hasina came to power in that country in early 2009, a severe crackdown was launched against the ULFA and other Indian militant outfits. A number of top leaders of the ULFA, including its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, its deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, finance secretary Chitraban Hazarika and foreign secretary Sashadhar Choudhury were nabbed and deported to India.
The training camps and shelters as well as logistics facilities of these outfits were destroyed and thousands of their cadres had to flee Bangladesh, mostly to neighbouring Myanmar. So severe was the crackdown that the ULFA and other militant outfits had to issue a fervent public appeal to the Bangladesh government to stop the crackdown and allow them to stay.
Paresh Barua, who managed to flee Bangladesh before the authorities there could get him, received another major setback in April 2014 when a court in that country sentenced him to death in connection with the April 2004 Chittagong arms haul case.
That arms bust, in which ten truckloads of arms–4,930 different types of sophisticated, mainly AK-series, firearms, 27,020 grenades, 840 rocket launchers, 300 rockets, 2000 grenade launching tubes, 6392 magazines and nearly 11.5 lakh rounds of ammunition–meant for the ULFA was apprehended, dealt a debilitating blow to the ULFA. Had those reached the hands of the ULFA and had they been smuggled into Assam, it would have created mayhem in the state.
What was also important is that all the arms confiscated in Chittagong port were made in China. This is hardly surprising, say experts, who add that the flow of sophisticated weapons and ammunition made in China to rebel groups in the north east and the Maoist terrorists in India continues unabated.
China has, since the mid-1960s, aided Naga and Mizo militants. Hundreds of these militants trekked through Myanmar into China’s Yunnan province in the decade between 1966 and 1976 to receive training in guerilla warfare that Mao’s men had mastered. They also received arms and ammunition from China and returned to wage a bloody insurgency in India’s northeast.
The Pakistanis had already started aiding north east militants and the first batch of 150 Naga rebels trekked to (then) East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) though the plains of Barak Valley in April 1962 (all this has been detailed in Bertil Lintner’s seminal book, Great Game East: India, China And The Struggle For Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier).
Though China officially denies any role in harbouring and aiding Northeast Indian militants, the fact remains that China supplies arms to them. The confessions of a major Thai gunrunner Wuthikorn Naruenartwanich who was extradited to stand trial in India earlier this year has given Indian agencies a rich body of evidence against the Chinese.
Wuthikorn, alias Willy, told his Indian interrogators that he mediated a massive sale deal (worth more than $1.2 million, or Rs 815 lakh) between the NSCN faction led by Isak Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah (which is engaged in peace talks with New Delhi) and China’s state-owned arms industry called Norinco in 2010.
The arms–1000 AK-47 and AK-56 rifles, 50 universal machine guns and as many rocket launchers–were to have been brought in through Cox’s Bazar port in Bangladesh. But the deal fell through with the arrest of the NSCN(IM)’s principal arms procurer Anthony Shimray by India’s NIA in 2010. That China was supplying sophisticated arms from its own factories to the NSCN(IM), which is armed to its teeth anyway, at a time when the rebel outfit is engaged with peace talks with the Government of India, speaks volumes about Beijing’s duplicity and its eagerness to keep the fires alive and burning in India’s restive Northeast. NIA sources say that the NSCN(IM) had planned to sell the China-made rifles and ammunition to other rebel groups in the Northeast and to the Maoist terrorists in Central India, something that China was well aware of and had, in fact, encouraged.
There is a lot of evidence of China encouraging, sheltering, training and arming Northeast militants. In August 2009, a militant belonging to Manipur’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who was captured by Indian security forces gave evidence (photographs, documents etc) of 16 platoons (about 300 men) of the outfit having received arms training in Yunnan and having bought Norinco-made arms.
A year later, the arrest of Rajkumar Meghen alias Sanayaima, the chairperson of the United National Liberation Front(UNLF), another proscribed outfit of Manipur, produced more evidence of China’s sinister role in creating trouble in the Northeast. Meghen, who was hiding in Nepal after being evicted from Bangladesh, told his interrogators that China had specifically tasked his outfit to establish links with the Maoists and channelise Chinese-made arms to them.
Meghen’s arrest was preceded by the nabbing of 18 UNLF operatives from Assam’s capital Guwahati. Laptops captured from them revealed a treasure trove of information about their dealings with China. Letters from Chinese army and intelligence officers asking UNLF to collect and pass on information on location and movement of Indian troops, military establishments and armoured and missile units were retrieved from the laptops. The laptops also revealed that in 2009, a delegation of UNLF leaders had gone to China’s Yunnan province to meet Chinese officials.
Earlier this year, Bangladeshi security forces recovered a huge cache of Chinese arms and ammunition from Sherpur in Mymensingh province bordering Assam. The cache included 2000 anti-aircraft missiles, ammunition, wireless sets and walkie-talkies and were meant for the ULFA (I) led by Paresh Barua. The ULFA was supposed to have kept 150 missiles and sold off the rest to the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) faction led by Songbijit, some Manipur outfits and 200 to the Maoists.