Home » RN Ravi’s take on China’s factor in india’s North Eastern Insurgency

RN Ravi’s take on China’s factor in india’s North Eastern Insurgency

by Rinku Khumukcham
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By Aheibam Koireng Singh
Assistant Professor
Centre for Manipur Studies, Manipur University

This write-up is based on the webinar on the Role of China in North Eastern Insurgency which was being conducted by the Intellectual Forum of North East (IFNE) at Gauhati dated Friday, 24 July 2020. IFNE is a thinking tank formed in the year 2016 by a group of young dynamic intellectuals with its basic grounded objectives of highlighting the pertinent issues concerning the region of Northeast India. It is also a platform for discussion, debate and for a meaningful discourse inclined in conducting socio economic surveys, various research works, documentations, publications of books, journals, etc. The forum has been conducting various symposiums during its endeavour and exploring and restoring the rich heritage of India and presenting it to the rest of the world by the intellectual of its society is the primary vision.
Insurgency is one very vital issue of the country. And North east India is the most insurgency affected and volatile area next to Kashmir. Analysts have also indicated that most of the militant outfit in the region of Northeast have been quick to transform themselves into purely terrorist entities due to the rapid insurgency activities, many civilians have lost their lives since 1990, China’s support to the outfit in the region have been going on since decades and also has been identified in providing lots of assistance to the insurgent groups and this type of material and moral support has really led to the success of insurgency. In 1970-1990, there was a classical insurgency which has now become silent, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has been totally stopped. There it has changed its new version or phase so it is very essential to understand its new version or new phase in the country.
With the background note cited above being presented by the webinar host, Ms. Rilanjana Talukdar, Shri Ravindra Narayan Ravi, the Hon’ble Governor of Nagaland and former Special Director Intelligence Bureau was introduced as the special guest. RN Ravi was also the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee formed in the year 2014. In the year 2018, he was also appointed as the Deputy National Security Advisor of India. He had played a key role in eradicating the influence of insurgent groups in Nagaland.
RN Ravi: It has been felt by all in the strategic community, within the government, outside the government, the need for better greater understanding of China, the government is trying to invest more in understanding and so is the need from the part of non-government bodies, academia, think tanks also to study China because if it is not done there is a likelihood of doing miscalculation, and miscalculation could be very costly either in terms of resource department or responses. To have a better understanding of China is a necessity. This webinar organised by the IFNE is a very useful initiative which is expected to carry forward. It needs to be done more and more.
China have been assisting insurgency in the North east since a very very long time, then why? China must be having some interest. One way is to look at how it has assisted various insurgent organisations by giving them logistic, tactical, strategic support, etc? How did they do that, how do they carried out? It is important also to know what China’s capabilities are. Even then, it doesn’t answer the basic question why China is interested. So, it is important to understand China’s interest in Northeast. Interest alone is not enough. It is also important to know what China’s capabilities are. That way if effort is made to understand China’s interest and capabilities in Northeast India, then it would be easier to comprehend what China is doing with respect to the insurgents making it a little more comprehensive by touching upon the aspect, the context of China’s interest and capabilities in Northeast which of course insurgency is a part of it, an important subject indeed. There’s no doubt about it. What is China’s interest here? China’s interest in Northeast is integrally linked with China’s interest in India. China looks upon India as a potential regional rival. When Communist took over China Mao Tse Tung took over China through his protracted revolution war it was not a victory of Communism, it was a victory of Chinese nationalism in disguise because prior to that the decadent Chinese empire which had had fallen in 1911, republicans have taken over is very weak, centuries old humiliations China had faced actually shaken the Chinese right from the opium wars the English had waged, other European powers, the subsequent Chinese invasion, they have suffered over a century of humiliation in foreign powers. That humiliation acted as a catalyst to encourage and strengthen the sense of Chinese nationalism. Mao’s People liberation Army and his campaign was not essentially a classical Marxist’s ‘haves’ and ‘Haves nots’ conflict, underpinning of it was in his nationalism. A sense of humiliation which China had suffered for long and humiliation has two aspects. One is it can be demoralising, it can also be creative, it can also trigger force with strong will. That is the curative power of humiliation. That is what Mao built and eventually took off in 1948. When Communist China emerged, its core interest was resurgence of China as a middle kingdom, as a central power with neighbouring countries and states as muscles to pay tribute and remain where they are without much of interference. That was the trait which China had and has even today. The problem is the rise of China which is hegemonistic.
The rise of China which has a dream to be the central power with all the neighbours as the muscles is certainly not to the interest of others. In that dream, India perhaps being the largest neighbour, its objective right from the beginning is to pre-empt rise of India as a regional or global power. And when the objective is to pre-empt the rise of India, it identifies the vulnerabilities, the weaker spots in it. In that contexts, it looks upon Northeast as a vulnerable periphery which is emotionally strange, thanks to the colonial occupation of the region and creation of an isolation mindset. The emotionally strange population and crooked political geography carved down by mischievous partition, whenever think of North east in the strategic community and everyone, “we cannot escape from what we call ‘chicken neck’, ‘Silliguri Corridor’ and all these”. So it accentuates the sense of vulnerability. This crooked political geography and strange population is looked at and upon as an opportunity. The objective of it is to prevent, pre-empt the rise of India. One weaker spot is North-eastern. Then what its objective is in Northeast India. Northeast India has a strange population and in the 1950s-60s-70s, when things were bad, crooked political geography surrounded by hostile East Pakistan and overall scenario was such that it thought that perhaps it could. Its ultimate and ideal objective is to dismember the northeast. But if its ideal objective is not achieved then what is next. Next is to keep India embroiled in itself. If it remains occupied in the major issue of internal stability, it consumes an enormous amount of national wealth and power and resources. That comes in the way of the rise of India. So, China engaged in proxy war what they call as ‘bleed through million cults’. In that context, it has been aiding and abetting insurgencies in northeast. It also has a territorial ambition in northeast. When it comes to Arunachal Pradesh, it claims as its territory. What does it achieve? If the Northeast remains disturbed with internal strife, it makes it easier. This territorial ambition also plays a role. It also adds to the interest of China in Northeast. It also has another interest in northeast. Soon after it occupied possibly conquered Tibet, a lot of Tibetan freedom fighters including guerrilla rebels escaped persecution and came to India though of course Dalai Lama remains a central figure. India accepted them as refugees on humanitarian grounds and never allowed them to have military ambitions, military plans, and military training. His Holiness Dalai Lama was always treated as a respected guest. But China always looked at India with lot of suspicion that perhaps India was playing ‘Tibet Card’. Even before 1962 border war, they have this thought that if you are smart in Tibet, we (China) would be smart in Northeast. As a counter to threats and apprehensions in Tibet used Northeast and later much later when the things have started pulling down and they started realising that all those things are not possible, then the latest turn out to be looked upon Northeast as a market, market for its produce in Southwest China – Yunan and Sichuan province. Because it can be huge market as those areas are relatively less developed in China then other. But they have a lot of potential by which they can export things. So China has a multiple interest in the Northeast in the context of weakening or pre-empting the rise of India.
How does and did it operate in the Northeast? It is operated in proxy as it doesn’t have a direct access, since except Arunachal Pradesh rest of India’s Northeast border doesn’t share with China. In the initial period, beginning when the birth of the Communist China in 1948, it was a rise of aggressively militant nationalist type, that point of time, needs neighbour roads specially in Southeast Asia and Northeast India as an extension and upland of Southeast Asia is well connected is all a part of one geography. China was inspirational to two sets of people. One set of people were disgruntled people in the hills because the hills people were after the British in 1873, the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act 1873 has completely snapped the centuries old socio-cultural and political connect of the hills with the plains. It created a mindset to isolate. Initially that was with the pro-colonial project of evangelisation of the hills. That was a British policy initiated by the British Prime Minister, Henry John Temple. In 1858 British took over India from East India Company. The British parliament took a decision that, “It is said it is not only duty to evangelise it, but it is an imperative of the Empire”. So the hills have to be evangelised, with that the socio-cultural, economic and political connect with the rest especially the plains of the Assam Brahmaputra Valley were to be completely snapped. When the national freedom movement started, the first time when they snapped the ties neighbours become strangers over a period of time because the people of the hills and plains were so well organically connected. They have sociological, economical, matrimonial relations. The hills men would come and cultivate lands in the plains. They used to have a market to exchange goods and products. Whenever the people in the plains came under stress, they took refuge in the hills and vice versa by the hills people also. So, the hills and the plains had an organic connect but they disconnected it completely and turned neighbours as stranger. But after the political nationalist movement began, they turned it into a hostile state by stereotypic them as barbaric and uncivilised. Over a period of time, the hill people lived in total isolation from the rest and after British left, challenges before India was how to integrate those isolated people. And while building the modern Indian state infrastructure, it also came into dialectical conflict with the existing power structure in the hills because of the loose administration by the British as they left them as they were. So traditional power structure came in conflict with that of the modern Indian state. For them success of China, Mao Tse Tung was an inspiration.
There have not been many success stories in the history of insurgency around the world. Invariably insurgencies pitted against a regular state force they lose. There are many a times they do influence the state policies but eventually they don’t became victorious. But China was an exception. There were few other exceptions that happened later like Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and Fidel Castro in Cuba. Mao’s success having a military victory over established state power was a great inspiration. Their strategies, how they carried out became an inspirational model for this ‘strange people’ in the power structure of the hills. They started looking upon them how they did that. Learning from their methods, Mao’s, ‘Red Book’, became an inspirational guideline.
And there were another sets of people mostly in the plains. They were romantic communists. That was at a time when Soviet Russia was on the move, already had a Commintern, Communist International, rise of China, etc. That had a huge romantic appeal to certain set of people. That was the time when from 1948 onwards, the whole world, the whole region of Northeast India, Burma, Malaysia all these led up with Communist uprising. Revolutionary Communist Party of India resorted to large number of assassinations in Bengal and Assam between the periods of 1948 to 51. The rise of radical Communism in Manipur Imphal Valley, rise of Hijam Irawat though he was not a devout Communist his vision to revolt against the established order drew a lot of inspirations. Burmese Communist Party virtually ragged the whole country to armed revolution, guerrilla warfare for a very long time. In Malaysia, at that time it was Malay, when the British left it in 1955-56. Until then 1948 to 55-56 when the British conducted the counter insurgency in Malaysia, it was Malaysia Liberation Army, armed wing of Malaysia Communist Party. The success of Mao was great inspiration to all these disgruntled people around.
As far as Northeast India is concerned, from 1948 till 1964, China must be inspirational for these disgruntled people in the Northeast. There is no evidence of China lending direct assistance in terms of logistics or military wares or so, but it was a great inspiration as it was a great success story of the time. In 1965, there was India-Pakistan War, before that in 1962, India had war with China. At that time, there was only armed Naga movement. They were mostly in East Pakistan. There is no record of going to China until 1964. The 1965 war between India and Pakistan, gave China the opportunity to escalate the situation in Northeast. And then in 1964, there was the first cease fire with the Naga insurgents. In 1963 December, Nagaland state was created. Naga armed insurgency started in 1955, before that the movement of Naga National Council pursued its objective peacefully. Subsequently, some NNC leaders who does not approved of the path of violence as destructive for the Nagas abandoned the NNC and they formed another party, eventually the Naga People’s Convention (NPC) and with over three years period they consolidated the Naga’s opinion and got the Nagaland state. Agreement for that was signed in the year 1960 and 1963 and eventually formed Nagaland state. But undergrounds were not a part of the accord. They were very much enchanted by the possibility of independence inspired greatly by China. In 1964, an attempt was made and ceasefire happened. In 1965, the ceasefire had significant progress and it appears as if there would surely be settlement. At that point of time, Phizo wrote a letter in March 1965 to Naga Army Chief to warn not to have a settlement stating that China is going to attack in the air. They are going to drop ‘hydrogen bomb’ on India. And India is going to be reduced to ashes. If Nagaland remains part of India, Nagaland would be reduced to dust. Such kind of misleading literature was created among the armed rebels by the leaders sitting in London that China is going to destroy it. At that point of time negotiation was with the NNC which is a political organisation, not with the armed wing. Its armed wing rebelled against the political wing taking the stated stance that nothing short of complete independence is not going to be accepted and if they do that they will be treated as traitor and ‘we’ (the armed wing) will take on and continue. That actually led to the failure of the peace exercise. Then towards the end of 1965, the first delegation of Naga rebels went to China and they were welcomed by the Chinese leaders. And thereafter several delegations too went through Yunan via Burma and Tibet via Sikkim for hosting and training the Naga rebels. Subsequently, Mizos were also taken and given training. In between another development happen in this region that was in East Pakistan over the issue of language which had first actually rebelled and Pakistan did not succeed. Pakistan never used Bengali language as the official language of the country and Bengalis were proud of their language. Subsequently election happened and the denial of West Pakistan’s political leader to give power to East Pakistan’s political leaders though the later have won the majority escalated into a liberation war in 1971. In this liberation war that happened, Chinese again invested a lot creating trouble in the Northeast, in Chittagong Hill Tracks, bases were created for rebels, bases were created in Unan province, there were special air operations operating from Chittagong airports to carry the rebels, trainers and equipments. China invested a lot as they took it as another great opportunity to break India by creating so much of disturbances. Pakistani’s also helped as they thought if India remains occupied to its internal disturbances it will not be able to come for the liberation of the Bangladesh. It should not be forgotten that ironically Americans were also there. It was a unique confluence of interest. Adversaries of India, they have come together – Pakistan, China and United States. And at that point of Chinese invested a lot in building the insurgent organisations giving them the capability and a lot of moral and material support. But eventually Bangladesh was liberated. And that liberation of Bangladesh gave a setback to the Chinese dream of dismembering Northeast India. But soon Sheikh Muzibur was assassinated and political change in Bangladesh happened in a way that it again encouraged the Chinese, it remains so until Maoist Maoism though he passed away in 1976. Until 1978, by the time Deng Xiaoping was firmly established, he established his grip over the Chinese administration. That old policy continue but after the arrival of Deng Xiaoping, there was recalibration of policy – main policy, to pre-empt rise of India. And there was no change in it. The change was the recalibration of the involvement in Northeast India. And then they became more discreet. Earlier they made no bones about it. But then they became more discreet. Assistance to the Northeast insurgent was not as in the scale and in the manner as it used to be because thrust was on building China not creating instability in the neighbour it consumes their own resources. Communism in China in whatever way was buried with Mao. Wealth and power became the main inspiration of objective of China under Deng Xiaoping. He didn’t like China to be seen involved in another country’s conflict. However there was again tweak in that in 1990s when India had lot of internal disturbances in Jammu and Kashmir, entire northeast and in the Eastern flank and Western flank and also the Central heartland, Maoist was also very active, they were trying to fish in troubled water. They did that. It also subsided.
From 1948 to 1965, it was inspirational, 1964 to 1978 it was active involvement, from 1978 onwards it became discreet, did not disconnect, did not shun them but it became more discreet in providing assistance to the Northeast insurgents and that continues even today. China’s interest remains what it was. Policy wise, China has undergone recalibrations. Getting the opportunity it will again tweak returning back to what it was doing. It is learning to adjust with rising India and in the process of learning to adjust, it has not given up its larger dream of a middle kingdom being the sole super power in the region later on the global ambition.
What are the capabilities? From 2000 onwards, when the situation in India was very well under control, they started talking about markets, Stilwell Roads, connecting Kunming with Gauhati. But it stills keep looking for the troubled waters. What is their capabilities in North-eastern India today because it doesn’t have any direct access. Its capabilities is only through proxies. Proxies are the insurgent organisations. In the last ten years Northeast has seen remarkable improvements. By all indications with the rise of comprehensive strength of India, the improvement in the strength of India seems irreversible, democratic institutions are taking roots, greater awareness about modern India state infrastructure is taking roots within the people, better connectivity, economic rise of India getting better economic opportunity for the people, all these have improved the situation remarkably. So China’s capability to influence the situation and create the trouble is limited. Some disgruntled elements will try to raise the importance of China, ‘China Bogey’. China’s capability to meddle in the issues of Northeast is hugely reduced. As and when China bogey is asserted, it need not be considered as if it is going to be a major threat. India today is not what it was 20/thirty years back. So what should the stance be which is not only for the Northeast but for the whole of country’s capability grew stronger? There is no substitute. And Prime Minister, Modi’s mission even right from his first term is to make India stronger and stronger. In the entire international geo politics, there is no substitute to strength. As the Greek proverb says, ‘strong do what they can weak suffer what they must’, all the problems of India in the past is because of its own weakness. India have to go strong and that will settle all its issues. In the context of Northeast, strengthening economic and emotional integration bonding with the rest of the country is needed. Lots of damage to the national fabrics have been caused by the British has to be repaired. And a counter insurgency thrust must shift from the military to the police. Most of India’s counter insurgency methods and doctrines were hugely influenced by British counter insurgency operations in Malay. But it being counterproductive have realised over a period of time. So long a colonial power is operating on foreign soil, it’s a different story. But when it comes to dealing with its own people, that formula should be done away with. It has a very limited validity. Even in Nagaland context, earlier tribes and after creation of Nagaland state, the Naga rebels, they were more apprehensive and careful of Naga armed police, not so much of military because military had handicap of intelligence. As a result, when they had intelligence, they operated there were significant collateral damages that give a lot of sympathy to the underground rebels, whereas Nagaland armed police when they operated they did incisive surgical strikes.
Northeast can be made as an economic hub building on its own natural and human resources. And building massive connectivity infrastructure – surface, digital and air is also of crucial importance, still there are large tracks in the region where there is no roads. Area which has no connectivity is out of the reach of the state. Some intangible measures also needs to be taken. First and foremost is detoxification of false history which has taken root in the region. It has replaced the genuine true history. The Northeast has been there since for thousands of years before the British came. Northeast have all those period of organic connect with the rest of India but today it is portrayed as if they are a distinct land, distinct people. So detoxification of history has to be done. And the civilizational connect has to be restored. Just by removing the thin layer of ignorance and false history, the civilizational connect with the rest of India will all be seen and should be restored. At the same it needs to be built on.

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