The Indian Army blamed an intelligence failure for Saturday’s tragedy in Nagaland after security forces shot at local coal miners who were regrettably mistaken as militants while being trucked past an Assam Rifles camp. Reports claim that six villagers were killed during that incident. Some of the locals rioted and attacked the security forces, and eight more were killed in response, along with one member of the Assam Rifles. The tragedy transpired against the tense context of the long-awaited Framework Agreement between the central government and rebel forces coming up against new challenges in recent weeks. Everyone was on edge, which contributed to this tragedy.
Some very brief background information is needed to understand better the context in which everything unfolded. Nagaland has been afflicted by one of India’s longest-ever insurgencies aimed at the independence of the local Naga people, some of whose self-proclaimed representatives never acknowledged their territory’s inclusion in post-independence India. They’re fighting to carve out what they call “Nagalim”, which lays claim to territory in several regional states in Northeast India, including disputed Arunachal Pradesh that the Chinese claim as their own and call South Tibet. Previous accusations have been that some fighters receive refuge in the ungovernable Myanmarese border region.
The Framework Agreement, the details of which have never been publicly confirmed, supposedly sought to bridge the many significant differences between each party’s polar opposite positions. Nevertheless, the recent challenges connected with that agreement reportedly concerned the fighters’ continued demand for a separate constitution and flag, which became all the more difficult for the central government to provide after August 2019’s revocation of Article 371 removed the former state of Jammu & Kashmir’s flag and prior autonomous status. It’s therefore understandable in hindsight why their talks ultimately broke down.
That and this weekend’s tragedy occurred against the backdrop of continued Indo-Sino tensions along their disputed frontier, including reports that China constructed a second so-called “village” in Arunachal Pradesh (which Beijing regards as South Tibet). Furthermore, the ongoing domestic instability in Myanmar following the military’s emergency in February has worsened the border security situation. It might have potentially emboldened the Naga fighters who reportedly received refuge there in recent years. Considering all of this, last weekend’s incident will undoubtedly complicate the situation in Northeast India.
All of this is troubling from the perspective of India’s Act East policy of proactively engaging ASEAN. The flagship project of this initiative is the Trilateral Highway with Myanmar and Thailand. It’s thus far failed to live up to its lofty expectations for numerous reasons, with the recent developments that were touched upon in this analysis likely further delaying its full implementation. This doesn’t mean that the Act East policy is doomed, just that it’ll be more challenging to carry out. That could, in turn, make it more difficult for India to compete with China there, especially after the People’s Republic just opened up a new $6 billion high-speed rail link through Laos that’s expected to reach Singapore eventually.
While India might be unable to influence the domestic political-security situation in neighbouring Myanmar and a comprehensive border deal with China remains elusive, the government can still do its utmost to stabilize the situation in Nagaland following this weekend’s tragedy to at least hopefully retain some degree of control over these destabilizing regional events. That’s not to say that the central authorities should capitulate to the Naga fighters’ demands, but just that they must do everything in their power to ensure that this tragedy doesn’t create the pretext for renewing the insurgency there since that worst-case scenario would risk hamstringing its Act East policy.