Alex Waterman is an award-winning expert on conflict in North East India and Research Fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, Hamburg. He recently co-authored a paper with Jaideep Saikia and Edward Newman, Professor, University of Leeds in the leading Journal of Global Security Studies. Dr. Waterman regularly engages in knowledge exchange with Indian, British and American practitioners.
Dr. Alex Waterman spoke to Jaideep Saikia about the present situation in Manipur, the NSCN (IM) and the India-China Boundary issue as it pertains to the Eastern Sector. Excerpts:
Alex Waterman: Your earlier interview with NENews on 3 February 2023 was very well received by readers. Today, we wish to speak with you about the situation in Manipur as also the India-China Boundary issue as it pertains to the Eastern sector and related issues. What according to you is the primary reason for the trouble in Manipur?
Jaideep Saikia: Land! Land stands right at the heart of almost all conflicts in the North East. It is no different in the present conflict that has erupted between the Meiteis and the Kukis in Manipur. People of various hues and denominations are trying to give the ethnic class a communal colour, but that is a flawed explanation. Perched cheek-by-jowl, communities have always been wresting for land. The narrative has always waxed and waned like irregular lunar cycles, but land has always been the primary reason. Manipur with its unusual land laws—including the state’s forest cover—makes it an ideal candidate for such strife. It is sad but friction will continue to come to the fore even if the impossible were to happen.
AW: What is the impossibility that you are referring to at this juncture?
JS: I am referring to political separation of the Kuki people as has been demanded by the ten elected representatives of the Kuki community. In a signed statement dated 12 May 2023, the MLAs have clearly said that “our people can no longer exist under Manipur” and appended their apprehension by stating that “to live amidst the Meitei is as good as death for our people”.
AW: If it is an impossible proposition what according to you should be the way out?
JS: I have written elsewhere that some “breathing space” may be culled by taking recourse to a range of action. The most important recommendation at this point is not to (a) divide the Manipur Police and the administration on social formation lines (b) appointment of a Deputy Chief Minister from the Kuki community (c) re-affirmation of the Government’s faith in the Director General of Police, P. Doungel (who is a Kuki) and restore “operational command” to him (d) passage of a legislation that prevents tribals from acquiring land in the Valley (e) recover the 1000+ arms that have been snatched from the Manipur Police. All out efforts have to be made to recover these at the earliest.
At the same time, the Suspension of Operations (SoO) groups have to be disarmed and active steps should be taken to ensure that they return to their camps. New Delhi is responsible for the SoO and the persons responsible for allowing these groups to retain war-like stores should be made accountable. How did New Delhi permit the renewal of the SoO on 17 February 2023, especially as it has come to light that they were involved in poppy cultivation and drug smuggling? Did not New Delhi have knowledge about such activities by a section of the SoO groups as also about their possessing such a huge arsenal? A complete mockery has been made of every ceasefire in the North East by agencies that are charged with the monitoring of such groups that have come over ground.
Another important aspect that needs to be factored in is the possibility of both the Valley Based Insurgent Groups (VBIGs) such as UNLF, PLA, KYKL, KCP etc as well as Kuki-Naga insurgent groups entering the fray from across the neat clusters in which these organisations are based in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division. The already “sealed” border (as a result of the 1 February 2021 military takeover in Myanmar) should be completely sealed. Ingress by insurgents of both denominations is almost a given: an opportunity that the civil strife has provided belligerents would not be passed over. Caution should be exercised in this regard. This is so because there is a possibility of the Chin National Army joining the fray in support of the Kukis. After all, the Kuki-Chin-Mizo are constituents of the same social formation. It has also been anecdotally reported that China is watching the unfolding situation with great interest. Its affinity with VBIG leaders such as Manohar Mayum (who has replaced Chaoren as Chairman of PLA (Manipur)) should be factored in.
As a matter of fact, reports have already indicated that there has been a “gun-battle” between the proscribed PLA (Manipur) and the 21 Para (Special Forces) of the Indian army on 23 May 2023 in Kamjong district.
Furthermore, New Delhi must also not be led to think that everything would be forgotten and business would be as usual after the passage of a few months. This is the primary problem with New Delhi. History, especially in its Manipur manifestation, has been seen to have repeated itself. Animosities run deep and there is great mistrust between communities of every single denomination. A holistic policy with a sage assemblage of learned people must be empowered to administer the North East, perhaps by creating a North East Security Council.
It is true that that “as the crow flies, (Manipur and the North East) is closer to Hanoi than to New Delhi”. Quirk of nature and polity have determined the geographical distance between centre and periphery to be so. But, the accent should be on constructing proximity to the rest of India and not alienate it by neglecting its growth curve and security. The sensitively placed Manipur with insurgent groups of the state having come into an agreement with the Myanmar army does not augur well. Unfortunate incidents in the past have shown the manner in which the insurgents have targeted both Indian security forces and non-combatants from across Myanmar. I have written in one of my columns that there is complete helplessness when such dastardly attacks take place. I wrote that the managers in New Delhi seem to be content with engineering counterfeit “celluloid accomplishments” that showcase triumph to a gullible electorate. But the culprits have not been brought to justice. I am referring to the 13 November 2021 incident when Col. Viplav of Tripathi, his wife and five year old son were killed. It is a sad commentary of the times. But what seems to be happening is the scape-goating of able officers for the crimes of a Sanatomba—the PLA (Manipur) hit team leader responsible for the Churachandpur attack who rests pretty across the borderlands and in the lap of despicable anti-India clout.
It was expected that when Modi termed the North Eastern expanse as India’s “Ashta Laxmi” (Eight forms of the Goddess of Wealth) that, he had sage thoughts of both security and prosperity for the region. The present situation in Manipur poses itself as an opportunity for Modi and New Delhi. It must not exercise the stratagem of “wearing-out” for the enchanted frontiers, despite the fact that the fifth form of “Ashta Laxmi” is “Dhairya Laxmi” or the “Wealth of Patience”. Patience is all very well, but it must be comprehended that it has run out for a huge section of the Manipuri who has lost every brick that he had laboriously collected, year after year, for the last fifty+ years in order to build a small dwelling for his family of five and himself.
AW: Where do you view the NSCN (IM) dialogue process in light of the breakdown of law and order in Manipur?
JS: I think New Delhi’s hands would be full at this point in time and it would be busy trying to salvage an opening in the present impasse in Manipur. Such a gambit might include some sort of agreement with the Kuki populace. But, I can assure you that the NSCN (IM) is closely watching the unfolding scenario and would seek to make the most of it. Don’t forget that there is no love lost between the Nagas and the Kukis. But Manipur poses a curious picture with even ethnicities criss-crossing and overlapping. I mean there is some puzzlement within Manipur about the social affiliation of say an “Anal”. Is she a Kuki? Or is she a Naga? An academician of substance, Prof. Gangumei Kamei (Kabui) has interestingly termed the “Anal” in his work “Anal: A Transborder Tribe” as “culturally Kuki and politically Naga”. Such a classification only furthers the confusion. There is also the problem pertaining to “Old Kuki” and “New Kuki”.
But notwithstanding the ethnic bewilderments, the fact of the matter is that I continue to hold onto what I said in the Global Order Webinar which you had moderated titled “Rebuilding Trust in the Indo-Naga Peace Process” on 14 March 2022. I wanted a reworking of the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Bill 2021. I am of the opinion that a revised version of the aforesaid bill could redress the long standing inequalities in land purchase rights and present itself as an opportunity to equitably distribute power and lay the foundation for an “Autonomy Plus” deal with the Nagas even as it assuages the concerns of the Valley people. The Webinar can be viewed by going to https://www.globalorder.live/post/rebuilding-trust-in-the-indo-naga-peace-process. I am certain that the powers that be in New Delhi watched the programme in which former Union Home Secretary, G.K. Pillai, Lt Gen (Retd) K. Himalay Singh, you and I participated, but there has unfortunately been no visible movement on the ground as a result of the efforts that went into erecting the Webinar.
AW: Some of the recommendations that were made were sound. Why do you think New Delhi did not accept or even consider any of the recommendation by senior personages who participated in the unique Webinar on 14 March 2022?
JS: It is difficult to say. But I suspect that it is because (a) they think that the mandarins in Raisina Hills knows best and they don’t need any advice and (b) complying with the advice of names that are not in the “family” would be tantamount to loss of face, especially as the Webinar was aired publicly. But I must tell you that counsel proffered in private has been accepted and acted upon. Of course, as usual due credit (not that one is expecting anything) has never been accorded.
AW: Let us come to the India-China boundary issue. You have been writing about the “Line of Amity” in the Kameng Sector. Your idea is original and it has been the subject of much discussion in important circles, especially among the Indian military establishment. But don’t you think the “Line of Amity” would be possible only if China agrees to renew its “East-West Swap” proposal? I mean the fact of the matter is that Beijing keeps shifting goal-posts!
JS: I am quite clear that the “Line of Amity” is possible in a sub-sector of the Kameng Sector. I am referring to the Namka Chu River as the “Ligne Mediane”. The Chinese are atop the Thagla Ridge and the Indian Army are deployed on the southern banks of the Namka Chu River. As there has been no history of intrusion or belligerence in the sub-sector and the Namka Chu lends itself as a elegant natural boundary feature, my contention since the time I participated in a Track II Dialogue with China in 2014 has been that the name “Line of Actual Control” should be renamed as “Line of Amity”. There would be attendant aspects such as partial demilitarisation in the sub-sector. But the most important aspect would be that the border rhetoric would be considerably lessened and an emotional passageway would be opened for the next generation to take forward the boundary talk without the unfortunate baggage of the past.
As for the “East-West Swap” proposal that you are referring to I will restate what I have been speaking and writing about all these years. I must state that if such a “Swap” takes place then the “Line of Amity” would be a fait accompli. In fact, there would be no reason to rename the LAC as the “Line of Amity”. But the trouble is to get the Chinese to revisit the “East-West Swap” proposal.
The most important aspect that needs to be examined at this juncture is (a) why the Chinese went back on the “package proposal”. This about-face needs serious examination along with an analysis of (b) what should henceforth be the Indian stand that would make Beijing revisit and once again offer the East-West Swap proposal?
In order to understand the above it is important to closely study the reasons for which the 15 June 2020 intrusion in Galwan as well as the one in Yangtse on 9 December 2022 took place. I have undertaken a study of both the incidents and have come to the conclusion that the intrusion in Galwan was primarily geared towards messaging (a) the United States that it could not use India as a countervail to China (b) caution India’s neighbours that India cannot be relied upon for their security and most importantly (c) to straitjacket India to its land commitments and from attempting to venture into the maritime domain that the People’s Republic wants to be their sole preserve. It is another matter that the Indian army was able to call Beijing’s bluff and Galwan did not translate into the larger strategic objectives that China sought.
In Yangtse the Chinese objective was different and has to be comprehended in light of the new Chinese “Land Border Law’ which came into effect from 1 January 2022. I am of the opinion that Beijing is constructing a “Second Great Wall of China” and is consolidating its land boundaries. Walls, it must be understood, are built to keep away invaders. The Great Wall of China was constructed to stave off invasive attempts by nomadic hordes from the Eurasian Steppe. Therefore, the Great Wall of China—constructed from 7th Century BC—is for fortification. But it also implies that China would not “cross the wall” onto the other side. Indeed, therein lies the reason for the enactment of the “Land Border Law”. But in the bid to seek correct consolidation, China wants escarpments which would constitute its “Second Great Wall”. Yangtse is an eyesore for the PLA. The elevated position in which the Indian army stands is an unacceptable platform for the fortification China seeks. Hence the attempt to occupy the spur on the night of 9 December 2022.
But the most important question before the Indian state is how to get China to resurrect its “East-West Swap” proposal. Serious analysis states that Beijing has to be forced into it by showcasing India’s prowess. However, the power differential between India and China is vast and it would not be possible for India to catch up with China’s economic or military might. The answer, therefore, is only in India creating deft moves that forces China to acknowledge India’s aggressive moves in global fora. Quad, entering into military alliances with China’s adversaries and conducting exercises such as “Exercise Malabar” are good openings. The last Indo-US “Yudh Abhyas” conducted in Uttarakhand’s Auli in November 2022 rattled Beijing, and over two decades ago (2002), during my visit to China, Think Tank leaders in Beijing told me that they were very uneasy about India aligning herself with countries such as the United States. I countered by querying as to why China was supporting India’s arch enemy, Pakistan. The answer was “Oh, never mind Pakistan. India and China should befriend each other on their own terms. Pakistan must not be allowed to come between two brothers”. It was obvious that India’s proximity with China’s rivals perturbs Beijing. The stratagem that India should adopt, therefore, be to build a “position of strength” by exploiting China’s Achilles Heel: her nervousness as a result of India coming into alliances with its opponents. This is particularly so at this time when China braces herself for a Taiwan scenario. The “position of strength” that would be garnered should accompany “Track II” level overtures that must also forcefully suggest Chinese revisitation of the “East-West Swap” of 1960 and 1979. It must become the “Indian Way” to advantage herself by arraying careful “chess pathways”.
AW: Do you feel that the frontiers with China in the Eastern Sector are secured at present?
JS: The present military leadership in the Eastern theatre is in capable hands. It is perhaps this aspect which would be one of the happy takeaways from an otherwise depressing scenario in the North East of present. I must also add that the manner in which the Indian army and the Assam Rifles have risen to the occasion in Manipur has been exemplary.
AW: Your name has been making the rounds as North East India’s first National Security Adviser. What do you have to say to such remarks?
JS: The only time I heard about it was when I was felicitated in my ancestral village (Jalukgaon in Sibsagar District of Assam) on the occasion of the Assamese New Year (15 April 2023). But I think it was more out of the people’s love and affection for me rather than anything else. The fact that the mention was made in the precincts of the Bornamghar (central place of worship for the Vaishnavites) showcases that it was more by way of benediction and hope that I would one day live up to the aspirations the people of my homeland harbour for me.
However it must be said that the Indian system of national security management is very different from that of countries such as the United States. In India it has almost become the birthright of people from the Indian Foreign Service, the Indian Administrative and the Indian Police Service to be appointed to such a high national security position. I have written elsewhere that even a competent Indian armed forces officer may not be considered for the post of India’s National Security Adviser, not to speak of lowly “conflict theorists”.
A person who possesses the disposition of Jake Sullivan—the 47 year old lawyer and NSA to the President of the United States—would never be considered for NSAship in India’s present set-up. Such an appointment would necessitate a “Revolution in National Security Management” and, of course, a ground swell of opinion among the Indian intelligentsia that India needs to jettison archaic aspects of governance that it continues to toy around with.
AW: But what according to you should be the essential criterion/ability/aptitude/competence for such a position? After all, the NSA has to be both a top specialist in internal and external security including one who has a knack for negotiations with India’s adversaries including the Chinese?
JS: (a) Sound comprehension backed by ground knowledge of India’s national security imperatives (b) Vision of a strong India with a clear blueprint that can be acted upon and realised in real time (c) Non-partisan outlook coupled with impeccable integrity and clarity that national security is not subservient to a political ideology (d) ability to recognise the faultlines before they become unmanageable (e) intellectual capacity to cobble an iron-clad and consistent doctrine for India’s national security including counter terrorism (e) not straitjacketed in a past that refuses to permit “out-of-the-box” solutions including international negotiation that would usher in peace for India and (e) be a reliable team leader who leads by example and commands the respect of the entire national security set-up of the country—in other words, although he is not expected to be omniscient, his writ pertaining to national security of India (which would have been arrived at after great deliberation and discussion with peers) must not have opposing views that hurt the country’s image inside and outside India.
Despite the fact that the brief of an NSA is only to proffer advice to the chief executive of the nation, a person who is appointed to such a position has to, in my opinion, be endowed with the above qualities.