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Executive Summary: NAGA ARMED GROUPS: POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC TENSIONS IN INDIA’S NORTHEAST

Week of Monday, December 27, 2021

Chandi Haripriya Guduru, IFET; Halle Morel, Nageshswarup Shukla, PACOM


Nagaland Administrative and Political Map[1]


Numerous armed insurgent groups have been operating across India’s northeast since the early 1950s, many of which are based in Nagaland fighting for Naga sovereignty.[2] Their reasons for fighting against the Indian central government depend on ethnicity, tribe, historical background, and geopolitics.[3] These groups engage in arms, drug, and gold trafficking along the Indo-Myanmar border and also procure funds through extortion from businesses in the region which they often label as “taxation.”[4] Counterinsurgency legislation such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has come under controversy due to a recent “mistaken identity” case in which Indian Army special forces killed 14 civilians in Nagaland between December 4-5, 2021.[5] Insurgent activities in the area have decreased, likely due to greater intervention by the central government and its agencies.[6] Despite this, the AFSPA will likely undergo major changes to increase the accountability of the Indian armed forces and stabilize the region.


The Indian government declined Naga independence in the early 1950s, leading to the formation of several rebel groups such as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) Isak Muivah, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland’s Khaplang faction (NSCN-K), Naga Federal Government (NFG), and Naga Federal Army (NFA).[7] Naga insurgency caused the enactment of the AFSPA in 1958, which grants “special powers” to the armed forces involved in operations in any region marked as “disturbed areas,” and provides them immunity from prosecution.[8] The AFSPA has likely helped weaken the insurgency in the region compared to the past. However, security forces' impunity likely leads to a lack of civilian cooperation with the Indian government, likely contributing to rebel groups' operationality. The act has likely increased the divide between civilians and security forces in Nagaland. The recent killing of 14 civilians by special forces and the immunity the AFSPA provides very likely create a sense of injustice among Nagaland residents. Public disagreement with the act will likely increase the recruitment pool for insurgent groups, likely increasing their activity in the near future. A sense of trust could likely be restored if the Indian government reforms the AFSPA and increases the accountability of security forces.


Businesses in Nagaland are required to pay multiple “taxes” to as many as 10 different armed groups, including factions of the NSCN.[9] The rebel groups, some of which are involved in weapons and drug trafficking, run a parallel government with organized structures to ensure the functionality of groups fighting for the independent Nagaland cause.[10] Most of the Naga armed groups' funding likely derives from extortion of non-Naga businesses and civilians. These groups likely capitalize on the local Naga population’s regional identity sentiments to secure donations. Regional identity sentiments also likely serve as a recruitment strategy by the rebel groups, enabling the groups’ growth and success. With the more significant intervention of central agencies and the Indian government in the State’s internal affairs, extortion imposed by militants will likely face resistance from businesses and law enforcement authorities.


In March 2018, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested three senior Nagaland government officials for diverting government funds to various rebel groups. The central agency also announced strong evidence that Nagaland government officials passed ₹200-250 million rupees in extorted funds to the NSCN-K from 2012-2016.[11] The involvement of the NIA officials very likely suggests that more Nagaland senior-level government officials may be involved in anti-India actions. The diversion of governmental funds towards rebel groups almost certainly indicates corruption among Nagaland government officials. Officials likely utilize various illicit financial channels and methods, such as creating shell companies or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to divert government funds to the rebel groups. Social and economic underdevelopment in India’s northeast likely plays a role in the region’s illicit economic activities and political conflict. Northeastern underdevelopment likely leads to the involvement of the local population as frontmen of shell companies and NGOs, working on commissions from government officials and rebel groups.


As India tightened security at international airports and seaports to tackle the smuggling of gold, northeast India’s former arms trafficking routes, passing through Nagaland, have been revamped for gold smuggling.[12] The established networks and the remote locations very likely played a significant role in restructuring the former arms trafficking routes into gold smuggling ones. Myanmar’s gold-rich Kachin state, which hosts several insurgent groups, plays a vital role in this gold smuggling channel.[13] The insurgency within Kachin likely sources its revenues through illicitly smuggling gold to India. As a result, illegally-mined gold smuggled by insurgents very likely infiltrates India’s gold market, prolonging the insurgency in Kachin. The Myanmar military, known as Tatmadaw, offers sanctuary to insurgents from northeastern India, including Naga militants, in exchange for supporting Tatmadaw in the fight against anti-coup People’s Defense Forces.[14] The gold smuggling routes are likely also being used for the trafficking of arms and drugs from Myanmar to India, strengthening both the insurgents’ and Tatmadaw’s operational capabilities. The border area with Myanmar will likely experience increased instability and violent clashes with India’s law enforcement, challenging the disruption of smuggling routes, which are likely vital for the insurgents’ and Tatmadaw’s finances.


Indian security forces have relied on the AFSPA to conduct searches, seizures, and attacks to stop threats by rebel groups in Nagaland.[15] However, these powers have almost certainly fostered distrust among residents as they increasingly become collateral damage from attacks while security forces are protected from repercussions under the AFSPA. On December 4, 2021, security forces killed six miners and claimed immunity under the AFSPA, sparking violent protests resulting in eight civilian deaths for a total of 14.[16] Counterinsurgency missions are likely undermined as security forces must divert their resources to handle civilian protests and attacks. Insurgents will likely exploit growing divisions between civilians and security forces by recruiting disgruntled citizens to grow support for ethnic rebellions and aid in illicit activity. Civilian casualties are very likely a result of intelligence failures, including attacking targets without certainty. Civilian cooperation through sharing information on rebel activity could likely improve intelligence effectiveness. However, it is unlikely that civilians will cooperate with security forces due to increased tensions.


Since the AFSPA’s implementation, there have been several attempts to repeal or amend it.[17] However, national security concerns have almost certainly influenced the government’s decision to retain the legislation. After the miners’ deaths and persistent protests by citizens and local governments, the Indian government has instituted a committee to examine a withdrawal of the AFSPA in Nagaland.[18] It is unlikely that the Indian government act will repeal the AFSPA as it supports counterinsurgency efforts. Still, protests will very likely persist without governmental efforts to amend the act, increasing instability in the region. Security forces’ progress in reducing arms trafficking and smuggling will likely allow the government to reduce the severity of the powers within the AFSPA and allow for security forces’ accountability for intelligence failures. Decreasing the powers of the AFSPA and removing the immunity it provides will likely placate Nagaland residents’ discontent, encouraging local authorities to be more tactically and politically involved in national counterinsurgency intelligence efforts, likely increasing the efficacy of counterinsurgency missions.


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[1]Nagaland administrative and political map…with neighbouring countries and border” by Awesome_art_Creation licensed under Shutterstock

[2] Insurgencies of the Northeast explained (Part I), The Financial Express, November 2021, https://www.financialexpress.com/defence/insurgencies-of-the-northeast-explained-part-i/2370987/

[3] Ibid

[4] Smuggling in India Report 2019-20, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, November 2020, https://dri.nic.in/writereaddata/annualreportebook/index.html

[5] Nagaland: 14 civilians killed by forces; soldier dies of injuries as violence erupts, The Indian Express, December 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/nagaland/nagaland-14-civilians-killed-by-forces-soldier-dies-of-injuries-as-violence-erupts-7657872/

[6] Insurgency in North East declined but smuggling rose in five years: Lt Gen Nair, The Economic Times, August 2021, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/insurgency-in-north-east-declined-but-smuggling-rose-in-five-years-lt-gen-nair/articleshow/85686837.cms

[7] The Long History of Naga Insurgency, The Northeast Today, July 2021, https://thenortheasttoday.com/states/nagaland/the-long-history-of-naga-insurgency/cid4361645.htm

[8] Explained: The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) & Why it Inspires Dissent, The Quint, December 2021, https://www.thequint.com/explainers/explained-afspa-or-armed-forces-special-powers-act-why-prompts-dissent#read-more

[9] Are taxes levied by militants legal? Nagaland stands united against extortion by rebel groups, The New Indian Express, September 2021, https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2021/sep/17/are-taxes-leviedby-militants-legal-nagaland-stands-united-against-extortion-by-rebelgroups-2360138.html

[10] Ibid

[11] The bizarre case of rebel funding in Nagaland, Live Mint, March 2018, https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/ZK4aHwBpEfpRWruECqnf9O/The-bizarre-case-of-rebel-funding-in-Nagaland.html

[12] Northeast’s arms smuggling routes now turn golden, The Economic Times, December 2020, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/northeasts-arms-smuggling-routes-now-turn-golden/articleshow/79596414.cms

[13] The ‘Resource War’ in Kachin State, The Diplomat, March 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/03/the-resource-war-in-kachin-state/

[14] Myanmar military joining hands with Indian rebels, Asia Times, December 2021, https://asiatimes.com/2021/12/myanmar-military-joining-hands-with-indian-rebels/

[15] Nagaland adopts resolution demanding repeal of AFSPA, The Indian Express, December 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/nagaland/nagaland-assembly-adopts-resolution-demanding-repeal-of-afspa-7682595/

[16] Nagaland: 14 civilians killed by forces; soldier dies of injuries as violence erupts, The Indian Express, December 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/nagaland/nagaland-14-civilians-killed-by-forces-soldier-dies-of-injuries-as-violence-erupts-7657872/

[17] Explained: The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) & Why it Inspires Dissent, The Quint, December 2021, https://www.thequint.com/explainers/explained-afspa-or-armed-forces-special-powers-act-why-prompts-dissent#read-more

[18] Centre sets up panel to look into withdrawal of AFSPA in Nagaland; report in 45 days, The Indian Express, December 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/nagaland/nagaland-afspa-repeal-centre-panel-amit-shah-7691144/

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