India: ZUF — NSCN-IM — Disruption in the shadow of accords

The unabated violent engagement between these two groups, despite the fact that both of them are engaged in peace talks with the government, clearly highlight the existing deficiencies in the ongoing peace processes with insurgent groups in the region.

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Life in Nagaland - Early Morning tea at Phusachodu Village [ Image Courtesy:]

On December 17, 2023, two active cadres of the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF), Daiguang Gangmei aka Kiakna (21) and Rachunlung Gangmei (25), and one cadre of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), ‘sergeant major’ Ramreikan aka Akan, were killed in a gunfight between ZUF and NSCN-IM at Lamdangmei Village Prayer Mountain under the Khoupum Police station in Noney District of Manipur.

On September 24, 2023, a suspected ZUF cadre, David Gaingamlung Gonmei, was killed and another sustained injury in a gunfight with suspected NSCN-IM cadres at Phoibut Village in the Tupul area of Noney District in Manipur.

On July 28, 2023, two suspected NSCN-IM militants, ‘major’ Alen Sekho and ‘captain’ Angam, were killed and one civilian, identified as Gaitaguang Gangmei, sustained injuries, in firing by suspected ZUF cadres at Rengpang Village under the jurisdiction of Khongsang Police Station in the Noney District of Manipur.

On July 20, 2023, a ‘regional chairman’ of ZUF, Obed Kamei, was killed by suspected NSCN-IM cadres at Dailong Village in the Tamenglong District of Manipur.

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since the formation of ZUF in 2011, there have been a total of 22 violent clashes between the ZUF and the NSCN-IM resulting in 40 fatalities including 18 ZUF cadres, 15 NSCN-IM cadres, another six militants (group identities not established) and one civilian (caught in cross fire). These include four violent clashes between the ZUF and the NSCN-IM resulting in seven fatalities including four ZUF cadres and three NSCN-IM cadres in 2023. Moreover, the ZUF has killed four civilians and two Security Force (SF) personnel. Another 19 ZUF cadres have also been killed – 10 by SF personnel, seven in intra-factional clashes, one by unidentified assailants, and one lynched by villagers in Tamenglong District – between February 25, 2022 and December 22, 2023. There have, thus, been a total of 65 ZUF-linked fatalities.

Two of the most prominent factional clashes (in terms of fatalities) include:

  • September 25, 2012: Six militants were killed and one civilian was wounded in a clash between NSCN-IM and ZUF in the Tamenglong District of Manipur. The identities and factional affiliation of the slain militants remain unconfirmed
  • October 7, 2011: Six NSCN-IM militants were killed and five wounded in a clash with the ZUF at Leishok village in Tamenglong District.

All ZUF-linked fatalities have been reported from two states: Assam (three) and Manipur (62). Significantly, no ZUF linked incident has been reported from Nagaland, so far.

ZUF, a Manipur-based Naga group, was formed on February 25, 2011, when around 10 NSCN-IM cadres, who deserted the group along with arms and ammunition, joined up with some National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) cadres. The outfit also raised an armed wing, the Zeliangrong Tiger Force (ZTF). Jenchui Kamei is the ‘commander-in-chief’ of ZUF.

At the time of its formation, the ZUF claimed that its primary objective was to protect the interests of the Zeliangrong tribe, under the slogan “Zeliangrong Ringtelo” – ‘Long live the Zeliangrong people’. The ZUF pledged, “We will defend the land and resources of the Zeliangrong people, our culture, our historical values, traditional and customary habitats of the Zeliangrong community.” It further stated that ZUF would strive to protect the interests of other minority groups and tribes in the region. Claiming that ZUF’s jurisdiction falls over the ‘Zeliangrong Naga’ inhabited areas of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, it declared, “ZUF shall strive to maintain good relations with other revolutionary movements in the north eastern states.”

On February 25, 2017, ZUF stated,

Our present struggle is not seeking secession from India but we are demanding a common homeland within the Union of India for the fragmented Zeliangrong territory which was divided by the British rulers and continues in independent India… The Zeliangrong United Front is ready for talks with the Government of India provided it recognizes the demand for bringing together the Zeliangrong community scattered across the North-eastern States under a single administrative unit.

Later, on December 27, 2022, a ‘Cessation of Operation’ Agreement was signed between the Central Government, Manipur Government and the ZUF. Under this agreement, the ZUF agreed to give up violence and join the democratic process. A statement from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) noted,

Representatives of the armed group agreed to abjure violence and join the peaceful democratic process as established by the law of the land. The agreement provides for the rehabilitation and resettlement of the armed cadres. A Joint Monitoring Group will be constituted to oversee enforcement of the agreed ground rules.

The UMHA further asserted that the Agreement was a “significant boost to the peace process in Manipur.”

Ironically, just four days after the Agreement was signed, the ZUF faction led by its ‘ministry of information and publicity’ (MPI) in-charge, G. Nguiba, expressed strong condemnation of the complete surrender of arms and cadres by Jenchui Kamei group. A statement released by Neguiba declared that the Zeliangrong movement remained ‘very much alive and moving ahead with renewed zeal in the right direction’, and that ZUF would continue to stand for the cause of the Zeliangrong Homeland, adding, “We will never surrender our cause nor give in to any amount of pressure from within and without.”

On August 11, 2023, a delegation comprising leaders of ZUF (in talks) and other leaders of Zeliangrong tribes met Chief Interlocutor A. K. Mishra in New Delhi, where they discussed various impending issues with the Chief Interlocutor and deliberated on possible solutions. Before that, on April 19, 2023, ZUF and the Government of India (GoI) held the first round of official and political talks in New Delhi.  Both sides agreed to continue the dialogue on the dynamics of the Homeland demand at the earliest.

It is pertinent to recall here that peace talks with NSCN-IM has been going on since 1997 and even after the ‘breakthrough agreement’ of 2015, no clear solution has been achieved.   

The unabated violent engagement between these two groups, despite the fact that both of them are engaged in peace talks with the government, clearly highlight the existing deficiencies in the ongoing peace processes with insurgent groups in the region. Several insurgent groups, though they are engaged in peace talks, retains weapons and continue to operate openly, flaunting the terms of the ground rules agreed upon, and engaging in a wide range of criminal activities, including extortion, drug trafficking, abduction for ransom and weapons’ smuggling, among others.

On the other hand, it is evident that the Government enters into peace agreements on terms that are ambiguous, if not in bad faith, and relies overwhelming on protracting the negotiation process to exhaust the leaderships of the insurgent groups. Moreover, many peace agreements have resulted in beak-away factions rejecting the accords and continuing with violence.

Despite these many contradictions and difficulties, most of the insurgencies in India’s Northeast have been substantially contained. Nevertheless, the underlying problems remain largely un-addressed and an exclusive reliance on such a strategy of fragmentation and exhaustion cannot be relied upon indefinitely, particularly with mounting evidence of poor political management in the region.

Afsara Shaheen

Afsara Shaheen is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, India

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