Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Arunachal ambush calls for speeding up Naga peace talks

The killing of Arunachal Pradesh legislator Tirong Aboh, his son, and nine of his entourage, including security personnel, in an ambush on 21 May, will likely open a Pandora’s box. The incumbent MLA from National People’s Party (NPP) was attacked near Khonsa, the headquarters of Tirap district, which he represents, when men in combat fatigues sprayed Aboh’s motorcade with bullets. Elections to Arunachal’s assembly were held on 11 April, alongside elections to the state’s two parliamentary constituencies.

Indian media unequivocally blamed “suspected" NSCN (I-M) militants, referring to the largest Naga rebel group, National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah). Aboh hadn’t had a pleasant relationship with this group in an area that is also contested by the Khaplang faction of NSCN, which continues to be at war with Indian security forces. NSCN (I-M) is in peace talks with the Indian government.

In contrast, media in Nagaland was careful to not tag any particular faction of NSCN, papering over the incident with a general reference to “NSCN". Indeed, besides the Khaplang of K faction and I-M, there’s also the Reformation or R faction, and the NK or Neopao-Kitovi faction—the latter two are also in peace talks with the government.

So, who killed Tirong Aboh?

Thus far, K has denied any hand in the matter, although there is slim speculation that it could be a fightback: K has in the past month been hammered by Myanmar’s army, the Tatmadaw, and seen its bases overrun. K believes it to be a squeeze induced by India’s diplomatic overture to bring this belligerent faction to heel, if not back to ceasefire.

Moreover, internal dissent led to K’s chief Khango Konyak being removed in 2018, and his place claimed by a nephew of S.S. Khaplang, the K in the faction’s name who died in 2017.

Konyak has since moved to India with loyal cadres and sued for peace—his faction is now designated NSCN (K-Khango).

But such dynamics don’t necessarily explain the hit on Aboh. To turn the lens on I-M is easy on account of the faction’s record of animosity with Aboh and its proven reputation for throwing its weight around in Naga homelands. These include Nagaland, contiguous Naga homelands in Manipur and Assam, and the districts of Tirap and Changlang in Arunachal, which wrap around the eastern extremity of Assam. Both districts have Myanmar to their east and Assam to their west. Tirap has to its south the Nagaland district of Mon.

As in other regions, I-M has fought pitched battles with other Naga rebel groups to retain territory and influence in Tirap and Changlang. This column has also noted I-M-sanctioned assassinations in Manipur, for instance—if not sanctioned by the group’s collective leadership, then certainly by a runaway army chief of the faction. Bizarrely, I-M, like other Naga groups in ceasefire, is armed to the teeth and actively recruits. It runs a parallel administration. It freely interferes in elections in Naga homelands. Its blessings are as much a factor for a candidate’s chances as party affiliation and popular mandate. An I-M hit on Aboh would therefore be in character, especially with a record of bad blood between them.

NSCN-oriented theories, however, discount the intense political powerplays typical in Arunachal. It’s pertinent to recall how a comfortably elected Congress government in 2014 had, by 2016, been transformed into a government led by the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP). NPP president Conrad Sangma, chief minister of Meghalaya and an ally of the BJP in Arunachal, has, since Aboh’s assassination, burned the phone lines to New Delhi. NPP is also an ally of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, and is in a crucial coalition with a BJP-led government in Manipur. From all accounts, Sangma is asking hard questions about Aboh’s death.

The murkiness surrounding the incident should clear in the next several days, but a couple of things are already clear. If ever there is a reason to force the pace of the Naga peace process and disarm rebels, this is it. And, of course, repairing Arunachal’s broken house.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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