Matters in Arunachal Pradesh, especially with militant hand-maidens to politics, have just got a little murkier. On 15 July, security forces arrested a major of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), in the tri-junction area of Assam, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh and recovered weapons and ammunition from his vehicle and, later, his home. There’s been some speculation in security circles that Anok Wangsa, the major, acted on the orders of the I-M boss in the region, Major-General Absalom Rockwang Tangkhul, to order a hit on Arunachal legislator Tirong Aboh.

Aboh, his son, and nine of his entourage, including security personnel, were killed in an ambush on 21 May. The MLA from the National People’s Party (NPP) was attacked near Khonsa, the headquarters of Tirap district, which he represented, with men in combat fatigues spraying his motorcade with bullets. Elections to Arunachal’s assembly were held on 11 April, alongside elections to the state’s two parliamentary constituencies. As it turned out, Aboh defeated Phawang Lowang, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate in Khonsa West constituency. With Aboh’s death, a by-election is merely one of the emerging byplays.

Whatever emerges from Wangsa’s interrogation, his arrest has opened up a Pandora’s box, as this column indicated on 22-23 May (Arunachal ambush calls for speeding up Naga peace talks). A sort of warlordism, as it were, lies at the core of politics in northeast India in general, and Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Assam in particular.

While several rebel groups, mainly based on ethnic politics, attempt to control the intersecting businesses of territory, finance, and politics in various defined ethnic zones, I-M’s writ runs across contiguous Naga areas in these four states. This is despite I-M being in ceasefire since 1997 and engaging in peace talks with the government of India since August 2015.

Indeed, if there are accusations of a truant state in the region and the matter is ingrained in the minds of older generations who have seen deliberate cruelties by the Indian state and several of its agencies from 1950s onwards, then, equally, there are ongoing concerns about rebels having long changed from cause to commerce. I-M, like several other rebel groups in the region, is no stranger to this phenomenon.

Neither is Absalom, I-M’s long-time hammer in the Arunachal-Assam-Nagaland tri-junction area. As a buck lieutenant-colonel, he led the group’s ingress into the Arunachal districts of Tirap and Changlang in 2002-03, strong-arming influence away from arch-rivals, NSCN’s Khaplang or K faction. In 2003, he was widely suspected of being behind the abduction of a businessman in Assam’s Dibrugarh who had refused to pay ‘taxes’.

Absalom also fronted political negotiations in Arunachal’s chaotic 1999-2007 period that saw five shape-shifting governments, including those led by the Congress and the BJP.

In 2012, then a brigadier, Absalom was arrested, and subsequently released—much like current I-M army chief Anthony Shimray, the group’s long-time arms procurer, who was arrested in 2010—in the interest of peace talks. Release hardly proved a deterrent especially in the bizarre reality of ceasefire with the I-M that applies, technically, only to territorial Nagaland.

As with other rebel groups, enforcement is part of I-M’s playbook. Five years ago, nearly to the day, I was driving a borrowed SUV back to Imphal from the strategic border village of Kamjong in hilly Ukhrul district, and had passed Finch Corner, an important tri-junction that links both Ukhrul town and Kamjong to Imphal Valley. Minutes later a vehicle carrying a member of Ukhrul’s autonomous district council was ambushed at Finch Corner. The councillor and his driver were killed. Some Naga insiders I queried attributed the hit to a former I-M army chief. A mix of ignoring diktat and ego was the ergo-factor.

As can be seen with the Aboh episode in Arunachal, besides several other instances this column has regularly recorded over several years, the peace process can sometimes appear to be tragicomic.

Delinking militancy-on-hire from expedient politics in Arunachal, Assam, Manipur, and Nagaland will be as crucial for peace as actually disarming rebels.

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

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