14 May 2019
Monyakshu, Near Nagaland-Myanmar Border
Vinayak Barua sat idly in his old Gypsy while he waited for his contact. The meeting was supposed to take place at s 21:30, late enough for most of the village to start making preparations for a good night’s sleep and not late enough for people to think twice about a neighbour going out for an after-dinner walk. It was already 15 minutes past the scheduled time and Barua was tempted to make a phone call to check what was the hold up. OPSEC (Operations Security) policies dictated that he’d leave the area within the next 15 minutes if his contact didn’t arrive in time. So he became more anxious with each passing minute.
The man he was waiting for used just a single name, Khekaho. He was a middle-level over-ground worker in National Naga Freedom Council, one of the many militant groups operating across north-eastern states of India. Some of those organisations started out as a sign of protest by the locals against the slow progress in the region. Few of those were tribe- based groups that started out due to their real or imagined grievances against another tribe and people considered as outsiders in the region. Many of these groups were mostly political and had little interest in violence for the sake of it. Quite a few of them were financed by Christian missionaries who used the tribal and ethnic tensions to their own advantage.
Then there were a few ragtag bunches of wannabe gangsters and petty criminals who named their groups using words like ‘freedom’ or ‘republic’ to sound cool and add an air of legitimacy to their business of extortion, drugs, theft, robbery and murder.
Intelligence agencies kept a tab on all of them for various reasons like political alliances, local business interests or for just maintaining peace.. Leverage used by the security agencies was utilised often to shift loyalties in order to bring a certain political party in or out of power, and ultimately to keep any one entity from becoming too powerful.
An even smaller number were groups like NNFC that were different from the rest. Financed by enemy nations, they existed to keep the flames of violence and instability alive in the region. Their recruits would join them for various reasons ranging from bitterness towards the government, money or desire for a separate nation or autonomy. The majority were motivated and trained well in guerilla warfare and intelligence gathering. But they were not big or armed enough to cause serious disruption to normal life like muslim terrorists in Kashmir. But their occasional actions like ambushes of small parties of soldiers, threats and extortion kept the Indian security apparatus on its toes.
It had been like this for decades. Groups like NNFC would come and ago. Most of them operated for a few years before dying out for reasons such as lack of leadership, members’ desire to return to normal life or the surmounting pressure by security agencies.. The complex tribe-based social structure in Nagaland and nearby states meant that maintaining a common ground and unity in a big organisation was never easy. Even NNFC was one of the splinter groups from another violent group, the Nagalim Socialist Council (NSC). Itt had disbanded in 1993, after the majority of leadership and cadres surrendered to go back to a non-violent civilian life.
The current head of NNFC was Nuzota Swuro who commanded the loyalty of a large faction in NSC. Some members of this faction had suddenly disappeared a few days before the disbandment was formally announced. Intelligence reports indicated they had gone to Myanmar and China, both hosts to numerous training and shelter camps for these militant groups. They had trickled back into India over the few years along with a significant amount of modern weapons and training.. Over the next 15 years, NNFC became the biggest and most dangerous militant group in the north-east with almost a paramilitary-like structure. They had training camps and supply pads in China, Myanmar and Bangladesh which were mostly out of reach from Indian defence forces and intelligence agencies. Ill-equipped security forces of Myanmar and Bangladesh had little interest and no resources to act against the terrorists hiding in deep jungles who rarely, if ever, operated against their interests.
They raised some funds from extortion, drugs and illegal smuggling. But the major source of their funding, weapons and training was China. All of their top leadership had spent some time in Chinese training camps at one time or the other. After Swuro’s death, his deputy Khochero Elias took charge of the group. Unlike his predecessor, he was not content with being a glorified mafia boss and had increased the magnitude of violent crimes. Within a year of his reign, , there was a 30% increase in the civilian murders, attacks on the police and the army too. Several group members were caught or killed by security agencies but it only marginally affected the activities of NNFC.
Another thing that concerned Indian authorities was the sophistication of weapons and tactics employed by the group., Earlier,the militants used old Chinese AKs, hunting rifles, occasional grenades, low-quality explosives and other weapons smuggled in from neighbouring countries. But after Elias took over, they got their hands on better weapons and high-grade explosives for their acts of sabotage. Their tactics had also improved significantly which pointed to increased Chinese involvement.
Indian security agencies responded to the increased threat and provocations as quickly they could. The new regime in the centre had given local intelligence and counter-insurgency units more freedom, funds, and they had justified the faith put in them. Increased cooperation and improved relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar had helped too. Using carrot and stick policies, India had managed to demolish several NNFC bases in the two countries and apprehended or killed key members of the militant group.
Loosened purse strings and more freedom meant that ground-level intelligence officers like Barua could cultivate more sources and gather better intelligence. Unlike most of his newer recruits, Khekaho was one of the older and more reliable ones. He was involved in taking care of NNFC’s finances and thus had fairly good knowledge of the group’s inner workings. His intelligence had always been accurate and had helped the IB counter NNFC influence and defuse their operations a number of times before. Usually, it was Barua who called for meetings, but Khekaho had contacted him this time and promised something big. So Barua was a bit more forgiving and willing to wait even at the risk of violating the usual OPSEC.
There was a single ring on Barua’s mobile phone signalling Khekaho’s arrival. Barua got out of his Gypsy and walked to the tree line to find his Naga informant chewing supari nonchalantly. He nodded at Barua and spat out the well-chewed supari before saying, “Sorry, got held up at the house by children.”
Barua considered asking him about the details and then decided against it, “Staying on time is essential for the safety of both of us, Khe.”
“I know, I know. But it was unavoidable. Have I ever let you down before, eh?.” Khekaho grinned apologetically and continued. “What I have for you this time should more than make up for this long wait. It’s about your long lost friend, Kivigho Chishi.”
Chishi was considered by many to be the backbone of NNFC due to his role in arranging finances and weapons for the militant group. He had been arrested once as a lower level operative in 1999 and was sentenced to three years in jail. After his release, he kept a low profile and spent a few years in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.. But he had suddenly vanished from the surveillance network and there were occasional reports of his sightings in Bangladesh. Multiple intelligence sources confirmed he had joined hands with local muslim terrorist organisations in order to smuggle weapons for them as well as terrorist groups in India in addition to the NNFC.
After increased cooperation between Indian and Bangladeshi intelligence agencies, he vanished again two years back and had not been heard of since then.
Barua’s ears perked up upon hearing the name but he feigned disinterest, “What about him?”
“Do you know where he is now and what he is doing?”
“Come on Khe,” Barua sighed, “Enough with the games.”
Khekaho spat out the remaining supari from his mouth and lowered his voice as if wary of someone eavesdropping, “He is in Bangkok right now finalising shipping for a huge consignment of weapons. Elias’s people transferred 20 lakh to a Thai hawala guy last week to pay for this. There was perhaps more, but I don’t know how much.”
Hawala/Hundi is an informal and illegal way of transferring money in certain parts of the world in which a person can transfer money to someone else through an intermediary without any involvement from banks or legal financial channels. Criminals often use this system to evade tracking by authorities.
“20 lakh isn’t much for weapons.” Barua seemed unimpressed.
“This amount is just for the “shipping” of one consignment. You didn’t hear me right. Here is the consignment list. Read it when you get back, don’t light up anything here. I don’t want neighbours to know of my nocturnal walks. ” Khekaho handed him a handwritten slip of paper and looked at Barua expectantly.
It was quite dark but Barua could guess that the expression on Khekaho’s face would be that of expecting some payment. But he was not going to give away money just like that. “What’s in the consignment?”
“Consignments actually, three from what I know so far. Two will be on ships from Bangkok, one for Sonadia in Bangladesh and the second for Sittwe in Myanmar in the third week of May. That one will directly come from either Zhuhai or Shantou. I don’t know about the dates or destination or type or the names of the ships. You’ll have to find that out for yourself.
And before you pay me, let me tell you about some of the weapons in the consignment, right? 400 Kalashnikovs with 1.2 lakh rounds, 60 RPGs with 110 rockets, 180 pistols with 10 thousand rounds, 500 grenades, 450 kilos of plastic explosives, 30 electric detonators and there are some pills, light machine guns, grenade launchers and mortars too, but I don’t remember the quantity. The paper I gave you has them all and some more.”
Since we are such old friends, I’ve scribbled down the phone number for one of the hawala guys that Elias used. All you have to do now is, well… do whatever you James Bonds do.”
Barua stared at the slip of paper in his hand trying to read it in the dark, and said without looking up, “This consignment of weapons is enough to fight a full-fledged war for weeks and should cost tens of crores. How reliable is this information and who is paying for it?”
Khekaho chuckled, “I’m not that big of a fish Barua sahab to know all this. I just give you what I know. Nothing more, nothing less. Who paid for all this shouldn’t be difficult for you to find out. But I absolutely have to go now. My wife thinks I’m having an affair.”
“Well, you are not that good looking at this age to have another affair.” Barua took out an envelope and handed it over. “The usual. If this information is correct, then more next time we meet.”
Khekaho pocketed the envelope and both men shook hands to leave. Barua had tried to play it cool but he felt excitement he had not felt in years. If Khekaho was correct, they had the chance to deal a huge, if not a finishing blow to NNFC.