Dialogue  April-June, 2006, Volume 7  No. 4


North-East Scan

Of  Ambiguous Peace Dialogues

Patricia Mukhim

The NSCN(IM) and Government of India have engaged in the longest peace dialogue in the history of India’s North East . Following the Naga insurgency several other groups have taken up arms as a means of protesting state inadequacies. Others have adopted the path of violence to settle scores for what they perceive as the failure of the nation-state to understand their special needs. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) which wreaked violence for almost twenty years appears to have reached a threshold. Its top leaders are well ensconced in the comfort zone of money and business in neighbouring Bangladesh and other foreign countries. Perhaps there is also a resigned acceptance that it is well nigh impossible to carry forward the struggle without the active support of every Assamese.

Someone has rightly remarked that only the deluded followers of Trotsky deceive themselves with the utopia of permanent revolutions. History testifies that every revolution has only a limited life span, beyond which it becomes unsustainable. The best example of a revolution that is based on a focused ideology of overthrowing monarchy and ushering in democracy is the Maoist movement of Nepal. Other revolutions, particularly those in India’s North East have become movements where ideology is hijacked by greed and where extortion rackets threaten to dislocate any kind of economic and social initiatives both of which are fundamental to human existence.

Whether it is Assam, Nagaland, Manipur or Meghalaya, governments have escaped scrutiny and accountability because they have been able to attribute their own failure to govern to the climate of insurgency/militancy. All of the above named are examples of failed states where development projects take one or two decades to be completed. Methods of accountability have not been built into the system of financing. Militancy has aided and abetted corruption because the means and ends adopted by militant groups themselves are devious. Indirectly, therefore insurgency has helped to promote economic elitism where huge chunks of development funds actually reach the pockets of a few politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen with insurgents getting their cut out of every development department.

 No wonder there is a vested interest in keeping insurgency alive in the region. Recently, the NSCN (K) claimed to have given Rs 10 crores to Manipur Chief Minister, Mr Ibobi Singh. Although there stiff denials from latter and also the counter allegation that Mulatano the NSCN (K) functionary is simply shooting hot air, the allegations need to be put through the scanner. The fact is that politicians will do anything to stay alive. That includes buying votes and then having been elected, buying allegiance from different coalition partners. Non-state actors as the insurgents are called are used to obtain quiet acquiescence from the more obstinate legislators.

In North East India, elections have always meant massive spending. Armed groups are  used to extract forced consent from people to vote for a particular party. Elections are not free nor fair. Parliamentary democracy in the North East has always been established under the threat of guns. Armed groups naturally demand their pound of flesh once the party of their choice forms the government.

 It is no longer any secret that politicians pay the underground groups for their services Over and above that the militants also earn their regular income from taxing the people. The constitutionally elected government has never raised its voice against this double taxation method. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Nagaland where the public have to pay taxes to the NSCN (IM) and (K) factions. Over and above that they are also taxed by the government in the form of sales tax etc. Whereas in the case of constitutionally elected governments, people can use the Right to Information Act to access information on how public money is spent, there is no such system of accountability as far as underground groups are concerned. Not only do people pay taxes to non-state actors, but the business community is regularly fleeced. Ironically, tribals are exempted from paying income tax in a constitutionally elected set-up, but they are under compulsion to pay taxes to underground outfits. Yet no one has the right to question how their taxes are being used. If anyone dares to seek accountability, he/she will immediately be silenced.

 In such a scenario, it would seem that the Government of India’s (GOI’s) actions are out of sync with democratic ethos. Before talking to any militant group, GOI should have insisted that the groups disband their parallel governments and their militia. They should be categorically told to end the gun culture that they have initiated and sustained through extortion and illegal taxation. That none of that has happened in Nagaland and people continue to be taxed and the business community grossly extorted, shows that there is something very wrong somewhere. Either GOI does not have the energy to enforce its own rules, if it does make any, and therefore thinks it is better to allow the status quo to continue. Or there is a quid pro quo that militant groups will continue their extortion spree because they need to maintain the militia and the extravagant lifestyles of their leaders abroad. This is rather at odds with is expected from a constitutional authority which has a mammoth military power at its disposal.

 While we may disagree with the use of state force, we must also admit that extra-constitutional behavior which spawns violence, needs to be contained. The life and liberty of the common man must be secured and it is the duty of the state to ensure that protection. As long as militants are armed to the teeth and continue to unleash violence, the state too must respond with the use of force. Otherwise the life and liberty of the common man is at stake. Merely because there are on-going peace talks between GOI and different armed groups it does not mean that the state should abdicate its role as the security provider. But this is what has happened in Nagaland and Assam.

 Turf wars between the two factions of the NSCN in Nagaland has claimed more lives than the insurgency itself. Yet the Government of Nagaland looks the other way. If the security forces were to commit similar crimes the Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) would have built a water tight case and taken their grouse to the United  Nations. The double-standards adopted are rather confusing for the common man to understand. Human life and dignity are non-negotiable entities. No human can play God, not especially with a slogan like, ‘Nagaland for Christ’.

The series of blasts in Assam in the last forthnight has claimed several lives. Although protagonists of the ULFA would like to explain away the colossal crime as a handiwork of forces inimical to the peace talks, such explanations do not hold water. To a dispassionate political observer the ULFA action can be interpreted as a demonstration of the outfit’s fire power. It is a subtle warning to GOI that the outfit may be wanting to talk peace but it still has the capability to strike terror, so ‘take us seriously’. For the People’s Consultative Group (PCG) the blasts are a slap on their face. On what grounds does the PCG negotiate peace when one party in the conflict is yet unwilling to disarm. Peace dialogues involve a certain amount of vulnerability on both sides. If ULFA is loath to become vulnerable we can surmise that the outfit does not even trust the PCG which is negotiating peace on its behalf. 

 Peace dialogues should not be allowed to become static or to degenerate into rhetoric. The process is dynamic and requires intelligent analysis and handling. In the interim, whatever law and order problems are created by the outfit must not be handled with kid gloves. Bomb blasts and gunfire which kill and maim are an offence against the state and must be treated as such. Merely because there are on-going peace talks with any group, does not mean that the state has lost its authority to act. What is important at this juncture is utmost vigilance from civil society which should pressurize the State to identify and unmask the agents of terror. Ambiguity is the biggest enemy of peace.

Churches’ Response to Conflict

Patricia Mukhim

 In India’s North Eastern frontier and more so in the predominantly tribal states like Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya, the church has played a key role in shaping the world view of its adherents. Tribes have abandoned many of their primordial values to adapt and assimilate what they have been told is a more progressive faith divorced from superstitions and the worship of nature and of deities. In their enthusiasm to imbibe the values of Christianity the tribes have somehow jettisoned their priceless value systems which are based on a deep respect for truth, justice, compassion and an attitude of mutual helpfulness. Also left behind in the dustbin of human history is the respect for human life and all that it symbolizes. There is a general aversion for hard but an unceasing desire to possess all the good things of life.

 The negatives are what have created a muddle in our present societies. They have caused  a spiritual vacuum even as the race towards materialism and creature comforts is taking a frenetic pace. Since the human person is not just all flesh but encompasses the spiritual and mental as well, he is very often unwillingly drawn into periods of introspection. This reflection causes a kind of spiritual spasm that twitches at the soul and the conscience. An inner conflict like a raging storm begins to torment our souls. If we have time to listen to our conscience and unravel the mysterious, muddled thoughts the result would be a better human being. Sadly many of us are afraid of silence. Nor are we ready to disentangle the spiritual knots for fear that we might have to face up to some of the harsh realities of our negative actions. As a result we shut up that still small voice before it becomes too jarring.

 Moral science lessons we learnt in our younger days says that the still small voice is our conscience telling us to shun the path of cruelty and criminality and to do what it right. It guides us on the path of reason and of humaneness. That voice is not the exclusive brand equity of Christians alone. Every human person possesses it. But whether every person hearkens to that voice is another matter. The pursuit of wealth and ‘happiness’(almost as if wealth is equal to happiness) somehow detracts us from daily introspection which is integral to our holistic development as wholesome human beings.

 Mahatma Gandhi had a daily schedule of evening devotions where he would devoutly reflect on his actions throughout the day. Perhaps that is what gave the Mahatma strength to shun political ambition and to reflect instead on social liberties such as the emancipation of dalits and others who were at the lower rung of the social ladder. Iconoclasts, and there are many in this new age, would pooh-pooh about such ideas. But the fact of the matter is that all the new age gurus including those with a huge following like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar have always stressed on meditation as an antidote to the poison that we accumulate in our daily interface with the world around us and with the conflict within our inner selves.         

 Introspection involves not just a recognition of our sinful natures but also of making reparations for the wrongs we have committed. A thought that often comes to mind is whether Christians do have enough time for introspection or whether church services have become noisy, verbose affairs that do not convict the sinner but are instead palliatives to the troubled conscience. How else does one explain the fratricidal killing among the Nagas when every militant camp has a regular ritual of prayers, Bible reading and exhortations. Christians are often very condescending towards others who do not have their faith. Non believers are called gentiles. The more supercilious rightists would even label non-Christians as ‘idol worshippers’ who are doomed to hell.

 With that kind of argument you would think that Bible thumping preachers would be shaken up at the number of murders that happen in Nagaland on a daily basis. You would expect the Church to be indignant and to protest and consider some kind of positive action against this tendency to cheapen human life to that of a chicken. But the church seems to have lost its voice of prophecy. Are church leaders also afraid of reprisals from one or other militant camp? Or is the church indirectly aligned with one militant group and therefore it acquiesces with what that group does for fear of offending it? If that be so can the church still call itself the united body of Christ?

 Christianity is not a social club where people gather because of the need to belong and because they need a social status and in most cases because they want a decent grave for themselves or their relatives’ dead bodies. Most of the wrongdoings such as factional killings and extortion which are grievous acts of criminality even by common state law seem to have been condoned by the Church. Otherwise why should the Church not speak up and exhort people to resist extortion and to rise up against the gun culture.

 Despite the cease-fire, militants are roaming around with weapons in many districts of Nagaland and Manipur in a manner that is meant to intimidate and to extract compliance from businessmen or government officials who are common targets of extortion. Is this the kind of climate that the Naga people want indefinitely? Do they want their young to leave their hearths and homes and seek mental peace elsewhere because the atmosphere is too dense with gun powder. Almost every commercial establishment in Delhi today has one or two Naga girls as shop assistants. Although this is not a bad thing to happen and Nagas are integrating very well into the ‘Indian’ milieu, the question is whether they do so out of choice or because of economic and other compulsions. Is it fear that is driving them away to safer environs.

 Every Naga youth is of course eagerly awaiting the day when the ongoing peace process ceases to be merely a process but becomes a reality. But no one is really sure if that day will come soon. In fact no one really knows what is actually transpiring between the NSCN(IM) and the Government of India. Does every Naga know what the NSCN (IM) leadership aspires for? Does that aspiration include the dream of every Naga right down to the last man in the hamlet of Mon or Tuensang districts. To speak of a collective aspiration seems like a distant dream since the different militant factions seem to have taken it as a challenge to eliminate their opponents.

 With the Naga Hoho having become almost defunct and its various wings totally co-opted by the NSCN (IM) it is time for the Church to raise its prophetic voice now or never. Hopefully the Church, one hopes, is not co-opted by any of the factions and therefore free from all encumbrances and obligations. The Church must provide the platform for the faithful to speak up and say what they want. This free platform for liberal ideas has never been raised in the past. People do not say what they feel in their hearts for fear of getting a bullet. In this climate of tension and intimidation how can people breathe peacefully leave alone hope for peace now or in the future.

The Church has a role in disarming all those who stand in the way of true peace, which frankly speaking, does not hinge on the NSCN(IM)–GOI talks. True peace comes from within the heart and it reigns only when guns are silenced and people learn to appreciate and give space to dialogue and dissent. At the moment the Church seems to be the only body that can bring sanity and peace for the long run. It can do that not by silencing believers into acqueiscance but by empowering them to speak the truth that is in their hearts.

Lost in Political Whirlpool

Patricia Mukhim

 Politics dominates conversations and consume humungous media space. Instead of focusing on real issues which are intrinsic to human development, much time and attention is devoted to conflict and violence. Assam is now wracked by post poll violence in the Bodoland area. That camp followers would harbour partisan feelings and wreak vengeance on opponents long after polling day is over, is completely out of sync with tribal character and societies in the past. Earlier on differences between supporters of various political parties would dissipate the moment the ballot boxes were sealed. Today the animosity seems to have sunk deeper and anger is not just about partisan politics. In the past only the candidates nursed fierce ambitions of making it to the assembly and better still to the ministry. Today even camp followers are becoming more ambitious and wanting more out of the process. If a candidate they have supported manages to win the elections they know they have a better chance of cornering government supply and contract works and other material largesse. 

 Ever since the MLA’s local area development scheme was innovated, most supporters of political parties became contractors. It does not matter that they have no inkling of road and building construction. They first get the contract and then sub-contract the same to some other person whose bread and butter it is to do the job. The party worker gets a cut out of the work. So also the MLA. Some babus down the line, who do not ask too many questions about why bills are so inflated and not commensurate to the quality of work done, also get their commission. At the end of the day more money is pocketed by various individuals. Very little money is actually deployed for making of roads, bridges, primary schools or anganwadi centres, all of which are aimed at enhancing the quality of life in rural areas particularly.

Some might say the above process is part of a corrupt culture. But it sounds rather simplistic to off-handedly dismiss the mechanism as corruption. The whole procedure is about payment for services done. MLA schemes are distributed in the most arbitrary manner. The party worker gets a contract as payment for supporting a winning horse. The MLA is paid for giving his henchman a contract. Engineers and babus are paid for not being intrusive. So each person who gets a share does so after rendering some kind of service. How can we then blame an MLA or his party worker of being corrupt. Is it not easier to say that the system which devised the MLA scheme is the culprit here? That people are not corrupt. Rather the system is corrupting.

 For decades we have discussed corruption in the same way that we regularly laundry on dirty linen. No significant change has taken place and no one is affected by our living room discussions. Politicians continue to rake in money from developmental schemes. Bureaucrats take their share for facilitating the collection process. Beneficiaries of those schemes continue to remain poor and dip lower and lower down the poverty line. The poorer they get the less empowered they are to speak up against the system that has defrauded them.

 However, not all downtrodden people are willing to remain so. Some fight back against the system but not through the conventional way that democracy allows, which is the way chosen by Gandhi and the likes of Medha Patkar – satyagraha. To a hungry woman or man who has never been unsure as to where the next meal would come from, a hunger strike is meaningless. They experience hunger pangs on a daily basis and their stomachs no longer growl. Gnawing hunger spasms are slowly converted to boiling anger which accumulates and in time spills out in the form of violence. Hungry people are willing volunteers and camp followers of intelligent ideologues who are euphemistically termed as militant leaders.

Once enlisted as a volunteer the food and clothing are taken care of. If they are lucky they even get some extra amount to send back home to their kith and kin. The uniform and gun give a new sense of self-esteem – a feeling of importance and recognition. What else does a poor, jobless person and a victim of circumstances want? And why would he question the new paymaster. How does he care where the money comes from. In his books the money comes from someone who has taken away his share – some exploitative businessman or politician, some greedy doctor or engineer or some babu somewhere who helps to grease the wheels of corruption. Volunteers to a militant outfit feel no remorse about extorting or killing their victims because they have themselves been victimized for so long. On the other hand they enjoy a kind of thrill for being the new angels of retribution.

Those of us who self-righteously beat our breasts and preach peace must first get to the root of the matter. Instead of addressing militant outfits and pleading with them to come to the negotiating table we could strive to remove the causes that turn simple peasants into killing machines. Violence is first conceived in the mind. The human mind is influenced by what the body feels. When the body is hungry the mind is angry. An angry mind conceives deadly thoughts. Initially those thoughts are pushed to the sub-conscious strata of the brain. But it is only a matter of time before they becomes part of the conscious mind. Out of those thoughts are born the desire to strike and kill.

While it is true that not every citizen can create wealth it is also true that every person deserves the opportunity to be part of that machinery for wealth creation. Governments and those who run them are not by definition creators of wealth. They are only facilitators in that they remove hurdles of red tape, delay and bad laws. Today, however, we have a system that has gone totally awry. Politicians who have been elected to govern are busy creating wealth. In fact legislation and governance have become mere hobbies. Business is their main pre-occupation. Politicians have therefore usurped the legitimate role of the business class whose prime business it is to create wealth. In their craze to accumulate wealth, politicians use anyone and anything, including short-circuiting the process of governance.

All the Holy Books of the world exhort man not to attempt too many things at one time.  Politicians have violated this fundamental law by making their prime duty secondary and vice versa. They have abandoned the duty of governance. This vacuum in governance  has paved the way for non-elected people including pressure groups and interest groups to assume that role. Vacuum in governance is a result of political wishy-washiness. We may think that governance has nothing to do with politics but the two are like chicken and egg. Politicians are elected to govern and direct others to govern to. By abdicating their duties they have created the climate for violence and conflict and consequently for the absence of peace. If at all anyone needs to change then the political class must do so. But change is not to be read only as shuffling a pack of cards. It means a change of heart. Unless this happens, all of us will continue to labour under the same circumstances, going round and round the maze and never finding our way out.

Where are Naga People Headed?

Charles Chasie*

Our people are going through a very trying time at this moment. The pages of our newspapers are enough to tell us that there is physical, mental and spiritual agony. There is confusion, anger, fear and suspicion everywhere. Factional fights and killings and other physical incidents continue in our towns and villages where innocent Nagas frequently become victims. Absence of clear information on the on-going NSCN-IM and GoI talks, has itself become a generator of all kinds of rumours, feeding on people’s fears and suspicions, and further clouding perceptions in an atmosphere that is already murky enough. All these have created situations of heightened tension all around us.

The overall picture one gets at the moment is that of a sharply polarized Naga society ringed with unfriendly or not so friendly neighbours. In other words the scenario that is confronting our people at the moment is that of (i) (a) the factions ranged against each other in entrenched political positions, not willing to accommodate one another, but ready to kill and even killing each other. (b) The factions not willing to accept or tolerate any views outside their own and seem to have little compunctions about killing anyone, armed or unarmed. (c) Various Naga public groups protesting the killings of innocent Naga civilians and asking the factions to stay away – some even suggesting they may have to take their own course of action. (ii) We do not have too many friends among our neighbours whether in Assam, Manipur or Arunachal Pradesh and not much is being done to reverse this situation. And Burma/Myanmar is a totally different basket. In other words, we are completely encircling ourselves with unfriendly neighbours and our people have no other outlets of any kind.

The above scenario that any neutral person will see immediately, just from glancing through our newspapers, does not bode well for our society or the future of our people. And if we continue on this road, we run very high risks of self-destructing as a people. Surely, none of us will wish that to happen.

A peace process has been launched and a ceasefire is in place for the second time to attempt to solve the Naga Issue. The process has also traveled a certain distance. And it makes little sense to destroy it in order to start it all over again. Neither do any of us want the legacy of an unsettled Naga Problem to be passed on to our children so that history can repeat itself. But the Naga people may be confronting a critical phase requiring a more complete rethink of the fragility of our peoplehood and the peace process by all so that it has a successful outcome and present leaders can, at least, lay the foundations of the security of the future of our children, if not wholly secure it.

To do this, there is no alternative but to meet and talk, especially for the factions, and to learn to accommodate one another, acknowledging the sacrifices made by each one. Many may not be naturally inclined to do this but where is the alternative if we want to secure the future of our people and not pass on to our children the legacy of violence and conflict. For any one who wants to be a nationalist, love of the people has to be the first criteria of his life and other considerations can come only after that.

Different groups may prove more powerful than others at different times. This is always so in history. For instance, the other factions may not have the military firepower or other resources of the IM but they too have their areas of political power and influence among important sections of the Naga people. They too believe they have sincerely fought for the Naga Cause. These are deserving of respect because all factions claim mandate from the Naga people and no one is talking of settlement of the Naga Issue only for a section of the Nagas.

From recent Naga political history itself we can observe the following:- (i) Threats and intimidations, even assassinations, however temporarily useful/powerful, do not work in the long run. They only end in precious Naga lives being prematurely stamped out in gruesome manner by Naga hands and creating a trail of bitterness which soon become vicious cycles. (ii) Agreements and Accords can be signed but their efficacy is doubtful unless all are included. Cleverness and manipulations, from whatever quarter and however powerful, for whatever short-term goals, are useful only up to a certain point. Beyond that, history tells us that the practitioners and their stratagems will always lie exposed!

At this point, it may be useful to look at some other situations around the world. We all know East Timor became independent from Indonesia just the other day. Since its independence, East Timor managed to change its name to Timor Leste, of which most people in the world have not heard as yet. But, already, there is trouble caused by a rebellion on ethnic lines that, apparently, began from the ranks of its Army. The East Timor Government was forced to issue a call for help from the international community. In response, its largest neighbour Australia, under “Operation Astute”, has rushed 1800 troops to Dili, the capital, last Month, to prevent another “failed state”. Part of the reason for the present trouble it is said is President Gusmao’s followers’ preoccupation with East Timor’s past rather than focusing on its future potentials.

Closer home in Nepal, the Maoists have proved, beyond any shadow of doubt, their military striking power almost anywhere, anytime, in the Himalayan kingdom. They could take, or continue to take, the country to ransom if they wished. But they are meeting and working out their differences with Nepal’s mainstream Seven Party Alliance (which has no military striking power), and even from a disadvantageous position because the future of the people of Nepal is, apparently, more important to them. No doubt, there is also pressure from the International Community and such influences cannot be discounted. But, on the whole, credit must be given to the Nepalese Maoists because their actions are, apparently, their own voluntary acts. The developments in Nepal are of a continuing nature and it is still early to predict any final outcome but there is evident political maturity and there is an apparent love for the people that drives them to seek cooperation. This shows they are not there for themselves but for the people of Nepal. And surely, one cannot be faulted for pointing out things that have already taken place despite what may happen tomorrow.

The comments given by Martin Woollacott, on the former Yugoslavia, in June 1998, are still very relevant for our situation. “The most terrible process of all…is not the war-making that takes lives and destroys villages and towns, but the irrevocable damage to the majority who survive. The killing may stop…but societies undermined by distrust, deformed by a literally hateful politics, ashamed of a murderous past, and burdened with criminalized economies do not easily recover”.

What Woollacott is saying here is that, one day, sooner than later, some kind of settlement will come–simply because killings cannot continue forever if not for any other reason. Following a settlement, the fighting and the killings may stop and give a semblance of peace having returned. But when a society has been undermined by distrust, deformed by hateful politics, and burdened with a criminalized economy, over a long period, and it has not had the courage to heal its past, that society bequeaths a legacy of shame and a future full of scars to those who survive and who will have to carry on the legacy of their people. And remember that Woollacott’s words are “…societies undermined by …” (author’s emphasis).

In our present situation, generally speaking, we can assume that we are only looking at a very small percentage of Nagas who have a good chance in their lifetime of surviving the Naga political Killing Fields! Who will survive? Who will die? And who will carry on the Naga Legacy? Martin Woollacott is not talking about the past. His warning is about the future of this small percentage of people – most likely the families, relatives and friends of the Nationalists – who may survive situations like the former Yugoslavia and find that having to carry their people’s Legacy had become an unacceptable burden instead of a responsibility they would have joyously borne with pride!

(Published in Nagaland Page, Eastern Mirror and Northeast Herald)


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati