Dialogue  January - March, 2006 , Volume 7  No. 3

Peace Initiatives in the Northeast

D. N. Bezboruah

Insurgency would appear to be the hallmark of half the States of the Northeast. Insurgency has plagued Nagaland for as long as one can remember. Moves to turn Nagaland into a sovereign State and to break away from India got under way even before the new State was carved out of Assam in January 1963. Naga leaders like Angami Zapu Phizo of the Naga National Council (NNC) sought asylum in Britain and carried on the movement for an independent country for the Nagas from there. Today, the Izak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) is without question the most powerful insurgent group of the Northeast. Long before the split with the Khaplang faction of the NSCN, the outfit was Big Brother to most other insurgent outfits of the region, helping them with arms, training and asylum whenever needed. The NSCN (I-M) is able to collect monthly ‘taxes’ from all government officers of Nagaland in order to fund all its activities and much of the purchase of arms, though the government continues to pretend that none of this is happening. But more about insurgency in Nagaland at the proper place.  
    Close on the heels of insurgency in Nagaland, the Mizo National Front (MNF) led by Laldenga too sought to establish a sovereign state. The MNF emerged as a regional political party out of the Mizo Famine Front, which had been formed by Laldenga to protest the inaction of the Union Government towards the famine situation in the Mizo areas of Assam in 1959. Laldenga and the MNF cadres went underground and into the forests to carry on the struggle for many years. Finally, a peace agreement was signed between the Union Government and the MNF in 1986, and Mizoram was created as a separate State within the Indian Union. An MNF government with Laldenga at its head came to power in the newly created State of Mizoram. Since then Mizoram has been completely free from insurgency, even though the MNF lost the first elections following the peace agreement. Like Nagaland and Mizoram of yesteryears, Manipur too is in the grip of insurgency. Extortion is an everyday affair, and as in Nagaland, no government officer, trader, or contractor can hope to survive without paying a monthly ‘tax’, which goes to the underground. So it is in Tripura, which probably has the largest number of abductions for ransom in the region every year. However, this article confines itself to Nagaland and Assam where the peace process is most visible now. 
    Assam was free from insurgency, until the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) came into being. In fact, the ULFA came into being as the militant wing of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) that was spearheading the Assam Movement against large-scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh and the enfranchisement of these foreigners. The Assam Movement was started in the year 1979 – the year ULFA came into being. In the beginning, the ULFA too was committed to the three D’s: detection, disfranchisement and deportation of the illegal migrants from Bangladesh. It is ironical that today the top echelon of the ULFA leadership should be operating from Bangladesh or that they should have succeeded in securing asylum and training camp facilities in that country. In any case, by about 1983 the ULFA had very little to do with the non-violent movement of the AASU, and broke completely free of the latter. It proclaimed its struggle for a sovereign Assam to be administered on the principles of “scientific socialism”. The ULFA started extortion of money from those it believed had money to spare. It kidnapped tea garden executives for ransom, killing one or two to send out the message that people would be better off paying up. It killed a Russian oil technologist and people like Manabendra Sarma of the Congress in broad daylight. At the Lakhipathar killings, the outfit demonstrated that it could be public prosecutor, judge and executioner all rolled into one. In no time at all the ULFA got metamorphosed from an insurgent group into a terrorist outfit. It began picking soft targets, and on August 15, 2004, the ULFA gunned down people who had gathered to witness the Independence Day parade at Dhemaji. Several innocent women and children were killed.
    Meanwhile, the ULFA had been declared a banned outfit. That was when it moved to Bhutan and Bangladesh. In 1991, when the Congress came back to power in Assam, the then Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia, offered general amnesty to all ULFA cadres who were willing to lay down arms. Many of the senior ULFA cadres who offered to surrender just handed over one weapon retaining most others. They have thus managed to terrorize people and get just what they want all these years merely because they are better armed than the custodians of the law. In this way, a second Frankenstein monster has been spawned from the first one. Quite often, this group of ULFA activists who surrendered at that time (called the SULFA) are able to determine who shall get a contract of the Public Works Department or the Public Health Engineering Department and who shall not. They have full control even over the distribution of tender forms. Quite often they make it impossible for anyone to sell property unless they have been given a cut.
    One of the worst things to have happened to the ULFA was its senior leaders coming under the spell of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and managing to get trained by the ISI in Pakistan while they were in Bangladesh. They were flown to Islamabad by Pakistan International Airways on fake passports issued by Bangladesh, trained by the ISI in Pakistan and returned to Bangladesh. Now they are entirely under the control of the ISI. 
    Fortunately, four States of the Northeast – Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Sikkim – are free from the scourge of insurgency. However, almost the entire Northeast seems to have a low flash point as far as insurgency is concerned, and it may not be long before other States too get drawn into the whirlpool. One sees insurgency as a scourge because it is so easy for insurgent outfits to cross the very thin line that separates insurgency from terrorism. This has happened on a number of occasions not only in the case of the better-known insurgent groups, but also in the recent clashes between Dimasas and Karbis that has led to the killing of innocent people (dragged out of buses) in the most savage manner. 

Peace initiatives

    The most noteworthy peace initiatives of the Union Government (after the successful initiatives against the Mizo National Front) have been the initiatives with the Izak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, generally referred to as the NSCN (I-M). The need for a return to peace and for negotiations with the Government of India was something that the Naga civil society, the church and the Naga Hoho -– the supreme civil body of the Nagas -– has sought to emphasize over the years. The fact that the Nagas have participated in elections conducted by the Government of India through its Election Commission over the years has not been lost on anyone. Nor has the fact that astronomical amounts have been received by the Nagaland Government from the Centre as development grants over the years. If the suppliers of goods and services have siphoned vast sums out, the Nagas have only their own leaders and officers to blame. Be that as it may, the Naga civil society was eventually able to persuade the main insurgent outfit to sit down for talks. To that end, a mutually accepted ceasefire has been in force in Nagaland since August 1, 1997. This ceasefire has been extended for a year at a time, but on the last occasion the NSCN (I-M) agreed to extend it only for six months. As such, the ceasefire is due to expire on January 31, 2006.  
    Several rounds of the Government of India’s peace talks with the NSCN (I-M) have been held outside the country in venues like Amsterdam and Bangkok, with only one round of talks being held in New Delhi. While most of the other differences appear to have been resolved, one major sticking point has been the NSCN (I-M) demand that all Naga inhabited territory of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh must also be annexed to the present Nagaland to create what will be known as a greater Nagalim. Even the Nagaland Government has endorsed this stand of the NSCN (I-M) by adopting two resolutions in the Nagaland Assembly to this effect. However, such a proposal cannot be acceptable to Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. These States stand to lose huge chunks of territory to Nagaland if the Centre concedes this unreasonable demand. In fact, hardly anything of Manipur would remain if the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur were to be annexed to Nagaland. The NSCN (I-M) is adamant about this demand, and Muivah has threatened to take to the forests and to resume violent measures if this demand is not met. That is why the extension of the ceasefire has been for a period of six months this time and not for a year. 
    There is no gainsaying that as things are now, the Naga peace talks are not headed towards a happy conclusion. The demand for the integration of all Naga-inhabited territory (of other States as well) into a greater Nagalim is an unreasonable one, and cannot be accepted by the people of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. And yet there is a lurking fear among the people of Assam and Manipur that the Centre could find it more fashionable and ‘secular’ to concede the demand of a Christian tribal population rather than doing justice to the Assamese and Meitei Hindus of Manipur. After all, the Centre is anxious to be able to take credit for solving the Naga imbroglio after all these years, regardless of the cost to other States of the Union. However, the NSCN (I-M) is not going to find it very easy to just walk out of the peace talks and return to the forests with their arms. The Naga Mothers Association, the Naga Hoho and the Naga Students’ Federation have all made it clear that the NSCN (I-M) should not pull out of the talks, and that the dialogue with the Centre must continue. Meanwhile, Mr Oscar Fernandes, who is now the Centre’s representative for the peace talks, has fallen out of favour with a lot of people in Nagaland for having used up all his time on a recent trip to the State in meeting just his party men. He is now desperate to make amends by meeting the NSCN (I-M) leadership at Bangkok and to persuade them not to take any precipitate action. He is also understood to be putting pressure on the Centre to arrive at a settlement that could well amount to his taking the easy way out by endorsing the integration of all Naga-dominated areas to form a greater Nagalim. If he looks for such easy solutions at the cost of other States, he would be responsible for creating more problems in the Northeast than he might solve. He would do well to respect the sentiments and aspirations of other States with a much bigger population than Nagaland’s.
    The other problem in the Naga peace talks arises from the fact that the NSCN (I-M) still nurses the hope of being accorded the status of a sovereign state. Quite obviously, the Centre cannot be expected to preside over the liquidation of India. Besides, why should any country subsidize attempts by constituent States to break away from the Union? As such, the middle course would be a greater level of autonomy for Nagaland. One does not expect the NSCN (I-M) to take kindly to such a via media. Yet the NSCN (I-M) itself is under pressure from the civil society in Nagaland, and it is unlikely to take any precipitate steps that could undo the good work of the last eight years beginning with the ceasefire and progressing to the peace talks. It is evident that the people of Nagaland have had more decades of strife and lack of development than is good for any society, and the NSCN (I-M) is unlikely to go against the will of the people. Perhaps that is why the Nagaland Assembly was persuaded to adopt not one but two resolutions on the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas neighbouring States in the proposed greater Nagalim. The NSCN (I-M) needs greater insurance against adverse public opinion. As such, though the outfit is doing everything possible to put pressure on the Centre, it seems unlikely that it will take any precipitate action that could jeopardize the future of the peace talks. It is now much more accountable to the people.  
    As for the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), its blow-hot-blow- cold approach to talks with the Centre has considerably delayed the peace process in Assam. In the past, there have been quite a few occasions when the ULFA has sent out signals to indicate that it is willing to have talks, and sought a ceasefire. There have been occasions when the ULFA has taken advantage of a unilateral ceasefire to violate the terms of the ceasefire. There have also been other occasions when the Assam Government itself has announced a unilateral ceasefire during the Assamese New Year and the Magh Bihu to enable ULFA cadres to visit their families. Even this seems to have cut no ice with the ULFA top brass.
    The ULFA has had other problems as well. One has been the dwindling public support for the outfit. The other is having to abandon the safe haven of Bhutan after many years of forcible stay in the mountain kingdom. The military action of Bhutan threw out the ULFA cadres from their camps there along with their families. Ever since, the outfit has been scurrying from one neighbouring State to another in search of shelter. It is all very well for the ULFA to claim that it has continued to recruit more young men to its cadres in recent times. This does not prove anything in a State that has about the highest unemployment rate in the world. There is no dearth of school and college dropouts who have also seen that there is more money to be made through extortion as a member of an insurgent outfit than they can ever hope to make with their lack of qualifications and skills. Besides, they have also seen the lifestyle of the SULFA men. The equation for Assam seems to be very clear for them: there are all kinds of economic packages for young men who pick up arms and then surrender. There is none for those who never picked up arms at all. This is a bizarre socio-political equation, but that is how things are. This is mainly because insurgency had been turned into a cottage industry in Assam, and has now been elevated to the level of a medium-scale industry. Insurgency has its beneficiaries throughout the entire spectrum of our society – politicians, bureaucrats, petty officials, industrialists, businessmen, journalists and student leaders. This is a vested interest that is loath to let peace return to the State. This is bound to happen in those backward regions that are witness to development at a much higher pace elsewhere in the country than in their own region. If the disparity continues for too long, the reasons cease to matter. Turning insurgency itself into an industry is bound to be the inevitable consequence.  
    Be that as it may, some time ago Dr Indira Goswami (also known as Mamoni Raisom Goswami), recipient of the Jnanpith Award and Professor Emeritus of Delhi University, offered to negotiate with the ULFA and bring the banned outfit to the negotiating table. After some initial hiccups over whether the issue of sovereignty of Assam would figure on the agenda or not, the Centre accepted Dr Goswami as a negotiator, and the ULFA was happy to have her mediating for the outfit. The ULFA then nominated a People’s Consultative Group to initiate the preliminary discussions with the Centre. This group had the first round of discussions in New Delhi, and seems quite happy with the outcome. However, the ULFA is now looking forward to political-level talks right from the beginning, since there are some serious problems that the ULFA faces. One stems from the counter-insurgency measures in Assam that have been intensified lately despite the beginning of peace initiatives. What has naturally irked the ULFA is that the killing of ULFA cadres should go on despite the beginning of the initiatives for peace. This also seems rather strange to the ULFA top brass, considering that the administration in Assam has a unified command structure, with the armed forces collaborating closely with the civil administration in counter-insurgency operations. Given such a situation, it was reasonable to expect that the counter-insurgency measures would be held in abeyance during peace process. In fact, the failure to ensure this makes people wonder whether one hand of the government does not know or does not give due importance to what the other is doing. And it is not as though Assam does not have its share of state terrorism. After all, we continue to have fake encounters in the State with some innocent persons being shot down by the security forces on charges of being armed insurgents. Another problem is that there is now a group claiming to be a faction of the ULFA that says it is opposed to the talks with the Centre. The ULFA claims that there is no such group, but the group itself insists that it is part of the ULFA. Finally, there is some legitimate concern within the ULFA that leaving the negotiations to bureaucrats alone is bound to slow down the peace initiative considerably. The ULFA top brass has learnt what to expect from a close monitoring of the Centre’s peace process with the NSCN (I-M). The Naga peace talks have often got bogged just because they were left to the bureaucrats. The ULFA knows that time is running out for it. It no longer has the public support it once commanded. Worse still, a lot of people are beginning to ask the vital question about the difference between an insurgent group and a terrorist outfit when the ULFA has had no qualms about gunning down innocent women and children participating in Independence Day celebrations. The coming days will probably see major concessions having to be made by the ULFA to arrive at an honourable settlement with the Centre, if some ULFA bigwigs are also hoping to contest the Assembly elections in the State early next year. It is unlikely that the Centre will agree to sovereignty either in the case of Nagaland or Assam.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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