Dialogue January-March, 2010, Volume 11 No. 3
Waiting for Paresh Baruah?
Of late, one of the most predictable developments about the pending peace talks between the Government of India and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has been the uncertainty of the talks. Closely related to this perception of uncertainty is the changing stance of the Union Home Ministry. There was a time after the talks between the People’s Consultative Group (PCG) and the Government of India failed when the government was averse to even talking about the talks. There was a time when the Centre had one standard in respect of the NSCN(I-M) of Nagaland and another for other terrorist groups of the Northeast euphemistically and erroneously referred to as insurgents. While the Centre was quite willing to talk to the leaders of the NSCN(I-M) in Bangkok and Amsterdam, it had made it very clear that talks with the ULFA had to be held only in India despite ULFA’s insistence on talks being held outside India. Thereafter, there were two developments. One was a sort of split in the ULFA on the lines of those who favoured talks with the Centre and those who did not. One of the crack battalions of the ULFA parted company with the hawks to take a firm stand on supporting talks. The ULFA cadres of this battalion even agreed to remain in designated camps so as to facilitate talks with the Centre. The anti-talks faction got more and more sidelined with each passing day until several of the top leaders including ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa were arrested by the Bangladesh Rifles and handed over to the BSF across the border somewhere in Tripura. The other development was a change in the attitude of the Union Home Ministry about the modalities of talks with the ULFA and the NDFB. From an earlier position of no talks, the Home Ministry shifted to a willingness to have talks provided the ULFA decided to drop its demand of sovereignty. And now Mr. Chidambaram is saying that the Centre would be prepared to have talks with the ULFA even without the presence of the outfit’s c-in-c Paresh Baruah, provided the ULFA chairman wrote a letter saying the outfit was agreeable to have direct talks with the Centre. Speaking at the monthly press conference of the Home Ministry on February 1, 2010, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram said the Centre’s offer for talks still stood, but that the government’s peace overture was yet to be reciprocated by the group. The same norm held for the NDFB. Mr Chidambaram also said that if Paresh Baruah or Ranjan Daimary does not come for talks with the government it does not mean that talks with the ULFA or the NDFB cannot be held. He was of the view that just because Paresh Baruah might be out of the country it did not mean that talks with the outfit should be avoided indefinitely. Obviously, the government has a stronger justification now for wanting to hold talks with the ULFA even without its chief. It has imprisoned quite a few of its top leaders, and it would not be judicious to hold them behind bars for too long. That seems to be a strong enough reason for the government wanting to initiate talks with the ULFA even without Paresh Baruah. There are not many instances of governments pursuing such a course of action for peace talks in the absence of the chief of the outfit. However, exceptional circumstances call for exceptional initiatives, and that is what the Home Minister seems to have decided.
The ULFA response was not late in coming. Pradip Gogoi, vice-chairman of the banned group of ULFA said the same day that the decision to hold talks could be taken only by members of the ULFA’s general council, six of whom (including Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa) were in jail. He added, however, that the talk process could be taken forward only by the Centre and that everything depended on the government. On February 2, 2010, Asom Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told journalists that the government was ready for peace talks with the ULFA, but that the outfit had to give its written assurance that it was ready for talks. “If the ULFA just writes ‘we are ready for peace talks with the government,’ the government gets the basis to start the peace process. We will consider other demands of the ULFA leaders like ‘no talks with handcuffs on hands’, dignity, etc.” Mr Gogoi endorsed Mr Chidambaram’s view that if all other leaders were ready for talks, there was no need to wait for Paresh Baruah to initiate the peace process.
What Mr Gogoi seemed to dismiss as a minor irritant – the handcuffs issue – may not be as simple a matter as he imagines. Reacting to the requirement of a letter from the ULFA to the effect that it was ready for peace talks, ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa said on February 2, “I won’t write any letter to the government with handcuffs on my hands.” And as if to continue fishing in troubled waters, Paresh Baruah sent an e-mail to the media on Tuesday to say that some “broker intellectuals” had been putting mental pressure on the jailed ULFA leaders using “threat and lure tactics” to persuade them to sit for talks with the Government of India. “I hope the jailed ULFA leaders won’t make any mistake in identifying the broker intellectuals,” he added. One might well ask how much of threat he himself is facing from Pakistan’s ISI to do his best to scuttle the peace talks.
The response to this came promptly the very next day from ULFA’s Publicity Secretary Mithinga Daimary. He denied Paresh Baruah’s statement that “some broker intellectuals” of the State had been putting mental pressure on the jailed ULFA leaders on peace talks with the government. He said the statement of the ULFA c-in-c was not based on fact. He even alleged that Paresh Baruah himself might have been briefed by people wearing masks of freedom fighters. Obviously, these speculative exchanges are merely serving to put the differences between Paresh Baruah and the pro-talks leaders of ULFA in sharp focus. It is not that these differences are any secret any longer. The hiatus between the pro-talks doves and the few hawks like Paresh Baruah has been getting wider by the day just as the divide between the ULFA leadership in exile (till recently) and the grassroots cadres has become unbridgeable with the passage of time.
It is not surprising that there should be so much of machination by vested interests to sabotage the peace talks. One must bear in mind that Assam has not had a single new industry in the last 30 years except the Numaligarh Refinery. One cannot think of any other State in the country that has had only one new industry to show in the last 30 years. Naturally, with complete stagnation in industrial development in three decades, the State has turned terrorism itself into an industry as Manipur and Nagaland have also done. Likewise, siphoning of the Centre’s grants for development has been turned into a very lucrative business, and a lot of young men in Assam who have made this their sole occupation, have no qualms about calling themselves ‘businessmen’. And while delay, dithering and a sabotage of the peace process keep pushing the talks to the back burner, the government announces that the counter-terrorism operations will be continued. The latest slaying of an ULFA cadre by the Army after a 16-hour encounter at Bhogeligenda in Odalguri also cost the life of a 10-year-old schoolboy who got shot in the head in the crossfire while trying to run across the courtyard of their house to get to his mother. This is the price the small anti-talks faction of the ULFA headed by Paresh Baruah is making the common people of Assam pay for their terrorist activities euphemistically called insurgency by others and revolution by the ULFA itself.
At 38 Manipur still at odds with itself
Manipur as a full-fledged state of the Indian Union turned 38 on January 21. It ought to have been older, in fact at least as old as the day the former princely state became a part of the Indian Union in 1949, but this did not happen. Although there is no point tearing hair over it now, had this happened, there are many who believe the trouble Manipur is in today probably would have had a very different visage. The leaders of the nascent Indian state at the time, undoubtedly insecure after the trauma of partition in 1947 and the uncertainty that it may disintegrate further, never thought it fit to allow Manipur, and the 560 and odd other former princely states,many not too keen to join the Indian Union, and some even openly hostile to the idea, to be themselves. By the compulsion of this insecurity, they had to first of all ensure that the Centre held all the vital power levers and that the states were no match for it.
Not only this, the leadership had also to send out the strong message to the provinces in the periphery of Indian nationalism that they had little other identity than as a tributary of the Indian state, and they had better acknowledge this whether they liked it or not. This idea was nowhere better elaborated than by Fali S. Nariman in a paper on Indian federalism during the 4th International Conference on Federalism in November 2007 in New Delhi. He pointed out how this insecurity was prominently evident in quite a few features of the Indian constitution even today.
Nariman eloquently and convincingly argued how Article 356 which provides the power to the Union government to act upon the opinion and information provided by its eye and ear in the states, the institution of the Governor, to dissolve any provincial government and take over its administration, is one example. The Commission of Inquiry Act 1952, by which the constitution gives the Union government power to institute inquiry against the state governments with or without the latter’s consent is another.
But above all others, this insecurity is evident most prominently in Article 3 of the constitution which gives the Union government the power to alter the name and boundary of any Indian state, abolish existing states or create new ones by a simple majority of the Parliament and without the need for ratification by the provincial governments. In the early years of Indian Independence, Article 3 was a bitter but sugar-coated message to the non-conforming provinces (Kashmir, Manipur, Tripura, Telengana (Hyderabad), Mysore and later Nagaland etc.) that if the Centre so wished, their names could be changed, their boundaries altered, they could be split, merged to another state, or even abolished altogether with or without their consent, so they better behaved.
Nariman also cited many Supreme Court cases in which many renowned Justices of the Supreme Court, interpreted the spirit of the constitution so as to shoot down dissenting colleagues who favoured true federalism in India, not informed by any provisions of constitution, but by an unwritten sense of what he called “national interest” and “national security”. To Nariman’s list of such cases, we can probably fit in Justice J.S. Verma’s ruling against the Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights, NPMHR’s challenge of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA in 1997.
Nariman’s point was, India 60 years ago was different – very different. The overriding logic of those years to keep India’s integrity intact, cannot be allowed to define new and resurgent India’s national strategies and policies. Some of the features of the constitution need overhauling to ensure this, but at least one of these – Article 3, needs to be dropped altogether.
There is a point in this school of thought. What happened 60 years ago cannot be reversed. They also followed certain compulsions that made them seem indispensable then. But if nothing can be done to change what has happened, at least the lessons that it provides should enable the present to see the road ahead much clearer so as not to repeat mistakes. But reconstructing a peace roadmap must also be about reparations, symbolic as well as material, for past mistakes to the extent possible.
The mantra should be, acknowledge past mistakes, acknowledge also the historical compulsions under which these mistakes happened, and work through them in order to reach a reconciliation. It is the message from so many who unyieldingly battled such destinies. Nelson Mandela most of all.
Conflict Resolution Lesson
The challenges of conflict resolution however are not just about ending conflicts, but also of taking care of their consequences. The question is, what can be considered as adequate and just reparation for harms caused directly and indirectly while the conflict lasted. Without doubt, the damages would not be restricted to the material losses alone, but also emotional, spiritual and psychological.
The manner in which the four month standoff in Manipur between the Government of Manipur and the Apunba Lup, a conglomerate body of 32 civil society organisations, which was demanding justice in the atrocious case of the alleged broad daylight “fake encounter” killing of Chungkham Sanjit, a former militant, and Thokchom Rabina, who was probably hit by a stray bullet of the so called “encounter” on July 23, 2009 at the busy Khwairamband bazaar in the heart of Imphal city is an example.
At the behest of the Apunba Lup, three students organisations called a class boycott, prohibiting all schools in the state from conducting classes. The government retaliated by slapping draconian preventive detention legislation, the National Security Act, (NSA), on several leaders of civil society organisations suspected to be involved in the agitation to pressurise the protestors to back down. Ultimately the stir did wind up on January 10, with the government conceding little more than the unconditional release of those held under the NSA during the agitation. The question of four months of classes lost, and the subsequent dents on the revenues of schools and colleges, staff salaries etc were not addressed at all. Although the people were desperate for the conflict to end, the manner in which it concluded was seen as a letdown.
The question that became stark for all studying peace prospect seriously was: what is just peace?
Conflict resolution is not simple, and it goes much beyond immediate concerns, and extends much farther than meet the eyes. It is definitely not just about the end of immediate hostilities but also very importantly about sweeping clean all the debris the conflict may have left behind.
While it is true that the unhealthy standoff between chief minister, Okram Ibobi’s government and the Apunba Lup and its tributaries, has ended much to the relief of the people, the issue is far from being settled for there are now so many other issues consequent upon the “settlement” thrown up. It is also clear there is a direct proportionality between the intensity and magnitude of the central issues of a conflict situation, and the complications the peripheral issues it throw up. In short the greater the magnitude and time span of the conflict, the more complicated would also become the peripheral issues.
The obvious implication is, if the four-month agitation by the Apunba Lup and its supporting organisations can throw up the kind of complication before a just and comprehensive conflict resolution as is witnessed now, there is no denying that the complications of these peripheral issues would be much greater both in magnitude and intensity when (and if) a solution to the half century old insurgency in the state appears on the horizon.
Today, it is just about how the salaries of teachers and staff of private schools paralysed by the strike by supporters of the agitation should be dealt with. But in the case of insurgency, it would be about how fifty year and more of social conditionings would be unwound. The most immediate of these problems would be as to how insurgent cadres, most of whom would have left mainstream education and civic trainings at young ages, and who would no longer be fit to climb the normal career ladders to success in society, be accommodated.
As for instance, how would the commander of an underground army, or the minister of an underground government be accommodated within the state system they have been fighting until a truce to end hostilities was signed. In the political sphere, this is relatively simpler precisely because of the unstructured nature of democratic politics as such. Leader of the Mizo National Front, which lead a 20-year separatist insurgency, Laldenga could be accommodated as chief minister of Mizoram when he decided to hang up his rebel boots, or rifle as the case may be, in 1986, but can any government with ease compromise non-political stations. Where would an underground deputy commissioner or superintendent of police, fit into in the state they first fought with and then put their signature of approval to a reconciliation.
Then again there would be the question of whether the interest of those who have had to bear the brunt of insurgency should be represented in the final settlement. This would not be as straightforward as it seems, for there would be those who suffered as well as benefited from the conflict.
The point is, if the four-month conflict in the wake of the July 23 incident can throw up so much complicacy in putting an issue to rest, resolving half a century of a much more bitter war is predicted to be a lot more awesome, and if unprepared, overwhelming as well. We had made this suggestion before. The government must in anticipation of an ultimate end to the conflict in the land, prepare conflict resolution models from which to draw inspiration in structuring future truce with insurgent organisations and returning normalcy to the state. These first can be studied more minutely so as to learn from their successes as well as failures. They can then become the triggers for further creative extrapolations of newer and more innovative conflict resolution models. This is a challenge before the government as well as non-government peace workers and think-tanks. In fact, especially after witnessing the ugly fiasco that followed the conclusion of the stir over the July 23 firing, we would even venture to call it a responsibility of every responsible government, individual citizen and civil organization.
A related issue is the need to build democratic institutions or else deepen existing ones. Unfortunately the Manipur government has specialised in dwarfing or else destroying these institutions. The case of the Manipur Human Rights Commission, MHRC, is pertinent.
Today, the lament of the MHRC is bordering on the pathetic. It will be recalled that when this commission was introduced, the then government had flaunted it as a feather in its cap. Today, for whatever its wisdom, the government seems content to have it reduced to a mere vestigial organ – tolerable as long as it does not cause it headache, but highly dispensable once it does become inconvenient. Yet, we are quite certain when the occasion does demand the government to strut its democratic credentials, it would be citing the existence of this commission as one of its chief alibis.
Why just the MHRC, the strategy would practically be the same as regards any other so called democratically established autonomous statutory institutions in the state entrusted with the job of checking and balancing the ways of the government. To name just a few of these, there are the State Information Commission, formed as per requirement of the Right to Information, (RTI) Act, the State Women’s Commission, another constitutional obligation towards women’s empowerment, the State Minorities Commission to look into the shortfalls of statutory benefits reaching the minority communities, and even the Manipur Public Service Commission.
There are many more in the list, and all of them, without exception have been reduced to rubber stamps meant only to ensure democracy in form but hollow in substance. Many of them have been reduced to outposts to send away ruling party MLAs who did not manage a ministerial berth, and other party sycophants and powerbrokers to keep them from openly rebelling. So much for democracy in practice in the state!
Instead of wailing the step motherly treatment by the government, we wish the members of the current MHRC would muster the courage to say no more nonsense and step down, thus making a strong statement that they would not allow this extremely important democratic institution to be reduced to a farce. Salaries and perks of posts will come automatically once the commission acquires the status guaranteed by the constitution. Instead of whining for more pay, they must be able to invoke the law imaginatively so as to expose how the government is acting against constitutional will, and in the process going against the spirit of democracy as well.
Without doubt, the MHRC is the flagship of all autonomous democratic institutions in the state and its members must live up to expectations and set the right example so the government is compelled to allow all other similar institutions to get to be the checks and balances they were meant to be, and so very vitally essential to keep any democracy healthy.
One is reminded of Fareed Zakaria’s stress on the indispensability of these checking and balancing systems. In his book “Future of Freedom” he points out how American democracy (which obviously he thinks is closest to ideal) introduced even undemocratic means to ensure democracy is on track. As for instance, the American Supreme Court judges are appointed for life (there cannot be a more undemocratic practice than this) as also the country’s Federal Reserve Chairman. The implication is, once appointed, the heads of these important institutions cannot even be bullied by the most powerful man on earth – the American President. Indeed, Nobel Prize winning economist and economic advisor to President Bill Clinton, Joseph E. Stiglitz in his book “The Roaring Nineties” points out jokingly how Alan Greenspan, the then Federal Reserve chairman (equivalent to the RBI Governor) was the man the President feared the most. Again in the American Congress, while representation in the House of the Representative is proportional to population (which is democratic), in the Upper House or Senate, the American constitution equates the powers of all its states (highly undemocratic in the conventional sense).
Hence California with 36 million people and Arizona with just 4.7 million people (figures from “Future of Freedom”) would have only two representatives each in the Senate. This is not a case for mimicking the American model of democracy. This on the other hand is a plea for ensuring the health of statutory institutions autonomous of the government so that they can act as the foil as well as beacon to ensure our own practice of democracy remains healthy and vibrant.