Dialogue  October-December, 2009 , Volume 11 No. 2


Conflicts in India’s Northeast: An Agenda for a Politics of Moral**


Bhagat Oinam*


India’s Northeast as site of armed conflict is inherently related with claims for power, control, and legitimisation by all those who are party to the conflict. This throws up serious challenge not only to the practice of democracy but also peace in the conflicting region. Claims and counter claims in such sites of contention are often related with exclusion, subjugation and deprivation which often take place through the language of violence. Such contentions cannot be expected to arrive at a final solution only through the means of violence as is adopted today by the contesting parties, for the nature of contention and violence associated only lead towards an unending process of contestation. There might be temporary solutions based on the control of one party over another. But such solutions are short lived, for the one subjugated always looks out for an opportune time to strike back. Thus the chain of contestation persists. There is a need for an atmosphere of peace and mutual trust. This calls for an indepth and engaged study of the site of conflict, to the extent of reading the genesis of the violence that we see today.
    To overcome such crises, an alternate discourse is called for. Politics of violence needs to be shunned away and a new form of politics needs to be engaged. This is easier said than done. A politics of moral where morality is brought out of the confines of the private domain could be initiated.  This can perhaps humanise the politics of violence.

Genesis of the Armed Conflicts: Yet Another Tale                                           
    The tale of
Northeast India is turbulent. The genesis of the conflict started with the inception of an independent India in 1947. The Nagas defied the “annexation of their land” into then newly mapped out Indian territory, the movement spearheaded by their leader Zapu Phizo. What the Nagas called a “nationalist struggle,” India termed as “Naga hostile.” The media was first to term it. For obvious reason, such responses were aimed at de-legitimizing the rebel camp. The Indian nationalist camp simply refused to hear any dissenting voice that questioned the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the newly created India. The newly independent India was itself at dire strait of consolidating its own post-independent position during the decades to follow – trauma of blood bath during the partition, continuous war with two neighbouring countries, creation of Bangladesh, and positioning an alternative to the cold war through Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The fast changing volatile political development in the entire sub-continent compelled parties to take strong uncompromising positions as conceding to the demand of the other could mean conceding defeat with far reaching consequences. Conflict thus became inevitable.                                                  
    Violence intensified as Manipur’s valley based insurgents emerged in 1960s in the form of RGM, subsequently followed by PLA, UNLF, PREEPAK and KYKL. Mizo rebellion through MNF also came up in a big way putting the capital of Mizoram, Aizwal, under seize in 1966, keeping the regional state capital out of bound of the Government of India (GoI) for weeks. At the end, Indian Air Force had to resort to air raids to retain GoI’s control over the state. The turmoil was given further impetus by Assam’s ULFA. There have also been challenges from sections of the Bodos, Tripuris, Kukis, Hmars, and Paites from time to time.
    The defiance to the existing state structure in the form of armed rebellion turned out to become not only a long drawn bloodied conflict but the increase in the number of rebel organizations fighting for various forms of self-determination has been quite alarming. As far as the spread of conflict goes, the conflict that was once confined to Nagaland and parts of Manipur is today spread over the whole of Manipur and Nagaland, large parts of Assam and Tripura, and parts of Arunachal Pradesh. Except for Sikkim, a late entrant to the Northeast confederation, and Mizoram, somehow contained by Mizo Accord, all other states are today partly or wholly engulfed by insurgency related conflicts. This is in the face of military and diplomatic engagements by the Indian state. While the intensity of violence generated by armed rebellion has got reduced, the spread of violence has not only widened but also turned out to become multi-layered.                                                                              
    Even seen from the Indian state’s point of view, the violent unrest has become too prolonged a state of affair to be let loose. The whirlwind of violence has today taken its own course affecting not only the normative fabric of social lives, but has also jeopardized the democratic practices in the region. The form of politics engaged by the Indian state and its supporters on the one side and the dissenting rebel camps on the other are driven by the politics of control rather than “negotiation through conciliation.” The politics of power – to control not only the structure of the nation state but also the process of consolidating the structure – is of high priority to the Indian political leadership and its devout bureaucracy. The dream of creating a nation state in the rebel camp has been equally strong. What is running undercurrent is this deep-rooted mistrust and consequent efforts to outwit the other rather than understanding the limitations and strengths of one another.               
    The diplomacy of outwitting the other has led to a complex form of conflict where the violence has turned to become multi-layered. From 1947 till 1980s, direction of the conflict was more or less clear. It was a clear contradiction between the Indian state and the insurgent forces. Violence was targeted against the Indian state. GoI was seen to be carrying the colonial legacy that the British left. From the brown babus the rulers of India were seen to become the brown sahibs. Further the rebels saw that it is by ending the Indian rule in their native lands that they could gain back what they considered “rightful claims.” So, they resorted to guerrilla attacks against the Indian army and the para military forces. The response of the Indian state was equally clear headed – hard military response to armed rebellions as was the case towards the “Naga hostiles” and the “Mizo rebels.” This was subsequently followed by political negotiations with the specific armed groups separately. However, since the mid 1990s, a clearer picture of the shift in the GoI’s approach is visible. Contradiction is no more one type, but has become multi-cornered. The response of the Indian state is no more direct alone, but also involves engaging a particular armed organization against another. There had been tacit military understanding between the Indian army and several smaller insurgent outfits, by which these outfits are pitted against the larger insurgent organizations, thus, making the conflict multi-layered and multi-cornered.                                              
    The role of the respective state governments and their machineries are also becoming dubious. While political leaders at the state level are often reported in the media to be hand in glove with the insurgent organisations (with financial support and shelter), they have also at another plane started looking at the soft targets: surrendered militants, informers, sympathisers of the militant movement. This of course remain that these political leaders themselves are found to be providing financial support to the insurgents out of the packages of development pumped in by the GoI. 
    There is serious need to relook with fresh mind the multi-layered conflict as emerging today. Short-term gains may not take much way. Neither is prolonging of conflict an answer. An amiable solution has to be found out. While territorial integrity of the country is bound to be the main concern of the India state, balkanization of its provincial states may not be a good solution.                                                                                                                                                                                        

Asymmetry of Power and Half-Baked Results                                                  
What is seemingly witnessed in the strategy and actions of the contending parties is a politics intended to outwit and delegitimise the contending other. Politics that has driven both the Indian state and the non-state actors is this politics of power, which operates with power to control both the system of state administration (structure) and the direction of administrative changes (process).                                            
    What can be witnessed is the concern to gain immediate solution where larger interest of the state is kept uncompromised. It also shows absence of sincere effort to address the core issues. The end result is that each solution brings back the problems in new forms. What has been found in the history of conflict in the Northeast is that most of these accords created disenchantment among radical factions within the negotiating party, which further continued the struggle showing the futility of the accords. Sixteen Point Agreement (1960) between GoI and NPC led to disenchantment in NNC, which carried forth the Naga insurgency movement. Similarly, Shillong Accord (1975) paved way for the formation and consolidation of NSCN (IM). So was Manipur Merger Agreement (1949) that gave rise to mass disenchantment, which later manifested in the formation of RGM and host of insurgent organizations in the state. Bodo Accord (1993) between Government of Assam and ABSU gave rise to emergence of BLT in 1996 with renewed demand and vigour for a separate Bodo state. In recent times, ceasefire agreement between GoI and NSCN (IM) triggered mass uprise in the Manipur valley against the extension of the ceasefire agreement to the state of Manipur. The story of conflict in the region seems to be more about temporary management (rather mismanagement) than towards reasonable resolutions.                                                                                            
     If one looks at the failures of accords, it is largely due to misplaced prioritisation of issues of agreement, and formulating of impractical/impossible solutions to the problems. Such misplaced prioritisation and impractical solutions seemingly find causes to the fact that the contesting parties are two starkly unequal players. The overarching control of the Indian state over the rebel camps in all these negotiations is clearly visible. More than a possible open negotiation what turns out in each case is the show of strength of the Indian state to contain the rebels within its ambit. The accords turn out to become a show of flexing muscle for one and face-saving for the other. Presence of two equally respectable parties was nowhere found.                                         
    Take for instance, the Shillong Accord, which did not take seriously the areas and the issues that were of larger concerns of the Nagas. The accord instead partially addressed to the interest and concerns of sections of the Naga community. It is worth studying how Nagas of Manipur (particularly Tangkhuls) felt cheated and continued the struggle, thus becoming the flag bearer of the Naga struggle through the formation of NSCN. Such failed accord has, one, led to faction(s) within the rebel camp disintegrating and further continuing the struggle, and two, since the major issues of contention are not addressed the accord met its natural death. The major drawback of the accord remains that Nagas, as a whole (different constituting tribes), were not taken into confidence. The same trend is continuing today with GoI – NSCN (IM) peace talk, which is seen by many as negotiation between GoI and the Tangkhul Nagas. There has been disenchantment among the Nagas about the direction of the peace talk as well as the stakes that are being formed through the peace process continuing since 1997. The disenchantment is much more vividly witnessed within the NSCN (IM) cadres with the recent series of desertion, creation of outfits such as NSCN (U), and the subsequent infighting. What have been witnessed are the followings: (i) a clear reflection of effort by GoI to control the direction of the talk as well as the intensity of the agreement from time to time making the peace process a timeless affair; (ii) effort by the senior NSCN (IM) leadership to gain face-saving solution to justify decades long struggle and at the same time see a time bound practical solution, and also (iii) NSCN (IM)’s effort to control the rebel voices within the establishment even to the extent of using violence. There is nowhere to be seen any sincere effort by any party towards a well-meaning solution.                                                                                       
    In the case of Assam Accord, the proposed solution was so impractical that the entire accord crumbled down like a pack of cards. It only proved to be face saving device for the agitating party, the AASU. In addition to the fact that the Congress leadership in the state not only saw that illegal migration was a non-issue, it denies the quantum of Bangladeshi migration taking place in the state. For obvious reason, the Congress does not wish to lose its vote bank – the Muslim migrants who have today formed a major power block as electorate. One of GoI’s concerns at that time was also to show “sincerity and dynamism” in the young Congress leadership as projected in Rajiv Gandhi. For AASU projecting as well as agreeing to an impractical solution was to show devotion to the cause through its “uncompromising” stand. The end result is what we witness today – Assam Accord is nowhere reflected in Central or State government initiatives. Today many scholars and intelligentsia in Assam talk of dual citizenship and work permit for the Bangladeshi migrants. To think of Bangladeshi migrants as economic migrant alone when illegal migrants have been legalised and given all possible benefits as citizens of the country is hard to concede. The assumption that these migrants come to India only for livelihood and would prefer to go back to
Bangladesh requires wide-range verifications. Stray case studies would not do. The future of Assam will be substantially determined by the factors involving the illegal-migrant-turned-citizen-electorates in the state. Today the politics of migration seems to have taken a dip involving democratic representation, power sharing, and carving out exclusive spaces based on linguistic and religious identities, which Assam has to face in a big way in the coming years.                                                             
    The story of success is hard to find. Only Mizo Accord has been cited to the extent that several scholars today make comparative study between Mizoram and Manipur as two stories of success and failure. Little these scholars realise that the two cases are located in different backgrounds, and project distinct aspirations. It only shows a poor case of comparison. Though MNF and insurgent organizations of Manipur put sovereignty as the primary aim of their struggle, one needs to see the ground on which the claims were/are made, and how their points of agreement in negotiations are guided by those grounds. The emergence of MNF as a protest from state (
Assam) government’s apathy to the famine is well documented. Even retaining of the larger portion of the name from MNFF to MNF says a lot more than is unsaid. The sovereignty claim looked more like a romantic projection. It could be that the military strength of MNF was driven by historical factors such as hostility of the neighbours as manifested in Indo-Pak war and creation of Bangladesh. Despite all the violence and mistrust, Mizos got what they were yet to achieve – the statehood. Providing statehood to the autonomous Lushai Hills which was any way an Autonomous District Council in Assam was something that falls well within the GoI’s policy programme. On the contrary, emergence of organizations such as PLA, UNLF, PREEPAK, KYKL, etc. in Manipur is post-statehood phenomenon. Though their projected claim may be sovereignty, they all have specific claim to restore its pre-merger status. The GoI has been quick in refusing to such a demand. Very little has been done by its think tanks to engage with interpretations of the “pre-merger status” in India’s interest as initiated by few Manipuri scholars. Whether it is Mizoram or Manipur, diplomacy engaged so far has been only within the existing constitutional provisions. No new efforts are seen from the GoI to imagine new ideas to work towards long lasting solutions taking into account the concerns of the contending parties.                                            
    What is most alarming is the continued diplomatic process as part of the counter-insurgency programme where smaller organizations are either contained or encouraged to serve the vested interest of the Indian state. Though GoI’s policy of positing one armed organization against another may help the Indian state temporarily creating set backs to the insurgency movement, but this could very likely create larger repercussions to the state in future. It is not only a story with the Northeast but has been the overall design of GoI towards all insurgency movements. Similar story can be cited of Chattisgarh (Salvajadum). There is need to go beyond what has so far been experimented by both the Indian state as well as the insurgent organizations, and also the protesting civil society bodies.  

Towards an Alternate Politics                                                                              
A humane form of politics different from the one discussed so far could set tone for an alternate discourse. The politics of moral will engage the idea of sharing – of space and concern. A sincere and open engagement to dialogue will characterize the politics of moral. The acts of conciliation and reconciliation as a continuous process seem to be an alternative to evoke the sense of moral in both the state and the non-state actors. Often questions are raised of its viability. Yet this seems to be the only way to arrive at meaningful and long lasting solutions to the problems the region is faced with.
    One way to begin is to prepare a ground where the contesting parties share the platform as hypothetical equals. The asymmetry of power as existing between the state and the non-state forces may be suspended through the “veil of ignorance.” Let me use this Rawlsian concept to make sense of the situation where a more conducive atmosphere for dialogue is created, and from where a meaningful and lasting solution could emerge. By imagining two equal contenders, negotiation would ensure a platform where voluntary and non-pressured dialogue could be initiated. It is extremely important to have an open dialogue where contending parties are relatively at ease. No contending party should in principle feel that it is being bullied.                                                                   
    The idea of reconciliation as moral initiative can be successfully initiated only when the moral agents who are party to the negotiations are free from constraints. Moral agents ought to be free. To be able to do what is right demands that one ought to be free to do what one thinks as right. Conciliation and reconciliation are moral concepts and can be meaningfully engaged only through morally free actions. The idea is to suggest for morally driven political choices and actions. It would be less driven by politics of control.                                                                    
    One instance that can be cited here is the initiative taken up by the Naga Hoho during late 1990s as part of its effort to solve the inter-ethnic rivalry and clashes. The practice resembles the process of healing like the one initiated in South Africa. The Naga Hoho with the support of the church took up a meaningful initiative. A meeting of the village representatives and civil society bodies cutting across different tribes assembled over a bonfire. Each member present writes down in a piece of paper the crimes his/her community/people have committed to the other as well as what others have done to his/her community. The idea was to use the Christian faith of confession. It was about expressing one’s guilt, anger and hatred in words to channelise it through an objective medium. The chit of paper was later consigned to flame symbolising parting away from hatred and guilt. Thereafter, the members present spontaneously start crying and consoling one another reflecting a sense of relief. The importance of this initiative lies in the kind of political engagement pursued guided by moral commitment. Such inner realization carries long lasting impact on having peaceful co-existence among communities.                              
    While the process of healing directly helps in solving inter-ethnic or inter-community rivalry and hatred, often questions are raised about the feasibility of the practice on two areas of conflict. Those are, one, between the state and non-state forces which are supposed to be impersonal by nature, and two, between different religious communities where conception of confession does not bear much significance. The contention is that this process may yield results only among the Christians, as has been the case among the Nagas and the South Afrikans.                                                                                                         
    My response to this apprehension is as follows. I have cited the case of confession and healing as experimented in Naga society. It was not with the intention to replicate the practice to each area of conflict or each site of negotiation. I see the significance of the practice in so far as it evokes moral conscience in the subject (agent). It is important to internalise an issue and provide humane touch to the crises. It could be that we may require different modes of internalisation as the context may demand. Confession could only be one form of internalisation. Perhaps, we may have to invent newer forms and means. The act of internalisation and evoking of moral conscience is a universal human phenomenon. It transcends narrow ethnic or religious boundaries. These have to be the invariant conditions. Inventing new modes of internalisation may require few more variant factors. That provides ample room to those engaged with the issue to innovate ways to handle conflict. We have had in history leaders like M.K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. who engaged political issues with the moral. The strength in them lies in evoking moral conscience and internalisation of the crises they were faced with. These are not altogether impossible initiatives.  
    These invariant conditions (internalisation of crises and evoking of moral conscience) are equally important in the case of negotiation between the state and the non-state forces. We often shed our responsibility towards the state and fellow beings by highlighting state as an impartial entity as if it moves on its own. Let us accept this simple fact that state is run by persons, one or few. It is not run by a “ghost in the machine.” And persons running the state are not impersonal human beings. They carry their intentions, desires, dreams and promises in the functioning of the state. These persons may be sometimes visible in the functioning of the state, and may be invisible at other times. The state gets personified through them. Many a war is fought with spurt of anger in leaders, and many an apocalypse is averted over a dining table. This is not to simplify the nature of political diplomacy, but to suggest that the idea of a non-personified state or a non-personified non-state is a weak argument. It is well known as to how post-Indian political consolidation gets reflected the persona of Vallabhbhai Patel. So is
India’s current stand in world politics reflecting the ideology and persona of Manmohan Singh and his peer group. To have a more engaging and open dialogue, those who represent the state as well as the non-state forces ought to internalise the crises as moral agents.                      
    Highlighting moral agency would strengthen the spirit of democratic politics. Providing space to the other to the extent of arriving at mutually acceptable points of agreement could be what the contesting parties should aim at. Responsibility towards this lies largely with the state for it is not only the legitimate authority towards governance, but also most of the major political crises in the region arise out of disenchantment with the state. A sincere and responsive state would not only consolidate its position but also strengthen the democratic polity. 



· Barpujari, H.K., India’s North-East: Problems, Policies and Prospect since Independence, Guwahati & Delhi: Spectrum Publication, 1998.

· Baruah, Sanjib, Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of North-Eastern India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

· Bhaumik, Subir, Insurgencies in India’s Northeast: Conflict, Co-option and Change, East West Centre Washington Working Papers, No. 10, July 2007.

· Hussain, Monirul (ed.), Coming Out of Violence, New Delhi: Regency Publications, 2005.

· Misra, Udayon, “Naga Peace Talks: High Hopes and Hard Realities,” Economic and Political Weekly, February 15, 2003.

· Nuh, V.K., Naga Chronicle, New Delhi: Regency Publications, 2002.

· Oinam, Bhagat, “Patterns of Ethnic Conflict in North-East: A Study on Manipur,” Economic and Political Weekly, 38(21), 24–30 May 2003.

· Oinam, Bhagat, et al, “Indian Nation State and Crises of the Periphery,” in Prasenjit Biswas and C.J. Thomas (eds), Peace in India’s Northeast, New Delhi: Regency Publications, 2006.

· Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

· Singh, M. Amarjeet, “Assam: Challenges Before Bodo Territorial Council,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 8, 2004.

· Theme articles on National Questions: Trajectories & Predicaments, in Eastern Quarterly, Vol. 3, Issue IV, January–March 2006.

· Theme articles on Federal Empowerment or Deepening Centralization, in Eastern Quarterly, Vol. 4, Issue I, April–June 2007.

· Theme articles on Land and Territoriality, in Eastern Quarterly, Vol. 4, Issue II, July–September 2007.



    ABSU ……………. All Bodo Students’ Union                                              

    BLT ……………… Bodo Liberation Tigers                                                    

    GoI ………………. Government of India                                                         

    KYKL …………… Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup                                               

    MNFF …………… Mizo National Famine Front                                            

    MNF …………….. Mizo National Front                                                          

    NNC …………….. Naga National Council                                                      

    NPC …………….... Naga People’s Convention                                          

    NSCN (IM) ……… National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Issac 


    NSCN (K) ……….. National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang)    

    NSCN (U) ……….. National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Unified)          

    PLA ……………… Peoples Liberation Army                                                 

    RGM …………….. Revolutionary Government of Manipur   

    PREEPAK ………. Peoples’ Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak                                

    ULFA ……………. United Liberation Front of Assam                                 

    UNLF ……………. United National Liberation Front


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati