The Indian government, fighting armed bands of separatist rebels for the past six decades or more in the far-flung states of the country’s troubled Northeast, have a new challenge at hand — of talking peace — as almost all the major separatist groups in the region, with the exception of Manipur, have now cut deals with the authorities and entered into ceasefire agreements. Virtually every significant group, or at least factions within each, is now in a truce with the government in insurgency-hit Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura. Hundreds of rebel fighters are lodged by the government in what are called 'designated camps', as they await ‘acceptable solutions’ to their ‘problems’ through negotiations with the authorities.
All frontline rebel groups in the key insurgency-hit states of Assam and Nagaland — the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the two factions of the Dima Halim Daogah, United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), and now, the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), the two factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and a section of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), besides several Adivasi militant groups in Assam, have struck truce deals with the government.
With this bagful of insurgents in a cease-fire with the authorities, the government is saddled with the critical responsibility of taking multiple ‘peace processes’ to the next level — and this is a thorny affair, with many of the groups at cross purposes, one with the other. Evidently, multiple formulae or a clear idea of what is to be offered to each group, are necessary for the ‘peace processes’ to go forward to a logical conclusion (the restoration of normality in a particular area and an enduring solution to the insurrection). This is precisely what the government does not appear ever to have had. In a significant development, however, the central government appears to have worked out the contours of a possible peace formula that it could offer to some of the major insurgent groups, particularly the NSCN and ULFA.
In a lengthy conversation with this writer last week, for instance, union home secretary Gopal K. Pillai disclosed: "The NSCN-IM has accepted the government of India’s invitation for resumption of peace talks and Mr (Thuingaleng) Muivah is coming to Delhi in April." The National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) has had a truce agreement with the government in 1997, and the two sides have held more than 60 rounds of talks at various international capitals, and in New Delhi. By all indications, however, New Delhi has now firmed up its mind on a possible solution formula to bring the curtains down on the six-decade-old Naga insurrection.
As far as the government of India is concerned, two things are ‘out of question’ — a sovereign Nagaland and ‘greater Nagaland’ (or Nagalim) that envisages unification of all Naga inhabited areas in the Northeast under one administrative unit. While the centre has been unambiguous that sovereignty is not negotiable, the redrawing of inter-state boundaries in the Northeast is a near-impossible proposition considering the passions any such move would provoke across the entire region. The sense one gets from various government and other sources is that the government may offer constitutional sanction for the setting up of a political-social-administrative body to look after Naga affairs in different parts of India. The body could have its headquarters anywhere in the Northeast or outside, within India, as desired by the Naga leaders. There are substantial populations of Nagas outside the state of Nagaland, mainly in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. The proposed body would be empowered to sanction schemes and funds for the welfare of Nagas wherever they are in the country.
This tentative scheme could be amended or modified in case the idea finds favour within the Naga rebel leadership. New Delhi may, indeed, go a step further: the current thinking is that the proposed body could also offer schemes for the uplift of Nagas living in adjoining Myanmar. That offer, as and when it is placed before the NSCN-IM, could be something that the rebel leaders might find hard to reject, since the rebel group has long regarded the Naga inhabited areas in Myanmar as ‘Eastern Nagaland.’
Union home secretary Pillai’s recent visit to Myanmar acquires particular significance against this backdrop. The effort is to mop up surviving pools of resistance, even as positive avenues of negotiated resolution are explored. Pillai said, "We hope to have, in the next few weeks, a joint security operation against the Northeast Indian rebels having bases in Myanmar and operating from that country," confirming that he had discussed the issue with Myanmar authorities. Of course, Pillai and the government remain tight-lipped at this stage about whether the two sides have discussed proposed schemes for financial assistance from New Delhi for the Nagas in Myanmar. However, since India has been engaged in infrastructure development projects, mainly roads, with its own funding in Myanmar, there is reason to believe that the military junta in that country would not have any insurmountable objections to such an idea.
In Assam, it is now clear that New Delhi is keen on talks with the ULFA under the leadership of its jailed ‘chairman’, Arabinda Rajkhowa. Pillai has indicated that the centre would no longer insist on a letter from the jailed ULFA leaders expressing an interest in initiating a dialogue with the government of India, as long as these leaders demonstrate their sincerity in holding talks. This contrasts with union home minister P. Chidambaram’s earlier insistence on such a letter from the jailed ULFA leaders. There is, consequently, some indication that the government may have revised its stand on this. More significantly, the centre does not appear to be too worried about detained ULFA leaders (‘chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa, ‘vice-chairman’ Pradip Gogoi, ‘foreign secretary’ Sasadhar Choudhury, ‘finance secretary’ Chitraban Hazarika, ‘cultural secretary’ Pranati Deka and others) jumping bail and disappearing, in case they are set free to engage in talks. Unlike the past, the ULFA leaders have arrived in India with their wives and children in tow, and their families have since been allowed to go home. government sources claimed the ULFA leaders, when they were picked up in Bangladesh, had requested authorities there that their wives and children be sent along with them to India, a plea the authorities conceded. The centre, moreover, is not particularly concerned whether or not ULFA’s elusive military chief, Paresh Baruah, takes part in the proposed dialogue.
If talks are, in fact, initiated, the core issues of irreducible conflict would, nevertheless, remain. The ULFA has, for instance, not diluted its ‘sovereignty’ demand. Moreover, the ULFA leadership has not articulated any coherent ‘wish list’ that could constitute the basis of the initial dialogue. The government would, moreover, have to evolve a holistic package for Assam, reconciling the demands of the multiplicity of radical and political factions in the state, even as it offers a formula that the ULFA would find hard to reject. Constitutional safeguards, the prevention of illegal infiltration, an acceptable National Register of Citizens to detect illegal migrants, jobs, infrastructure development, massively enhanced royalty to the state on natural resources, are all issues the ULFA has been associated with, and would need to be part of the government’s proposals. There is also the demand for maximum autonomy made by at least a section of ULFA leaders – the pro-talk ULFA group headed by Mrinal Hazarika and others from the group’s dreaded ‘28th battalion’, which had declared a unilateral cease-fire in June 2008. For the record, this faction of the ULFA has already established contact with the jailed ULFA ‘chairman’ and other leaders in custody – a move obviously facilitated by the authorities.
It is evident that the centre has firmed up certain ideas and proposals to advance negotiations with two principal rebel formations in the Northeast — ULFA and NSCN-IM. This is, however, a road littered with political minefields. Nevertheless, with more and more of the rebel groups coming to the negotiating table, and military pressure on the surviving groups in the jungles mounting, there is a greater scope for a qualified optimism in the region than at any point in the past decade.
Wasbir Hussain is Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi; Director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal