Disarming The Rebels, The Northeast Way

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Unfinished task: The Meghalaya government needs to bring other insurgent groups, too, into the mainstream, Photo: UB Photos
Unfinished task The Meghalaya government needs to bring other insurgent groups, too, into the mainstream,
Photo: UB Photos

“Welcome my dear friends,” Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma said, opening his arms to a crowd assembled at Dakopgre’s Dikki Bandi Stadium in the Garo Hills. However, this time, he was not receiving any foreign delegates, but addressing the people of his own Garo community.

Sangma used these warm and welcoming words at the venue, where the A’chik National Volunteers Council (ANVC) and its breakaway faction ANVC–B formally disbanded on 15 December. A total of 748 cadres, from both the factions, were present while signing the peace agreement with the Meghalaya government. Will this have any bearing on the unending bloodshed in the region? Let’s analyse.

Formed in 1995, the ANVC carried on insurgency for nearly a decade. In July 2004, ANVC started talking peace with both New Delhi and the Meghalaya government. The main objective of ANVC was to create a separate Achik Land, the homeland of the Garo community, the second most populous tribal community in Meghalaya after the Khasis.

Top leaders of the ANVC and its breakaway faction, including Dilash Marak, Jerome Momim and Mukosh Marak inked the agreement in the presence of the Nokmas, the Garo village heads. However, Sangma went overboard when he said, “It takes exemplary courage to be a part of the mainstream. It demonstrates that violence can never be a solution to any problem. We have reasons to believe that the period of violence will stop with this historic day.”

The chief minister further added, “With the escalation of violence in the Garo Hills, there is a wrong perception about the militancy in Meghalaya. Nothing can be achieved through violence but things can be accomplished with dialogue.” To this the ANVC cadres clapped like there is no tomorrow.

In reality, disbanding ceremonies like this are nothing new in the Northeast India, a region plagued by insurgency right from the 1960. Almost all the states of the Northeast, barring Sikkim, have seen insurgencies on ethnic fault lines, most of them asking either for secession from India or a separate homeland for their own community. Except for Mizoram, in most of the Northeastern states, success has always eluded the entire process of bringing rebels to the mainstream through peace initiatives.

“The Mizoram model worked out as the entire state and the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi genuinely wanted it to succeed. Since then people in the corridors of power might have realised that the success of peace processes would prevent the flow of a huge amount of unaccounted money to the region in the name of counter-insurgency. This explains the logical pattern of conflicts, peace resolutions and disbanding in the region,” says Sumon K Chakraborti, a New Delhi-based journalist who has reported extensively on the Northeast.

“After a momentary lull in violence, some new rebel groups crop up with a similar set of demands, in the same area, infact from same communities.”

The ANVC is also treading the path of other rebel groups from the region who have come overground and disbanded themselves. “When we started our movement, we did not follow any other group. But we found out that dialogue is also an effective tool to address the issue. No one can say that we did anything for personal glory or money,” says the ANVC chairman Dilash Marak, while trying to explain how different the ANVC’s armed movement was from the other groups. But, at the same event, the chairman of the breakaway faction, Rimpu Marak, said that after coming to mainstream, he and his cadres will in all likelihood join politics. In doing so, Marak would follow the footsteps of several rebel leaders in the Northeast who laid down arms to join politics; some even became chief ministers like Laldenga and Zoramthanga of Mizoram’s Mizo National Front (MNF).

“If you look at the recent history of conflict in the Northeast, you will find several examples of the same. In Tripura, the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) signed a peace accord with Rajiv Gandhi when he was the prime minister. The leader of the group, Bijoy Hrankhawal, then became a politician. Take Bodoland for instance. When the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) decided to join the mainstream, during the previous NDA regime under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a Bodoland Accord was signed. After that BLT leader Hagrama Mohilary formed a political party, the Bodoland Peoples’ Front, and came to power in the local territorial council but Bodoland still remains a hotbed of insurgency and turmoil. Bureaucrats in New Delhi under different regimes have allowed piecemeal deals and adhoc policies,” explains former MLA and noted intellectual from Tripura, Tapas De.

On 24 September, a peace accord between the two factions of ANVC, the Centre and the Meghalaya government facilitated the disbanding of the rebel group and its off-shoots. According to the agreement, a copy of which is available with Tehelka, both the factions of ANVC agreed to disband within three months of the accord. New Delhi agreed to give more powers to the Garo Hill Autonomous District Council (GHADC) under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and official recognition to the Garo language. The agreement also provided scope for enhancement of the council, may be to a territorial council and a special socio-economic development council. The rebel cadres are also getting amnesty for the non-heinous crimes that they committed during their underground days.

“Those in the government breed militancy in the Northeast. While the civil society in general is happy that many insurgent groups are coming overground, but there are other groups also in the underground. So, the problem is far from over. The fact that fake encounters are taking place in the Northeast is an open secret. Hence, it boils down to the will power of the Centre to end the rot plaguing the system. Peace in the region cannot be achieved by mere lip service,” warns Shillong-based human rights activist, Agnes Kharsiing.

It is highly unlikely that the ANVC’s peace gesture would help phase out terror from the Garo Hills. The Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) is waging a bloody armed movement in the Garo Hills for a separate Garoland and the Centre is not so keen to talk peace with the rebel group headed by Sohan D Shira, who was once a top area commander of the ANVC.

Infact, in the Garo Hills, over 1000 criminal cases have been registered against insurgent groups in the last five years, including at least 100 cases of murder and 150 kidnapping cases. Also, there are dozens of splinter groups that operate in the area on the Bangladesh border and maintain bases in the neighbouring country.

On the day the peace doves were flown, the Meghalaya Police, while searching for insurgents in the area, recovered automatic weapons worth 17 lakh, even as the bureaucrats, policymakers and the rebel leaders were singing a peace chorus. The seizure not only casts a shadow over the possibility of long-lasting peace but underscores the fact that the Northeast is still sandwiched between conflicts and peace processes.

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