The Long Road To Northeast Peace

Winds of change The NSCN is vying for peace

FOR THE first time in decades, insurgency and violence have ebbed in almost all the states in India’s Northeast. All major insurgent groups, with the exception of those in Manipur, are in ‘ceasefire’ and/or in various stages of a negotiated political settlement with the Centre. Several of these negotiations have been unfolding at an excruciatingly slow pace, given the complexity of the issues involved: ranging from demands of secession to autonomy, with competing claims over territory and indigenous rights. The situation is further complicated by rivalries between insurgent groups belonging to the same ethnic sub-nationality, vying to be the predominant, if not the sole representative, of their people; or between split factions of even the same insurgent group vying for legitimacy.

The ULFA is vying for peace
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

While it will be foolhardy to predict how the multiple peace processes are likely to unfold, an accurate recognition of the entities who hold the keys and an equally perceptive understanding of the core issues they will need to successfully resolve, could bring about a clarity to a possible roadmap.

The Naga peace process: Secession no Longer an option 
The Nagas raised their banner of rebellion on the eve of India’s independence, apprehensive about their future in the new postcolonial nation-state, and have remained locked in a war of attrition with the Indian Union for ‘sovereignty’ ever since. During this time, the Naga insurgency has witnessed many twists and turns, including splits in leadership, internecine feuds and lost opportunities for peace. It also inspired, nurtured and sustained a multiplicity of ethnic insurgencies, putting the nation’s security architecture under severe strain for decades. In the past few decades, the Naga insurgent movement came to be headed by two factions of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland — the NSCN(ISAK-MUIVAH) and the NSCN(KHAPLANG) factions. The NSCN(IM), after rounds of secret negotiations, entered into a ceasefire with the Centre in 1997 and the NSCN(K) followed suit about a year later. It has now been 14 years and negotiations have been slow because of complicated issues. Hope lies in the fact that in spite of provocations by all sides, the ceasefire has endured. The Naga peace process is now at a critical juncture, and how it is likely to unfold hereafter has to be inferred from how the three core issues have been addressed so far.

First is the issue of Naga sovereignty. It is indisputable that the Naga movement has been instrumental in forging disparate Naga tribes into a nation owing to their distinct history of keeping alive their quest for a separate homeland. Even as they fought for decades, the Nagas paradoxically got further integrated into the Indian Union. Strong ‘Indian’ interests got entrenched in Naga polity and economy. The Naga middle class elite became beneficiaries of privileges that India bestowed, as did the insurgent organisations themselves. Perceptive observers had long held that ultimately, sovereignty shall have to be ruled out. This was borne out in the statements by Muivah and RS Pandey, the Central government interlocutor, that the NSCN(IM) and the Union of India have reached an ‘understanding’ of a ‘shared sovereignty’. What that ‘shared sovereignty’ turns out remains to be seen, but it certainly won’t be secession.

The arrival of NSCN(IM) Chairman Isak Chisi Swu and his entourage in New Delhi in January on an ‘Indian passport’ for the first time should be indicative of their relinquishing the demand for sovereignty.

Second is the claim for ‘integration’ of all Naga-inhabited areas into one geopolitical entity. That claim includes not only the Naga-inhabited hilly districts of Manipur, areas of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, but also Naga-inhabited territories of Myanmar. That the general secretary of NSCN(IM), Thuingaleng Muivah, hails from the Ukhrul district of Manipur, whereas NSCN(K) Chairman SS Khaplang hails from Naga-inhabited areas of Myanmar makes it somewhat awkward for both groups to relinquish claims to these territories.

Reorganising the boundary of an Indian State would require a political consensus. Such a consensus is unlikely. No existent state will cede territory to a new larger Naga state. And an attempt to do so would unleash inevitable violence. The leadership of both NSCN factions know this. That the ceasefire remains operational only in Nagaland even after 14 years further underscores this. Integrating areas of Myanmar is anyway beyond the jurisdiction of India and hence, irrelevant.

Insurgency will either die a natural death through ‘honourable’ settlement or will go into hibernation

Third is the question of Naga reconciliation, unifying the various feuding Naga factions under one umbrella. This process received a setback when NSCN(K) supremo Khaplang pulled out of the process in 2008 and remained recalcitrant to reconsider. A significantly large section of the NSCN(K) leadership was suspicious that the talks with the NSCN(IM) have attained a definite and irreversible momentum, and that they were likely to be sidelined in a settlement due to the intransigence of Khaplang.

This led to a ‘coup’ of sorts by the NSCN(K) prime minister and their military commander who impeached the chairman. The June split and the rise of the NSCN(Khole-Kitovi) faction was a consequence of this. Khaplang, meanwhile, continues to retain territories and cadres in his strongholds. Even though such splits during peace talks do not bode well, this one indicates that the insurgent leaders perceived a settlement was within grasp and it was important to remain relevant, even if it meant breaking with intransigent leadership. The inclusion of the NSCN (Khole-Kitovi) and the extension of the ceasefire is also a step in the right direction by the Centre.

Peace With ULFA: No More Red Carpets

The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), in its three decades of existence, has endured several splits and peace processes. It has also endured several military crackdowns. The ones that nearly crippled it, however, did not occur at the hands of Indian security forces. The 2003 crackdown by Bhutan Army on ULFA camps in its territory led to either the wiping out or the arrest of a number of top-rung leaders. The ULFA had seriously underestimated the capability and intent of the Bhutanese government as it did India’s diplomatic clout over its tiny neighbour. ULFA never managed to regain a foothold there. The years that followed saw a major peace initiative fall through, while it remained entrenched in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Public opinion, however, started mounting on both the Union government as well as ULFA to consider peace seriously. A citizens’ initiative had started to coax both sides on to the negotiating table. Also, a few influential ULFA leaders came overground with cadres. Still, an all-encompassing ‘peace process’ eluded Assam. That is when the next blow fell on ULFA. Late in 2009, Bangladeshi security forces swooped down on top ULFA leaders residing in Bangladesh. Among those who fell into the dragnet were chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and deputy military commander Raju Baruah. ULFA had once again failed to anticipate the resolve of another foreign government to act. All arrested leaders were quickly handed over to India and they soon found themselves walking to jail in cuffs. The hubris of a triumphant return as liberators was forever ground to ashes. The only top leader who escaped unscathed was military chief Paresh Barua, who had already relocated to Myanmar.

With Bangladesh firmly going after all camps in their territory, suddenly there was no more pressing need for the Union government to talk. Only after strong intervention by a section of Assam’s eminent intellectuals and civil society, and seeing the need to assuage feelings prior to Assembly elections in the state, did talks kick-start. One by one, the leaders were released from judicial custody on bail, and many second-rung leaders with cadres from ULFA’s operational units surfaced in Assam. While leaders who were released from judicial custody remained committed to the peace process, an influential section entrenched in Myanmar, led by Paresh Barua, has spurned every offer for peace. ULFA is in an uneasy stalemate, with neither the pro-talk faction led by Rajkhowa nor the anti-talk faction led by Paresh Barua officially admitting to what has practically become a split. But the Rajkhowa faction has little leverage over the Union government as it is a foregone conclusion that they have no ‘rebellion’ left in them. On the other hand, even though Barua cannot be compelled to acquiesce to the talks, he stands severely weakened by the split and the losses in Bangladesh. Even if he ultimately accepts offers for talks and is given a safe passage, the red carpet isn’t likely to be rolled out as it was for Muivah and Swu.

The claim for Assam’s sovereignty has already lost relevance. So have the dreams of ULFA leaders to hold it as a bargaining chip for political privileges in their transition back to a constitutional democratic set-up. The virus of insurgency will either die a natural death through an ‘honourable’ settlement or be allowed to go into hibernation to spring back to life at a future time. This is relevant to the success of the parallel peace processes underway with the Bodo, Karbi and Dimasa outfits in Assam as well.

(The views expressed here are the writer’s own)

Nilim Dutta is runs Strategic Research & Analysis Organisation, Guwahati.