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Negotiations with Insurgents in India’s Northeast

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  • June 19, 2008

    Insurgency movements in India’s northeast would appear to be even more intractable and beyond solution if not for the ongoing ceasefires and peace negotiations between the government and two dozen outfits in various states. Products of the efforts by community based organisations, official initiatives or the plain bankruptcy of ideas of the rebel outfits, such negotiations have been the harbinger of tranquillity in many areas of the region.

    There are only two cases of successful resolution of insurgencies in the northeast: the Mizo insurgency which culminated with an accord in 1986 and the Bodo insurgency led by the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) which ended with the disbandment of the outfit in 2003. Even when states like Manipur and Assam continue to be conflict ridden and violence prone, ongoing negotiations with outfits – like National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), Adivasi Cobra Force (ACF), United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) and Dima Halim Daogah (DHD) in Assam, Achik National Volunteers Council (ANVC) in Meghalaya, National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) and its rival Khaplang faction (NSCN-K) in Nagaland, the Nayanbashi and Joshua factions of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) in Tripura and several Kuki outfits in Manipur – continue to keep violence from assuming unmanageable proportions.

    The greatest gain of the peace negotiations has been an immediate dip in the levels of violence between security forces and insurgents. Apart from an expected decrease in the casualties among security forces, the reduction of civilian fatalities is another positive outcome of the ceasefire regimes. In Nagaland, fatalities among civilians – 104 in 1997 and 144 in 1996 – have dipped substantially after the NSCN-IM entered into negotiations with the government in August 1997. Since then (between 1998 and 2007) death of civilians in insurgency-related incidents has averaged a little over 17 per year. In comparison, in Manipur, where none of the principal Meitei insurgent organisations are under a ceasefire agreement with the government, civilians account for a sizeable proportion of the insurgency-related deaths. Between 2004 and 2007, 472 civilians were killed in Manipur, more than one third of the total fatalities in the state.

    Engaging insurgents in protracted negotiations has ultimately led to a closure of their ‘back to the jungle’ option in most cases, even when the peace parleys are seen to be unproductive. The most important example of this trend is that of the NSCN-IM in Nagaland, which has held countless rounds of dialogue with the Union Government in India and abroad. Since the last couple of years, talks have reached a stalemate over the outfit’s demand to integrate the Naga-inhabited areas of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh under one geographical and administrative unit christened as “Nagalim”. Even though the top leadership of the outfit has threatened to call off negotiations and return to the jungle in face of the Government’s alleged insincerity in resolving the issue, for all practical and tactical purposes such an option is non-existent for the outfit. Ten years of ceasefire has allowed the outfit to run an extremely beneficial extortion regime and establish a parallel government of sorts in the state. It has also allowed the security forces to gain unrestricted knowledge of the outfit’s dynamics and the state’s human terrain. NSCN-IM would find it extremely difficult to restart its insurgent campaign in the unlikely event of a collapse of the peace process. It would be constrained to continue its engagement with the government, even while accusing New Delhi of propping up rival groups to undermine its position.

    In other cases, protracted negotiations have also led to the demise of certain movements, making the high profile peace processes look like surrender ceremonies. The January 2004 peace talks between the NLFT-Nayanbashi faction in Tripura is an example. All the cadres of the outfit chose to surrender and avail the rehabilitation package of the state government, even when the outfit’s commander-in-chief Nayanbashi Jamatiya called off the ongoing talks and went back to Bangladesh. In Assam, former Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia’s pragmatic use of the tactic of negotiations led to the surrender of thousands of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) cadres in the mid-1990s. The Bru insurgent outfit from Mizoram, Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) passed into oblivion following a three and half year long peace process, even though the April 2005 peace deal with the State Government remains unimplemented. Thus, while military actions have not helped end insurgencies in the Northeast, negotiations have remained a key tactic of the government at marginalising and diminishing the influence of these outfits.

    Critics argue that in many cases ceasefires with insurgent outfits have not progressed beyond periodic extensions of the agreements. For example, the tripartite ceasefire agreement with the NDFB in Assam is stuck in a limbo since April 2005. The outfit is yet to hold a single round of dialogue with the Government. Outfits like the DHD and UPDS in Assam and ANVC in Meghalaya are in a similar state of affairs. However, the mere fact that the outfits have stuck to the peace processes in spite of such delays underlines the success of the strategy.

    Ceasefires and subsequent negotiations have, indeed, emerged as a successful tool of conflict management in the northeast. This, on the other hand, appears to have introduced a sense of vacillation among active outfits, who view such peace processes as tactical ‘honey traps’. Many outfits including the ULFA are said to be watching the progress of the Government’s negotiations with the NSCN-IM before committing themselves to a peace process. The United National Liberation Front (UNLF) in Manipur still speaks of a United Nations mediated plebiscite in the state to resolve the conflict. Thus, successful culmination of at least some of the processes of negotiation would remain the key to more outfits opting for such a path.

    Most of the negotiations have yet to reach their desired objective of peaceful resolution of the conflicts. However, gains from these processes, as far as keeping violence at low ebb is concerned, have been significant. There is some truth in the arguments of critics that these processes have legalised terror by allowing a regime of extortion and abduction by the outfits under ceasefire. Some fine tuning and greater enforcement of the ground rules outlined in the ceasefire negotiations are the need of the day in harnessing a very effective tool of peace making.