Wednesday, December 08, 2021

A Roadmap to Restore Normalcy (Part 1)

By EMN Updated: Apr 01, 2014 10:24 pm

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]ortheast India has had a history of numerous conflicts since the early 1950s. There have been, at the same time, several peace initiatives from time to time on the said conflict situations. These initiatives, however, ended mostly in failure. In the days of yore, the North East was an idyllic place of peace, tranquility and happiness. Although economic prosperity in the modern sense of the term was not much visible in this corner of our subcontinent, people here were happy and easy-going because they had fewer needs and still lesser aspirations. Peace used to get breached now and then only when kings and chieftains fought among themselves, group-wise, for some reason or the other. However, owing to differences in ways of life and customs as well as lack of communication as between them, various ethnic groups in the great Brahmaputra and the Barak plains and the hills and mountains sandwiching the plains lived more or less an isolated life as though in separate compartments, though not entirely as strangers to one another. One factor that made a somewhat common meeting point for the ethnic communities in the North East was the Assamese language in the Brahmaputra valley and the Bengali language in the Barak valley. These languages helped, to some extent, the growth of an understanding and interaction among the ethnic communities inhabiting the land in isolated pockets and areas.The British rule in the North East encompassing the then province of Assam and the princely states of Manipur and Tripura had its beginning with the signing of the Yandaboo treaty in 1826 in the wake of a series of predatory invasions of Assam, and later of Manipur, by the Burmese from across the border. The invaders had come to Assam across the formidable Patkai Mountains. A very large chunk of the population of the Brahmaputra valley had perished in mindless atrocities perpetrated by the Burmese in the short span of the latter’s occupation of the valley in the early 19th century. Thus the British came to Assam at that moment as a saviour. They opened up avenues for economic development of the region by setting up the tea industry, exploring oil and coal and extending railway lines in the valleys and across the hills between them.
The British government in India, for various reasons of its own – some strategic, some political and some purely commercial – did not make any effort to integrate the plainsmen and the hill-men. They kept the impenetrable mountains and forests in the north-east of the North East – the present day Arunachal Pradesh – out of bounds for everybody, obviously for strategic reasons. Even Christian missionaries were not allowed to move in there. However, they allowed the missionaries to enter the Naga Hills, the Lushai (present Mizo) Hills, the K & J Hills and the Garo Hills, which have all attained separate entities in rapid succession within the first four decades of the country’s independence, thanks to the internal dissensions within the undivided state of Assam. The alien government had put in place in 1873 an instrument, called the Inner Line Permit system (ILP), to put a barrier between the plains and the hills. No one from the plains was allowed to enter the hills where the system was in force without permission from the authorities. Thus owing to the lack of free contact, hill-tribes and plainsmen remained somewhat distant from one another.
The first group of tribes to cultivate an idea of separation from Assam was the Nagas, the idea having its genesis in the formation of the Naga Club in 1918. It pleaded with the Simon Commission in the late 1920s for a separate identity for Nagas in the Indian constitutional frame-work that was being worked out by the British government in the run-up to the enactment of the Government of India Act 1935. The early 1940s saw the germination and growth of the Naga National Council (NNC) under the leadership of the legendary Naga leader, AZ Phizo, and this led to the outbreak of an armed insurrection by a self-styled Naga army in the then Naga Hills district of Assam. The upheaval profoundly affected the contiguous Sibsagar and Nowgong districts as well as North Cachar Hills and Mikir Hills of the then undivided Assam in terms of loss of life and property. The contribution to this turn of events of the departing British officers (ICS) working in the area at the time of India’s Independence has been quite significant in so far as they initially planted the idea of a ‘crown colony’ for the Nagas to be under the direct control of the British government in London. However, the Nagas rejected the scheme after a while and asked for complete independence from India.
The mother of all insurgencies in the country has been the one in Nagaland.
After a long blood bath in the conflict, there was a peace initiative – the first of its kind in the country – in the mid-1960s, led by Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan. He was assisted in the effort by the then Chief Minister of Assam, late BP Chaliha and one Mr Michael Scott representing the Christian viewpoint.
What was their brief is not known but it is certain that the mission never really took off. This unfortunately set a trend for peace initiatives in the mushrooming insurgencies in the region since then, though there has been an exception – that of the Mizo rebellion, which ended in a lasting peace accord in 1986. The Mizo Accord fortunately remains a bright example of how differences can be resolved through talks. Militancy in the region has always been aided and a good deal abetted by India’s main geostrategic adversary, China, and till the liberation of Bangladesh, by an intransigent Pakistan (through the then East Pakistan).
The irredentism of a section of Assam’s intelligentsia in their quest for political and intellectual primacy brought in the declaration of Assamese language first as the only ‘official language of the state’ (in 1960) and then as the ‘medium of instruction’ at university level (in 1972) to the exclusion of other languages in the State. The intellectuals were oblivious of the fact that unlike other States in India which were more or less uni-lingual, Assam had a very composite populace speaking in a number of languages and dialects and the majority of them were not at home in Assamese. The late BP Chaliha had ardently pointed to this reality but was over-ruled. The fact that fierce movements for creation of separate states in the geographic bounds of Assam started almost immediately after 1960 indicates that the move on the language question had a negative impact on the unity of Assam’s plural polity. The birth of the smaller states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram followed one after the other from the womb of the mother state, Assam, even as the Bengalis agitated and secured recognition of Bengali as one of the official languages in the Barak valley (1961).
Imaginary or real discrimination against various tribes and communities in the matter of their economic, political and social well-being has been a cause of growing discontent and the consequent unrest in the North East. For example, the neglect of Mizo Hills by Assam Government at the time of their distress during the deadly famine in the late 1960s created the ground for Mizo insurgency. The only road to Mizo Hills was from Silchar in the Barakvalley and it was in a very poor state. The pleas of the then pro-government Mizo Union (a local political party) for urgent help when the people in the interior areas of the district were dying of starvation did not evoke appropriate response from the then government of the state. Whatever help came was too little, too late. This state of affairs made the job of MNF leader Laldenga much easier. The strategic position of the Mizoram enabled Laldenga to get in touch with and comfortably secure military assistance from Pakistan and China for his enterprise. What is more, when the military situation became desperate, the central government fell into a quandary.
Thus the IAF was for the first time (and till now the only time) used against a set of rebels in India and that happened in Mizoram. It was not a correct decision, whatever may have been the circumstances. It left a wound.
The movement against ‘foreigners’ in Assam (1979-85) did not eventually achieve much. There were a lot of contradictions in it even when it raged through. It created in the whole of the Brahmaputra valley a turmoil that physically lasted for six years but its impact has been much more far-reaching.
The Assamese identity that had got built up over centuries of historical processes received a jolt with many of the tribal folks in it developing a sense of independent entity of their own in the wake of the movement. It happened because a lot of politics got played in the system. Thus the Bodos, the Rabhas, the Koch-Rajbangshis, the Tiwas, the Mishings, the Karbis, the Mottocks, the Morans, the Chutiyas, the tea tribes and other smaller communities started thinking in terms of a separate existence or autonomy.
A good number of the people of East Bengal origin who by themselves constitute a major community in the state had adopted Assamese as their mother tongue since the early 1950s but following the anti-foreigner movement, they have, to some extent, got alienated from the mainstream.
Thus, analytically, the above movement can be said to have divided the polity in Assam to a large extent and created some distrust among various groups. Many of the ethnic ommunities who had joined the anti-foreigner movement with full force have since drifted away from the mainstream polity in Assam. A schism is visible as between the major communities in the Brahmaputra valley on the basis of ethnicity, language and religion. This does not forebode well.
The birth and growth of separatist movements on ethnic lines, like those by NSCN, ULFA and NDFB, in all their avatars, had created a realm of fear in the North East. These outfits were aided by their smaller versions in all the states of the region. Though the intensity of the conflicts in the states of the North East has, of late, waned, they nevertheless persist to a considerable extent. Every now and then, we keep hearing of kidnappings, shoot-outs, killings, extortion drives and the like by the cadres of the very outfits with whom the central and the state governments had entered into peace talks. Many are arrested.
Peace processes
Almost all the conflicts in the North East had interventions by well-meaning mediators from time to time. The mediators, or interlocutors as they are known these days, are supposed to have confidence of the rebels and the governments at both the centre and the state concerned. Time to time they are appointed, they do a lot of talking spread over years but an eventual solution of the issues raised remains unaccomplished. Even at present, two retired bureaucrats at a very senior level have been ‘mediating’ between the major outfits of Nagaland and Assam on one side and the central government on the other. They have been on the job for quite some time but there does not seem to be any concrete result till now. The problem is that the Union of India cannot afford to upset the constitutional structure of the country in the line of what the rebel outfits seek to have.
Experience shows that a truce that is achieved through separate ‘talks’ with the individual militant groups never leads to a permanent peace settlement.
Arms retained by the militants under a truce are used by them to intimidate people and extort money and even commit heinous crimes. The so-called surrenderees rather get a license to carry on with their unlawful activities under a cover of legitimacy.
A significant characteristic of the peace processes is that there rises almost invariably a group or a sub-group among the participants of an on-going peace process, which rejects the ‘peace offers’ or the terms negotiated. This leads to a stalemate and, at times, even more violence. The activities of the ULFA (I) and the NDFB (Songbijit) in the recent past bear the truth of the premise. The proto-type has many examples – the history of undivided NSCN, NDFB, ULFA, DHD, UPDS, ANVC, HNLC, NLFT, PULF, PLA, etc. are illustrative of the nature of things that happen unfailingly. All the above outfits and many other small ones in the trade have had many factions competing in the same space. Often it turns into fratricide as it happened in the past among the Naga and Bodo militant groups. In Manipur, there are nearly 50 nos. of insurgent outfits, several ones having taken birth in quick succession out of each of the dozen or so mother outfits, like PLA, KCP, PULF, KYKC, etc. Thus ‘peace talks’ as being conducted lead the polity nowhere. They perpetuate the cycle of old outfits giving birth to new ones.
The NSCN was born because the Shillong Accord of 1975 negotiated by Governor LP Singh had failed. Over the years, the NSCN has proliferated into several separate outfits – NSCN (IM), NSCN (K) and NSCN (K-K) -opposed to and fighting with one another. They have come to wield almost parallel power over the citizens in the spheres of their influence. In Dimapur, for example, the NSCN (I-M) rules the roost.
SP Kar
Inspector General of Police (Retd), Assam

By EMN Updated: Apr 01, 2014 10:24:50 pm