2011 was the year of consolidation of the absence of violence-phenomenon that has dawned in India’s Northeast for the past few years. Most parts of this rebellious region have reported declining trends in armed violence. Many of the mature insurgency movements, which appeared to be intractable for a long time, have run out of steam. Cooperation from neighbouring Bangladesh has managed to achieve what the decades-long military, development and political initiatives by the Indian government could not. And yet, the goal of establishing durable peace in the region looks some distance away.
Security Situation in the Northeast
No of Incidents
No. of Security Forces Killed
No. of Civilians Killed
(Source: Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India)
However, if declining fatalities tell a story of promise, the existing abilities among the insurgents foretell a narrative of continuing challenges. Moreover, it is also problematic to consider peace processes as an end in themselves. Without a final agreement, peace processes resemble only stop gap arrangements. And a cursory look at the continuing peace processes in the Northeast is indicative of the failure in this regard.
PEACE PROCESS WITH ULFA TO NOWHERE
The MHA’s Annual Report 2010-11 speaks of Suspension of Operations (SoO) Agreements with a number of outfits in the Northeast. The year 2011 added one more outfit to the list. The pro-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA)- consisting of top leaders of the outfit who were arrested in Dhaka and subsequently handed over to India and some of the ULFA commanders who had come overground previously- submitted its charter of demands to New Delhi in August. The first round talks took place in October, marking the beginning of what is suspected to be an extended process to solve the insurgency.
In spite of the hullabaloo the development generated, there are serious doubts about the efficacy of the process. To begin with, it is a process of negotiation with a group of mostly arrested ULFA cadres, for whom engagement in peace process is the only way of staying out of the prison. Secondly, the government has very little to offer to the ULFA’s pro-talk faction in terms of independence or autonomy to Assam. Unless the pro-talk ULFA faction gives up the sovereignty demand and settles for some watered down provisions for the protection of cultural and economic rights of the indigenous people of Assam, the negotiation process would be an exercise in futility.
Peace processes do provide the insurgents an opportunity to remain in the limelight and garner several benefits. For the Government, negotiations are tactics of engaging and wearing out the insurgents. However, at the same time, without proper implementation of the ground rules, over-grounding of the insurgents can have serious security implications.
Nagaland has been an example of this trend, where overground insurgents continue to run parallel government. Similarly, the revelations made by the Police during the 19-20 December 2011 Conference of the Directors General (DGP) and Inspectors General of Police (IGP) in Guwahati also foretell a similar problem for Assam, in terms of accentuating the Maoist extremist threat to the Northeast.
Whereas the region has been on the radar of the Communist Party of India (CPI-Maoist) for quite some time and the outfit is known to have established linkages with outfits of Manipur, the ULFA in recent times has emerged as a potential collaborator for the Maoists. Assam Police now claims that some of the overground ULFA cadres are now doubling up as Maoist cadres in the state. Police departments in the region have little exposure to the Maoist activities. This loophole, unless plugged, can provide ample opportunity for the Maoists to fill the vacuum created by the neutralisation of the outfits.
The other challenge to the recent peace in Assam comes from ULFA’s military commander Paresh Baruah, who remains opposed to the peace process. With the beginning of the peace process between the Government and the ULFA’s pro-talk faction, Baruah stands isolated. However, to dismiss him as redundant would be a mistake. History has taught us that an outfit with handful cadres and arms can create havoc in the region. Baruah has both. In addition, he has the experience of building an armed movement from the scratch and more importantly, the good wishes of those who aren’t particularly thrilled with the peace process in Assam.
Extortion Raj under the name of Naga Peace Process
Progress appears to have been achieved in the Naga peace talks. First indication of the convergence of views between New Delhi and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) was provided in July 2011 when both parties made a joint announcement stating that they have narrowed down differences and are trying to come to a settlement in the shortest possible time. Six months later, on 18 December the NSCN-IM General Secretary said, “We have almost come to a meeting point.” However, fact remains that the solution of the Naga issue on NSCN-IM’s terms can be a harbinger of serious problems in neighbouring states especially in Manipur and New Delhi avoid risking such a scenario.
Media reports in recent times have harped on New Delhi creating a Supra State offering maximum autonomy to Nagaland under provisions of the Indian Constitution. The actual points of agreement remain pure guess work for the moment. On 14 December the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) replied in negative in response to a question in the upper house of the Indian Parliament, “Whether Government has any proposal in any form that would enable people to enjoy certain special powers relating to the traditional and social customs of the Nagas in the State of Northeast Region in the context of the solution of NSCN-IM demands?.” Similarly, on 3 December Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had declared in Imphal “the Central government is committed to the territorial integrity of Manipur”. The NSCN-IM criticised the statement as unfortunate and a u-turn to the commitment of seeking the Indo-Naga solution outside the box. Understandably, the Naga rebel leadership isn’t in a position to accept an arrangement that does not recognise the right of the Naga people to live under a single administrative unit.By all means, the Naga conflict is not any closer to solution.
Elections In Manipur:
A lot of hope had been pinned on long-term peace in Manipur following the 2010 arrest of R K Meghen, Chief of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF). Meghen’s arrest was a setback to armed militancy in Manipur. However, on the other level, the expectations that Meghen can be made agreeable to start a process of dialogue with the government have not fructified. Meghen, who equates peace processes with surrender, hasn’t shown any signs of following the example set by ULFA Chairman Mr. Rajkhowa and company. His obstinacy, in the long run, may prove to be an encouragement not just for the surviving UNLF leaders and cadres, but also to the rest of the extremists whose belief in the revolution is not yet shaken. Violence has drastically declined in Manipur. However, as the 30 November explosion in Imphal demonstrated, outfits do retain nuisance capacities.
Bangladeshis in North-East UIN can't solve migration problem
The Government of India's initiative to develop a Unique Identification Number for every Indian under the leadership of Nandan Nilekani is a master stroke. Yet, I am not sure it would be able to conclusively deal with the issue of citizenship, which is extremely sensitive and complex in the North-East, especially in Assam.
Despite a border fence, migrants still come for economic purposes, to work and earn a living. While it is clear that some of the movement is temporary — of people going back and forth for work, especially as unskilled labour — but another part of it is permanent, with people leaving their homes with the intention of setting up a new residence.
Some move to Assam and then travel to other parts o the North-East and go to different parts of India. An elaborate process of travel touts and organisers helps this movement.
There are an estimated 3.5 crores BanglaDeshi illegal migrants in Assam & rest of India and no law or government is strong enough or determined enough to "throw them out" as agitators would have them do.
It is not as easy as it sounds: the concentration of migrants, the mixing with local communities (also Muslim and originally Bengali speakers who have adopted Assamese as their new language) and the dangers of communal clashes/ trouble leading to major law and order situations are the very reasons why no government in Delhi or Assam over the past 20 years, despite spewing hot rhetoric, has been able to do anything substantial about it.
Mr Nikelani's commission must consult the old registers and lists related to citizens, settlers and voters. This is a huge, thankless and elaborate task, which assumes greater significance because still we do not know how many refugees India hosts or how many are migrants or illegal migrants. After all, who will be entitled to the UIN? How would you diffentiate between a foreign national who claims Indian citizenship and a bona fide Indian?
There should be a National Immigration Commission, but there should be ID cards for all residents in the region based on the National Register of Citizens of 1951 and then Work Permits for all who have come after 1971.
There is an agreement at the bilateral level between India and Bangladesh of 1972 on the position on citizenship as well as the agreement between New Delhi and the All Assam Students Union in 1985 that laid down conditions for allowing the pre-1971 migrants to vote and also said that those who came after 1971 would be identified and deported.
This has not happened because of the illegal migratnts determination by tribunal law of 1983, which was designed to protect settlers and applied only to Assam, was in place until the Supreme Court threw it out as ultra vires of the Constitution three years back.
The Centre resorted to subterfuge by amending the Foreigners Tribunal Order to make the relevant part applicable only to the Assam Government but that too was struck down by the apex court.
In the process a lot of time has been wasted. Yet, despite the emotions that the issue of migration arouses, it is important to look at innovative ways in which the border management and migration regulatory regimes need to be made practical.
Thus, the proposed work permits would not be an acceptance of permanent settlement nor would it confer the right to vote; it would confirm the temporary status of migrants and ensure they would not be eligible to the rights of a citizens — to acquire immovable property, move elsewhere in the country, marry locally and exercise franchise.
The significance of the work permits cannot be stressed enough — the Government of India plans to spend a staggering Rs 55,000 crore on developing road infrastructure in the North-East in the next few years. That will require labour — which does not exist.
The Arjun Sengupta Commission on Unemployment in the Unorganised Sector said that 23 lakh workers would be required by 2015. The North-East has bare three lakh. Where is the balance going to come from? No points for guessing: from other labour-producing parts of India, and probably Bangladesh.
Border management is crucial in a region which has 96 per cent of its borders with other countries and 4 per cent with the rest of India. In that process, the classification of the outflow from Bangladesh as a labour flow may help.
We need to be clear about some of these issues as rhetoric misleads and fudges the real point. While Constitutional guarantees must be provided to the locals with a majority of seats in the state assembly reserved for them in perpetuity, Mr Nilekani has his work cut out for him as far as the North-East is concerned.
It is our hope that some of the points given above will help in the process of developing a robust and realistic plan that silences doomsday pundits.
About Brig. Hemant Mahajan
Brigadier Heman Mahajan (YSM) joined armed forces since 1973. Started his military life as an officer with the ‘7 Maratha Light Infantry’. Brig. Mahajan has served in the most sensitive areas like Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, North Eastern states. Importantly Brig. Mahajan had an experience of serving his duty in highest and tough warzone like Kargil, handling peace situation in furious Punjab after the ‘Operational Blue Star’ and the Ayodhya region. Along with ‘Youth Seva Medal’, Brig. Mahajan is recipient of various Military awards for his excellent track record.