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Managing NE: More foresight needed

Some decisions provoke a disaster because they are fundamentally wrong; others because they are wrongly timed or implemented. The extension of the ceasefire agreement with the NSCN-IM is flawed on both these counts, but it is the latter category of error that has overwhelmingly been responsible for the chaos that followed in Manipur, and the grave dangers of further destabilization throughout the Northeast that have emerged as a result.

The ‘sudden’ eruption of violence that resulted in police firings, the death of 13 persons and injuries to many more, the destruction of the State Assembly and the Chief Minister’s Secretariat as well as an attack on Raj Bhavan itself, and the unprecedented torching of a State legislator in Manipur, are said to have caught the administration "off guard". The State is under President’s rule, consequently the ‘administration’ in this case is the Centre’s representative at Manipur, the Governor. There are some reports that suggest that the State administration was not "taken into confidence" before the announcement of the ceasefire, but this is an extraordinarily limp alibi, especially in view of the fact that the street violence occurred on June 18, six days after the announcement of the "ceasefire extension" on June 13.

The violence in the State was, indeed, eminently predictable on a variety of grounds – and these are entirely independent of the intelligence reports that the State government must have received, both regarding the general mood of the people, and the preparations for the clearly organized violence of June 18. Successive chief ministers of the State had made it amply clear that the application of the ceasefire to areas within Manipur was politically unacceptable. In an unprecedented demonstration of solidarity, a rally of a reported 800,000 persons (the number could well be exaggerated, as it represents more than a third of the total population of the State, but it is clear that the participation was massive) representing every community in the State, had been held to articulate the general and heightened sentiments on the issues of the ceasefire extension and the ‘territorial integrity of Manipur’, as recently as on September 28, 2000. With such mass mobilization on the matter, only an exceptionally obtuse administration, entirely out of tune with the public sentiment, would have failed to anticipate violence; and the failure to prevent at least the attacks on the core symbols of the state’s authority is inexplicable.

What appears also to have been forgotten in the inordinate focus on the ‘peace process’ in Nagaland, is the fact that, in recent years, Manipur has been far more the ‘killing field’ in the region. In the year 2000, for instance, the conflict in the latter State claimed nearly 246 lives, as against 101 in Nagaland. There has, moreover, been a complete collapse of the political leadership in Manipur. Yet, like a machine with its central mechanism broken, the engines of the ‘peace process’ continue to flay uncontrollably about, contributing, instead, to an escalation in both overt violence, and a far greater magnification of the potential for further conflict and instability throughout the region. As with much of governmental activity, the critical link between the act and its actual intent and objectives is disrupted as a result of the insensitivity and short-sightedness of key official players.

The merits of the official peace process apart, it must be clear that, had the measures been explained at length, had the leadership of all the neighbouring States been taken into confidence, and had some effort been exercised to mobilise public opinion in favour of the ceasefire extension, the scale of unrest and political polarisation that has now emerged could certainly have been contained. The fact, however, is that no such effort was made. An agreement on revised ground rules had been reached back in January. Despite this, the processes leading up to the new ceasefire agreement and its announcement continued in a atmosphere of counterproductive secrecy, interrupted only by the brinkmanship of T. Muivah’s occasional and unconvincing threat to walk out of the talks unless further concessions were made.

The situation that now obtains is far from satisfactory. It has become impossible for any of the parties in the conflict – the Centre, the NSCN-IM, and the Governments and political leadership of each of the neighbouring States – to withdraw or to soften their stance. Though the polarities may diminish over time, it must be clear that Manipur will continue to simmer, and that the whole of the Northeast has been unnecessarily destabilised by a poorly conceived and worse executed initiative on the part of the Centre.

While it is not possible to go into detail here, it is important to note that the basic premises of the ‘peace processes’ in Nagaland (as in various other theatres of conflict in India) are seriously flawed. While the government has announced that it will ‘talk to‘ all shades of political opinion in the State, it is clear that the only groups who secure the Centre’s attention with any measure of seriousness, are the ones who kill, or retain significant capabilities to kill; and the greater their violence or potential for violence, the more urgent and attentive are the Centre’s efforts for a negotiated settlement. This sends out a number of rather unfortunate messages: that India’s government only negotiates on its knees; that groups that kill larger numbers of people are in some sense more ‘representative’ of the aspirations and desires of the same people; that terrorism and violence will be rewarded with the government’s recognition and endorsement of this ‘representative’ status; that democratically elected governments can be short-circuited out of the loop as the Centre reaches out directly to the militant leadership. These premises produce distortions that undermine the utility of the peace processes in Nagaland.

It is important to note, in this context, that, the secessionist fiction notwithstanding, the ‘Nagas’ are not a single, politically and culturally homogenous group, with correspondingly homogenous political ambitions and aspirations. Indeed, there are nearly 40 major tribes sub-tribes among the people categorised as Nagas, each of which speaks a different language (though all these belong to the Tibeto-Burmese group of languages), and many of whom have unrelenting histories of internecine conflict. The NSCN split into the Isak-Muivah and Khaplang factions precisely on issues relating to tribal rivalries, and are substantially aligned on the basis of such identities even today. There have, moreover, been ‘conclusive’ peace agreements in the past as well. In 1975, the Naga National Council (NNC) agreed to accept the Indian Constitution and abjure violence, but a breakaway group created the NSCN in 1980. Today, with the complex incentives and massive profits involved in the criminal activities associated with militancy, and with complex inter-State linkages and consequences, negotiated agreements with one or other local faction are far from a viable strategy to secure a permanent peace in the region.

The core of the crisis, not only in Manipur, but also throughout the region, is the inability of the States to develop, equip and maintain a viable apparatus to execute their own law and order responsibilities. This weakness is exacerbated when a change of political dispensations and continuous politicisation of the police undermines discipline and effectiveness. The result has been that the law and order apparatus is virtually run by the Centre through the para-military forces and the Army deployed in these States. There is, thus, a de facto abdication of the State’s duties under the Constitution with regard to internal security. Unless these trends are reversed, crude and imprudent interventions by a distant, insensitive and often uncomprehending Central authority will continue to provide unending fuel to the fires that burn across India’s Northeast.

(Published in The Pioneer, June 30, 2001)





Copyright © 2001 SATP. All rights reserved.