|Ethnic conflict and civil society in the Northeast - 2|
Let us move to the present: there are negotiations with the Government of India between the I-M, led by Muivah and Swu, and a ceasefire between them that has lasted more than five years. There is peace in the Naga hills — a fragile peace, but it exists. People are speaking out, civil society has found articulate voices through a platform for Naga tribes, the Naga Hoho, as well as church leaders. The tenuous lines of ceasefire ground rules have been framed under a Ceasefire Monitoring Group but not given much teeth yet. Many cadres continue to live outside the designated camps for both groups. There is a ceasefire between the Government of India and the other main faction, the Khaplang faction. But the two factions target each other constantly; there is no ceasefire between them, and there lies the heart of the Naga tragedy.
Yet, this is no mean achievement: that the Government of India, representing a billion people, is talking on equal terms with the most competent of the Naga groups, which has an armed strength of some 6,000 men and women. This is as much a tribute to Indian democracy as it is to the realistic appreciation of both sides that this problem needs a political and not a military solution.
Current Talks Crucial For Northeast
That is why the talks between the NSCN leaders — who flew in from Europe — and the Prime Minister and other leaders were so significance. It was, of course, too optimistic to expect a breakthrough in such a long and intractable problem in a matter of a few days, especially during the first formal visit by a high-ranking Naga ‘undergound’ delegation to New Delhi in 35 years. Much is at stake here, not least the future of the NSCN (I-M) leadership itself and the relationship between the Nagas and the rest of India. Sovereignty is out of the question and the quest for a larger territory is an explosive issue which is unacceptable to the other states involved — Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
The eyes of various insurgent groups, not just of the public and political parties in the Northeast and other parts of the country, are focused on the Naga talks. They want to know if a via media can be developed which can meet both the concerns of the Nagas and of India, respecting their respective commitments, dignity and the realities of the situation. Such a compromise could enable other armed groups to come to the negotiating table for discussions, recognising the futility of armed struggle which harms their own people and their own causes.
The impact of the Naga discussions is seen in the Bodo areas of Assam, where fear is a major factor. The Government of India is not blameless here, having negotiated a deal nearly ten years ago that turned democracy on its head — it gave political power to a minority (the Bodos) and virtually no representation to the majority, non-Bodo tribes and non-tribals such as Bengalis and Assamese. Yet, the fact remains that the Bodos are negotiating an accord through talks between the Bodo Liberation Tigers, New Delhi and Dispur. This is significant because the Bodos are the largest plains tribal group, known for their opposition to the Assamese, a feeling born out of bitterness at economic and political neglect by successive Assam governments.
The ceasefire with the Bodo Liberation Tigers continues and there is the likelihood of the Sixth Schedule being extended to the proposed Bodoland Territorial Council, although this must be suitably amended to give protection and representation to non-Bodos, in terms of land and politics. This group wants a separate state while the other, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, which espouses independence, opposes talks.
For years, Naga ‘overground’ leaders have maintained links with the underground. There have been secret and not-so-secret meetings between politicians and different factions. The I-M says that the Khaplang group has the support of the state government and certain paramilitary forces. But truly encouraging in these past years has been the development of a group of articulate, committed Nagas from different walks of life who have united under the banner of the Naga Hoho and, at considerable risk and under tremendous pressure, are speaking out openly and in private, in the bluntest of terms, to their ‘national’ leaders and ‘national workers’ about public concerns, against extortion and attacks on rivals, calling for unity, reconciliation and better understanding.
This may not sound very significant here, given the extent of the violence in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Jammu and Kashmir. But how many individuals and groups can we list in Sri Lanka or in Kashmir, who have spoken out? Speaking out is a dangerous business.
There still is fear of the gun in Nagaland. One cannot wish it away. There is loathing for some of the groups which live by extortion and intimidation. That this why this effort, no matter how difficult and slow, how despairingly tough, of reconciliation among the embittered groups in Nagaland that the Naga Hoho and the churches have initiated, deserves the support of civil libertarians everywhere, of those who support non-government initiatives for peace and democracy. After more than 50 years of conflict and continuing internecine battles, there is recognition of the need for pressure by democratic, concerned civil society groups and individuals on armed groups to resolve their differences. This has not progressed a great deal because many histories and much bitterness are involved. But efforts are continuing, whatever the outcome of the elections which are likely to be held in February.
The Naga group is committed to consulting the Naga public and maintaining transparency before a settlement is thrashed out with the Government of India. But this is not an easy task for the Muivah group either. And recently, when it issued a statement which, in essence, declared that it had the mandate to resolve the problem, Naga civil society groups were quick to respond, saying that they stood for consultation, understanding, unity and reconciliation as the bedrock of any future solution. This is still being stressed on the eve of the talks between the Government and the NSCN.
In Assam, conditions are quite different — the United Liberation Front of Asom, which was founded in 1979, continues to be active but only in short bursts. Its cadres are located in nine camps in Bhutan (ULFA agreed to shut down four camps last year and is under pressure from Thimpu to move out completely and relocate). But it has lost popular support in Assam, although it retains its ability to strike occasionally. Its leaders are seen as having compromised on one issue that still resonates in the Northeast — the problem of illegal migration from Bangladesh. The key ULFA leaders live in Bangladesh, a country that is not particularly liked in the Northeast because of the outflow of migrants from there.
One cannot reflect on the issues before the Northeast without referring briefly to that of migration and the growth of fundamentalism. One is not talking here about the sprouting of madrasas, but about the less visible radicalisation of young men and women in marginalised regions, untouched by development and what little economic growth is seen elsewhere in Assam. Shut out of the system, they are desperate for jobs and work and embittered by the failure of governance. These people are Indians, along with some Bangladeshis. And it is in these areas, the soft underbelly of eastern India where thousands of Bangladeshis move in and out every year, where the breeding grounds of fundamentalism and greater confrontation exist. A response by extremists of the irresponsible right wing of the other religious persuasion also cannot be ruled out in the Assam Valley.
The sensitive issue of whether Al-Qaeda camps exist in Bangladesh or not is no longer the point. The question is whether the Northeast can remain untouched by radicalism of either kind. It cannot and has not, especially given the high rates of immigration as well as local growth of the fundamentalist phenomenon.
To meet these challenges, three things are essential: the restoration of governance at its most fundamental and basic level, the creation of confidence that indigenous groups will not be reduced to a minority, and bringing antagonistic groups together in the process of peace-building through strong civil society movements.
In that task, one believes that the example, however small or limited, by the Hoho and other civil society groups in Nagaland is worthy of emulation by other regions which are struck by violence and terror. All of us could learn from listening and observing from those who have taken these steps to peace.
I do not despair, because if we despair we lose faith in ourselves and in our fellow beings. I do not despair for I have seen their courage and cannot but be moved by it.
p. 1 p. 2
Sanjoy Hazarika is Research Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi,
and a former New York Times correspondent. An ex-member of the National
Security Advisory Board, he has helped set up the Centre for Northeast Studies and Policy Research. This essay is based on a talk delivered at a conference in Madras