Road without a signpost

There is a need to distinguish between the outfits worth negotiating with and groups whose requests can be ignored.

In August 2014, the Khasi insurgent outfit, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) in Meghalaya declared its intention for starting peace negotiations with the government. Through a bizarre ultimatum, bordering on desperation, it even served an ultimatum on the government for appointing an interlocutor within 24 days. The state chief minister has since responded in affirmation and is asking for the required sanction from New Delhi. In all likelihood, the number of insurgent outfits under peace processes will increase by one in the coming days. Whether this new peace process, like many others continuing at present, will bring peace to the state or the north-eastern region is a different question.


The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) maintains a list of over 20 north-eastern insurgent outfits, who are in negotiations with the government. In a conflict-ridden region, where outfits capable of orchestrating intermittent violence have mushroomed, to boast of a long list of groups that have found reason in negotiating is a definite achievement for the government. This constitutes a success of the counter-insurgency approach of the Indian state. Quite naturally, in MHA’s lexicon the rest of the outfits who have not joined a peace process are “secessionists and extortionists who indulge in illegal and unlawful activities like abduction, extortions, killings.” While the portrayal is not entirely false, the ministry’s achievement in converting the ‘ongoing’ status of the peace processes to successful deals has remained abysmal.

The oldest of the outfits in negotiations, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) has been negotiating for the last 17 years over 80 rounds of talks. Its bete noire, the Khaplang faction (NSCN-K) joined the peace process in 2001. A group of 19 Kuki outfits in Manipur signed a Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement in 2009. While the Achik National Volunteers Council (ANVC)’s peace process in Meghalaya is 10 years old, the Assam base National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) started its negotiations in 2005.

Why outfits join peace processes has no definite answer. In 2004, a faction of the National Liberation Front (NLFT) in Tripura surrendered and initiated a peace process with the government with the hope that its leader Nayanbashi Jamatiya would be declared as the king of Tripura. After the state government declined, the leader made a disappearing act leaving his 250 cadres in a state of bewilderment and declared his intent to “free Tripura” through a renewed armed struggle. After nine years of faceless existence, however, Jamatiya surfaced in Tripura and surrendered again in August 2013. This time, he had no cadres accompanying him.

Barring this peculiar example, in most cases, a commitment for settlement of grievances through a negotiated settlement develops after a transformation in systemic conditions making continuation of an armed movement highly unfeasible. Barring the NSCN-IM, which hit the peace road through the intervention of the Church and the community elders, rest of the outfits including the Mizo National Front (MNF), the pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the NDFB joined the peace process after losing their abilities to continue insurgency.

Thus, peace processes in most cases put the state on a high pedestal, allowing it to talk from a position of strength. In these circumstances, the state’s inability to go through a routine process of finalisation of the ground rules and implementing them, locking up of weapons, and reviewing a charter of demands submitted by the insurgents looks perplexing. As is clear with almost all the peace processes, none of these basic requirements have been fulfilled. While New Delhi has not even finalised drafts of peace pacts (as in the case of the ANVC), many outfits are yet to sit for a single round of negotiations with the government. As a result, none of the peace processes (barring the one with the Bodo Liberation Tigers, involving over 10 years of negotiations and a failed peace deal in 1993) has reached a conclusion.

The history of peace talks with the north-eastern insurgents is also replete with interlocutors, whose objective in some measure appeared prolonging the peace process to the best of their abilities. Reminiscent of the legal cases that go on for ever in the courts, the Naga peace process continued with a retired Home Secretary using the occasions for his foreign junkets and enjoying the benefits that came along with his post. With the MHA least interested in keeping an oversight, several dozens of rounds of negotiations were held in Asian and European capitals for a decade, without any substantive progress. Only after the interlocutor was shunted out in 2009 and the venue of talks was shifted to Nagaland in 2010, that some results started flowing in. In 2013, another interlocutor in the Naga peace talks, incidentally another former home secretary, abruptly quit his position to pursue a career in politics.

Wearing down the insurgents through prolonged talks is often highlighted as an important tactic in the security circles. The fact remains, however, that the only reason why the NSCN-IM remained committed to the process of negotiations is the benefit that came along with the process. Media reports cite how money-filled suitcases were regularly delivered in the outfit’s New Delhi office and a blanket licence of sorts was given to carry out its extortion activities in Nagaland. Under the ceasefire regime, the NSCN-IM’s cadre strength and weapons holding underwent a two-fold increase. The status of the Ceasefire Monitoring Group (CFMG) in Dimapur, in charge of implementing the ground rules, was reduced to a body that merely counts the number of ceasefire violations. Army officials who served as CFMG chairmen have chronicled their frustration upon their retirement questioning the utility of such exercises.

The NSCN-IM’s functioning has become a model of sorts for replication for other outfits under peace processes. As a result, such negotiations have co-existed with killings, abductions, extortion, arms smuggling, and involvement in incidents of sectarian clashes in Assam, Manipur and Meghalaya. An investigation by the Assam police in May 2014, revealed that in order to keep their weapons in use, the outfits under ceasefire are floating new groups and continuing extortion activities through them. In short, peace processes today are narratives of the confluence of official insincerity and insurgent opportunism. Any approach that seeks to resolve existing conflicts and prevent emergence of future ones needs to drastically alter the rules of the game.

Saying no to peace talks or imposing a moratorium on peace processes is politically untenable. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls had ruled out unconditional talks. “Talks with the insurgent groups will be conditional and within the framework of the constitution”, it read. Strictly implemented, this clause would make the negotiations will the NSCN-IM a deeply flawed exercise, since the outfit has consistently refused to abide by the Indian constitution.

The urgent need is of political negotiators replacing reliance on retired bureaucrats, who are handicapped in being unable to take policy decisions. The need is also to distinguish between the outfits who are worth negotiating with and groups whose requests can be ignored. There is a further need to implement the ceasefire ground rules with utmost sincerity and not letting criminal activities continue under the garb of a peace process. Drawing of the curtains on the circus is long overdue.

Photo: Mike O’ Dowd