PEACE PROCESS OVERVIEW

hile military operations against the insurgency movements in the Northeast have achieved only limited results, it is the dialogue for peace with them that has brought some order to the region. Dialogue with the Mizo National Front (MNF) culminated in the signing of the Mizo Peace Accord in 1986 ending the 20-year-long insurrection in the entire state of Mizoram in 1986. The December 3, 2003 en masse surrender of the cadres of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and subsequent formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) solved a near decade long insurgency in the areas inhabited by the Bodo tribals in Assam. Such experiences, however, have remained rare events. Other peace deals such as the Shillong Accord in 1975 with the Naga National Council (NNC) in Nagaland, the 1988 agreement with the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) in Tripura, the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) agreement of 1993 with the Bodo hardliners in Assam fell through as new factions, dissatisfied with the terms of the agreement resumed hostilities under new leaderships.

At present, the Union government has ongoing ceasefire agreements with several insurgent groups in different states. The oldest one with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) dates back to July 25, 1997 and the other one with its bete noire, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) has lasted since April 28, 2001. In Assam, the following organizations have ceasefire agreements with the government: Adivasi Cobra Militant Force (ACMF) since September 19, 2001, Dima Halim Daogah (DHD) since January 1, 2003, the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) since May 23, 2002, Birsa Commando Force (BCF) since August 14, 2004 and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) since May 25, 2005. The Alfa and Charlie companies of the ULFA's 28th Battalion are also on a ceasefire with the government since June 24, 2008. But, the anti-talk factions of the NDFB and DHD are still active. However, after the arrest of their leader, Jewel Garlossa, the anti-talk faction of DHD has also declared a unilateral ceasefire for three months starting June 7, 2009.

Similarly, in the state of Meghalaya, the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) has had a ceasefire agreement with the government since July 23, 2004. In Manipur, the Government has signed Suspension of Operations (SoO) with the Kuki rebel outfits on Aug 22, 2008. In Tripura, the Nayanbashi Jamatiya faction of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) has been observing a ceasefire with the government since March 2004.

The insurgents, too, have used the tactic of peace to gain strategic advantage vis-à-vis the security forces. This has been the most evident in case of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in Assam. Beginning the early 1990s, when nearly half of the ULFA's existing cadres came overground responding to the then Assam Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia's appeal for peace, ULFA has tended to show its inclination for a process of dialogue with the government, whenever the outfit is in trouble. The Government has mostly responded in good faith, often acting contrary to the advices of the army authorities, only to find that the outfit has used the interregnum for bolstering its dwindling strength. Another example of this tactic was on display in 2005, when the outfit, with many of its senior leaders and cadres encircled in the Manabhum Reserve Forest in Arunachal Pradesh, constituted the People's Consultative Group (PCG) to prepare the ground work for negotiations with the government. Pressured by the people, the government called off the military operations allowing the cornered ULFA leaders/cadres to get a breather. The PCG held three rounds of dialogue with the union government over a period of one year. The process, however, collapsed in September 2006 as both sides continued proposing conditions and counter-conditions. In the meantime, the outfit had sufficiently strengthened itself to pose sufficient challenges to the security forces.

However, after the arrests of top leaders of the ULFA in November-December 2009, the process of holding peace talks have speeded up. The government has already shown its interest in holding talks with the outfit, with or without the presence of ULFA ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah.

In April 2010, a group of eminent citizens of Assam, led by eminent intellectual Dr Hiren Gohain, formed a state level convention, ‘Sanmilita Jatiya Abhivartan’, in order to restore peace between the insurgents and the government and facilitate an environment for effective peace talks between the two. The convention called upon both New Delhi and the ULFA to come forward for the negotiation table without any pre-condition (and without delay). In a draft resolution, the convention called upon the government to pave way for free passages to the jailed ULFA leaders so that they can go for an agreed decision (in their central committee meeting) to talk to New Delhi.

But the response that the convention received from Paresh Barua was not comfortable for it. In a prompt statement e-mailed to the media, the ULFA ‘commander-in-chief’ not only criticized the convention for its initiative, but also alleged that they had not adequate knowledge about the freedom movement of ULFA. He also asserted that there would be no talks without the issue of ‘sovereignty’ being discussed.

On May 26, 2010, the Assam State Cabinet decided to start the process of talks with the ULFA without Paresh Baruah. However, the Government also made it clear that the anti-insurgency operations against those who try to indulge in violence would continue. The available members of the ULFA’s general council met on May 28, 2010 in Guwahati Central Jail to take a decision regarding peace talks with the government. However, they decided that it was not proper to start talks without its commander-in-chief Paresh Barua. The ULFA leaders also made it clear that only the release of the central committee leaders of the outfit would facilitate the policy making body of the ULFA to take vital decisions. On May 30, 2010, Assam Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi asked the ULFA to formally apprise the government of its decision on opening peace talks. He said the rebel group should tell the government what they want and the government would discuss their proposals in detail and do whatever was possible to get the talk process going.

On June 22, 2010 a six-member delegation of the Sanmilita Jatiya Abhivartan met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and asked him to revive peace talks between the Government and ULFA. The delegation also discussed the possible release of jailed ULFA leaders to boost peace talks. But the government said that it would not release the jailed leaders. The members of the convention again met the Prime Minister, UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Home Minister P Chidambaram during 21-26 July, 2010 and urged them to expedite the process for starting the peace process.

On July 15, 2010 the Centre appointed PC Haldar, former Director (IB), as interlocutor to take forward the process of initiating peace process with the ULFA. He is also the interlocutor for talks with NDFB, DHD (J) and UPDS.

The state government, in order to facilitate the peace talks with ULFA, have started not objecting to the bail pleas of the jailed ULFA leaders. This has paved the way for their release and already all the top leaders of the ULFA are out of the jail. This include chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, vice chairman Pradip Gogoi, publicity chief Mithinga Daimary, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, finance secretary Chitraban Hazarika, foreign secretary Sasadhar Choudhury, cultural secretary Pranati Deka, and political ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain. There are also chances of ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia being extradited to India to help him take part in the proposed peace talks. Now expectations are on for a meeting of the ULFA general council soon, which will decide the outfit’s stand on the peace talks.

A rift within the ULFA became visible when ULFA sent out a message declaring continuation of its fight for a sovereign Assam. The message was accompanied with a photograph of Paresh Barua and armed cadres of ULFA in battle fatigues. For the first time since its formation, ULFA also sent a video footage showing Paresh Barua and the ULFA cadres. The video displayed ULFA cadres giving slogans against peace talks and vowing to fight for a sovereign Assam. The photograph was sent on 20 January, 2011 and the video on 21 January, 2011.

On the other hand, after the arrest of NDFB chief Ranjan Daimary, the Bodo heartland seems to have taken a sigh of relief. Ranjan Daimary has agreed for peace talks and said that he would be able to make his commanders and cadres surrender if New Delhi was keen for negotiations. But the faction is still carried on its subversive activities. However, on January 2011, the faction declared a unilateral truce with the government of India in response to the government's call for negotiations.

The situation in the hill district of Karbi Anglong in Assam is also peaceful. Both the insurgent outfits of the district are on a ceasefire mode with the government. The UPDS also held a round of peace talks with the central government and the state government on 22 December 2010 in New Delhi where all the three sides approved a draft accord paving the way for the signing of a memorandum of agreement (MoA).

Civil society groups in the Northeast have played key roles in the conflict management/resolution process. Both the Young Mizo Association (YMA) and the Church played significant roles in the finalisation of the Mizo Accord. In Nagaland, the Naga Hoho, the Church, the Naga Mothers' Association (NMA) have been instrumental in the 1997 ceasefire between the NSCN-IM and New Delhi. In the resolution of the BLT insurgency, organisations like the Bodo Sahitya Sabha (BSS) and the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) have made crucial contributions. In Manipur, the Meira Paibis (Women Torch bearers) have made significant attempts for the establishment of peace. In Meghalaya, the role of the Church in bringing the ANVC overground is crucial. In Assam, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Assam Sahitya Sabha have made several attempts at establishing peace.

It is important to note, however, that the effectiveness of these organisations, have depended on the level of acceptability that these have enjoyed with the insurgents. Thus, whereas the Church, as a pressure group and a peace broker, has been successful in Christian majority states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya, efficacy of community based organisations in Assam, Manipur and Tripura has only been marginal.
Whereas ceasefire agreements have led to a reduction in the insurgency-related fatalities in the respective states, the Union government has not been able to carve out a road map toward a situation of permanent agreement. In many cases, the process of dialogue is yet to formally start with the outfits. For example, not a single round of formal dialogue has started with the UPDS, DHD, ACF, NDFB and the ANVC despite these groups entering into a truce with the authorities. It has created enough divisions among the outfits’ cadres and more often than not, a sizeable section of the outfits has deserted the parent group to start the ‘war’ afresh. The insurgent groups under ceasefire, on the other hand, have taken advantage of the protracted peace processes and continued with their activities such as extortion and abduction with impunity. In Nagaland, fratricidal clashes between the NSCN-IM and the NSCN-K have remained a major issue of concern. In Assam, even after its moves for peace, ULFA continues to indulge in sporadic acts of violence.

Lack of success of the peace processes has further created enough misgivings among the active insurgent outfits about the sincerity of the government to drive the negotiations to their logical conclusions. For example in Manipur, the valley based insurgent outfits including the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) have raised frequent questions about the usefulness of a ceasefire with the government and have called for resolution of the conflict only with the intervention of the United Nations (UN). The talks with NSCN (IM), the latest being held in March 2009 at Zurich in Switzerland, have also not succeeded in setting the stage for a solution to the Naga problem.

Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh can, however, be said to be comparatively peaceful states in the region. In Tripura, effective counter-insurgency measures have brought down the level of insurgent activities. In Meghalaya, peace talk was offered to Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) in October 2008 but was rejected by the militant outfit. But still the level of insurgent activity is very low there. Similar is the case of Mizoram. Arunachal Pradesh was brought under the unified command structure in December 2008 to deal with the insurgency problem. The state, however, has no local militant outfit but is used by other militant outfits of the northeastern region as a transit route to Myanmar.
(Updated till 26 January, 2011)