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The North East of India—heir to a thousand mutinies—has—of late—been in the news for all the wrong reasons. While rampant corruption, agitation against big dams, the lack of development and an unprecedented situation of flood have taken a heavy toll on the enchanted frontiers’ bill of health, the ambivalence which is being adopted to institute dialogue process with insurgent groups has added to the unrest.

 

Although ceasefires have been anvilled with a number of insurgent outfits, a robust follow-up mechanism has—for one reason or the other—circuited the process. This has led to prolonged period of ceasefire, engendering thereby a sense of not only uneasiness among the once warring groups; but has acted as “stalling-strategy” for militant outfits that have been waiting in the wings to enter into dialogue. The lament that is making the rounds is that “if New Delhi cannot even find an equitable solution to the high profile Naga problem which completed 20 years of cessation of hostilities on 1 August 2017, lesser groups would certainly be caught in a bigger traffic jam.”

 

Indeed, in a sense, the grievance is not wholly without substance. The cessation of hostilities between a state and a non-state group—engaged in conflict of one form or the other—should follow a series of steps that lead to a comprehensive resolution. The path, which a peace process normally takes after a ceasefire is instituted, is expected to be less unwieldy than the one that precedes a ceasefire. Whereas the dynamics that could govern the pre-ceasefire stage can be a long-drawn-out affair, with protracted in camera parleys, entry and engagement of intermediaries, mediators and intelligence agencies, an ably managed post-ceasefire situation should ideally result in an early resolution. As a matter of fact, prolongation of a post-ceasefire period (prior to resolution) is deemed unnecessary, as much of the groundwork on which a future resolution would be structured should have already been established preceding a formal cessation of hostility. However, in the context of North East India, the conflict resolution scenario has become increasingly mired in delays and hindrances, and it appears that adequate attention has not been paid to the pre-ceasefire stage. Indeed, it can be contended that in its haste to cobble out ceasefire arrangements, New Delhi has not taken into consideration certain imperatives that should govern such agreements.

 

But to be fair to New Delhi, the aspects that govern cessation of hostilities and consequently resolution invariably encounter a number of spoilers. External forces inimical to India would try their utmost to derail a peace process: belligerence in the North East, for instance, appeals to the strategic calculus of China and Pakistan even as such countries seek to pin down Indian Army to the region and away from both their primary duties in the border and the growing intransigence in Kashmir, the real battlefield. However, the gaffe which New Delhi seems to be continually making is by tom-tomming its piecemeal achievements. The most glaring of instances has been the over two-year old “Framework Agreement”. Shrouded in secrecy the “historic” agreement has not only been kept away from the public, but it has given rise to myriad suspicions. It is not immediately understood as to why a “Framework Agreement” had to be signed in the first place, and with so much fanfare, especially if it were to be kept a secret! The only rational explanation seems to be that New Delhi wanted to “inform” the rest of the country that the simmering conflict in its eastern borderlands has been resolved, when in effect that is not the case. If this perception is true, then it is not an only unsound policy, but one that is fraught with grave danger to India’s national security. After all, all that has been achieved since the “historic” agreement is suspicion, criticism and inter-group rivalry.

 

Also, in the process of wooing NSCN(IM) and alienating NSCN(K), precious lives have been lost. The attack on the Dogra soldiers in Manipur’s Chandel on 4 June 2015 is an important case in point. Indeed, with the abrogation of ceasefire with NSCN(K), New Delhi willy-nilly pushed important insurgent outfits such as ULFA(I), NDFB(S) and KLO (members of the Valley based Meitei militant groups or the CORCOM have lent their moral—and of late military—support) to join hands with NSCN(K) and form the Chinese-backed umbrella organisation, United Liberation Front of South West East Asia. The group has not only been carrying out attacks on Indian security forces in the region, but has also—chaperoned by the Chinese Ministry of State Security—become a virtual propaganda machine for Beijing. Why on earth would ULFA(I) otherwise—out of the blue—make a statement against India’s stand on Tawang and the Dalai Lama?

 

Expedience should have prompted New Delhi to continue to “humour” NSCN(K) and not alienate it simply to appease its rival, NSCN(IM). In any event, the strategy has not worked and has, aforesaid, resulted in loss of lives and the attendant problem of having to deal with a united insurgent front that is billeted inside Myanmar. Indeed, there was even caution from Aung San Suu Kyi about Indian adventurism inside Myanmarese territory, a la the “surgical strike” by 21 Paras of the Indian Army in retaliation to the Chandel attack. Rhetoric aside, the “Framework Agreement” seems to be only an ambiguous illustration by which a “riddle (has been) wrapped up in an enigma”. Indeed, in the bid to enfeeble the opposition there were myriad attempts to divide the NSCN, a page out of the Kautilyan stratagem of bhed. After all, the manner in which NSCN(K) was pushed to the brink of ceasefire abrogation when it could have been “humoured” instead, left behind only “arrogance, blush and blood”.

 

The author also wishes to take the opportunity of psycho-profiling a belligerent group before it enters into a ceasefire: an imperative that might have escaped the high offices of New Delhi. It must be understood that a heightened sense of caution guides belligerent parties before they enter into a political reconciliation process. The primary concern of such groups is whether the stronger party—as asymmetry characterises almost all cases of conflict between belligerents and constituted authority—would permit an honourable solution, which would be acceptable to the belligerent group and the constituency it seeks to represent. Such groups also exercise caution as they sense that a coaxed entrance into a political process could be a ploy of the stronger party to “wear them out” by engaging them in protracted negotiations.

 

But notwithstanding such predicaments compromises are often made when a belligerent party perceives a stalemate in the movement and when conflict fatigue begins to set in, as also when they realise that the populace among which they operate are building consensus to force the belligerents to enter into dialogue. In such scenarios belligerents try to shape the environment in an array of ways, which may range from escalating the level of violence to internationalising the movement. The motivation is to force the stronger party to open channels for dialogue as the moves of the belligerent party becomes increasingly unacceptable. However, the movement from intention to actual institution of the political process is usually long drawn: most belligerent groups put forward conditions that may not be acceptable to the stronger party. But non-acceptable conditions are usually made only by way of bargaining counters, with a comprehension that a climb-down to acceptable conditions would eventually take place, and ones which were actually intended by the belligerents. Sincerity of both parties – to resolve the conflict by adhering to the principle of mutual accommodation and prolonging the peace dividend when fighting ends – is crucial at this stage. This is primarily because of not only the possibility that subterfuges may be engineered by hardliners among belligerents who feel that they will not be given their due in a post settlement scenario, but also because of the presence of—as aforesaid—spoiling efforts by vested interests. Back channelling and secret parleys with a sincere mandate are best suited to navigate the process at such junctures: publicity normally results in devious objectives coming into play, derailing the political process in its infancy.

 

The “Framework Agreement” is an example of an observable fact that could have been sensibly avoided!

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.