Talking to Belligerents
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, lack of development and an unprecedented situation of flood have been taken a heavy toll on the enchanted frontiers’ bill of health, the ambivalence which is being adopted to institute dialogue process with insurgency 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 24 years of cessation of hostilities on August 1, 2021, lesser groups would certainly be caught in a bigger traffic jam”.
Indeed, in a sense, the grievance is not wholly without substance. 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 which leads 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 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 on 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 is analysed 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 was the over six year old “Framework Agreement”. Shrouded in secrecy the “historic” agreement was not only been kept away from the public, but it gave rise to myriad suspicion. Furthermore, it is yet to be 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 conflict in its eastern borderlands has been resolved, when in effect it 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 and the one on the Assam Rifles in Churachandpur on 13 November 2021 are important cases 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? Of late, the (Manipur) Valley Based Insurgent Groups have come into an agreement with the Myanmar army. While the “understanding” has been analysed as a marriage of convenience, the fact of the matter is that it has engineered an about-face for Indian security management. Whereas, in the post 1 February 2021 scenario, Naypyidaw—at the behest of New Delhi—had acted against the Indian Insurgent Groups (IIG) billeted in Myanmar by way of two robust military operations—Op Sunrise I and II—the present poses a 180 degree turn with the belligerence acting in tandem with the same dispensation which New Delhi had hoped to utilise against the North East insurgents. It is wondered as to what such turn of events augur for the much tom-tommed “Neighbourhood First” policy of the Narendra Modi government.
In any event, expedience should have prompted New Delhi to continue to “humour” NSCN (K) and not alienate it simply to appease its rival, NSCN (IM). The “strategy”, if it can be deemed as one, has not worked and witnessed, as aforesaid, only in loss of lives and the attendant problem of having to deal with a united insurgent front that is billeted inside Myanmar with active Chinese patronage. Indeed, there was even caution from Aung San Suu Kyi during her days as the State Counsellor 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” of 2015 (which the NSCN (IM) released in August 2020 with the clear intention of embarrassing New Delhi) turned to be only an ambiguous illustration by which a “riddle (had 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 continued to be “humoured” left behind only “arrogance, blush and blood”. As a matter of fact, the progenitor of the “Framework Agreement” R.N. Ravi who was the then interlocutor for dialogue with the NSCN (IM) (later appointed governor of Nagaland) was removed, clearly signalling a victory for the NSCN (IM).
In fact, the “ouster” is being touted as a victory by the NSCN (IM) and has all the ingredients of the Naga grouping becoming more vehement about a separate flag and constitution. Observers of the Naga dialogue process are of the view that the events leading to R.N. Ravi’s ouster and the attendant concerns pertaining to the Myanmar-IIG tie-up is a complete absence of a policy for North East security in Raisina Hill.
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 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 conflict by adhering to the principle of mutual accommodation and by 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 earnest 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 ignominy with which the “Framework Agreement” and its scrivener, the now infamous, R. N. Ravi had to be abandoned by New Delhi is a clear example of an observable fact that could have been sensibly avoided!
(Jaideep Saikia is a terrorism and conflict analyst with over two dozen peer reviewed and published papers on security and strategy. He is also the author of several books).