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Escalation and De-escalation of Violence in Insurgencies: Insights from Northeast India

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  • January 13, 2012
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Shri G K Pillai
    Discussants: Maj Gen Dhruv Katoch and Shri Sanjoy Hazarika

    Dr. Namrata Goswami’s paper defines insurgencies as irregular warfare which engages in non-frontal attacks against the adversary with small groups of fighters and which is marked by the absence of fixed battlefields. Insurgencies, therefore, involve a complex mix of political legitimisation, support base, emotional category, symbolic gestures and historical narratives buttressed by the elements of time and space. Escalation of violence, as defined in Dr. Goswami’s paper, implies increases in the level of conflict over a period of time and de-escalation signifies decreases in the level of conflict over a period of time.

    The paper, however, analyses the escalation and de-escalation process in insurgencies with regard to the National Socialist Council of Nagalim Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its political front, the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) of Manipur. While the first two insurgency movements have witnessed stages of escalation and de-escalation of violence spreading across decades, the PLA offers an intriguing example of an insurgent group that continues to remain hostile to peace negotiations.

    The paper further offers an analysis of the factors leading to the escalation of violence taking into account the three cases mentioned above. Political motivation plays a vital role through which the insurgents garner support from the people for their violent activities. Hence, political mobilisation is the first vital step in any armed movement in order to acquire critical mass and to create space for conflict escalation. In case of NSCN-IM, political objective of Naga territorial unification and sovereignty based on the historical narrative of Naga independent status before the British occupation plays a vital role. The ULFA also utilises the politics of Assamese exploitation at the hands of New Delhi in order to vindicate its demand for a separate Assamese homeland.

    The availability of arms is one of the important factors leading to the escalation of violence level in an insurgency. The easy availability of arms in Northeast India enables the NSCN-IM, the ULFA and the PLA to sustain their armed movements. Of the United Nation’s estimated 640 million illegal arms in the world, 40 million small arms are in India alone, with Manipur accounting 32 percent of small arms.

    State response plays an important role in deciding the escalation or de-escalation of violence in an insurgency. For example, the state of India responded with massive use of force in response to the insurgent groups in Northeast at their initial stage. As a consequence, militant groups escalated their violence which resulted in non-combatant deaths.

    Popular support base is one of the important factors which help escalating the violence level of an insurgency. The local support for the insurgent groups of the Northeast of India mentioned above depends on their ability to reflect the grievances of the people in the affected areas like alienation and deprivation, political marginalisation, etc. Similarly, the insurgent groups use violence as a tool to get support from their target population. For example, ULFA is known for its violence tactics of killing non-Assamese Hindi-speaking people.

    Legitimacy of a particular insurgency movement escalates the violence level. Insurgents use various methods to enjoy legitimacy from a targeted population. These groups engage in violence in order to provoke the regular army to escalate its use of force, thereby creating enormous hardship for the local population. Disproportionate counter-measures by the state forces only provide these groups an opportunity to act as the security provider for the people.

    External support also helps escalating the violence level in a conflict. In the case of Northeast of India, it shares a 4500 Kilometer highly porous border with China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Both the NSCN-IM and ULFA have/had their training camps in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Moreover, both the armed groups had strong connections with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) of Myanmar. There are lots of instances on how these groups used the bordering countries as their safe heavens.

    Time and space are important factors for the escalation of violence. Time enables irregular groups to wage a protracted war aiming to gradually reduce the political and psychological will of the stronger power. Taking advantage of the strategic dimension of time, the NSCN-IM has established constituencies for the purposes of recruitment and resource generation. Similarly, ULFA has taken advantage of time to generate resources for their fight, recruit new cadres, establish base areas, create support networks amongst the local population and spread their ideas.

    The geography and terrain of a particular place is critical for the continuation of insurgent movements. Without supportive terrain, lightly armed, highly mobile insurgents stand little chance to offset the technological superiority of the stronger power.

    The organisational structure of an insurgent group plays a very vital role in the escalation of conflict level. A cohesive organization with a strong leadership helps an insurgent group act better. For example the NSCN-IM has a highly centralized political structure known as Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland (GPRN). Similarly, both the PLA and the ULFA are highly centralized outfits with radical sense of loyalty. Intra-group conflicts or factionalism with on a group escalates the violence level. This happens because the rival factions adopt an escalated violence means in order to establish social and political dominance. The leadership differences between Muivah and Khaplang in 1988 and the escalated violence level can be a case in point.

    De-escalation in violence, according to Dr. Goswami, is dependant upon the state response to insurgencies, political motivation, and absence of popular support, lack of legitimacy and loss of external support. De-escalation can occur also when the insurgent group identifies an opportunity to resolve the conflict in a positive sum manner if it believes that the state is willing to concede to most of its demands.

    State response to the insurgency movements plays an important role in de-escalating the violence level. The state of India’s response to the insurgency movements can be located with in three conceptual parameters. The proportionate use of force has been the key determining factor of a responsive state in the post 1970s. The significance of proportionality of means and non-combatant immunity are absolutely critical for the Indian state’s response to the insurgencies in the Northeast. Because, since ULFA, NSCN-IM and PLA project a certain degree of society support, the disproportionate use of force by the Indian state can be counter-productive.

    Use of dialogue and negotiation is one of the important responses of the state of India in bringing down the violence level in the Northeast. The ongoing peace talks between the Government of India and the ULFA and NSCN-IM can be a case in point. Similarly, the grant of greater autonomy and the statehood to some of the areas where the insurgent groups are active can bring down the conflict level.

    Lack of legitimacy of an insurgent group may bring down the conflict level. The NSCN-IM is under constant pressure from the civil societies to bring down the violence level. For example, in 2007 the Naga Hoho (Apex Council) in a strongly worded statement demanded that all Naga factions abstain from violence and give peace a chance. Similarly, in recent years ULFA’s claim of legitimate representation of Assamese aspiration for political sovereignty has also come under deep critical scrutiny since the outfit is seen as non-transparent and run by a handful of men and women.

    Lack of external support is a major factor in de-escalating the violence level of an insurgency movement. Nearly 30 under-ground ULFA camps were destroyed in Bhutan in 2003 which forced the ULFA to shift its base to Bangladesh. After the crackdown on the militant outfits in Bangladesh by Sheikh Hasina Government in 2009 many of the ULFA leaders were arrested and handed over to India.

    Dr. Goswami’s paper concludes that when the insurgent groups are fighting for the establishment of separate independent statehood, violent responses by the state is counter-productive and leads to a vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence. The paper finds three key variables with regard to escalation and de-escalation i.e. popular support, loss of legitimacy and state response.

    Major points of Discussion and Suggestions

    • There is a need to understand the background of all insurgency movements. There is also a need to study various insurgent groups in the northeast separately.
    • There has been abrogation of the constitutional norms by the political party in power in Assam. Hence, ULFA is a created problem.
    • The deployment of Security Forces as a state response has to be changed. There is a need to find out the sources of funding for these groups since the local funding for them is not sufficient for them to sustain.
    • The time factor has always been with the Government. The time has come not to see the insurgency as simply a military problem. There is a need to take governance issues into consideration.
    • The role of political parties in escalating the violence level should have been discussed.
    • There has been a shift of Insurgents activities i.e. from legitimate demands to criminal activities.
    • It is difficult to decide as when is the perfect situation for conflict resolution.
    • There is a need to address the governance issues because more people have died in governance failure than because of insurgencies.
    • Insurgencies in Northeast will be difficult to resolve since there are many stakeholders. It can only be controlled to a point.
    • Giving statehood to Nagaland was an end of the bargaining power of state of India

    Report prepared by Dr. Anshuman Behera, Research Assistant, Internal Security Centre, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis.