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The ULFA, the PLA, and the UNLF: Will negotiations Work?

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  • May 02, 2014
    Fellows' Seminar
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: Shri E N Ram Mohan
    External Discussants: Dr M Amarjeet Singh and Mr Bidhan S Laishram
    Internal Discussants: Ms Shruti Pandalai and Ms Gulbin Sultana

    The paper aims to understand whether the peace negotiations with the armed groups, i.e., the UNLF and the PLA of Manipur, are viable, and also underlines the debates generated in Assam as a result of the peace negotiations with the ULFA.

    The author argues that within the framework of peace negotiations, it is important to understand the discourse that exists in these societies before negotiating with the armed groups. This is because protracted conflicts play a very significant role in determining the kind of debates that take place in the public sphere. The process of identity formation, for instance, would depend on the conflict that an individual has witnessed over time. Taking the Naga peace process into consideration, a major reason for its efficacy was due to the discourse that existed in the civil society, i.e., one in which the people were demanding that the armed groups should go for peace talks to end the restrictions of the AFSPA in the state. Along with this, the NSCN (IM) felt that the status quo was not in their favour, and for its leaders, projecting the peace process at a high level of visibility was itself an achievement.

    The situation in Manipur and Assam is very different as compared to this. One reason why the peace process is so problematic is because of existing categorizations of friend and enemy that have been the basis of identity of an individual from the beginning, which consequently are very difficult to counter. The public discourses in these societies are very narrow and full of assumptions that result in the use of a particular kind of language to describe the other. Let us take a few examples of these existing discourses:

    • The Meitei public discourse is energized by a language of seeing themselves as different and alienated, such that their rights are threatened by other communities and also by the Indian state. This identity and discourse is projected in the two armed groups of Manipur, the UNLF and PLA.
    • The ULFA discourse also projects the discourse of Assam, i.e., the resources of Assam are not used for purposes that will benefit its people. Additionally, it questions the basis of Assamese annexation given that the Treaty of Yandaboo of 1826 did not include the Ahom king and was only signed between the Burmese and the British army.
    • The Tangkhul discourse focuses on maintaining their uniqueness and denies the existence of pluralism in its society vis-à-vis the Meiteis. This discourse of difference is evident, such that an acceptance of the Meiteis would question their demand of a separate state.

    Therefore, given these existing discourses it becomes very disorienting for the armed groups to have peace talks with the government. A ceasefire with the state would pose a question to their authenticity and would mean changing their entire frame of reference. In order to deal with this problem, it becomes important to begin by challenging these existing discourses of difference. And to counter these exclusivist categorizations, new frames have to come into existence.

    Along with these there are other specific challenges that need to be considered. In the ULFA case, the group has been involved in peace talks with the Government of India since 2011. However, the legitimacy of these talks has been questioned as most of the leaders who were brought to the table were arrested, and hence ‘coerced’ into the peace process. Another challenge to the peace talks is the anti-talk faction of Paresh Barua who is not willing to join the negotiations. While looking at the UNLF and PLA’s contention for peace talks, the most important challenge is an embedded belief that the peace negotiation process is not about conflict transformation or about dealing with the root causes of the problem, but only a counter-insurgency strategy. They feel it is to ensure the group gets divided, weakened and militarily dominated.

    To counter these challenges, it is important to ensure a significant pre-negotiations stage. Such a stage would involve:

    1. A common understanding of the problem between the government and the armed group
    2. Identifying leaders or cadres who would be willing to talk or might influence the top leader
    3. Use of back channel negotiations, i.e., use of government negotiators to talk actively with the armed group without much of media coverage. This is a significant tool for conflict resolution, however, a drawback of this is that the groups that may not be involved might act as spoilers to the process.

    It is also important to remember that negotiations are complex and susceptible to transformation. Four things that are important for the success of a negotiation process are – leadership; the right kind of incentive structures and a common vision; institutional structures that enable the negotiations to succeed; and finally the right kind of implementation.

    Key points that were raised during the discussion:

    • In Manipur, there are various overarching factors that hinder the negotiations between the government and the armed groups. This includes a lack of seriousness on both the sides as both consider status quo as beneficial to them.
    • While it is true that ethnic identities are being proliferated in the North East, one must also carefully consider the reasons behind this proliferation – structural as well as political.
    • Peace processes are empowering and disorienting. In order to know the reason why the armed groups are not ready for peace talks, it would be crucial to look into the question as to why is the disorienting part of the peace process more deterring than the empowering part.
    • There is a need to address issues of narrow political discourses within the North East and the absence of informed debate/consciousness on these issues in the rest of the country.
    • Narratives that have become the base of grievances of armed groups need to be counter challenged.
    • There exists a need to challenge the lack of response of the Indian state and the issue of racist administrative behaviour that has been a cornerstone in terms of the way Indian establishment behaves with the people in the North East.
    • Over time, there has been a shift of the focus of the armed groups from the ideologies they were formed with, towards increasing criminal activities.
    • It is important to create more employment opportunities and encourage people to people contact between the population in the North East and the rest of the country.
    • Report prepared by Ms. Husanjot Chahal

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