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‘Peace Talks’ in Assam’s Post Election Scenario

Kishalay Bhattacharjee was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 16, 2011

    A 2010 study conducted by the Department of Peace and Conflict, University of Uppsala on the ‘Determinants of Insurgency Violence in Northeast India’ says that multiple protracted insurgencies in Northeast India are examples of highly localised situations. The study examines the levels of conflict across Northeast India by assessing two factors that have generally been overlooked in other sub-national studies. First, that variation in the number of non-indigenous people explains why some districts are more conflict prone. I have reservations with regard to this formulation because in my understanding it is the geography of certain districts that helps the insurgents more than the composition of the population. But demography does play a role.

    Second, that the time shortly before and after elections - may be linked to an increased risk in conflict events. Insurgent groups use violence when it is politically, rather than militarily, necessary as violence at election time sends a strong political signal. It is plausible that those who lose the election may express their dissatisfaction by escalating violence, rather through political channels.

    This recent election in Assam is very significant because it has seen the lowest levels of violence in last two decades. ‘Violence’ though does not include abduction and extortion which has been a continued insurgent activity particularly in this state. But even if we assume that the terror formations refrain from direct violence a different trend may emerge in post election results scenario.

    The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) after a virtual split is apparently weak but its isolated commander in chief will assess the situation and try to retain his group’s influence over the new government. There is still no clarity on the role the surrendered or bailed out ULFA leaders will play in the next few months. The National Democratic Front of Bodoland’s (NDFB) anti-talks faction may step up its activities and demand the founder chairman Ranjan Daimary’s release from jail and force the government to call them for talks.

    This is going to be one of the biggest challenges for the next government. The former Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) leaders were part of the cabinet in the previous government as they will be in the new government. With one Bodo group - which virtually owns the Bodoland territory today - in the government, talks with another Bodo militant group will not be easy. Others are watching too. The three factions of DHD (Dima Halam Dauga) two of which are on a ceasefire agreement have time and again threatened to return to their camps in North Cachar Hills of Assam.. The fate of DHD leaders who are presently in jail will largely depend on the NIA and CBI investigation of the scam in North Cachar Hills. A Congress government in the state will make it difficult for New Delhi to admit to the (now alleged) nexus between Congress heavyweights and terror groups for siphoning of development fund. Groups like KNLNF and UPDS in Karbianglong may have been out of the news but they exist within and outside their designated ceasefire camps. This should be a worry for the next government. These two groups operate from perhaps the most strategic transit base for a large number of insurgent groups in the Northeast.

    ‘Peace Talks’ and Violence

    This background poses the biggest challenge yet, not only for the new government in the state but at the centre. The issue of talks and ceasefire with militant groups in the Northeast remains the most sensitive aspect of the region’s stability. The concerned agencies are well aware of the difficulties on the ground. While it is imperative that the government agencies attempting to gain control over these groups should try and get as many groups for talks – the endeavour has been counterproductive in many ways.

    The government has been engaged in talks with the NSCN(IM) for thirteen years now but there is still no resolution in sight. The so called ‘violence’ is controlled but the outfit has continued all its activities with impunity. From organised extortion to narcotic smuggling to arms running this outfit feeds and raises other smaller groups to expand their area of control. Therefore ‘talks’ ensure certain legitimacy to the underground activities of these groups across the spectrum.

    Besides the BLT which became part of the government - a model which has been in vogue in since Mizoram came into the mainstream with former militants running the administration- other groups are still militant and have been indulging in underground activities. With little or no clarity on what can be offered the politics of dialogue is giving rise to a form of subversion of justice.

    This brings us to the questions of justice for the victims and accountability of the government agencies and the unconditional amnesty.

    Two months before this assembly election a group of terror victims came together without a sponsored platform to demand justice. Let me put forward a case in point. For someone who has lived in Assam during the late eighties and early nineties, Dhekial Phukan would be an easy name to recall. He commanded the Upper Assam districts from Lakhimpur right down to Sonitpur across Dhemaji and Sibsagar. The residents of those areas refer to him as a brutal murderer and a member of the banned ULFA.

    The ULFA, one of the few terror groups in the region which sustained itself for 31 years without a split is now a divided house. So it appears. But no evaluation of its terrorist activities has been carried out. The police do not inadequate records and the documentation of conflict relies mainly on on oral accounts. One such incident in the nineties -for which there was no eye witness - was the killing of a doctor who was crucified on a tree in the Upper Assam town of Lakhimpur. There are however records on the killing of the officer in charge of the Laluk police station in the same district. During the same time in the same town a student leader was buried alive simply because he refused to join the group.

    There are numerous stories that can be told by several families. The alleged mastermind or possibly even the direct perpetrator of each of these crimes was Dhekial Phukan who was a candidate of a national party in these elections - in the same town where he ran amok.

    Nowhere, except in India’s Northeast is there so blatant a policy of granting amnesty and legitimacy to people or groups of people who have used the most abhorrent form of violence in killing civilians, women and children. In its present form the policy is inconsistent and subverts justice.

    The law allows every individual to contest elections - even from the jail. If an election is a participatory process then surely elections in Assam have the full participation of even the - one time self styled underground commanders - who still carry guns and engage in extortion. So while Dhekial Phukan faces no legal hurdles in aspiring for a seat in the Assembly, the moral (and not the model) code of conduct should have barred political parties from giving him a ticket. At the same time the government argues that if former Bodo militants like Chandan Brahma and Hagrama Mohilary along with their central committee members can occupy ministerial berths then why cannot Phukan at least run for elections?

    Mizoram perhaps set the trend with former guerrillas taking over the office of the chief minister which has been virtually reserved for former rebels. But Mizo insurgency was different in nature from the others. Some of the biggest underground leaders are waiting their turn in Nagaland and Manipur assemblies though their de facto control over the political establishment is an old story. In Assam too the influence of the underground rebels and the alleged nexus of politicians and parties with various groups is not only a media speculation but a matter of current investigation.

    The study of electoral politics in these states of the Northeast explains how democracy can absorb people who have fought against the democratic institutions. But it fails to answer a very critical question of the victims’ right to justice. For example, the families of the victims of Dhekial Phukan’s terror run are now on the road demanding action. The parents of the children who were blown up on Independence day (2004) in Dhemaji now say they want the killers hanged. So while authorities argue that amnesty is granted to buy long term peace, they must not ignore an individual’s right to justice. After all we do not seek a counterproductive peace which sets the clock back to where it all began.

    Flawed Policy

    The policy of ‘peace talks’ has acquired a totally different connotation as far as the people of the region are concerned. Most are sceptical about the policy because it has only managed to create a community of legitimate extortionists on the ground. This policy must be reviewed and strict guidelines adhered to. Currently it is the individual demands of the leaders that are being met and that does not go down well with the people who once may have even supported the larger cause of alienation and under development.

    ‘Peace talks’ must include people and only through consensus and local determinants should cadres and leaders be allowed to join the mainstream.

    The ground rules of ceasefire are often violated and the monitoring committees set up to implement the ground rules have remained callous in their approach. Accountability must be fixed for any violation.

    Policy Recommendations

    In the current dispensation it is imperative that the GOI ensures transparency on the talks with NSCN(IM) in Nagaland. The outcome of this dialogue will impact the rest. It has been going on for more than thirteen years now and the ambiguity is counterproductive.

    The policy of ensuring that surrendered militants stay within the designated camps must be strictly imposed to avoid giving armed cadres a free run.

    Extortion by surrendered militants must be countered by the law of the land. If amnesty must be granted to facilitate peace then the law has to be used when applicable.

    ‘Peace talks’ should not mean writing off all cases against the accused. Certain restrictions have to be imposed. For example a week after laying down arms the DHD(J) leaders and cadres from North Cachar Hills were in Guwahati purchasing vehicles and land. Where did they get the money from? So while the GOI insisted on the surrender of arms the bank accounts or money flow were not frozen.

    The talks must be within a legal framework rather than an ad hoc arrangement.

    Conclusion

    Over six decades of insurgency in the North East and almost two decades of ambiguous peace parleys have subverted a number of institutions in the region. ‘Lessons learned’ mechanisms must be employed to analyse the successes and failures and ‘best practices’ integrated into a policy for countering insurgency and rehabilitating insurgents. The people must be consulted in framing a long term policy rather than a unilateral strategy which may have reduced the visible levels of violence but has not achieved the desired objectives of peace and law and order.

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