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National Conference on “Non-State Armed Groups and Indian Security in the 21st Century

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  • April 08, 2008 to April 10, 2008
    Only by Invitation

    As part of its ongoing programme on Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs) and Asian Security in 21st Century, IDSA hosted a National Conference on Non-state Armed Groups in India to assess their impact on national security. The seminar was organised with the aim of bringing together scholars studying some of the important NSAGs in India in order to arrive at a focused, structured and comparative understanding of these actors and implications for India’s security.

    The inaugural session of the conference began with a Keynote Address by Mr. B.G. Verghese. In his comprehensive overview of the challenges posed by NSAGs in India, Mr. Verghese began by pointing out that the problem of non-state armed groups is not a new phenomenon and dates back to British rule. In fact, the early years of independent India too witnessed similar movements that challenged the Indian State. Notable among these were the Telangana Movement for land reforms and the Communist revolt in the North East. These movements highlighted the inadequacy of constitutional measures to accommodate social and cultural diversity in the country. Although there are several instances of successful attempts at incorporating dissenting/secessionist groups, NSAGs have persisted on the Indian political landscape, complicating the nation-building project. This has especially been so in the North Eastern region of India, where the integration of states as part of the nation-building process led to the rise of many armed groups immediately after independence.

    The oft-repeated statement that the Indian state needs to improve its strategies for dealing with the issues of dissent/secession has acquired greater relevance today as India aspires to become an economic and political power at the global stage. To sustain its economic growth, India needs to disengage the resources that are presently being channelled towards maintaining domestic peace and order. Coordination between states affected by armed political dissent, dialogue via civil society, granting internal autonomy to the extent feasible and undertaking developmental and remedial human rights action will all go a long way to address legitimate and/or perceived grievances that result in the rise of NSAGs.

    The conceptual framework for understanding NSAGs was the focus of discussion in Session I. Presentations were made on the root causes of conflicts in India and the counter-insurgency policies adopted by the Indian State. The papers reiterated that socio-economic grievances such as lack of development and low standards of living in the three regions of the country that have witnessed persistent insurgent activities — Jammu and Kashmir, North East and the Naxal-belt, account for the main causes of such conflicts. Though these regions are not necessarily poverty-ridden, they are certainly low on human development indices.

    Issues related to ethnicity and cultural assertions are among the other factors contributing to the rise of NSAGs, especially in North Eastern India. There is a sense of alienation from the Indian state experienced by various groups representing different identity interests. While this region is culturally dissimilar from the rest of India, it must also be noted that the lack of connectivity to the mainland and low standards of living as compared to other parts of the country have exacerbated the sense of injustice amongst people there. It was argued that the Indian State lacks a coherent counter-insurgency strategy as a result of which states as well as central agencies often fail to co-ordinate their counter-insurgency operations in an effective manner.

    Therefore, the need of the hour is that the strategy of the security forces has to take into account issues of ethnicity and development in the affected regions. Raising additional paramilitary forces that are dedicated solely to counter insurgency operations and have unity of purpose and commonality of strategy, unlike present forces that are scattered across different regions and command structures, would go a long way in addressing these challenges. It was suggested that the role of the Army should be confined to countering insurgencies in border areas where foreign elements are involved.

    In Session II, case studies of some prominent terror outfits in Jammu and Kashmir and of the Students of Islamic Movement in India were presented. The session began with an overview of the overall security situation in the state and proceeded with discussion of the factors affecting the rise and fall of various groups. Among the key factors was both external and local support to these outfits, leadership/ideology, and repeated failure of governance, while the conflict fatigue factor was recognised as one of the main causes of the decline of insurgent groups in the state.

    The Chair emphasised that it was critical to understand the larger ideological framework of terrorist outfits operating in Jammu and Kashmir. These groups are distinct in terms of their Islamist ideology, organisation and operating strategies and therefore require different responses. Since the groups are ideologically driven, a deeper understanding of the sources of these ideologies – Jamaat-e-Islami, Deobandi school of thought – would be relevant to charter an effective policy for containing these groups. It was suggested that the use of religious names by NSAGs be contested to deligitimise them. The Government also needs to be cautious towards groups that ostensibly are on decline as this might not be the case in reality. Since Pakistan supports several of these groups, the rise and fall of these groups depends on Pakistani policy towards each of them and lack of support from the Pakistani government may be a temporary phase.

    The next two sessions focused on NSAGs in India’s North East. Session III addressed NSAGs in Assam, while Session IV focussed on the Naga and UNLF insurgencies in Nagaland and Manipur. Presentations by scholars highlighted that the root causes of insurgency in this area can be traced to issues of ethnicity and identity as well as lack of socio-economic development, though the specific issues varied from one state to another. While the groups mainly sustain themselves with money from extortion, it was also highlighted that over the year a “NSAGs industry” has emerged in the North East. The state response, being reactive in nature and without any substantial assessment of the ground situation, has failed to contain the same.

    The papers presented stressed the fact that in order to deal with these challenges, the Establishment should devise a differentiated policy approach to each of the states in the North East. Broadening the peace process by including members of civil society would go a long way to ensure effective representation of all opinions. It is also essential that external support for these groups be curtailed, for which Track I initiatives need to be complemented by Track II and Track III initiatives between India-Bangladesh and India-Myanmar. The Government also needs to be cautious and ensure that intra-group and inter-group rivalries are not engineered at the behest of state agencies; these may serve short term goals, but in the long run they would prove to be self-defeating.

    Session V dealt with Naxalism, which is spreading its base across India. It was noted that Naxals today are very well organised and have a very clear strategy of engaging in anti-State operations in various states. Naxal cadres are drawn from across class and caste barriers, with even educated unemployed youth joining them. Their source of finance is the local extortion economy and their support base is in areas that lie in the inaccessible interiors. Lack of governance, mis-governance and poor socio-economic profile as well unstructured, top-down state response are factors that facilitate their sustenance. Nexus with politicians is also a factor that provides impetus to the Naxal movement.

    It was pointed out that the Government needs to re-evaluate strategies that are considered highly successful such as the Greyhounds of Andhra Pradesh, and give due consideration to other strategies that have proven to be effective in curbing the Maoist insurgency in Andhra Pradesh. It should also be cautious in adapting certain counter-insurgency models, as has been done in the case of the Greyhounds, to other states of the Union. Local conditions have to be factored in, both while adopting best practices from other states and also while devising new strategies. Certain strategies, such as the Salwa Judum experiment by the government of Chattisgarh, have been counter-productive and necessitate suitable remedial measures. The session concluded on the note that countering the Naxal challenge requires a holistic approach that has elements of both military and non-military responses. One of the positive initiatives in this direction has been the creation of the Department of Counter-Naxalism under the Ministry of Home Affairs.

    The concluding session focused on state responses to NSAGs and presentations were made by security forces personnel who have had operational experience of counter-insurgency. The Chair set the tone for the session by underlining that state response has been a combination of political and military measures to suit the distinct needs of the various affected regions, that continuing problems of governance have aggravated the situation and that therefore the state should use force where necessary and in the measure required. It was argued that in the Northeast, state response has been based on certain questionable assumptions such as – insurgents are misguided youth -- and there are merits to separating the people and insurgents. Insurgent groups feel that the best way to be heard is to use violent means. Strategies based on these false assumptions have resulted in low access to intelligence and further alienation of people.

    In the context of the changing nature of insurgency in Kashmir, it was argued that state responses have always been modified to make terrorists irrelevant in the political environment. In the current context, it would be worthwhile to be mindful of declining Pakistani support to terrorist groups, the continued use of sophisticated cross-border communication and funding and the outsourcing of terrorist activities to poor people. The state response, therefore, is geared to not harming locals and gaining their support for counter-insurgency operations. It was argued that in addition to undertaking effective counter-insurgency operations, it would be very important, diplomatically, to recognise Pakistan not only as the sponsor of terrorism but also as a victim of terrorism.

    Many strategies to tackle the Naxal problem were also suggested. The most holistic and seemingly effective was the Philippine government’s response to the Huk rebellion. Useful lessons from the Huk case suggest that implementing land ceiling to deprive Naxals of their grievance, using paramilitary forces to implement land reforms, countering local groups that are engaged in violence against the Maoists such as the Ranvir Sena, might be better ways of dealing with Naxalism.

    The Conference concluded with a Valedictory Session addressed by Mr. Madhukar Gupta, Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs. He explained the Government’s perception of the security problems posed by non-state armed groups and the steps it has taken to combat them. He also suggested that the growth of “hinterland terrorism” as witnessed in a series of urban bombing incidents recently and the identity-related conflicts seen in the Meena-Gujjar conflict also requires attention. He concluded by stating that in the light of such developments, the distinction between law and order and internal security is becoming blurred. Issues raised by the internal security threats require the building of political consensus and opinion making, in which institutes like IDSA could play an important role.

    Prepared by Priyanka Singh and Priyadarshini Singh