Northeast needs holistic approach for peace : The Tribune India

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Northeast needs holistic approach for peace

Insurgency-related violence in the Northeastern states has significantly declined since its peak in 2008-09. According to data from the South Asian Terrorism Portal, insurgency-related deaths in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur have decreased. However, the absence of violence is not an automatic indicator of normalcy. Therefore, it is essential to consider the underlying causes of the problem so that appropriate solutions can be found.

Northeast needs holistic approach for peace

CONFLICT ZONE: Insurgency in the Northeast needs to be resolved by bridging the ethnic divide and plugging the porous border. PTI



Lt Gen DS Hooda (retd)

Former Northern Army Commander

ON November 13, tragic news came from Manipur about the death of Colonel Viplav Tripathi and four soldiers of the 46 Assam Rifles in an ambush in Churachandpur district. What was extremely horrific was that along with the Army personnel, Colonel Tripathi’s wife and six-year-old son were also killed in the attack. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a Meitei insurgent group, and Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), claimed responsibility for the attack.

The political leadership has justifiably condemned the attack and promised that the perpetrators would be brought to justice. Such acts of terrorism must not go unpunished, and we could, in the next few days, hear about some action taken against the insurgent groups, on our side or across the border. Alongside planning a retribution strike, it is also perhaps the time to assess our long-term strategy to resolve the protracted conflicts in the Northeast.

Insurgency-related violence in the Northeastern states has significantly declined since its peak in the 2008-09 period. According to data from the South Asian Terrorism Portal, insurgency-related deaths in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur have decreased from 1,070 in 2008 to 17 in 2020. However, as is often the case in internal conflicts, the absence of violence is not an automatic indicator of normalcy. Therefore, it is essential to consider the underlying causes of the problem so that appropriate solutions can be found.

Ethnic identity has been critical in sustaining armed movements in the region and even within individual states. There are different demands of the local Assamese, the Bodos, the Dimasas, and the Karbis, all of whom formed insurgent groups in Assam. In Manipur, the Meitei, Naga, and Kuki armed groups are in conflict with each other. Even within a larger ethnic group, sub-identities matter. The Zeliangrong Naga tribes have their armed group that is fighting the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IM) in Manipur. The local population often supports militant groups because they are seen as protectors of the ethnic identity.

There are many pathways to the resolution of ethnic conflicts. There could be attempts at assimilation by stressing that an emphasis on ethnic identity weakens the idea of a cohesive nation that should serve as the primary ideological beacon. There could also be accommodation of diversity by meeting the aspirations of different groups through political empowerment, reconciliation and grant of autonomy.

While there is a yearning among the people in the North-East for an end to violence, there is also a determination to protect their identity. Therefore, an understanding of cultures and identity and their role in promoting conflicts in the region must be at the heart of finding ways to bring lasting peace.

In his speech after the 2015 Framework Agreement was signed with the NSCN (IM), Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Today’s agreement is a shining example of what we can achieve when we deal with each other in a spirit of equality and respect, trust and confidence; when we seek to understand concerns and try to address aspirations.” Although the agreement is yet to be finalised, the principles of resolution outlined by the Prime Minister are the most appropriate.

While addressing identity concerns becomes the primary element of our strategy, two additional issues need urgent attention. First, a large number of armed groups are now in ceasefire agreements with the government. This has helped reduce violence, but there has also been a downside because of the very generous terms of some of the agreements. As an example, the NSCN (IM) has been permitted to establish camps in Nagaland and Manipur where they carry arms and almost run a parallel government. The Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with the Kuki groups in Manipur, now 16 years old, has created exclusive camps for them, and the government pays a stipend for each member of the group.

Some groups under ceasefire have taken advantage of the agreements to continue with fundraising and extortion, often with greater impunity because they feel they are now shielded from government actions. In May 2017, the Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh expressed concern over the frequent violation of agreements by militants and termed the SoO a failure. In June this year, when the Nagaland Governor, RN Ravi, opposed the ‘tax’ collection by the NSCN (IM), the outfit stated that “the Naga nation does not require permission from the Government of India for taxation.”

The intelligence agencies and the Army have also sometimes sought to play one ethnic group against the other, even utilising those who were in ceasefire agreements. This has resulted in some short-term gains but carries the risk of sharpening the ethnic divide instead of healing it. Gradually, all the surrendered cadre must be moved out of their camps and rehabilitated in society.

Finally, border management with Myanmar must improve. For decades, we have known that the India-Myanmar border is porous and that insurgent camps exist across the border. Recent reports also indicate that the Myanmar army is utilising Indian insurgent groups to fight those who are in opposition to the junta regime. Therefore, there are limits to the cooperation that can be expected from the Myanmar army. There is also apprehension that China could step up assistance to the Northeast insurgents, given the tensions along the Line of Actual Control.

There have been recent calls for merging the Assam Rifles with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, which will take over the responsibility of the India-Myanmar border. Having two separate forces under two different ministries operating along the border is certainly not the ideal solution. A change in the organisation manning the border will not help unless there is a significant improvement in infrastructure and roads to support efficient border management.

Setbacks happen in conflicts, just as the death of Colonel Tripathi and his family reminds us. While we mourn this tragedy, the incident should trigger an introspection about what can be done to find a lasting solution to our ongoing internal conflicts. 


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