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Manipur’s new BJP government should bring attention back to the Naga conflict which, despite simmering for six decades, remains remote in our national consciousness. The current deadlock in the Naga problem could make the PM’s Act East Policy a virtual non-starter. The transit via the North East could be India’s answer to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Meaningful co-operation through the Bangladesh Bhutan Nepal Initiative and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation — and extending such cooperation to the ASEAN — can be an antidote to Pakistan’s obstructionist tactics in the SAARC. It will also deny the Chinese and the ISI opportunities to fish in the North East’s troubled waters.
Insurgency in the North East survives on narco-terrorism and smuggling. Admittedly, the uneasy peace in the region is becoming a way of life and it may no longer be possible for insurgents to go back to the jungle. But given that we have been unable to graduate from conflict stabilisation to conflict resolution, there is no room for complacency. There have been a number of agreements with various groups, starting with the 1997 “ceasefire” with the NSCN(IM). Mercifully, we have now started referring to these as “suspension of operations” as ceasefire is generally between two sovereign nations. Every such agreement has three basic ingredients besides the political process: Localisation of cadres in designated camps/areas, followed by disarming and demobilising them and finally, their integration in the civilian mainstream. We have had limited success as armed cadres continue to roam in civilian areas and extortion has become a way of life.
The Naga conflict involves a complex web of separatist and militant movements. A comprehensive list of the insurgent groups involved covers almost all the communities in the region. With a strong government at the Centre, this is probably the most opportune moment to resolve the imbroglio. There are competent professionals at the top levels of national security. There is a BJP government in Assam, Arunachal and now, Manipur. There is also a friendly dispensation in Nagaland. Contrast this with the times when the first Naga peace interlocutor preferred Bangkok to Kohima; he first visited Nagaland while he accompanied Isak Swu and T. Muivah on their return from exile.
Swu’s recent death has complicated tribal dynamics. But Muivah remains the hope to replicate a Mizoram-type solution to the Naga conflict. The Mizoram accord was anchored on the plan of handing over political power in the state to the late Laldenga, who used his standing in Mizo society to usher in peace. The challenge is in getting NSCN(IM) and Muivah to mentor a similar transition. The requirement is to convince the group to modify its demand for sovereignty and Nagalim by accepting the existing state boundaries in the region. A statutory Naga Tribal Council could be considered to safeguard the interests of Nagas outside Nagaland. NSCN has to be convinced to join the socio-political process and a special role has to be discovered for Muviah.
Demobilisation of the insurgent cadres should follow. This requires a multi-pronged approach as there is a limit to the capacity of security forces to absorb this demobilised cadre. Alternate vocations like road building and construction need to be explored.
The cadre could also be deployed in Naxalite-affected areas. An important adjunct is the security structure in the region. It may be worthwhile to make the Assam Rifles the lead agency assisted by other central armed police forces. The army’s role should be limited to special operations with a phased re-deployment. Overall, there can be no better alignment of circumstances than the present to unravel this knotty problem.
The writer is former Western Army Commander and currently Maharaja Ranjit Singh Chair at Panjab University, Chandigarh