Updated: September 7, 2021 10:03:30 am
The tripartite agreement signed by the Centre, five insurgent groups active in Karbi Anglong, and the Assam government, marks the culmination of an extended process of negotiation to end insurgency in the region. According to the Memorandum of Settlement, greater autonomy will be devolved to the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council; the identity, language, culture of Karbi people will be protected; and more focused development carried out in the Council area. The government will also consider notifying Karbi language as the official language of the Council. Over a thousand armed insurgents have surrendered their arms under the peace deal.
The Northeast’s map is dotted with big and small insurgent groups that have made demands ranging from a separate nation-state to statehood within the Indian Constitution and autonomy under the state government. The Naga insurgency has been an inspiration for these separatist movements, which exploit alienation caused by an insensitive and exploitative state, and engage in extortion. While the focus has been on big groups such the NSCN-IM and ULFA, the smaller insurgencies have been no less disruptive of the state-building process in the region. If the ULFA emerged as an expression of Assamese nationalism, many smaller groups, some of which pre-date the Assam Movement of the late 1970s, have fought to protect their distinct ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity from being subsumed within a broader Assamese identity. They have tried to build on older memories of kinship and legacies of ancient kingdoms and refute the umbrella of the nation state. The Centre’s double-barrelled approach to this threat to sovereignty has been to offer autonomy under the Constitution on the one hand while using security forces to crush militancy, on the other. Insurgents who negotiate for peace are accommodated in state legislatures or Autonomous Councils. This approach has had various degrees of success, in Mizoram, Tripura, the Bodo areas. In Assam’s hill districts of Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong, separatism that rejected Sixth Schedule status transformed into a demand for an autonomous state under Article 244(a) of the Constitution after militancy peaked in the 1990s. The Karbi Anglong agreement signed on Saturday falls short of fulfilling that demand though it promises more autonomy than currently enjoyed by the Autonomous Council under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.
However, autonomy and funds may not be sufficient to improve the condition of the people on whose behalf ceasefire agreements and settlement deeds are signed. Autonomous Councils are often captured by vested interests, who invoke fears of a militant past, and the enhanced development funds are diverted to private parties. The transition from an insurgent to a stakeholder or agent of democracy is not easily achieved.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 7, 2021 under the title ‘Becoming stakeholders’.
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