FAR too often, this has been dismissed as an empty academic exercise. The fact is, it is not. The stimuli for the trouble in the North-east cannot be measured against the same scale as outwardly similar problems in other parts of India. If ,for instance, the trouble in the North-east is on account of unemployment, Bihar would be at it overwhelmingly; if it is lack of development, so many other states and regions should see similar sustained unrest.
That these shortfalls have not resulted in secessionist violence in any of these regions should have been a lesson already. Even Maoists and militant Dalit intellectuals talk of a takeover of the state and not secession from it. For the secessionists, the Indian state is alien to them and they want to tear away from it. For the Maoists and Dalits, from whatever literature they have been churning out, the Indian state rightly belonged to them once and their fight is to regain control.
The difference in attitude is obvious in responses to issues that confront these different regions. The perennial suicide by farmers in Maharashtra on account of abject poverty and indebtedness is a case in point. It comes across as a surprise that these farmers have been consistently turning the violence generated within them not against the Indian state but against themselves.
Contrast this with what happens in the North-east — even in the latest case of the unfair exclusion of weightlifter Leishram Monika Devi from the Beijing Olympics squad. The build up of animus and the target identified for its delivery, as expected, is ultimately the Indian state.
While the self-destructive violence of farmers in Maharashtra is apolitical and even fatalistic, the violence in the North-east has an undeniable political character, and hence the need to factor in the clichéd “political solution” in any formula for resolution.
Yet this wisdom remains not much more than lip service, not taken seriously enough to be translated into a political agenda. Or why would Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi not have realised he was talking through his hat when he made appeals to the insurgents to return to the mainstream in his Independence Day speech, knowing fully well that such appeals were an empty ritual?
Two things come foremost to mind in thinking of an alternative approach. First, let legislative politics be free of the corruption taint it is now defaced with. Second, and in our opinion more important, legislative politics must be able to absorb or co-opt militant agenda and sublimate it.
This is to say regional legislative politics must be strong and independent enough able to become the symbol of regional aspiration and identity which are undoubtedly the fuel behind secessionist politics. This political space that gives succour to separatists is what must be contested for.
This responsibility does not necessarily have to rest on the shoulders of regional parties, although it is most likely to. The DMK case is illustrative. The DMK brand of politics has ensured that Tamils do not have to look beyond the party, and others standing on similar platforms, for even militant expression of Tamil identity.
The Asom Gana Parishad case in Assam, although still incomplete, is even more curious. It will be recalled that although chronologically they do not dovetail each other, the All Assam Students’ Union, AGP and the Ulfa occupy and operate from the same psychological constituency of Assamese nationalism. The AGP is virtually a child of the successful conclusion of the six-year Assam agitation against “foreigners” spearheaded by the Aasu, and the AGP’s top leadership constituted Aasu leaders of the agitation days.
It is still too early yet, and only history will be able to tell how much the AGP’s militant assertion of Assamese identity, which many paranoid commentators once termed subversive, softened the Ulfa’s own militancy as well as its support base.
Making SoO work
In this regard, one recent development is encouraging. The Suspension of Operations against insurgents amongst the Kukis and aligned tribes has finally become official with the signing of a tripartite agreement between two conglomerations of these insurgencies, the Centre and the Manipur government
The two groups are the KNO and UPF. So far, while it was still an unofficial process, and purely a military initiative, lacking by that very virtue any definite ground rules, the entire process was rather dubious, leaving much room for suspicion.
It was also generally seen as another counter- insurgency strategy, entailing the setting up of proxy fronts to counter other insurgencies which would not give in to pressures of the establishment. For a long time, the SoO was about allowing these select groups of ethnic insurgents to do what they were doing without being challenged by the government forces, especially because of their known rivalries with other ethnic insurgents.
This would make for a sound and legitimate military strategy, but not a peace initiative. Now that the SoO has come into the political sphere and a ceasefire ground rule probably charted, hopefully the outlook, too, will have changed and the thrust henceforth would be for an equitable settlement for the Kukis and aligned tribes.
As for the other insurgents who are not ready to bend, let tackling them be a separate agenda and not entangled with this one.
(The author is editor, Imphal Free Press.)