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North by North-east: Strangers, Negotiators and Interlocutors

The Government of India obviously believes in governing through Groups of Ministers (GoMs) for major policy issues (the Finance Minister, PranabMukherjee, is a very overworked man – he heads not less than 35 GoMs) while the Prime Minister remains amazingly silent on critical issues, breaking that maun very rarely. The other thing it does is to appoint Interlocutors and Representatives to talks with militant/insurgent groups in the North-east especially where the other group has indicated directly or indirectly an interest in negotiations if not a negotiated settlement.

Thus there have been three Interlocutors so far for the Naga peace process: SwarjKaushal, former Mizoram Governor, was the first followed by former Home Secretary K. Padmanabhiah, who had a long 10-year stint talking to the leadership of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) in places as varied as Amsterdam, Chiang Mai and Kuala Lumpur. The latest one is RaghawPandey, who served in Nagaland as a young officer and also as state Chief Secretary, before retiring from the Government of India as Petroleum Secretary. Of all three negotiators, heis the only one to really know Naga issues!

That tells us something of how the Centre approaches such issue – by appointing people who are backed by allies before settling on someone who knows the ground situation. In the process, 14 years have gone by, although it would be incorrect to say these have been wasted – as a result of the marathon talks, the NSCN has realized, as do many Nagas, that the chimera of sovereignty is as unlikely as it is fragile. In addition, the Centre has clarified that it is unlikely to yield on the issue of redrawing the borders of the state to meet the NSCN’s aspiration, a demand that is unacceptable to Assam, Manipur and Aruanchal Pradesh, the states likely to be affected by such a proposal.

In Assam, PC Haldar, a former Director of the Intelligence Bureau and an old Assam and Nagaland hand, is handling efforts to start a conversation with the leaders of the United Liberation Front of Asom. Haldarwas first put in charge of negotiating with the DimaHalamDaogah (DHD) “pro-talk faction” in the North Cachar Hills of Assam after it agreed to a ceasefire with the Centre. Most people in Delhi, even in senior positions in Government, still don’t know what the DHD is: it was a vicious organization that killed nearly 200 persons between 2007-to-2010, including over 60 security personnel. One of its main financial conduits, the former head of the district council, was arrested last year for funneling funds to the armed group; he is said to have banked not less than Rs, 1,000 croreover 10 years through hawala channels to the DHD and invested personally in banks and hotels in Singapore and Switzerland.

Of course, all of this is the Government of India’s money – read taxpayer’s money. The question often arises, what is the point of “negotiating” with such groups. What would the Government negotiate, for example, with the DHD? More funds? A lifting of the ban and enable its leaders, with criminal cases, to slip into the “political mainstream” and thus create more public anger? Our democracy deficit lies in our failure to deal with basic problems when they arise, allowing groups to hijack issues, take up arms and create mayhem before cracking down and then negotiating.

As far as Ulfa is concerned, the response has to be different. There is a general public view that there must be a political resolution of key demands, although there isn’t support for the sovereignty demand. Too many young men and women have died and this requires understanding and mediation. The economic issues that Ulfa articulates include those that some of us have spoken of for years. Its extreme political views are, however,not representative. But those who support some of their economic views are not anti-India; these carry a resonance beyond a group and are rooted in political realities. These issues need to be addressed as Prof. HirenGohain’s civil society group, which has held talks with the Centre, has clearly enunciated.

Haldar’s conversations with Ulfa’s leadership, singly – as with chairman ArabindoRajkhowa or with a larger group – have been conducted in the jail where they are lodged in Guwahati. These are preliminary conversations, not negotiations. A lot of work and time is needed to take them forward. The chief opponent of the talks remains PareshBaruah, Ulfa’scommander of its diminished but potent strike force who is reported to be somewhere near the Burma-China border.

By Sanjoy Hazarika
Sunday Guardian Aug 15, 2010

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