After the rapid process that led to a peace deal with Bodo rebels on 27 January, there is naturally some speculation that three other conflicts in far-eastern India will soon be settled. One is the ongoing Naga peace process, which has been on a last-mile trot since mid-2019. The second involves Paresh Baruah, who leads the at-war ‘Independent’ faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). The third is with half a dozen Manipuri rebel groups largely drawn from the majority Meitei community which in 2012 banded together under an expedient umbrella called CorCom, or Coordination Committee.
It’s all about pressure.
This column remains sceptical of the Bodo—or Boro—peace deal, not on account of the prospect of peace returning to a long-neglected, diminished and roiled part of northern Assam, but the quick-fix nature of the deal itself. This concern extends to these other conflicts, of quick-fix deals purportedly for the greater good undermined by expediency. Essentially, such deals involve integration of leaders—more than cadres: who are calmed with modest government rehabilitation packages—into the political economy food chain of a civilian administration. Typically, much benefit accrues to former rebel leaders, and little to the people on whose behalf they claimed to be fighting. This government-sponsored buyout of rebels is tied to a system of government-provided jobs for the local population. Examples abound, from Mizoram to Assam.
The Bodo deal came together quickly when four factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) signed up. Some factions were already in “peace camps”. The leader of a key faction, Ranjan Daimary, was released from jail just days before the deal, and flown to Delhi for the signing. The trigger for it all was the arrival from Myanmar of a faction of NDFB led by B. Saoraigwra. This faction was bereft of refuge in Myanmar on account of that country’s army hammering away at the north-western Myanmar headquarters and base area of a major Naga rebel group which, among other things, provided safe haven—for considerations in cash and kind—to Saoraigwra’s NDFB faction, Baruah’s faction of ULFA, CorCom groups, and other minor rebel splinters of Indian origin.
Saoraigwra’s group provides the most recent example of the policy quid pro quo between the governments of India and Myanmar to deny rebels bases and flush them out. This is reminiscent of earlier understandings between India and Bhutan, and India and Bangladesh, that led to the interdiction and surrender of the leaders and cadres of major factions of NDFB, ULFA, and even several key Naga rebels. This denial of refuge by Myanmar is now expected to bring several rebel groups above ground and impel them to talk peace with the government of India.
Only, it’s not that simple. While several ULFA factions continue their tortuous peace talks with central government agencies and seek political accommodation from Assam’s government, Baruah, from all available indications, has invoked his China option, as it were. To bring him on board will require more than pressure. Baruah brings to bear an extreme position for Assamese identity and sovereignty, much like what was practised by his former colleagues now in talks with the Indian government.
This may twin well with the ongoing and highly contentious exercise of the National Register of Citizens, which seeks to expose illegal immigrants in Assam. But it will certainly clash with provisions of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 that seeks to provide Indian citizenship—and, by extension, continued Assamese residency—to non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. This is explosive in Assam. A political-economy buyout of rebels won’t solve this emotionally charged issue. It has put the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government of Assam on edge. And it led in part to optics around the Bodo peace deal: good news to distract from other messy ethno-political news.
The mechanics of pressure and food-chain peace is also uncertain with Manipuri rebel groups. Ideologically strong CorCom are certainly hamstrung by developments in Myanmar, but members of CorCom have for long had arrangements with that country’s establishment. The likelihood of their jettisoning conflict is also directly dependent on massive accommodation by the current BJP dispensation in Manipur as well as the outcome of the Naga peace process—Manipur has vast Naga homelands. Meanwhile, the complex Naga peace process is grinding along with its peculiar talk-talk-fight-fight dynamics. More next week.
This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.