Synergia Foundation hosted its 59th Roundtable Conference on “Future of Security: The North East Dimension”. The roundtable discussion featured the keynote address by Major Gen N George (Retd), Former Chairman of the Ceasefire Monitoring Group in Nagaland. Maj Gen George has rich operational and administrative experience in the North East. Here are the insights.
The situation in India's North East is consequential to both its history and geography. The entry of the British into the region in the 1820s was in response to a request from the Ahom rulers of Assam for help in countering frequent raids by the Burmese to the South.
The British introduced tea plantations in Assam, which was followed by the discovery of oil and coal in the last decade of the same century. Exploitation of these resources required an educated local populace that was lacking. It resulted in the British facilitated migration of an educated non-local population that was primarily Bengali. The build up to the partition of India witnessed accelerated migration of mainly Bengali Muslims into the region. This was an effort at incorporating Assam or at least parts of it into what was to be East Pakistan, on the basis of religious identity. It gave rise to the most fundamental issue that has plagued the North East, demographic change arising out of prolonged migration of primarily Bengali Muslims. The effect of climate change that is denuding arable land in present day Bangladesh at an alarming rate has aggravated the situation further. The States most impacted by demographic change are Assam and Tripura, with the latter experiencing demographic inversion in the process.
The fear of being overwhelmed by “Hindu India” which was in no small measure the influence of Christian evangelism in Nagaland, served to abet a secessionist movement that led to the declaration of independence of the State on 14th August 1947. Central intervention, primarily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, resulted in the issue of Naga independence being withheld. The Naga-Hydari Agreement of June 1947, brokered by Shri Akbar Hydari, then Governor of Assam, provided interim respite. Dispute over the interpretation of the provisions of the Agreement prompted the Nagas to resort to violence in the early fifties and non-participation in India's first General Elections in 1951-52. The armed forces were inducted into the region to quell the insurgency. The conflict spiraled thereafter. A series of ceasefires with insurgent groups that splintered with each Agreement is legacy that is still awaiting resolution. The armed insurrection in Nagaland gradually spread to other parts of the North East. It highlighted the second core issue at the root of the turmoil – recognition, or the lack of it, of Tribal identity.
The Naga insurgency escalated due to a combination of internal and external factors. Naga intransigence can be attributed in some measure to western evangelical intervention that elevated the Naga issue to the global stage. Chinese meddling through the training of insurgents and supply of weapons was an important factor. Pakistan was equally complicit in the supply of weapons up to 1971. Conflict resolution and diplomacy was simultaneously found lacking internally.
The prolonged insurgency in Nagaland had its spillover effect on other parts of the North east. Lack of understanding of the region and its people was cause for neglect and poor governance. Reasonable demands of the Mizos to assert their identity was neglected and hence exploited locally to initiate the next insurgency in the region. Fear of territorial compromise in the hill districts of Manipur, to appease Naga demands, led to violence by Meitei groups. Demographic change in Assam and Tripura rattled the indigenous people, thus leading to violence. Assertion of Tribal identity in other parts of the North East similarly gave rise to myriad other insurgencies. Timely intercession to alleviate localized problems was markedly absent. It resulted in a region in turmoil.
Talks with the Government of India through the Naga Peoples Convention (NPC) led to the grant of Statehood to Nagaland in 1963. The first ceasefire between the Naga National Council (NNC) and the Government of India was brokered by the Rev. Michael Scot in 1964. Subsequent talks failed and violence resumed. A concerted campaign by the Army after the 1971 war resulted in the signing of the Shimla Accord in 1975. A tenuous peace was shattered with the breakaway formation of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980. Tribal dynamics within the NSCN resulted in its further split into the NSCN (IM) and the NSCN (K) in 1988. The Indian government's patronage of one group over the other did not help matters. GoI finally signed a ceasefire with the NSCN (IM) in 1997 and with the NSCN (K) in 2001. The latter split once again in 2011. One more group calling itself NSCN (R) was formed out of the NSCN (K) in 2017. The ideology of the early days has given way to personality cults based on tribal loyalties. The business end of insurgency is the glue holding it all together.
Open ended Ceasefire agreements, extending over decades, is NOT conducive to conflict resolution. In fact they aggravate a bad situation to make it worse. Nagaland is a classic case. Sidelining the State Government in talks with Naga insurgent groups is less than ideal process for the future. Signals sent to myriad other Groups in the region is negative. Dialogue with insurgent groups that equate themselves with the central government is dangerous.
Institution building within States has to precede conflict resolution. It is severely lacking at this stage. Presence of Insurgent/militant groups looms large in respective areas of their influence, thereby hampering initiatives of the Government. It is a major hindrance to progress. Extortion and corruption are endemic. The central government has considerably enhanced funding into the North East in the recent past. Visible signs of progress are mainly infrastructure development projects related to the Centre’s Act East policy. It has had little impact on the population at large.
The biggest challenge facing GoI is resolving the conflict in Nagaland. Talks are in progress with erstwhile insurgent groups whose demands are clearly influenced by their future status rather than that of the Nagas as a whole. It is a sensitive situation that demands deft handling. Tribal dynamics dictate that no final agreement with the NSCN (IM) will achieve the desired acceptance of Naga Society. The environment needs to be infused with a level of positivity with development that reaches the people. The scope in the areas of agriculture, horticulture and tourism are immense. Education and health care are areas of considerable neglect that need to be addressed on priority, to be able to create a conducive environment that will engender greater acceptability of a political solution.
Just as the Naga insurrection of the 1950’s served as a beacon to other insurgencies in the North East, resolving the Naga imbroglio can be the precursor to resolution of other conflicts that continue to simmer in the region.
The North East region of India retains crucial space in the security calculus of the Nation. An unresolved border dispute with China holds potential to escalate with little notice. “Incidents” can often lead to serious conflict, the Doklam incident of 2018 is a typical case in point. The situation was diffused through astute diplomacy. A more belligerent China cannot be taken for granted at any stage. It is a situation in which an insecure internal environment will adversely impact outcomes.
The North East is blessed with abundant resources and a talented and skilled people. It is in the Country’s interest that this resource is harnessed to its full potential. Building institutions in the region will require induction of suitable expertise, with due consideration for local sensitivities. A bottom up process of bettering the lives of the locals, with simultaneous effort at conflict resolution through talks, will yield positive outcomes.