AFSPA has failed to tame insurgents

AFSPA has failed to tame insurgents

Much like its unique traditions and folklore, insurgency in the North-East, a region of 45 million people, is showing no signs of dying. On June 4, 18 Army troopers were killed and a dozen injured in Manipur. Three rebel groups, led by the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), used rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices in one of the biggest raids on security forces in the region in recent years. In fact, this has been the worst attack faced by the Army in the country in about two decades, losing 18 men in a single incident.

Raids such as this takes place intermittently, denying any opportunity to the government’s peace and security strategists from taking solace at the thought that insurgency in the region was on the decline, going by statistics. In fact, the security establishment cannot be blamed for believing or claiming that insurgency is on the wane because at present New Delhi is engaged in peace talks with five frontline rebel groups from the region, while seven other major militant outfits are observing ceasefire, pending the start of peace negotiations.

Why has the North-East not been able to emerge from the fury of cyclical violence by heavily armed insurgents? The policies of the Centre are to a great extent responsible for providing the much-needed oxygen that sustains insurgency. One of the major flaws has been the policy of engaging in so-called “peace talks” with almost any insurgent group who either volunteers to sit for dialogue or accepts an offer from the government to enter into a truce to begin with.

There are umpteen instances when a rebel group with which the government begins a peace dialogue gets split. Such belligerent breakaway factions have forced the government to talk to more than one faction of the same insurgent group. In Assam, the authorities are currently engaged in peace negotiations with two factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), while a third faction is wreaking havoc, killing and kidnapping people for ransom.

The answer could lie in New Delhi announcing a moratorium on peace talks with new insurgent groups or break-away factions, while continuing with the peace negotiations with groups like the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the other major outfits. After all, if we take the case of the NDFB in Assam, the government obviously cannot sign two separate peace agreements with the two factions of the same rebel group.

Anti-peace talk groups

A definite shift was noticed in the policy of the government on the issue of dealing with insurgency in the region. After the break-away NDFB-S killed more than 70 people in Assam in December 2014, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the government would not engage in peace talks with any outfit which is involved in killings and violence and regard such groups merely as “terrorist organisations.” This verbal statement will have to be modified and translated into a policy directive, articulated unambiguously, to state that there would be no more peace talks with newer insurgent groups or factions. It should be made clear that New Delhi would not encourage new militant groups by keeping the option of talks open.

The June 4 Manipur attack must serve as a turning point for the Centre to revisit its peace policy because the rebels are closing ranks. On April 17, the heads of four frontline insurgent groups of the region had a get-together in Myanmar’s Sagaing division where they formed a common platform called the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW). The four groups are the NSCN-K, ULFA (Independent) Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and the anti-peace talks NDFB faction called NDFB-Songbijit. The timing of the launch of this new rebel front is significant because it comes close on the heels of the abrogation of the 14-year-long ceasefire with New Delhi by the NSCN-K.
The anti-peace talk insurgents meant to demonstrate their strike potential became apparent with several attacks on security forces in the past two months, culminating in the last week’s raid. That the rebels are launching coordinated operations was evident by the joint statement issued by the NSCN-K, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) immediately after the attack, claiming responsibility. This means the UNLFW has sympathisers in the form of rebels from Manipur as well.

New Delhi’s policy review must also be directed at the draconian AFSPA that provides sweeping powers to the armed forces. In Manipur, for instance, AFSPA is in force since the mid-1980s but has failed to tame the insurgents. Tripura has dared to withdraw AFSPA in late May perhaps realising that excesses by men in uniform, taking advantage of the Act’s provisions, were only antagonising the common people, something the insurgents love because any anti-state protests helps them. Local ethnic dynamics aided by geography and the availability of trans-border lie-low shelters in Myanmar and elsewhere promises to keep insurgency alive in this far-eastern frontier.

(The writer is Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati)

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