Resolving disputes

Troubled North East

Even as the Muivah-Ibomi Singh standoff continues over the IM leader’s stalled homecoming visit to his village in Manipur’s Ukhrul district, there is good news from Guwahati. Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi has announced that his government will initiate peace talks with ULFA under Arabinda Rajkhowa, its chairman, now detained in Assam, and other members of its central committee.

Further, the state will wait no more for Paresh Barua, ULFA’s self-styled commander-in-chief, absconding in Bangladesh and now somewhere in North Myanmar or southern China. Paresh has boasted that no settlement is possible without his imprimatur. This bluff will be called.

The people of Assam are fed up with ULFA’s mindless killing and grandstanding and want peace and harmony so that the focus can shift to development and securing a better life. They know that sovereignty is a chimera and will never be conceded or otherwise attained, Above all, whatever their grievances, they want to remain with India.
No self-serving renegades can exercise a veto over the talks. Gogoi has said that the door is still open for Barua to join. It is for him to make a choice. If he comes in later, after the talks have progressed, he will not be able to demand a fresh start. Blackmail cannot be allowed to succeed — anywhere.

Meanwhile, Assam’s border problems with its neighbours — Meghalaya most recently, Arunachal and Mizoram earlier — have once again erupted in violence. These stem from the separation of the hill states from Assam when disputes arose as to whether the Inner Line or any one of the lines, drawn further outwards to bring good forests under Assam’s jurisdiction for revenue purposes, should be accepted for purposes of boundary demarcation.

The disputed areas range from 25 to 800 sq km and consist mostly of flat lands or rolling plains that have become no-man’s land and hide outs for all manner of dubious elements as neither side will allow the forest or revenue officials of the other state to intrude.
That this problem has not been resolved — despite efforts — represents a failure of governance and imagination on all sides. Hill states value flat lands as they are otherwise defined by a perpendicular landscape. But they are equally characterised by varied agro-climatic zones by altitude and water sources.

The two are interactive zones and enjoy a symbiotic relationship that should not be sundered. Arunachal and Meghalaya, for example have hydro-power resources that they may harness but cannot convert into employment and income without building infrastructure and industry. These are best located in their flat but disputed border lands. Assam in turn would benefit from flood moderation and improved water flows for irrigation, navigation and fisheries and cheap power to convert into jobs.

Trusteeship zones

This win-win situation for both sides would be facilitated were the Centre to join as a third partner to mediate the formation and management of such shared ‘trusteeships zones,’ converting disputed lands into productive assets. The obvious benefits accruing would give quietus to local chauvinism that has kept border fires burning.

Meanwhile, the Naga peace process has been vitiated by the needless blockade of NH 39 from Dimapur to Imphal, following Manipuri opposition to Muivah’s visit to his village in Ukhrul. Muivah’s homecoming was not free of controversy in view of his demand for Nagalim (entailing the dismemberment of Manipur) and purported plan to address several meetings in the region at a time when Manipur itself was poised to conduct local body elections.

Hotheads on both sides need to cool off. One lesson learnt is surely that the alternative, though longer, NH 53 from Silchar to Jiribam and on to Imphal must be speedily upgraded so that it can be conveniently used and Manipur can never be blackmailed by blockade.
At the other end of the country, the internal peace process in Jammu & Kashmir revolving on regional autonomy and federal relations as well as human rights violations, disappearances and employment, should receive impetus from the forthcoming visit of the prime minister to Srinagar.

As before, the two Hurriyats and the Salahuddin-led United Jihadi Council in Muzaffarabad have denounced the talks which they insist can only be productive if Kashmir is recognised as ‘disputed territory.’ The Hurriyat has a limited political following in certain pockets and commands obedience essentially through fear of the gun. Yet, none in J&K can be given a veto over talks or their outcome. If the Hurriyat opts out, so be it.

The external dialogue on J&K is also to be resumed in the wake of the two prime ministers’ resolve at Thimphu to close the ‘trust deficit.’ The composite dialogue was rudely derailed by 26/11 and Pakistan’s unwillingness to live up to its solemn commitment not to allow its soil to be used for cross-border terror.

The Pakistanis accused in 26/11 are now undergoing a secret trail in Rawalpindi but it is a matter of disappointment that Hafiz Saeed, the LeT, Jamat-ud Dawa chief and mastermind of the Mumbai attack, was let off by the Pakistan supreme court for lack of evidence despite repeated instances of hate speech and incitement to violence against India.

India will also want to know whether the present regime in Islamabad stands by the Musharraf-Manmohan formula, broadly accepted by both sides. If it has resiled from that position for no good reason, its credibility as a bona fide negotiator will also be called in question.

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