More than any objective assessment of the grievances, it is the assessment of the strength and weakness of a rebel outfit that influences the government's response to its offers of talks.
Three insurgent outfits of Assam and its neighbourhood seeking “sovereignty and independence” for the people they claim to represent have been having different kinds of interaction with the Centre and the State governments and/or non-official facilitators since formal and informal contacts and negotiations began, in one case, over a decade ago. Since such is the nature of the beast, these organisations like other similar outfits, are split. So there is a kind of truce or ceasefire without any real cessation of hostilities for, there is always a spoilsport.
Other insurgent organisations with similar stated objectives like those in Manipur are also active in the region. These have, however, not been able, or have not cared to secure the kind of modus vivendi the NSCN-IM, for instance, has with the Union government and, with far less ambiguity, the government in Kohima. Indeed, the position of the Union and the State governments towards even the three organisations with which some kind of talks or talks about talks are on is neither uniform nor consistent. The differences are instructive and may well provide a clue to why the ‘peace process' in the region, despite being an ongoing process for over a decade, remains stalled,
Of the three organisations, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) is striving for the formal recognition of sovereignty and independence that in its view returned to the Naga people with the end of the British rule in August 1947. Its dominant faction, led by chairman Isak Swu and general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, is known as the NSCN-IM. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), founded in April 1979, too has been fighting for the restoration of the sovereignty of Assam (Asom), claimed to have been lost when the kingdom of Assam was annexed by the British following the defeat of Burma in the Anglo-Burmese war of 1826, and later usurped and illegally occupied by India, following the departure of Britain in August 1947. Finally, there is the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), with its own version of history of lost sovereignty going back to pre-historic times when the ‘Aryans' invaded and occupied the ‘Mongoloid' people's land.
As in all such nationalist narratives, including the Great Indian Nationalist Narrative, there is an inescapable element of fiction and imagination. But the invention does not affect the passion of the narrative or the earnestness and virulence with which the stated objectives are pursued.
Of the three, the contacts and negotiations, indirect and direct, informal and formal, between the Centre and the NSCN-IM have been going on for wellnigh 15 years. Given the complexity of the Naga nationalist mobilisation, the Union government has established similar contacts with the rival NSCN faction headed by S.S. Khaplang. The old Phizoist Naga National Council, though dormant, has not been ignored and has to be reckoned in any eventual settlement or deal. Indeed, Thuingaleng Muivah, who broke from the NNC, is currently travelling in Nagaland, wooing the organisation he and the NSCN once reviled, paying a public tribute to A.Z. Phizo, and visiting areas like Khonoma, once considered NNC strongholds.
During the period when a ceasefire has prevailed except, technically, in Manipur, the NSCN-IM has consolidated itself. In Nagaland as well in the Naga inhabited areas of Manipur, especially Ukhrul, the NSCN-IM is very nearly the de facto government. Indeed the recent travels of Mr. Muivah in Nagaland, a temporary break from the confrontation with Manipur that eventually culminated in a prolonged blockade of the State, were very much like the ‘progress' of a head of government, which is how the NSCN-IM views itself. It collects taxes, dispenses justice, and ensures security.
However, the element of coercion is always present. Those who defy its authority are given short shrift. Further, since its claim to supremacy is contested by the NSCN (K), which in its public utterances is no less committed to Naga sovereignty and independence, clashes between the two factions are not uncommon, though these have steeply come down, once again underlining the dominance of the NSCN-IM. What was once viewed as a ‘parallel government' functioning covertly is now very nearly the legitimate government. Though the ‘talks' with the Union government have been going on for years without any notable advance, neither side has openly given up on such negotiations. Mr. Muivah is to return to Delhi for further talks after a sojourn of over two months in Nagaland.
Now, consider this other picture. Though the ULFA has not acquired the kind of legitimacy and its leaders, barring notably its ‘commander-in-chief' Paresh Barua, are in prison, the Union and Assam governments never tire of saying they are keen on a dialogue with the ULFA, even in prison, if it agrees to two preconditions: talks within the framework of the Indian Constitution, meaning the ULFA should accept the Indian Constitution; and its abjuring violence.
But, for the ULFA, since gaining the sovereignty and independence of Asom is the core issue of what it calls India-Asom relations, the first condition would go against the very grain of its existence.
Secondly, and this is not merely the perception of the outfit but of most people of the State who do not subscribe to its sovereignty aspirations, violence has two inter-related aspects: The ULFA's violence and the Indian state's conter-violence which has brought the two to this position of confrontation and seeking accommodation. Seen thus, the condition on abjuring violence is meaningless and is merely a reiteration of known positions from which both sides have to move away.
The contrast with the elasticity and the necessary opaqueness of the positions of the two sides in the long ongoing ‘Indo-Naga dialogue' could not be sharper. Mr. Muivah and Mr. Isak Swu have never been hectored about the necessity of their affirming faith in the Constitution before the Union government holds talks with the NSCN-IM. Having never been arrested in India, they have not been advised to seek bail. Other, seemingly superficial matters like the freedom and ease with which the NSCN-IM leaders moved in the corridors of power do contrast with the ‘cribbed and confined' status of ULFA leaders when they are taken to court.
The position of the poorest of the three cousins, the NDFB, is even more pathetic. Its leader Ranjan Daimary, once the most feared and elusive insurgent, arrested on May 3 this year on the Bangladesh-Assam border, had to run the gauntlet even to get the necessary legal representation because of his organisation's culpability in the massive bombings in Guwahati and other places on October 3, 2008.
Since then, he has become the forgotten man, so much so that the NDFB had to blast the rail track and derail a train near Gossaingaon on July 8 to remind the Union and Assam governments that it cannot be sidelined as of no consequence. Like the other two, the NDFB too wants to hold talks, for even if nothing comes out of them, an invitation from Delhi is the first step to its joining the big league in the hierarchy of insurgencies.
It is true that governments are not always rigidly and uniformly consistent in their assessment of threats, real or perceived, the state faces. Yet, the impression is inescapable that more than any objective assessment of the genuineness of the grievances, it is the assessment of the strength and weakness of a rebel outfit that influences the government's response to its offers of talks. Put simply, the NSCN-IM is in a strong position, virtually running a government, and so has to be accommodated, with a view to eventual absorption into the system. The ULFA, and much less the NDFB, despite their demonstrated capacity for extreme violence, have not been able to make a political point, let alone virtually take over the state apparatus, and thus pose a political challenge. So, while the NSCN-IM is at the high table, others seeking to hold talks are still waiting in the ante-room, or are yet to secure admittance there.