Peace processes in India’s North East remain an unfinished business,
and Covid-19 will delay matters
There has been a continuously flawed peace process in India’s North East Region (NER) which has, over time, encouraged recurring cycles of violence and divisions, leading one to examine whether the process is more of a disruption than a solution in the region.
While the Mizoram peace accord of June 1986 has been considered a successful case of conflict resolution, though the state endures unresolved issues of the Bru(Reang) and the Hmar tribes, the rest of the talks in the other NER states, or what was once thought of as conflict resolution, only turned out to be cases of failed conflict management. The Bodo accord of 2003 is a case in point as are the peace agreements with the Naga groups in the past, a prominent one being the Shillong Accord of 1975.
The newest development in Assam is the National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Saoraigwra (NDFB-S) joining the peace wagon which led to the signing of a peace agreement with the central government and the state government on January 27, 2020 along with the other Bodo outfits. In a parallel negotiation, the Naga peace talks led by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) has been the longest ongoing negotiation since 1997, with assurances and hope of an ‘honourable’ solution, yet both negotiating parties—having their respective stands—appear to be ‘irreconcilable’ as the October 2019 talks indicated.
The last round of formal Naga peace talks was held on October 31, 2019 in New Delhi after several rounds of negotiations, following the three-month deadline proposal given by the Prime Minister’s Office in July 2019 to the Nagaland governor and the government’s chief interlocutor for the Indo-Naga Peace talks, R.N. Ravi, to conclude the ongoing Naga peace talks with the NSCN-IM leaders and the Working Committee of the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs). There was indeed no final settlement, with the press release by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) stating: “It is clarified that before any settlement is arrived at with Naga groups, all stakeholders including States of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh will be duly consulted and their concerns will be taken into consideration.”
The NSCN-IM seeks integration of all Naga areas under one administrative unit which include areas under the present state of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh besides Nagaland, while the NNPGs seek solution for the Nagas within the Nagaland State. With negotiation stalled over the issue of a separate constitution and flag for the Nagas as their identity, an NSCN-IM source stated on October 30, 2019, “We don’t believe that the matter can be resolved by October 31, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has desired . . . But this stalemate can definitely be resolved by the end of this year .” There remained only a vanity of hope, and currently with the priority of the government of India having shifted with the Covid-19 pandemic, one does not foresee anything happening on the talks’ front anytime soon.
Prior to this was the August 3, 2015 ‘historic’ framework agreement signed between the NSCN-IM and the central government. In December 2016, six other Naga armed outfits came together to form the NNPGs, who were later included in the talks, making the negotiations seemingly inclusive, but which at the same time aroused suspicion about the intention of New Delhi in exploiting the divisions within the Nagas. When the deadline was set for the final agreement for October 31, 2019, there was also a general ‘fear’ of the possibility that the final agreement may be signed with the NNPGs alone without the NSCN-IM on the issue of the flag and constitution for the Nagas. On November 17, 2017 an agreement on the political parameters of the settlement was worked out with the Working Committee of NNPGs.
With regard to Assam, the latest progress on the peace initiative is the NDFB-S signing the Ceasefire Agreement on January 16, 2020. After its coming into ceasefire agreement, the tripartite third Bodo Peace Accord was signed on January 27, 2020 with the central government and the Assam government in New Delhi. Union Home Minister Amit Shah said the new accord marked a “final and comprehensive solution” to the demand of the Bodos, while retaining the territorial integrity of Assam. The chief of NDFB-S, B. Saoraigwra, said on January 17, 2020, “We have not surrendered but entered into peace talks with honour and dignity and as a separate entity for resolution of the Bodo issue by obliging to the Constitution of India.” With all the factions now on board, the move is seen as a boost to the ongoing peace talks with the Bodo groups.
The NDFB-S, earlier headed by Ingti Kathar Songbhijit, was the only faction of the NDFB (Bodo militant group which remained active in the Bodo inhabited areas after the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) signed the Memorandum of Settlement in 2003) that has refused to sit for talks with the government. The creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) is not devoid of fault-lines where there had been growing demands for a review of the 2003 accord from both Bodos and non-Bodos. With the January accord, which was the third accord signed with the Bodos, the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) would now be renamed as Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR). The first accord was in 1993 with the formation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC), and the Accord of 2003 with the creation of the BTC.
Two concerns remain, however: first, will the latest accord bring about peace even as the non-Bodos of the BTAD remain outside the purview of the talks? And secondly, will the Bodos’ demand of statehood for the Bodos ever cease?
To cite relatively recent incidents, the NDFB-S—which was then known as the NDFB-IK Sled by Ingti Kathar Songbijit—was involved in the killing of over 80 Adivasis in December 2014. The outfit was also linked to the Bodo-Muslim bloodshed in the BTAD in July 2012 and during Lok Sabha (Lower House of Indian Parliament) elections in April-May 2014 in which a non-Bodo independent candidate, Naba Kumar Sarania alias Hira Sarania, emerged the winner, defeating all the three Bodo candidates in the fray in the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha constituency. Naba Kumar Saraniya, the member of parliament from Kokrajhar, the constituency that represents the BTAD, stated on January 27, 2020, that the special privileges and reservation for Bodos seemed to “undermine the long histories” of other communities in the area.
Appearing optimistic of the latest Bodo accord, the Assam cabinet minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, asked the United Liberation Front of Assam-Independent (ULFA-I) faction leader, Paresh Barua, currently residing at the Myanmar-China border, to return to India and join the ongoing peace talks. “We appeal to Paresh Baruah to leave the path of violence, we want him to return and join the peace process. ULFA peace process is in an advanced stage and his presence will ensure a comprehensive settlement just like the new Bodoland accord.” Union Home Minister Amit Shah had also declared that if the ULFA-I faction is ready for negotiations, then “the Centre is more than willing to hold talks with them.”
It is important to note that similar invitations for peace talks with the ULFA-I had been issued in the past as well, bearing no results. Reportedly, the ULFA-I is open to joining the peace talks but has always insisted that it will sit across the table only if the sovereignty of Assam is on the agenda. While ‘chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa’s Pro-Talks Faction (ULFA-PTF) had entered into formal talks for the first time in 2011 in ULFA’s 31-year-old history, the ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah of ULFA-I was vehemently opposing negotiations with the government. Tarun Gogoi, who was then the chief minister of Assam, had declared, “We have appealed to Paresh Baruah to come and join the peace talks, but so far the response has not been positive. We cannot wait indefinitely for him....”
As in the case of Meghalaya, in September 2014 a Memorandum of Settlement was reached with Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) and its Breakaway faction (ANVC-B) with the central and state governments, which was followed by the surrender of 748 militants along with their weapons at Dakopgre in Tura in West Garo Hills District. The ANVC had earlier signed a ‘flawed’ tripartite Cease-fire Agreement with the state government and the central government on July 23, 2004 at a time when the existence of the Breakaway faction was ‘not known,’ and it ‘surfaced’ only in 2012. Nado R. Marak, personal secretary’ to ANVC-B ‘commander-in-chief’ Mukost Marak, had then claimed,
After disowning the breakaway group, the leaders of the ANVC went on denying the presence of ANVC (Breakaway)… Our group was deliberately left out and not brought under the cease-fire. We continued to stay in the jungle under the command of Mukost Marak, who headed the ‘army wing.’ We were waiting for someone to take the initiative and lead us, as we, too, wanted to be a part of the talks. 
Another Garo formation, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), formed by former ANVC leader, Sohan D. Shira along with former Deputy Superintendent of Police, Meghalaya, Pakchara R. Sangma alias Champion R. Sangma,however, did not want to be a part of the ANVC for the peace agreement but would rather negotiate their terms and conditions. The Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), too, in December 2019 expressed its wish to sit for unconditional talks after the MHA declared the outfit as an unlawful organization on November 18, 2019.
In Manipur, except for Memorandum of Understanding with few valley based militant formations, there are many other outfits that are opposed to the ‘idea’ of talks. The tribal Kuki groups under the umbrella groups; the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and United Peoples Front (UPF), too, are under suspension of operations with the government of India. Recent reports indicate that the government of India is looking at concluding peace talks with them.
For a durable peace to come about, the timeframe needs to be mutually agreed upon by the negotiating parties, and all stakeholders, indeed, need to be consulted and included. For instance, in the case of the Nagas, the reported idea of finalizing the talks without the NSCN-IM, which has been negotiating peace for the past twenty-two years, would be only repetition of earlier ‘flawed’ peace agreements and consequently disastrous. Similarly, in the case of ULFA, too, unless Paresh Baruah comes to the negotiating table, it will continue to remain a ‘Divided Peace.’ So too is the case of the ANVC, GNLA and HNLC. Though the Bodo formations have signed a peace deal, major challenges remain.
While peace negotiations are extremely important, the peace accords will only remain on paper without achieving an actual peaceful political solution unless there are transparent and concrete agreements by all the negotiating parties concerned, and all stakeholders are taken on board in the process of seriously implementing the agreements. With several ongoing peace talks with different outfits of the region professing divergent ideologies and goals, bringing about a solution for durable peace remains tricky.
Veronica Khangchian is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of this Journal. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Conflict Management and Peace Initiatives, Martin Luther Christian University Shillong, Meghalaya. Her doctoral dissertation was on Ethnicity, Conflict and Poverty in Manipur: A Study of Tamenglong and Imphal West Districts, at the Centre for Study of Social Systems (CSSS), School of Social Sciences (SSS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2011. She did her MA and MPhil at the same institution, and her BA at Maitreyi College, Delhi University. Her research interests are Ethnicity, Migration, Conflict and Peace Processes in Northeast India. Her publication are “Understanding Conflict in Manipur: A Socio-Historical Perspective,” Social Change and Development XVI, no. 2 (2019): 41-58. Journal published by the OKD Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati, Assam). She has published a chapter, “Linking Ethnicity, Conflict and Poverty in Manipur,” in Chronic Poverty in India: Issues, Policies and Challenges, edited by Anand Kumar, et al. (New Delhi: Vitasta Publishing, 2017). She has authored several commentaries, such as “Assam Continues to Sit on an Ethnic Tinderbox, South Asia Monitor (January 6, 2015); “Bangladesh-India; Arms Trafficking: Residual Networks, South Asia Intelligence Review 12, no. 52 (June 30, 2014); “Recurring Bloodbath,” Outlook India, May 9, 2014; “Telengana Reverberations in the North-East, Uday India IV, no. 44 (October12, 2013); “The Deepening Myanmar-Nagaland Imbroglio, Eurasia Review (July 12, 2012); “India-Myanmar: Merging Perceptions, Eurasia Review, (June 11, 2012); “Unresolved Tensions in Mizoram—Analysis, Eurasia Review, (June 5, 2012); “Meghalaya: Flawed Cease-Fire,” Indo-Canada Outlook, vol. 6, no. 11 (June 2012); “The Challenge of Peaceful Settlement,” Geopolitics III, issue 1 (June, 2012); “Ethnic Turf War, Outlook India (November 14, 2011); “Splintering Threats in Assam, Outlook India (October 25, 2011); “Manipur Down Slippery Slope, Again, The Pioneer (August 18, 2011); and “Assam: A Divided Peace, Indo-Canada Outlook, vol. 5 (June 2011).
“As deadline ends, Govt says no final settlement on Naga peace talks,” Indian Express, New Delhi, October 31, 2019.
“ ‘Didn't surrender but signed ceasefire deal to find solution,’ says NDFB (S) chief,” Deccan Herald, Guwahati, January 17, 2020.
“Amit Shah signs new Bodo accord to bring peace to Assam—but observers are sceptical,” Scroll.in, January 28, 2020, https://scroll.in/article/951302/amit-shah-signs-new-bodo-accord-to-bring-peace-to-assam-but-observers-are-sceptical.
 “Centre Asks ULFA(I) to Join Northeast Peace Talks, Leave Path of Violence,” NDTV, January 29, 2020.
 “ULFA divided over peace talks: Gogoi,” The Hindu, June 18, 2010.
 Veronica Khangchian, “India: Flawed Cease-Fire in Meghalaya—Analysis,”