Degrees of separatism

Published : Sep 22, 2006 00:00 IST

AN NSCN(I-M) MILITANT stands guard at the NSCN headquarters in Hebron near Dimapur. - RITU RAJ KONWAR

AN NSCN(I-M) MILITANT stands guard at the NSCN headquarters in Hebron near Dimapur. - RITU RAJ KONWAR

On the struggles for separation in the northeastern region.

ABOUT 30 organisations described variously as terrorist, militant or insurgent, are active in Asom (formerly Assam) and other States in northeastern India. The South Asia Terrorism Portal actually identifies over a hundred `terrorist/insurgent groups' in the region. Most of these are admittedly little more than names and signboards with poorly written constitutions, manifestos and charters of demands, engaged principally in extortion and racketeering. Many of these are nearly moribund. Others, with a little more substance to them and having a `greater autonomy' agenda are engaged sporadically in violent activities alternating with some kind of negotiations with the State/Central government.

About a dozen of the 30-odd `active' organisations are also engaged in `armed propaganda' that over the years has evolved into an `armed struggle' against the Indian state. While their stated objectives may differ, in their operational methods and organisational structures, they share some common features. All of them claim to represent the people and they are all, to varying degrees, separatist, indeed secessionist. All of them have, clearly or vaguely, spelt out agendas of attaining sovereignty, or what they perceive as the restoration of the sovereignty that was lost in the process of the transfer of power and the subsequent consolidation of the Indian state.

The most notable of these organisations are the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN). While ULFA seeks to restore the lost sovereignty of Asom - following British annexation of the territory after the defeat of the Burmese invasion and the signing of the Treaty of Yandabo on February 24, 1826 - the NSCN led by Isak Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah and two other Naga nationalist formations, all offshoots of the Naga sovereignty assertion initiated by the late Angami Zapu Phizo at the dawn of Indian Independence. The Naga people `declared their independence' on August 14, 1947, on the eve of India's independence.

The oldest organisation engaged in `armed struggle' in Manipur is the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), though three or four other organisations are engaged in similar struggles for the restoration of Manipur's lost sovereignty (`the undemocratic and inequitable' Merger Agreement of October 15, 1949).

The history and geography of the territories involved being what they are, there are inescapably conflicting territorial issues involved in, and indeed integral to, the sovereignty aspirations. Ironically, this interface between sovereignty and territoriality impinges on all the States where these organisations are active, highlighting the fundamental contradictions of these sovereignty struggles.

For instance, the Naga sovereignty struggle, were it to succeed in the way envisaged by the Naga nationalist organisations, would have the gravest implications for Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh as they now exist, and, potentially, for Myanmar as well.

How seriously do these organisations believe they can attain sovereignty, considering that their adversary is the Indian state? The leaderships of these organisations, sophisticated and well informed about history, know full well that in the larger Indian context their armed struggles have had very little impact on polity. Nearly half a century of `armed struggle' has not really advanced Naga aspirations for sovereignty.

One may well ask whether six to seven years of talks of every variety - direct and indirect, through emissaries and interlocutors and face-to-face meetings with representatives of the Government of India, including three or four Prime Ministers, in New Delhi and in foreign lands - have advanced these sovereignty aspirations. The only gain has been the legitimacy the de facto government of Nagalim has acquired, though the existence of such a government owes little to the protracted negotiations.

The fact is that even the most belligerent of these separatist groups do not envisage the defeat of the Indian state by the `armed struggles'. Yet, they press on, unrelenting in their desire to secure their lost sovereignty.

According to received wisdom, a nation-state, even a very weak one, does not break up except under two conditions: defeat in war and occupation by a foreign enemy. India is simply too big and too powerful a country to be defeated in war, or allow for foreign occupation.

There are numerous instances of fragile nation-states continuing to remain united despite serious internal contradictions marked by conflicts related to ethnicity, language, religion and such other coordinates of classic disintegration of nation-states. But for Indian intervention, it is arguable whether the seemingly unviable state of Pakistan would have disintegrated despite the intense internal contradictions, which were exacerbated further by the lack of statesmanship of its leaders in both West and East Pakistan.

On the other hand, there is also the example of the Soviet Union, as strong and centralised a state as one can imagine, collapsing without foreign intervention, defeat in war and occupation by enemy forces. While the subsequent disintegration of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was assisted considerably by foreign intervention, even in this case developments internal to the country were, in the final analysis, the decisive factor that contributed to the destruction of the federal republic.

The modest and continuing gains made by the Catalonian autonomy movement in Spain and the rather more dramatic developments in Montenegro, which in a national referendum in May voted narrowly for secession and independence from Serbia, hold promises for separatist movements in the region.

It is interesting that the current campaign in Manipur for a plebiscite on the issue of Manipur's independence, proposed initially by the UNLF and since then taken up by several `civil society' organisations, followed closely, indeed almost conterminously, in the wake of the referendum in Montenegro.

Among those who addressed such a plebiscite meeting in Imphal on June 6 was the titular king of Manipur, apart from other dignitaries such as a former Lok Sabha member, a former Human Rights Commissioner, the president of the Manipur Working Journalists' Union, leaders of political parties and several women leaders - always a potent force in Manipur.

An old song had this refrain: "Tell me what you want and I'll tell you what you get." It would be tempting to see in these words a neat summary of the opacity that characterises the stated stands of these separatist organisations and the Government of India.

However, an organisation such as ULFA has never minced words. The only problem is that it is impossible to accept that this stated objective, the attainment of Swadhin Asom, is a realisable one, or that even ULFA really believes it is attainable through armed struggle, unless the kind of extraordinary circumstances that prevailed in the instances cited above can be replicated in this country. This is not on the cards.

However, the persistence in the face of `proven facts to the contrary' is not in the least irrational. Rather, such persistence can be understood if one realises that ULFA and its ideologues within Asom and in metropolitan centres in India and abroad and an amorphous `civil society' network entrenched for the most part in the developed countries of the West are of the view that conventional notions about the durability, indeed the very viability of the nation-state, even one that is strong and internally coherent and just in its governance, are no more valid in the brave new world of a globalised 21st century.

Thus, notions of nation-state, national sovereignty, citizenship rights derived from a country's Constitution, indeed, the distinction between a citizen and a migrant who is not yet a citizen, securely demarcated borders and such things need to be turned upside down in this new dispensation of borderless territories and shared sovereignties. Such ideas, never canvassed in respect of nationality problems and struggles in first world countries, are bouncing around in every part of the region.

Seen in this perspective, arguments about whether separatist struggles, even when these become active insurgencies (such as the Naga struggle and the resolved Mizo struggle) can ever defeat the might of the Indian state are utterly irrelevant.

Indeed, the talks and talks about talks, the unending hair-splitting over procedures and protocols, about whether the Government of India should first release the five imprisoned ULFA leaders or whether ULFA should first give in writing that it will attend the talks in the event of these leaders being released, are all mere exercises in sleight-of-hand and prestidigitation intended to obscure the real agenda.

The Indian state, in this perspective, is getting more and more enfeebled, unable to resolve the larger contradictions besetting it nationally. What the struggles of these marginalised nationalities in the marginal regions of the country need to do is to keep up the pressure, keep on chipping away. With the received ideas of the nation-state themselves losing their legitimacy, such `unviable' entities as the Indian state are bound to crack up and collapse even without external aggression, defeat in war and foreign occupation.

Such a reading of history informs the resolve of separatist organisations to carry on their struggles over generations. The reality that underlies the rhetoric: "We have fought for fifty years; we are prepared to fight for fifty more years," as Th. Muivah reportedly said in frustration over the lack of progress in the `Indo-Naga dialogue'.

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