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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2614

Winning hearts and minds

By Vinod Vedi - Syndicate Features

There are several segments to the counter-insurgency scenario in the north-east and the Government of India should seek to exploit their several layers to reduce the demands on manpower and logistics. For instance, the segments that enjoy a ceasefire are also those areas that currently are in the throes of festivities and amenable to diplomacy and tack intended to win hearts and minds.

The ceasefire with the NSCN (I-M) of Nagaland has been extended for a full year at the meeting in Bangkok just before it was to expire in July and a follow-up meeting was held in Amsterdam in the second week of December. Between these two events Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the North-east and made it a point to discount any possibility of an integration of the Naga-majority areas in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam into the “Greater Nagalim” demanded by the Isak-Muivah faction.

This is an incendiary issue for all the stakeholders and, unlike the earlier BJP-led National Democratic Alliance Government the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance is being particularly cautious in ensuring that Manipur for one does not go up in flames again by even an oblique suggestion that the NSCN (I-M) demand will be considered. By appearing to shut the door on the “integration issue” the Prime Minister has ensured that no sparks are lit in otherwise stable areas. In this respect he has done a great deal to win the hearts and minds of the Manipuri people.

This stand may not jeopardise the dialogue with the NSCN (I-M) if this insurgent group is convinced that something can still be gained within the ambit of its 30-point charter of demands in securing its goal of a federal arrangement with India.

It may exacerbate tribal tensions in sensitive areas as at Merapani over the integration issue. It should be the endeavour of both the Centre and the State Governments to ensure that there is heightened vigilance in such sensitive areas though the fact that it is the Christmas season (it contuse through the New Year revelries up to the Republic Day) by itself be a disincentive to adventurism.

There is also the other matter of the internecine warfare between the I-M and the Khaplang groups. There has been some bloodletting between the two and some heartburning over allegations by the I-M group that the Government is favouring the latter. Nonetheless it is to be expected that the Nagas will see the larger picture rather than become bogged down over issues of jurisdiction at this stage of their struggle.

The Government delegation led by Union Labour Minister Oscar Fernandes has, in the context of the NSCN demand for an extremely flexible federal arrangement has drawn attention to the very nature of the Indian Constitution which allows for an arrangement like that in Jammu and Kashmir. The fact that the NSCN has indicated that it would pick up the thread from the previous round of talks is a pointer that the larger picture has not been lost on the insurgent group.

On a different layer is the issue of the United Liberation Front of Asom which has launched a series of attacks in Assam in the hope of browbeating the Centre into dealing with it directly. However, the bomb explosion in southern Bhutan, long used as a sanctuary by the ULFA, the KLO and the Bodo insurgents has caused the Royal Government of Bhutan to shut down the border. This is bad news for Indian insurgents, who plan to use Bhutan as a fall-back sanctuary in the likelihood of a joint India-Myanmar initiative to clear up their base camps and training areas on both sides of the Indo-Myanmar border using ethnic links as a binding factor.

Clearly Delhi is unwilling to accord to the ULFA the same considerations as it has to the NSCN factions. India failed to utilise to the fullest the Bhutan Government’s crackdown on our NE militants using its soil about three years. Now the government is checking up its resources to ensure that when combing operations begin the movement of the Myanmar Army and Indian security forces is coordinated to the finest detail so that no one is allowed to slip the dragnet. The issue of logistics and appropriate weapons has been tied up with Myanmar during the recent visit of the junta leader to India.

In so far the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is concerned, there is need for the Government to realise that the issue is attracting foreign attention as is clear from the rather acerbic intervention by the Iranian Nobel Prize winner. Whatever that is contemplated on the issue needs to be put in place at an early date so that the disconnect over the use of this rather permissive law is drastically reduced and attempts to win the hearts and minds of the people get a fair chance to succeed.

The perceived trigger-happiness of the armed forces is not an impression that should be allowed to persist irrespective of the admittedly difficult nature of their operations. The punitive action against members of the security forces for the alleged misdemeanours does not remove the bitterness caused by the incident. In fact it gets compounded by the psychological fall-out of the punishment. Disaffection among groups inured to camaraderie as the cementing factor is not something that can be wished away.

Therefore, it would be in the national interest that counter-insurgency operations are not allowed to lose the moral high ground on which their success depends. Campaigns to win the hearts and minds of the local people owe as much to the rectitude of the actions of the security forces as to the projects intended to alleviate the hardships and fulfil the necessities of the locals. It must also be remembered that people in disturbed areas are traumatised from all sides when security forces start operations to clear out the insurgents.

The rules of engagement cannot always be clear-cut but experience over several decades of being in the business should have thrown up lessons whereby it need not always be necessary to use the most draconian of measures to achieve one’s aim. The issues brought to the fore by the Ms Iron Sharmila hunger strike in Manipur cannot be wished away.

Yet distinctions will have to be made whether what is intended to undercut the militant is not contributing to his cause. The groundswell against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act appears to suggest that the moral high ground has been lost to those who would want to undermine the Indian nation-State.

- Syndicate Features -

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