Ethnic Peace Accords

views updated


ETHNIC PEACE ACCORDS In the post-independence period, resolution of ethnic conflicts, as a part of a nation-building strategy, has been a daunting task of Indian leadership. Out of nine major ethnic conflicts faced by the country over a period of five decades, six were secessionist and three pertained to autonomy. The secessionist movements occurred in the states of Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Manipur; the autonomy demand was made by the Bodos (Assam), Gorkhas (West Bengal), and Tripuris (Tripura). The underlying causes of these conflicts were rooted in the manifold grievances of the ethnic groups. For some, forcible territorial integration in the wake of decolonization has been the main issue. Some others have feared cultural assimilation engineered by the dominant groups in their region. The denial of equal socioeconomic and political rights has remained another reason, and some groups have felt powerless in the face of the hegemonic tendency of the central government. In all conflicts, either the perceived or real grievances of the ethnic groups and the nature of the state's response determined the conflict goals. Every conflict turned violent, though the intensity varied. While the Punjab conflict witnessed collective violence against the Sikhs in 1984, as many as five conflicts in Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam, and Punjab attained the dimension of an internal war—a situation marked by continuous and prolonged military engagement between the insurgents and government security forces.

Yet violence has been an important factor in peace processes, and India has used coercion in pursuit of peacemaking, with mixed results. All the nine major peace accords were reached in six conflicts; in three other conflicts—in Tamil Nadu, Assam, and Manipur—there have been no political negotiations. Three conflicts involving the Tripuris, Bodos, and Mizos have thus had two peace accords each. The government has always preferred to negotiate first with the moderate leaders; only after the failure of those talks would the government negotiate with the militant leadership. Two conflicts (involving the Mizos and Gorkhas) have so far ended in political settlement; it is likely that the Bodo conflict will be added to this list if the violent opposition to the 2003 peace accord is neutralized. Conflicts in Punjab and Tamil Nadu have ended in military suppression or coercion by the government, although, in the case of Punjab, it signed a peace accord with the moderate Sikh leadership. The remaining four ethnic movements (in Tripura, Assam, Manipur, and Nagaland) are continuing. Concerning the Tripura conflict, the Delhi central government signed two failed peace accords; both the Assamese and Manipuri conflicts have not thus far seen a peace process; and protracted negotiations are underway to end the conflict in Nagaland.

Failed Accords

Six out of nine ethnic peace accords have failed. The first such accord was signed on 11 November 1975 between five representatives of a breakaway Naga group (the Revolutionary Government of Nagaland) and Nagaland governor L. P. Singh. Constant military pressure by the Indian forces and growing dissidence facilitated this accord. Popularly known as the Shillong Accord, it did not intend to redress the Nagas' grievances but to end the conflict by seeking the rebels' surrender, the precondition for reaching a final negotiated political settlement. The operative clauses of the accord stated that the representatives of the underground organizations accepted the Indian Constitution and agreed to surrender their arms—details of which were worked out under a supplementary agreement on 5 January 1976. It set a twenty-day deadline for the arms surrender and created peace camps for housing the surrendered militants. Subsequently, a large number of detainees were released. The accord did not restore peace, because only a small section of the Naga leadership participated in the talks. Most Nagas considered the agreement an unequal deal, which the government had negotiated from a position of military strength. The antiaccord forces consolidated themselves under two new militant factions of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland. Thus, since the 1970s, India's government has faced formidable opposition forces while trying to negotiate peace.

The Mizo Accord came second in the series of failed peace accords. Signed on 18 February 1976, between India's government and Mizo National Front (MNF) chief Laldenga, it was similar to the Shillong Accord. It secured the MNF leadership's acknowledgment of Mizoram as an integral part of India as well as their desire to find a political solution within the framework of the Indian Constitution. However, there was no mention of the specific solution the government was willing to offer. The MNF agreed to ensure an end to the violence by its military wing—the Mizo National Army (MNA)—and to collect the underground cadres with their arms, placing them in camps run with government help. On its part, the government was to declare a suspension of military operations, but only after the rebels stopped their activities. As expected, the accord stimulated internal bickering in the MNF, whose members refused to surrender any arms. Laldenga was isolated in the organization and found his support failing in the Mizo Hills. At the same time, he was under pressure from the government to implement the accord. In 1978 violence erupted, and the government responded with full military operations.

The Punjab Accord, signed on 24 July 1985, was different in two ways. First, it was entered into with the moderate Sikh leadership while the militants were actively involved in armed campaigns. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi himself was a signatory. The Akali Dal leader, H. S. Longowal, represented the Sikhs. Second, it tried to address some of the political grievances of the Sikhs. Its main thrust was to satisfy their territorial aspirations, as well as their desire for autonomy. It was agreed that Chandigarh, the shared capital of Punjab and Haryana, would be given to Punjab. In return, Punjab would transfer some of its Hindi-speaking areas to Haryana. Regarding the autonomy demand, the government was to refer that issue to the Sarkaria Commission, set up to make recommendations on center-state relations. The accord also stipulated that the river water dispute between Punjab and Haryana would be referred to a tribunal headed by a Supreme Court judge. While the government considered the accord a sincere attempt at reconciliation with the Sikh community, the agreement evoked protests from many militant Sikh leaders, who bitterly opposed the Akali Dal's cooperation with the Indian government. Intense violence ensued, including the assassination of Longowal by Khalistani Sikhs on 20 August 1985, during his election campaign. Soon after, the accord itself expired, as the government embarked on a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy to crush the Khalistani militants.

Two accords (in 1988 and 1993) to end the conflict in Tripura met similar fates. The trilateral accord of August 1988 involving the central and state governments and Tripura's Tribal National Volunteers. The militant organization agreed to end all underground activities; the Indian government promised to extend resettlement facilities, increase tribal representation in the legislature through reservations, to protect tribal interests in land alienation, and to develop agricultural and irrigation facilities in tribal areas. The failure of the accord may be attributed not only to opposition within the militant movement, leading to the rise of splinter groups to carry on the fight, but also to political differences between the central and state governments over its implementation. It took about five more years for the government to coerce, through sustained military operations, another group—the Tripura Tribal Force—to negotiate an accord. Interestingly, the 1993 accord incorporated most of the provisions of the earlier accord. Additionally, it provided some safeguards to protect Tripura tribal culture. As soon as that accord was signed, however, another group of disgruntled leaders began a new armed movement, which continues to shatter Tripura's "peace" as a low-intensity conflict.

The movement for Bodoland presented a similar picture until 2003. The first accord signed between the Assam government and moderate Bodo leadership in February 1993 did not work. Though the accord provided limited autonomy to the Bodos under an autonomous council covering some two thousand villages and twenty-five tea gardens, a section of them remained dissatisfied because of the exclusion of areas lying on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra River, as well as rejection of their demand for a full-fledged state within the Indian union. Dissident militant groups—the Bodo Security Force (BSF) and the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT)—took advantage of the general discontent to continue their armed struggle amid heavy military pressure from Indian security forces.

Successful Accords

Two accords have been successful; a third is likely to be the 2003 Bodo Accord. The Mizo, Bodo, and Gorkha leaders have accepted negotiated peace settlements only after they found military engagements futile. The strategy in the Mizoram conflict was to use military pressure to bring the MNF to the negotiating table, so the central government held peace parleys even after the breakdown of the 1976 accord. The talks became protracted due to the intransigence of the MNF, but the government capitalized on the military weakness of the MNA to reach a deal. Once the local population and religious leaders threw their weight behind the peace process, the MNF chief was forced to sign the Mizo Accord in 1986. A step forward from the 1976 accord, it separated the political solution from the immediate surrender of arms. However, the MNF agreed to bring out, within the agreed time limit, all underground personnel, along with their arms and ammunition. The government offered political concessions, such as conferment of statehood on Mizoram and constitutional guarantees for the religious and social practices of the Mizos. An enhanced allocation of central resources was assured as a special case. The accord generated positive responses from Mizo tribal society. The MNF joined the political mainstream; enduring peace returned to Mizoram—now the most peaceful state in northeast India.

The same can be said about the Gorkhaland Accord of August 1988. The central government, which had been a signatory in the Mizo Accord, in this case merely mediated the accord between the state of West Bengal and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). What made the accord possible was the compromise the GNLF made, under military pressure, regarding its original goal: it was prepared to give up its demand for a separate Gorkha state (within the Indian Union) and instead accepted the formation of a Hill Council in the Darjeeling district. Though peace returned to the district, the accord did not fully satisfy all leaders of the GNLF, whose desire for statehood is still articulated, though nonviolently.

The latest peace accord pertains to the Bodo conflict. This is the second accord to be reached on the same conflict within a ten-year period. While the 1993 accord was signed between the state government of Assam and the moderate Bodo leaders in the presence of a representative of the central government, the February 2003 accord was a trilateral one, directly involving as signatories the central and state governments and the BLT, which had been formed in opposition to the 1993 accord. The 2003 accord has created an autonomous self-governing body, the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), within the state of Assam. The council's jurisdiction is spread over 3,082 villages; additional villages can also be included if all three signatories agree. The BTC enjoys protection under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. In addition, there are guarantees of accelerated infrastructure development in Bodoland; the fulfillment of the economic, educational, and linguistic aspirations of the Bodos; and the preservation of their land rights and ethnic identity. The BSF, which reemerged as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), has opposed the accord, whose success in restoring peace depends upon either defeating the NDFB or coercing it to join the political mainstream.

As in many other countries, secessionist conflicts in India are more intractable than lesser conflicts. The only secessionist conflict to end in negotiated settlement has been the Mizo conflict, because in that case the MNF leadership has compromised, under heavy military pressure, on its original separatist goal.

Ponmoni Sahadevan

See alsoEthnic Conflict ; Insurgency and Terrorism ; Paramilitary Forces and Internal Security ; Tribal Politics


Bhattacharjee, Chandana. Ethnicity and Autonomy Movement: Case of Bodo-Kacharis of Assam. New Delhi: Vikas, 1996.

Bhaumik, Subir. Insurgent Crossfire: North-east India. New Delhi: Lancer, 1996.

Kapur, Rajiv A. Sikh Separatism: The Politics of Faith. London: Allen and Unwin, 1986.

Phadnis, Urmila. Ethnicity and Nation-Building in South Asia. New Delhi: Sage, 1989.

Subba, Thanka B. Ethnicity, State, and Development: A Case Study of Gorkhaland Movement in Darjeeling. New Delhi: Har-Anand, 1992.

Verghese, B. G. India's Northeast Resurgent: Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development. New Delhi: Konark, 1996.