Sanatomba Kangujam wrote this article for The Sangai Express and was webcasted by E-pao.net   on 9 March 2012 

A keen observation of the prevailing conflict situation in Manipur reveals that military solution is out of question. This is primarily on account of the fact that neither side can win a decisive battle. Stringent military operations launched by the Indian State Forces have not been able to quell the armed resistance movement, on the one hand. On the other hand, the armed opposition groups are not in a position to achieve the sovereignty of Manipur by militarily defeating the Indian State Forces in the present context or in any foreseeable future. Moreover, prolonged military engagement is not favourable for all the stakeholders to the conflict as it has resulted in heavy loss of human lives and other collateral damages.

This calls for early resolution of the prevailing conflict. But any such outcome may depend on at least three conditions. First, the Government may launch heavy military operations against the insurgents with the help of foreign countries to militarily destroy the insurgents as in the case of the LTTE in Sri Lanka on the one hand or compel the insurgents into unconditional surrender, on the other hand.

Second, the insurgents may drive out the Indian forces from the soil of Manipur and proclaim its independence or seek international support for holding plebiscite or referendum as in the case of East Timor and South Sudan respectively. Third, both the conflicting parties may enter into a new phase of conflict, the phase of political engagement to resolve the basic incompatibility underlying the conflict through sustained political dialogue.
 The prevailing armed conflict in Manipur is a political issue that requires political solution. As such, seeking a military solution to an issue which is entirely political in nature would prove to be highly counter-productive for India as well as Manipur in the long run. Besides, a military solution to the on-going armed conflict is a misplaced notion. Extensive deployment of Army and continued enforcement of AFSPA for the last 30 years or so have absolutely failed to produce any substantive outcome.

The militaristic approach needs to be replaced with a political approach in order to find a satisfactory resolution to the protracted Indo-Manipur conflict. Unless all the quarters of concerns particularly the GoI officially recognizes the centrality of the issue and political nature of the conflict, restoration of peace and normalcy in Manipur will ever remain an elusive dream.

The prevailing armed conflict has inflicted heavy collateral damages to the civil population. Human Rights violations and humanitarian crisis have become the order of the day. Dislocation of normal lives as a result of the conflict has directly impacted upon different aspects of the life of the people. Fear, insecurity and injustice continue to dictate everyday life in the state. Besides, the people of Manipur cannot remain indefinitely entrapped in this conflict while the world is fast advancing towards a higher development trajectory.

For analytical purpose, conflict in Manipur may be classified into two types, viz, (1) vertical conflict and (2) horizontal conflict.

The vertical conflict is the conflict involving the Indian State on the one hand and the non-state actors of Manipur on the other. The horizontal conflict refers to the conflict between the armed groups or between different ethnic communities. Of the two types of conflict, vertical conflict stands out as the principal conflict while the horizontal conflict remains as the secondary conflict. The vertical conflict is considered as the principal conflict or the core conflict on account of the fact that all other forms of conflicts are its by-products and that its resolution is central to the resolution of other forms of conflict or crises prevailing in Manipur.

On the contrary, the horizontal conflict is considered secondary in the sense that it is largely engendered by the vertical conflict and that its resolution is strictly contingent upon the resolution of the vertical conflict. Once the core conflict is resolved or transformed, all the marginal conflicts will get automatically transformed and disappear. However, until and unless the vertical conflict is satisfactorily resolved or transformed, the horizontal conflict, being the by-product of the former, can never be resolved.

In brief, an attempt to secure unconditional surrender or physical liquidation of the insurgents through application of brute military forces is not advisable for various reasons. One, the conflict in Manipur is basically not a military issue but a political one which has its root in the contested merger of Manipur with India. Two, military solution will prove to be short-lived since conflict will certainly re-emerge if the basic incompatibility underlying the conflict is not satisfactorily resolved.

So, military solution is totally ruled out. Third, since the armed conflict in Manipur is a political issue, there ought to be a political solution through sustained political engagement. Last, for restoration of peace between ethnic communities, the resolution of the conflict between the state and the non-state actors is an essential pre-requisite.

Should political dialogue be conditional or unconditional?
Political dialogue is highly indispensable for any project of finding a political solution to the prevailing conflict in Manipur. One of the most significant factors responsible for the failure of conflict transformation in Manipur has been the stiff political stance adopted by the armed opposition groups not to hold talks with the Government of India except on the issue of sovereignty. The armed groups have been demanding the recognition of the sovereign status of Manipur.

On the contrary, the Government of India has all along refused to recognise the sovereignty of Manipur by claiming that Manipur is an integral part of India. The Government of India has stated that it is ready to hold talk on anything within the framework of the constitution, but firmly ruled out discussing the issue of sovereignty. The issue of sovereignty, thus, constitutes the bone of contention (core issue) between the Government of India and the armed opposition groups of Manipur.

In other words, the Government of India wants to hold unconditional political dialogue with the insurgent groups while the insurgent groups have categorically stated in more than one occasion that any political dialogue must always be conditional. A meeting point must, however, be chalked out if conflict has to be resolved and democracy restored in its true sense. In this regard, it is worthwhile to examine the deeper implications inherent in adopting extreme political stances on the modality of holding political dialogue.

A genuine concern to find a satisfactory solution to the conflict points to the fact that undue stress on holding unconditional political dialogue is tantamount to setting a pre-condition. Talking about unconditional dialogue is one way of setting a pre-condition. There is nothing such as unconditional talk except in the case of capitulation. But capitulation is not solution or conflict resolution. Even the so called unconditional peace talk between the Government of India and the NSCN-IM are based on three conditions.

Another point that needs further introspection is that the unconditional political dialogue has an inherent tendency to drag on the peace process for an indefinite period without actually resolving or transforming the basic incompatibility underlying the conflict. Moreover, unconditional talk is devoid of any directionality since it is based solely on political expediency. Emphasis on unconditional talk is nothing more than seeking the surrender of the other party to the conflict, which is not a political solution.

Similarly, harping on conditional political dialogue seems to be against the spirit of finding a political solution to the conflict. If one is sincerely committed towards seeking a political solution, the issue of conditionality is not a matter of primary concern. There can be no pre-condition for any political dialogue except the recognition of the fact that the conflict between the Government of India and the armed opposition groups of Manipur is a 'political issue' which requires political solution.

Adopting uncompromising stances and setting conditions are not conducive for seeking a political solution. If the conflicting parties are really committed to transform the conflict in Manipur, a reasonable relaxation in their original positions remains highly indispensable.

Therefore, any proposed political dialogue should neither be conditional nor unconditional. Rather it should be pragmatic and guided by a genuine concern to resolve the conflict through a political process. A pragmatic approach to conflict transformation entails the need to reach a consensus on two basic premises. The first question that the conflicting parties should deliberate is "why to talk?"

The parties to the conflict are required to agree on the basic reason that has necessitated for the commencement of such a political dialogue. It is not certain about what the government or the insurgents may have in their minds. But the ground reality indicates that the need to engage in a political dialogue has arisen primarily because of the prevalence of an armed conflict in Manipur, which is basically a political issue requiring political solution. If the conflicting parties do not admit about the prevalence of an armed conflict in Manipur, there is no need to seek for a political dialogue.

The second question logically linked with the first one is "what to talk about?" The conflicting parties must be able to identify the core issue underlying the conflict in Manipur. Some informed quarters hold the view that the issue or issues to be discussed in any proposed political dialogue can be formulated after sitting together. Such a proposition, however, seems highly problematic. The issue does not need to be formulated; it is already there since the inception of the conflict as the conflict is all about the issue.

The only thing that needs to be done is to identify and recognise the issue at hand. Proposing a political dialogue without recognising the issue of the conflict is nothing but akin to calling a meeting without setting the agenda, which is not the norm. In this regard, it is pertinent to point out that the core issue to be addressed is all about the political status of Manipur irrespective of whether one defines it in terms of sovereignty or autonomy.

It is imperative to state that in order to break the political deadlock, the issue of sovereignty may be included in the political talk between the Government of India and the armed opposition groups of Manipur. Listing the issue of sovereignty as the agenda for any political dialogue does not necessarily imply that sovereignty should or should not be granted to the other conflicting party. Open dialogue on the issue of sovereignty should at least be open up for generating healthy debates towards conflict transformation.

Need for Third Party Mediation 

The involvement of a third party is highly indispensable for any project of conflict transformation especially in a situation marked by serious incompatibility and political deadlock. If the conflicting parties are capable of arriving at a negotiated settlement through a bilateral engagement, there is no need for a third party involvement. However, if the parties to the conflict are not in a position to initiate a political dialogue or proceed with a political negotiation on their own, the involvement of a third party becomes a matter of paramount importance.

In the context of Manipur, there is a need for third party intervention for at least two reasons. First, the stiff political stances adopted by both the conflicting parties have been the major factor for the inability to start a political dialogue. In order to resolve this deadlock, the facilitation of a third party is highly called for.

Second, there is a strong sense of insecurity and mistrust on the part of the insurgent groups that any political dialogue or peace process with the Government of India would end up in capitulation. Any political negotiation between a weak power and a strong power is always destined to be in favour of the latter.

It is the prevalence of such mind-set and belief that hinders the initiative for a political dialogue. Therefore, in order to remove such fear and insecurity, a third party mediation becomes essential. In other words, the role of a third party will be facilitatory as well as mediatory.

On the Rigidness of Political Stand

Majority of the insurgent groups of Manipur are not in favour of holding political dialogue with the Government of India. Their apprehension and fear are not without justifications. The most significant reason often cited by the insurgent groups is that peace talks often leads to capitulation of the liberation movement instead of achieving any substantive outcome. This is true to a large extent.

But the opposition to any political dialogue solely on the ground of fear and suspicion is not fully convincing. Are the insurgent groups so weak that they are so scared of any dialogue process? If so, then they need to do a lot of homework. The capacity to launch an armed struggle also necessarily entails the capacity to engage in a dialogue process.

There is a tendency to think that one is doomed the moment one steps into the peace process. Such an understanding, however, is symptomatic of a 'defeated mentality' and simply demonstrates sheer incompetency of the organisations or the leaders concerned. Because there is always the option to exercise the choice to pull out of the peace process (read as political process) anytime when the concerned party feel that it is no longer substantive or productive. After all, dialogue is only a process of exchanging views or stating one's position on the issue and may not necessarily involve actual negotiation.

It is generally alleged that the Naga peace process has not been able to achieve any concrete political outcome. Nevertheless, the NSCN-IM has the capacity to engage in a peace process for more than 13 years. This demonstrates the diplomatic and negotiation skills of the NSCN leadership. After all, to engage in a peace process with a mighty power like India for more than one decade without capitulating is not an easy task notwithstanding the occasional setbacks, which the NSCN-IM might have encountered.

It is relevant to ask whether or not the insurgent groups of Manipur have trained human resources or manpower to be employed in the event of any political dialogue with the government. Such a concern comes to the fore mainly because no matter how long a group engage in armed struggle, political solution will always remain the ultimately option to resolve the prevailing conflict.

Sometimes, the duration of the peace talk is often overstretched so much so that it creates an apprehension among concerned quarters. The policy of the government is to wear down the insurgent leadership as well as to make it difficult for the cadres to return to the jungle by creating comfort zone in their psyche. The government also frequently takes advantage of the peace process to incite factionalism within the insurgent group. The approach of the government is mainly driven by the desire to weaken the insurgent groups rather than resolving the core issue that underlies the conflict. These are the main reasons why the insurgent groups are not willing to share the negotiating table with the government.

Notwithstanding such negative ramifications, it deserves to be stated that political solution cannot be achieved overnight. Conflict transformation is a long term participatory process involving a series of dialogues and negotiations. The insurgent groups are required to prepare for such kind of political engagement. Here, I would like to use the term political engagement in order to avoid the misgivings generally associated with the terms like peace talk, peace process and political dialogue.

The insurgent groups need to politically engage with the GoI to achieve specific objectives. First, they can internationalise the conflict in Manipur. Second, they can strengthen their organisations. Third, they can take the opportunity to build their relationship with the masses. Last, they can project the armed conflict in Manipur as a political issue by taking the struggle to the political level. So far, they have not been able retrieve the conflict situation from the statist framework of law and order.

Although striking a tough political stand is indispensable from the standpoint of increasing one's bargaining power, it alone does not constitute the essence of a political movement. It is utterly meaningless to simply adopt a rigid position if that is not reinforced by compatible political action. Politics, after all, shares many things in common with the game of chess. One has to keep moving as per the rules of the game irrespective of one's position.

For, one just cannot withhold one's move indefinitely on the ground that only few choices are available. Availability or non-availability of choices is not the matter of concern here. What is more important is the ability to make the right move at the right time in any given situation. In this regard, it is worthwhile to remark that the plebiscite proposal floated by the UNLF was a fantastic political move. The proposal was able to generate widespread political discourse on the issue of Manipur's sovereignty at a time when the insurgency movement had become stagnant. That the proposal has not been accepted by the government is another question. Nevertheless, it was a powerful move. That is politics.

The actual concern is not about whether a political dialogue should be held or not, but about the need to do something to find a lasting solution (not capitulation) to the conflict in Manipur which has remained intractable for many decades. As stated above, the government and the insurgents are caught in a military deadlock in which neither side is in a position to achieve a decisive victory over the other. In such a situation, mutual political engagement may be suggested as a means to resolve the deadlock and find a Satisfactory Political Solution to the protracted conflict.

In the meantime, the conflicting parties are morally obliged to ameliorate the grievances and suffering of the people through minimising collateral damages. In this case, strict adherence to relevant provisions of International Humanitarian Law by both the state and the non-state actors has become a matter of paramount importance.

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