Alternative Conflict Resolution Initiative: A Way Forward For the North East
Brig Narender Kumar, SM, VSM (retd.)

Conflict Resolution is Beyond Treaties

The larger perception prevailing in India is deep-rooted socio-political conflict in the North East which cannot be resolved through negotiations and treaties alone because the entire system is embroiled in conflict. The population has absorbed the conflict pattern and perceptions of “us and they” are entrenched in very culture and thinking. The cultural divide has made people addicted to conflict and modification of perception of victimisation by the system among the majority of ethnic community is difficult to eliminate. There is a need to introduce new patterns that are reconciliatory in nature and engagement with the people is vital so that the people are made habitual to a system of peace.

There are more than a dozen of peace agreements/treaties signed between the government and the parties to the conflict. North East people can better understand the fate of these treaties as these treaties have served the purpose of political parties more than the population at large. The only treaty succeeded in establishing peace and stability is the Mizoram Peace Accord. It is a misconception that signed peace accords brings peace, however, at best peace treaties/ accords can only create a legal framework to support peace for conflict termination. Structural peace building activities are far more important than efforts put in to sign treaties. Stability and lasting peace cannot be conceived without the societal infrastructure to support peace. It is a process that requires the participation of all the stakeholders across the society.1 We often blame the government for the failure in implementing conflict resolution but peace building is not the exclusive domain of either the government or the non-governmental organisations. In the background of the above, participation of people, social organisations and undergrounds are imperative because any of these organisations can act as spoilers.

One asked a young Tankhul, “What are the prospects of peace accords for conflict resolution in Nagaland and Manipur”? His reply was that “peace accords are like low-grade Bollywood movies that are taken off from multiplexes even before the first show is over.” It may be sarcastic but he hinted that people have lost faith in accords and treaties. He further said, “Accords/ treaties are for headlines and for political manoeuvring. No political party in India seems to be serious for conflict resolution. Conflicts are a leverage for power struggle be it regional or national parties.”

A political solution is always welcome provided that it is acceptable to all sections of the society. But if it is motivated and biased in the eyes of the people (even minority) in that case alternative measures are required. These initiatives need not be political or through government-appointed interlocutors, rather these initiatives should be built around consensus and driven by representatives of ethnic communities and independent volunteers those who have no allegiance to political parties. More often than not the government led initiatives somewhere become politically motivated and that creates the imbalance. Politically more active or dominant ethnic communities often get their demands pursued effectively as compared to the politically less influential ethnic groups because ultimately the centre and the state political parties are looking at the political benefits to either remain in power or come into power using such treaties and accords as a platform to score political points.

This is a serious flaw in the system that cannot be eliminated as long as the vote bank politics remain at the back of the mind of political dispensations in power. Today North-East has become a forgotten crisis and ultimately people are suffering endlessly. ‘Manipur blockade’ during election time is a tool used by Meitei’s, Naga and Kuki tribe. The Greater Nagalim demand has caused instability in four states with seamless conflict. Solution without taking all stakeholders on board is unlikely to see the light of the day.

North-East Opportunities and Challenges

The question may be asked why a conflict resolution in North-East is important at this juncture. North-East is considered as an emerging land bridge to Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) by connecting India with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). It is land surplus, water surplus and forest surplus. Yet it is fragmented and detached from the mainstream. North-eastern states have one of the most feeble state economies in spite of rich in resources and opportunities. Manipur and Assam are among the poorest five states of India and in spite of such huge natural resources no states is in first top ten in per capita income. Whereas pre-1947 united Assam was the richest state in India. The unending conflict has devastated the states that should have been the most prosperous. North-East faces the persistent risk of destabilisation due to economic deprivation, governance deficit, uneven development and inexorable insurgency. India cannot afford such an uncertainty to one of the strategically important regions of the country. India should not treat the conflict in North East as a forgotten crisis because if it erupts it has the potential to destabilise other parts of the country.

North-East is future of India, and in another word, a strategic pivot that has the potential to project power eastwards. Time has come to realise the potential of North-East and develop it as Alaska of India.2 The problem is that efforts to bring permanent peace have always been seen by the people of North-East as half-hearted that lacked sincerity. Naga Framework Accord signed between Naga faction of Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah), NSCN (IM) in short, and the Government of India is considered non-participative and non-implementable by non-Naga tribes the perception is that it is a glass half full and has not taken on board other ethnic groups inhabiting the geographical sphere. If it impacts territorial jurisdiction and federal principles of states, it will create instability in other parts of India where the demand for separate states and the autonomous council is currently under the wrap.

North-East has the potential to be the gateway for trade and transit corridor with the ASEAN especially Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh. In addition, these countries have a huge potential for infrastructural development, education, health industry, consumer goods, services sector, electricity and even the tourism industry. Guwahati, Shillong, Imphal and Silchar should be developed as the dry port, education centres and IT Hubs. This is possible if North-East achieves stable peaceful development; the study “North–East, ‘The Power House of India’: Prospect and Problems” estimated that the North Eastern States including Sikkim have the potential of 84,000 MW of hydropower which is about 43 per cent of the total hydropower generation capacity in the country. Manipur can be converted as an energy corridor of oil and gas from Myanmar. India could import gas and export electricity to power-hungry Myanmar and even Bangladesh. Favourable soil and climatic conditions in the North East has the potential to make India as one of the largest exporters of fruit, vegetables, flowers (including orchids), medicinal plants and timber. Instability has deprived India and the people of Northeast’s economic prosperity which they richly deserve.

Capacity for peace can be developed through economic empowerment and reconciliation by the society to maintain peace through people’s initiative. In the North-East, unfortunately, there is no initiative either by civil society or by the government to encourage the process of negotiations among the diverse ethnic groups to come to a common platform to establish communication for confidence building measures among the communities. There is a need to reach out to the elders of the rival ethnic groups to calm down the situation whenever there is ethnic tension. Social organisations that exist have become too politicised and are not focused on the common interest of all ethnic groups. Most of the social organisations fiercely defend respective tribal interests and at times justify the act of mindless violence against the rival tribes. Manipur blockade has the support of NSCN (IM) and the Naga social organisations, however, neither Kuki nor Meitei social organisations have made an endeavour to reach out to the Naga social organisations to pursue the Naga body to lift the blockade on humanitarian grounds. Such breakdown of communication among the people of the same state is uncalled for and against the spirit of state nationalism.

Alternative Conflict Resolution Initiative

In an environment of suspicion and distrust, the government sponsored initiative may not achieve desired results, the capacity to build peace under such circumstances should emerge from within the society. Alternative conflict resolution initiative is the way ahead for peace building. The dialogue for conflict resolution cannot proceed without making elders sit down to establish a formal communication among each other to resolve issues of cultural overreach or local disputes that could take an ugly turn. It is a bad idea to always depend on security forces for the restoration of peace among the warring factions - everyone has a role in building lasting peace.

The Mandera County along Kenya’s tri-border with Somalia and Ethiopia has experimented with people’s forum for ‘Peace building Programme’. The objective was to integrate people and build local capacity for restoration of peace and open channels of communication. The people including woman’s forum were determined to maintain peace and CEO of the forum said, “We take issues of peace very seriously, and we will spare no effort in facilitating this initiative to bring lasting peace to Mandera.”3 Women representative realised that the media should not act as a divisive force and she insisted that “Social media is useful, but let us not allow it to fuel divisions”. They have developed unique “hybrid” conflict management mechanisms based on traditions of the local communities.4 This is not a new phenomenon; indigenous people always resolved their conflict through people’s forum. A group of socially respected individuals with impeccable integrity use to be mutually nominated by the warring factions. The decisions given by these people were final and acceptable by all stakeholders. There is a need to revive the system in order to maintain peace and to reduce the friction among the ethnic communities.

Recommended composition of alternative conflict resolution committee or forum is as under:-

• The informal group should consist of members of all ethnic groups (those who are moderate in their outlook and not hawks), social scientists, individuals trusted by all ethnic groups (Such as Mr GK Pillai), religious leaders, academicians and social workers.

• A separate group of woman of similar composition. Woman in the North East traditionally has played important role in secession of hostilities.

• There could be sub-committees at the local level to establish communication and to initiate Confidence Building Measures (CBM).

It is unfortunate that there is hardly any communication between the ethnic communities in Manipur and even in Assam. Whenever tempers rise on perceived transgression, there are no social groups that can mediate to cool down the tempers to maintain peace. Under such circumstances, alternative conflict resolution and building capacity for peace through informal initiatives assume significance. Initiatives by people’s forum can become ‘small steps with big impact’, and such small changes may bring about a change in mutual attitude and perception. Such an initiative could assist in the following:-

Communication. First priority is to establish an informal communication between the various warring ethnic groups. Such an initiative can prevent or step-in if there is transgression by any of the ethnic communities. “When a wrong is committed, let us focus on the individuals suspected of culpability, not their clans collectively.”5

Mediation. The current state is that normalisation of situation after every ethnic clash is left to security forces to maintain peace. But it is significant to develop confidence among the people to directly establish communication for mediation through people’s forum.
Negotiation. It is imperative to bring all stakeholders especially the people to negotiation tables not purely for conflict resolution but for conflict prevention so that collateral damages can be prevented. The situation of the blockade on the humanitarian ground can be negotiated. “Use of goodwill is far better than the use of force.”

Neutral Fact-Finding. Under the prevailing circumstances, there is a complete distrust among the ethnic communities. Every group pretends to be a victim and excesses are always put on rival group. Government reports are either too late or perceived biased. The party that is blamed by government feels that aggrieved. People’s forum can act as neutral fact-finding and can themselves satisfy who has crossed the red line.

Neutral Evaluation of Grievances. Government sponsored negotiations always fail since grievances are non-addressable. Neutral evaluation and spot visit by the people’s forum could set such doubt at rest.

Forum for Dissent, Disagreement, Demonstration and Discussion. One may disagree, display dissent, demonstrate annoyance, disagree with each other but if at the end of the day they agree to discuss, I think the forum has achieved its objective.

Prevention of Misuse of Media to Fuel Division. It is very difficult for the government to prevent misuse and spread of rumours through media. It can best be done by local peace committees by denouncing such rumours since local peace committees can confirm authenticity of the news.

What Next?

The objective of such initiative is to set the stage to build capacity for peace. It must not have lofty ambitions of conflict resolution but just to maintain peace at the local level and set a stage for further negotiations for conflict resolution that actually is a political process since the commitment can only be fulfilled by the government. Amnesty to the insurgents, compensation for the collateral damages, implementation of social development schemes and other issues that have political ramification can only be accomplished by the government and political leadership.

Economic interdependence, cultural exchange programmes and role of academicians in conflict resolution. The focus should be to amend the anti-social behaviour because more often it becomes the root cause of violence. Cultural exchange programme can assist in establishing communications, understanding the relationships to alter the mind-set and replace hate with friendship. Academicians play an important role since their intellect is respected by all ethnic groups and can establish communication with the elders of rival ethnic communities. They look at issues at different levels.


Cooperation and conflict are two modes of human behaviour. While the cooperative behaviour promotes, by and large, social unity, cohesiveness and peace, the conflicting behaviour, by and large, disrupts normalcy and development.6 The big question is what should be changed to prevent and minimise the friction among the people. Can the security forces prevent ethnic clashes or tribal rivalries? Security Forces can ensure forced peace but not permanent peace. Ultimately it is the local population that can ensure stable and permanent peace through interaction and negotiation without outside influence. The commitment made between tribal elders can achieve what politics have failed to attain. What is needed is to create space for people to express themselves.7 Prosperity can prevent polarisation and build bridges. Development of economic interdependence is another method of conflict management.

The answer lies in hybrid approach in which mediation, negotiation and adjudication are used as a tool for lasting peace.

(Brig Narender Kumar, SM, VSM, is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies)

End Notes

1 Building Peace in Mandera, One Step at a Time, Interpeace Organisation, December 20, 2016.
2 By Brig Narender Kumar, North East Region: The Alaska of India, Indian Defence Review, Mar 21, 2015.
3 Mate Tongola, NCIC to facilitate lasting peace in Mandera, Standard Digital, Dec 20, 2016.
4 Clan/s, conflicts and devolution in Mandera, Kenya, Insight on Conflict, October 14, 2014.
5 N 1.
6 M. William Bhaskaran, Role Of Academics in Conflict Resolution,, Accessed on March 05, 2017.
7 Conflict resolution through cultural and civil society initiatives? Setting the right framework, Round table Report: IFA in cooperation with EUNIC-cluster Brussels, December 7, 2011.

Published Date: 21st March 2017, Image Source:

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