| Extending a helping hand
The past fortnight has catapulted the usually reticent Mizoram chief minister, Zoramthanga, into media glare. For the first time since June 30 was declared a government holiday for Accord Day celebrations in 1987, two explosions rocked the state capital Aizawl this year. Second, buoyed by the warm reception accorded to him in Bangkok by Naga insurgent leaders, Zoramthanga donned the mantle of “unofficial diplomat” by talking to hardcore militants operating in states other than his own, thereby antagonizing his counterparts in Meghalaya, Tripura and Assam.
The questions that arise are whether Zoramthanga exceeded his brief in playing facilitator for insurgent outfits without the knowledge of those state governments and what his motivation could be. The last five years have been rewarding ones for him. Thrust into the limelight as a trusted aide of the firebrand insurgent leader, Laldenga, Zoramthanga was content to play the low-profile leader of the opposition once the Congress regained power in the state in 1988. A decade later, his party, the Mizo National Front, stormed back to form the government, ushering in hope that brighter days would dawn for those who had struggled for the historic Mizoram Accord in 1986 but had been left disillusioned.
Zoramthanga has been singularly fortunate in crossing milestones. Since he became chief minister, Mizoram topped the literacy race, was declared the most peaceful state in the Northeast and paid handsomely (Rs 500 million) for that distinction and a new airport, considered an engineering marvel, opened at Lengpui. It was then that Zoramthanga stepped out of the tiny state to play facilitator in peace talks in the region and abroad.
But with assembly elections slated for November, the rumbles in the blue hills have already begun. And Zoramthanga seems to have acquired sundry detractors. Although police suspect the hand of the peace accord MNF Returnees Association (PAMRA) in June 30 blasts, the disgruntled group of former militants has categorically denied any role in these incidents. This dissident group, comprising Zoramthanga’s own comrades-in-arms in the jungle during the worst phase of insurgency in the Northeast, severed links with the Ex-Mizo National Army (MNA) Association only last year, and with reason.
Having waited for over a decade for rehabilitation and the Rs 20,000 promised to each of them and watching their colleagues live out miserable lives at the Luangmual Remna Runn, these former guerrillas had pinned their hopes on Zoramthanga to alleviate their miseries once he came to power. Instead, the one crore rupees earmarked for their rehabilitation disappeared in a “scam” two years ago. The chief minister, they allege, appears more interested in solving problems of neighbouring states instead of focussing on his own.
Take for instance the pending issue of the Reang (Bru) and Hmar tribals in Mizoram. Last week, a delegation of election officials from Mizoram visited six refugee camps housing Bru tribals in Tripura’s Kanchanpur subdivision. The 16-member team, led by chief electoral officer, Lalmalsawma, was to verify “bonafide residents” of Mizoram among these refugees and identify the genuine voters enlisted in the electoral rolls (before they had fled Mizoram after ethnic riots in November 1997).
The Bru issue has been festering for decades, with neighbouring Tripura claiming that over 30,000 of these tribals had flooded its camps. Mizoram, on the other hand, maintains that the “bonafide” figure cannot possibly exceed 15,000. The Mizoram government announced last week a fresh round of talks on July 10 with the Bru National Liberation Front, an armed outfit based in Bangladesh and Tripura spearheading the campaign for the rights of these tribals.
The reason why repatriation of these refugees has been delayed is Zoramthanga’s insistence that these militants come overground and be disarmed before any settlement is orchestrated. This is understandable in view of the fact that the MNF had acted similarly on the eve of the Mizoram accord, considered the most successful peace pact in the Northeast. However, a similar suggestion by Delhi’s emissary to the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the group with which Zoramthanga is mediating on behalf of the Centre, drew such sharp reactions from the outfit that the matter was promptly swept under the carpet.
What do the Brus take recourse to under these circumstances' They cannot live indefinitely in refugee camps in other states. Already over 4,000 of them have died of diseases, according to Bruno Msha, the president of the Mizoram Bru Refugee Committee. Similar is the case with “peaceful” Mizoram’s other insurgent group, the Hmar People’s Convention (Democratic), with whom the chief minister will have to negotiate at some point.
Against this backdrop, organizations like PAMRA have been harping on the chief minister’s skills (or the lack of them) for facilitation. To practitioners of conflict resolution the world over, a facilitator is ideally a person who can transform problems into opportunities, believes in peace and justice and has the ability to develop options. Those unfamiliar with the conceptual vocabulary of conflict transformation fail to differentiate between a facilitator and mediator (the Centre mistakenly calls Zoramthanga a mediator, whereas it is correct in calling the sankaracharya of Kanchi one), leading to misunderstandings. The mediator may suggest solutions, whereas a facilitator just helps the negotiating parties to communicate. If the latter is what Zoramthanga is aspiring to be, he cannot afford to antagonize the state governments. It is true that most chief ministers affirm stereotypical solutions, but Zoramthanga’s efforts at outlining creative channels often preclude their constraints. For example, Zoramthanga has been able to empathize with the Naga militants (the MNF, too, had pitched for independence before the accord was finally signed on June 30, 1986), but whether he is equipped to relate to the problems in other states (having volunteered to mediate with the Achik National Volunteers Council and the United Liberation Front of Asom and outfits of Manipur) remains to be seen. In his role as the third lens at Bangkok, not only did the discussions lack official sanction, they also went counter to the stand adopted by the state governments on tackling militancy.
Zoramthanga must remember that a facilitator leads a collaborative process to help sides with divergent views to reach an agreement. In his case, the militants can relate to him since he is a former insurgent and it is this transition from jungle cadre to respected politician that they aim for. The Centre trusts him as an elected chief minister who can help break deadlocks in the Naga peace process, but one can hardly expect other state governments to do the same. The militant leaders insist on talking to a politician (as opposed to a bureaucrat) since the solution they seek must inevitably be a political one. Yet there is increasing dismay over what is viewed as the “politician-rebel nexus” in derailing civil society.
Where, then, do politicians with a “clean” image — those who decry hobnobbing with insurgents and are the democratically elected representatives of the people — stand' This dichotomy dogs every leader in insurgency-ridden states today, compelling them to compromise on principles to save their seats. The Centre’s own double standards on the issue only complicate matters. On the one hand, the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre asks states like Manipur and Meghalaya to investigate allegations of such a nexus and penalize the politicians. On the other, it deputes a politician to negotiate with militants. It values Zoramthanga because he is acceptable to both sides, and facilitation to the satisfaction of each side is a skill that contemporary practitioners of conflict management uphold.
However, there is need for caution since facilitation is a fairly new field. Unlike the terms “negotiation, good offices, mediation, arbitration and judicial settlement” mentioned in the United Nations charter, a facilitator must critically explore the ethnic and cultural diversities and abandon prescriptive approaches in favour of elicitive orientation. What was good for the Mizos may inspire the Nagas, but may not be applicable in the case of Garos. It could well be detrimental for tribals in Tripura.
Despite the tendency of the mainland to club the seven sister states of the Northeast together, their ethnic equations are delicate and vastly different. Zoramthanga, with worries of his own and assembly elections knocking on the door, must realize that in probing state-insurgent conflicts in the Northeast, one must necessarily have respect for distinct identities and diverse cultures. Zoramthanga should identify his priorities and first set his house in order. After all, if he were to lose the elections, his popularity as facilitator will plummet too.