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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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WHAT LIES BENEATH THE SURFACE

There is an orchestrated move by security forces every August to get militants to surrender, in time for the Independence Day celebrations. On rare occasions, disgruntled cadres even give up arms of their own accord, because life in the jungle is no longer tenable, or a leadership crisis sparks an exodus.

Last month, there was a boom in surrender activities. Between August 17 and 19, nearly two dozen National Liberation Front of Tripura militants laid down arms in Dhalai district, after having sneaked into India from Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts to sabotage the August 15 functions. When their efforts came a cropper due to the unprecedented vigil, a large group arrived at the Nepal Tilla police station to lay down arms. A smaller group surrendered at the Manu police station. On September 2, in the largest surrender this year, another 86 militants gave up arms in Tripura, and seven more in Assam.

What prompts a hardcore militant to surrender' Other than disillusionment and a lack of ideology, the discomforts of a prolonged stay in the jungle are the most common reasons for extremists to come overground. The United People's Democratic Solidarity, a Karbi outfit of Assam, stressed this in their charter of demands to the prime minister. 'Armed struggle was a painful option adopted after all democratic and peaceful methods had failed to bring succour to the sufferings of the Karbi people. The UPDS shall, therefore, be happy to disarm its cadre and disband the organization,' it said while seeking a rehabilitation package, including general amnesty.

But instead of taking advantage of these gestures, state governments insist on sending those who surrender to jail to sit out a tortuous judicial procedure. In the last decade, Achik Liberation Matgrik Army, the Garo outfit, had surrendered en masse. But the Meghalaya government's apathy resulted in a daring jailbreak, after which the cadre regrouped as the Achik National Volunteers Council. What could have been nipped in the bud has now grown into a well-networked outfit with its tentacles extending much beyond the three Garo Hills districts.

The surrendered militants who do not resort to jailbreaks are subsequently put through a 'rehabilitation drill'. However, instead of becoming well-adjusted individuals, the inmates of these halfway camps are often found to be intent on returning to their militant bases. This is because our criminal justice system, which holds them accountable, does not have the means to make these offenders understand the consequences of their deplorable actions in the past. Hence they nurture a misplaced sense of having been wronged.

Let us take two recent instances where those who have surrendered have tried to return to insurgent camps. On August 13, 14 NLFT (Biswamohan) militants deserted a peace camp in Dhalai district after alleged discrimination by camp authorities. The previous day, six of the commanders left their quarters and forcibly occupied government houses for 'better amenities'. On July 1, surrendered Bodo militants, undergoing training in Manipur for induction into the Border Security Force, hired buses to flee the camp at dawn. When caught and herded back, they cited ill-treatment by the trainers as reason for their escape.

The post-surrender data reveals the deplorable record of every government welcoming militants 'back to the mainstream' and then preferring to wait for the 'law to take its own course'. Mizoram, which recently celebrated the 19th anniversary of its peace accord, now has an organization championing the cause of surrendered militants who were left to languish at their rehabilitation camps. Considering that one of those who surrendered now heads the state as chief minister, one would have expected a more sensitive handling of the former comrades-in-arms.

The pittance paid to those who come overground is soon squandered. Vocational courses fail to satisfy as expectations are sky-high. After an exciting life of gun-running, drug-trafficking, timber-smuggling, kidnapping and extortion, the opportunity to earn an honest livelihood is no longer attractive for most. Several are employed in the security forces, as they are expected to know the terrain. The Bodo Liberation Tigers who surrendered were selected by the BSF, the Central Reserve Police Force, Assam Rifles and some made 'special police officers' in Assam. But while the cadre dream of becoming 'soldiers', most are employed as cooks and carpenters. It was precisely this grouse that forced recruits to flee the BSF camp in Mizoram.

Acceptance by society is another vital aspect of this 'joining the mainstream' exercise. Since India's criminal procedure code is hinged on a retributive module, the treatment meted out to those who surrender is full of double standards. On the one hand, the administration takes recourse to appeasement, on the other, the judicial system tests their tolerance with prolonged jail terms and apathy.

Perhaps it is time to consider principles of restorative justice, which has proved effective in Canada (among first nation communities), New Zealand (juvenile justice system) and South Africa (the truth and reconciliation commission) in the rehabilitation of surrendered militants. This module not only ensures accountability, it encourages empathy and responsibility and transforms shame, as 'offenders' come to terms with past conduct.

The system stresses the need for encouragement and support for integration into the community. From the jungle to the mainstream is a giant leap, emotionally and psychologically, and should offer scope for personal transformation and opportunities to enhance competencies. It is because we overlook this that frustrated former militants are willing to the jungle camps. And once that happens, they take recourse to blackmail, threatening to kill families of other surrendered cadre (as is in Mizoram now) to force their erstwhile comrades to return to the militant fold. And thus the vicious cycle continues.

Countries which have successfully incorporated the principles of restorative justice have been able to address 'causes' of militancy before adopting ad hoc mechanisms to set things right. Efforts are on to woo radical militant outfits like the Ulfa to the negotiation table, while talks with the NSCN (I-M) appear to have reached a standstill. Obviously, the bargaining has failed to satisfy both the Centre and the outfits. It would be interesting to see whether restorative justice has the potential to break the deadlock by providing a catalyst and/or a forum to explore needs, responsibilities and expectations.

Every politician seeking to pass the buck has a standard reply on militants: 'They should come for talks.' There are seldom any effort to look at ways and means to ensure that there is a dialogue or practical follow-up action. The top-down approach often gets stymied in red tape. When negotiators meet across the table, opinion on several things like who has been hurt or what are the needs and responsibilities can be diametrically opposite. It is here that the search for common ground begins. Either we identify the differences and reconcile them, or abandon the half-hearted endeavours altogether.

If surrender ceremonies are to serve any purpose (other than add feather to the caps of administrators and security forces), those coming overground must be made accountable. They must face up to what they have done and understand the consequences of their actions ' killing hundreds of civilians and destroying vital installations worth crores of rupees. Without that awareness, they can never become conscientious members of the 'mainstream'. Gratification of the ego, the lure of easy money and a misplaced sense of patriotism beckon them back to militant camps, whose hardships they have been trained to overlook.

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