The Indian state’s strategy to deal with armed uprisings within its borders has often been described as “turning rebels into stakeholders”. It has become a catchphrase, shorthand for situations where militant groups were first curbed with force, then brought into negotiations, then made part of democratic processes and institutions. In some cases, rebel fighters were turned into “stakeholders” as they were absorbed into security forces of the state.
So when Home Minister Rajnath Singh began his tenure in 2014, one of the earliest announcements he made was that the government would be raising two auxiliary battalions, one in the Border Security Force and another in the Sashastra Seema Bal. Both would be made up of surrendered militants from Manipur and Assam. Now, more than two years later, the idea has been shot down by the Department of Personnel and Training, reportedly because it would set the “wrong precedent” for men and women who joined the forces on merit.
Apart from the department’s objections, this particular method of turning rebels into stakeholders has seen mixed results across theatres of militancy. In the past, militants have been absorbed into state armed forces in two ways. In Nagaland, this happened after a formal agreement between the government and Naga secessionists. In Kashmir, individual militants who were turned in by the army eventually made their way into the Territorial Army or special forces of the police.
In both places, it did nothing to answer the resentments and aspirations that had given rise to militancy in the first place.
In Nagaland, it fed into the fragmentation of the Naga separatist movement, which split into warring factions after the Shillong Accord of 1975. The demand for a separate Naga homeland predated Independence and was given political shape with the formation of the Naga National Council, led by AZ Phizo, in 1946. In 1956, the Indian government deployed army units in Kohima and other key towns to put down the secessionist movement by force. Driven underground, the movement grew militarised and turned into an armed rebellion.
Then came the accord of 1975, bitterly opposed in the region as it seemed to sign away the Naga demand for independence and stipulated that the Naga secessionists give up arms. Auxiliary battalions of the Border Security Force, consisting of former rebels, were a legacy of this divisive accord. While it helped absorb a section of the Naga army, the accord would breed many more rebels.
It led to the decline of the NNC and, in 1980, prominent leaders broke away to form the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), which raised its own ranks of fighters. Over the next few decades, the Naga movement would disintegrate further into new factions, each with its own army. Much blood was shed in fights between rival groups.
Now, the government looks set to repeat its mistakes, letting some rebels into the fold but leaving out other. It signed ceasefire agreements with the various groups but chose to engage the NSCN(IM) in talks for a political solution. Last year, it signed a framework agreement with the militant group, which raised hackles among the other factions. Rumours that the government had promised BSF posts for 5,000 NSCN(IM) fighters could not have endeared the agreement to the other factions either.
In Kashmir, former militants in armed forces bring back memories of a reminder of a painful past. As the militancy grew in scale through the early-1990s, new groups were formed, often at war with each other. From the mid-1990s, the army was able to turn militants and raise militias that fought for the state. The most well-known of these was the Ikhwan ul-Muslimeen.
A few months ago, Liaqat Ali Khan, a former commander of the Ikhwan in Anantnag district, recalled how the pro-state militia were able to dominate the area in a very short time. They also launched large scale operations in which many militants were wiped out, sending a message to the others. The Valley was ready for elections in 1996, Khan feels, because of the Ikhwan’s efforts.
But the dark underbelly of these operations was extortion, murder and kidnapping in which the civilian population became a target. Today, in local accounts at least, all the excesses of the militancy are blamed on the “renegades”, the militants who switched sides. The Ikhwan, they say, were used to discredit the separatist struggle, an attempt to pit Kashmiri against Kashmiri.
Many of the men linked to this contentious history were eventually absorbed into the Territorial Army’s Home and Hearth units, which draw their personnel from the local population. According to army accounts, they continued to be a lethal force against militants. H Katoch, an Armoured Corps officer in the Indian Army, has this to say in his book:
“The TA unit composed of surrendered terrorists, commonly called Ikhwanis belonging to the local areas of Kashmir Valley, has been able to eliminate over 300 terrorists since its inception… The figures are respectable and comparable with the results produced by regular army units. The army has acknowledged the valour and contribution of the Ikhwanis and other H&H troops with military decorations.”
But the past would not fade. The army, for its part, never fully lost its doubts about the local personnel it hired. The fear is, Katoch writes, that they would join the “terrorists’ fold” if they were disembodied from the Territorial Army Units. That would mean “handing over trained soldiers to separatists on a platter”.
For the local population, men who had once brutalised their friends and relatives were now in uniform. Besides, jobs are much in demand and it is believed that the former Ikhwan got perks and exemptions they did not necessarily qualify for, taking away opportunities from other local youth.
Other members of the Ikhwan found place in the Special Task Force of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, later rechristened the Special Operations Group, an elite force dedicated to counterinsurgency operations. In Anantnag town, residents say, a building where the Ikhwan used to be quartered in the 1990s is now used by the SOG. The repository of some of the Valley’s darkest memories has now been turned into a state institution.
It is a cynical take on "turning rebels into stakeholders". Unless the mechanical process of absorbing militants is accompanied by genuine political reconciliation, those who once supported movements of secession will not have stakes in making Indian democracy work.
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