While all eyes are set on the purportedly imminent final settlement of the Naga question, another long-running insurgency in the North East may also be nearing a resolution.

In Mizoram, the state government’s talks with the insurgent group, the Hmar People’s Convention (Democracy), which began last year, are likely to arrive at a consensus soon. Last week, civil society representatives and village council leaders of the tribe endorsed “in principle” the proposed framework agreement formulated during peace talks between the group and the Mizoram government.

Who are the Hmars?

The Hmars, part of Chin-Kuki-Mizo ethnic cluster, are spread across the states of Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura. Most Hmars are now Christians. While their population in Meghalaya and Tripura is negligible, they number a little more than 40,000 in Manipur and around 18,000 in Mizoram, according to the 2001 census. In Assam, census data puts them at less than 15,000, but Hmar groups claim the number to be much higher as they are not considered a notified scheduled tribe in three districts of the state.

The Hmar insurgency began in 1986 after the Mizo Accord, which brought to end the two-decade long Mizo secessionist movement, failed to address their key demands. The peace pact, signed in June 1986, granted complete statehood to Mizoram but Hmars contended that it addressed only the aspirations of the majority Lhusai tribe, giving none of the state’s smaller tribes any administrative autonomy. The accord, they claimed, also failed to address their primary demand: the integration of “Greater Mizoram”, that is, areas inhabited by Hmars in Mizoram, Assam and Manipur, under a single administrative unit.

According to Hmar academic Immanuel Varte, the community viewed the accord as a betrayal by the Mizo National Front, the group at the forefront of the Mizo struggle and its leader Laldenga, who had allegedly promised them that any settlement with the Indian government would include the integration of all Hmar areas. It was this alleged betrayal that led to the formation of the Hmar People’s Convention, said Varte.

Years of protest

The group’s primary demand was self-governance in the North and North East of Mizoram. Although originally conceived as a political organisation to advocate the rights of the tribe, it soon took up arms, carrying out abductions and extortions in Hmar-dominated areas of Assam, Mizoram and Manipur.

In 1994, there was temporary peace after Hmar People’s Convention signed a pact with the Mizoram government , agreeing to give up arms in exchange of the formation of the Sinlung Hills Development Council for Hmar-dominated areas in the state. However, the pact was not well received by a large section of the Hmar population.

“The Hmars felt cheated and it led to a resurgence of the feeling of betrayal that the Hmars believed was perpetrated upon them when the Mizo Accord was signed,” said Varte, who has authored Hmar at the Crossroads, a political history of the tribe. “Now, according to many Hmars, their political aspirations in Mizoram had been denied two times.”

So, even as the Hmar People’s Convention joined the political mainstream yet again, a splinter group was born: the Hmar People’s Convention-Democrats. The group’s objective has fluctuated over the years: from establishing an autonomous district within Mizoram, covering the North and North East parts of the state, to setting up an independent state called Hmar Ram, consisting of the Hmar-inhabited areas of Mizoram, Manipur and Assam.

The Hmar insurgency has been low-intensity for the most part and the Hmar People’s Convention-Democrats’ access to sophisticated arms and weapons is said to be limited. Besides, arrests of key members in the last few years has reportedly depleted the outfit’s operational strength significantly.

The many players

Yet, the group’s willingness to engage in talks with the state government and sign a peace pact is a crucial development, say analysts. “So far, the HPC-D [Hmar People’s Convention-Democrats] is the biggest and strongest [Hmar group] with popular mandate as far as the struggle in Mizoram in concerned,” said Varte. “If a final amicable and mutually accepted agreement is reached, it will signal the end of Hmar insurgency in Mizoram.”

But others are more sceptical about the outcome of the talks, for two reasons. First, the outfit has another faction, the Hmar People’s Convention-Democrats (President), which has not yet come aboard the peace process. Also, across the border in Manipur another Hmar rebel group, the Hmar National Army, continues to be active even though it had signed a Suspension of Operation agreement with the Manipur government in 2005.

However, people privy to the movement believe the Hmar National Army and the President faction of the Hmar People’s Convention-Democrats are not a cause of concern. The Hmar National Army has less than 20 members and have survived only because they are part of the Kuki Nationalist Organisation umbrella, a body of 17 Manipur-based militant groups, said an analyst. John Pulamte, a member the Hmar Inpui, who negotiated with the government on behalf of the rebel outfit, said the Hmar People’s Convention-Democrats (President) wasn’t much of a factor either. “The HPC-D (President) faction is almost out,” he said, adding that seven of its members had defected to the parent group just a few days ago.

How new is the new agreement?

Instead, the real threat to a permanent solution could be the contents of the framework agreement, experts feel. Pulamte admitted that agreement does not provide for the formation of an autonomous Hmar district council under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution – the primary demand of the Hmar People’s Convention-Democrats. Instead, the existing Sinlung Hills Development Council, Pulamte said, would be rechristened Sinlung Hill Council and would have more autonomy.

After a consultation on the matter with other Hmar leaders on Wednesday, Pulamte said, “It has provisions for the formation of a district council under a Mizoram state assembly act. We have agreed as of now. Today, almost 400 leaders from the community also agreed in principle, suggesting some minor tweaks, so hopefully this the end of the Hmar insurgency in Mizoram.”

Varte however said the new agreement appeared to be “no different from the past agreements” as it did not address the contentious issue of an autonomous council under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. “It is evasive and does not really address the real issue - more like old wine in a new bottle,” he said. He added that a half-baked solution could lead to the “worsening of the political environment and discredit the HPC-D thereby paving the way for the formation of a new group just like it happened in 1994”. “The peace process will fall through if it is forced to continue without any changes,” he cautioned.

Pulamte, though optimistic about the agreement, did not rule out the possibility of the movement reigniting. “We will see how this arrangement works for around three-four years. If it doesn’t work out, we will regroup ourselves.” He added that the movement would continue in Manipur and Assam.