While the country is obsessing over tomorrow’s (11th March) election outcome in UP and four other states, I have been away in distant Colombia discovering that there is perhaps no other country in the world as relevant to our major internal and external security issues as that nation at the other end of the world. Therefore, before we get totally caught up in UP’s election results, I would plead with my readers to spare a few minutes to pick up the essentials of the Colombian peace process that has won its President, Juan Manuel Santos, the Nobel Prize for Peace, 2016.
Armed internal strife in Colombia dates back to the period of La Violencia in the ’40s and ’50s, when individual killings, massacres, kidnappings and forced disappearances became virtually a way of life.In 1948, the populist leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated, sparking rebellion in the countryside and US-led anti-communist repression in retaliation. Through the 1950s, insurgency spread notwithstanding very strong joint anti-militant action by the US and the Colombian governments. Violence failed to end violence. It only resulted in the consolidation in 1964 of guerilla groups into the formidable FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia: Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) that determinedly fought the State for the next half century despite numerous setbacks and fierce repression.
The lesson to be learned is the lesson taught all his life by Mahatma Gandhi, assassinated in the same year as Eliecer: violence cannot end violence without addressing the underlying injustices that lead to dissidents picking up the gun. Whether it is Naxals in the forests of Dandakaranya or rebels in the North-East or dissidents in the Kashmir Valley, mere resort to force brings no answers for all violence against the State has root causes; so, whatever violence is used by the State to maintain its upper hand in managing security threats, internal or external, ultimately it is only engagement that can restore the peace.
The immediate provocation for the consolidation of guerilla groups into FARC was a programme called Accelerated Economic Development, launched in 1964, under which hundreds of thousands of small landholdings were encouraged to be consolidated under a few latifundia (major landlords) to promote large-scale agriculture to speed up rural growth. The benefits to agricultural growth rates were, however, more than nullified by the immense social distress consequent on the displacement of large numbers of peasants who, in turn, became the vast reservoir of human misery from which FARC and other revolutionary bodies were able to recruit and train their cadres.
When, in Colombia as in central India, development leads to displacement, development no longer seems desirable because it becomes disruptive. The Twelfth Plan documents confirmed that since Independence, development has led to the displacement of some 65 million tribal people, and although tribals constitute but 8% of our population, 55% of the displaced are tribals. No wonder then that the timber-rich, mineral-rich and hydro-rich forests of India have emerged as the single biggest threat to internal security. Decades of unending counter-insurgency operations against the Maoists have nowhere near ended their determination to wage war against the state. The Naxal rebellion will continue so long as the causes of discontent – namely, “development” that hugely benefits the corporations, but not the people – are not addressed at a negotiating table with the rebels, with the full participation of the victims of displacement.
After fighting FARC for a quarter century (1964-87), the Colombian government attempted peace negotiations with FARC in the period 1987-90 but that led nowhere, essentially because there was no clarity about the goals to be attained, the agenda to be addressed and ambiguity about the structure of the negotiating process. Some smaller guerilla groups did surrender arms, and even entered the democratic parliamentary process, but the FARC insurgency continued, funded massively by drug trafficking and complicated by the narco-terrorism of private militias, known as barcim, fielded by individual landlords.
Towards the turn of the millennium (1999-2002), a new initiative at reconciliation was launched. A large demilitarized zone, covering about the same area as Switzerland, was granted to FARC in which FARC could regroup and continue training in exchange for engaging in talks with the government. Once again, as in the earlier peace offensive of 1987-90, talks went nowhere in the absence of a structured peace process. Meanwhile, as atrocities, murders, kidnappings and extortion rackets mounted, with drug money financing the mayhem on all sides, the government changed hands and President Uribe came to power for eight years (2002-10) on the promise of not regarding internecine warfare with FARC and other guerilla groups as “armed conflict”, but as “acts of terror” by “the main drug cartel in the world” and to “implacably punish” such terrorism, dismantle terror organizations and impose the writ of the state throughout the country. Sounding as though he were anticipating Modi’s slogan of “talks and terror cannot go together”, President Uribe gave no quarter and launched an all-out offensive against the insurgents.
But FARC displayed such a remarkable capacity to “reactivate themselves in new strategic hinterland and border regions” that Santos, President Uribe’s Defence Minister, and as such the principal instrument of his government’s all-out war to decimate and eliminate FARC, came to the wise conclusion that police, paramilitary, and military action on their own would never be able to bring the conflict to an end because none of these actions was even beginning to engage with the fundamental causes of the 50-year-old insurrection. Distancing himself from his President’s hard and unyielding line, Santos fought the 2010 election on a platform of peace. “The door to dialogue,” he declared, “is not closed with lock and key”. Where Uribe had talked of “Democratic Security”, Santos argued for “Democratic Prosperity”. At this, the same electorate that had twice in succession handed his predecessor a decisive mandate to finish off the insurgency without appeasement or compromise, now discovered that war was no answer and an alternative reconciliatory approach was required, as was being advocated by Santos.
It took six long years for Santos’ alternative approach to conflict resolution and peace-building to bear fruit – six years during which he fought a second Presidential election (that he scraped through) and a referendum (that he actually lost by a wafer thin margin). It is the essentials of that alternative approach that ought to guide our government in seeking peace with the Naxals, the Nagas, the Kashmiris and other dissidents, whom we have been unsuccessfully attempting for decades to cow down by force in its various manifestations. Indeed, the Santos approach holds valuable lessons also for mending our relations with Pakistan. Let us see how.
First, absolute commitment to persisting with the peace process whatever the setbacks that could sabotage the attainment of a durable and just peace. Throughout the six years of negotiation, neither side sought nor conceded a cease-fire. Talks took place although terror did not cease.Â There were numerous instances of encounters, police and civilian killings, kidnapping of security forces and ordinary citizens, drug-running and extortion on the one side, matched by army atrocities and massive police excesses on the other.Â Â Believing, however, that the cessation of terror would be the outcome of the peace process, and should not be the precondition for engaging in talks – believing, in other words, that “talks and terror could go together” – Santos would not give up the path of negotiations. He held the gun in one hand and used it, but prominently waved the olive branch with the other. FARC responded in like measure, never letting go of violence completely but also never walking away from the negotiating table. In short, both sides ensured that, whatever the provocation, the peace process would remain “uninterrupted and uninterruptible”.
Second, this relentless commitment to dialogue was founded in another fundamental proposition that both sides accepted: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Subject-wise, the exploratory process could thus proceed to the limit in the confidence that it was not till a comprehensive peace settlement was reached that there was a firm commitment on either side to progress on any given matter.
Third, that the peace process would be initiated by highly confidential “talks about talks”. The principle agreed upon was “secret approaches in search of a peace process”. This resembled in many respects the Manmohan-Musharraf resort to back-channel talks between special envoys, well away from the public gaze, and invariably taking place at venues outside the sub-continent.Â In many ways, this was the most difficult phase of the negotiations. Four years passed between the very tentative early contacts brokered by President Chavez of Venezuela in 2008, and the conclusion, on 26 August 2012, of a “General Agreement (sometimes translated as Global Agreement) on Termination of the Armed Conflict”.
This agreement was not on any substantive issue but rather set out the erms and procedures and methodology for engaging formally on substantive issues. This underlies the need to totally eschew headline-catching theatrical spectacles of the kind that Modi revels in, and instead leave it to anonymous sherpas to carry the first loads and set up the base camp and route map that are to be traversed. It was the absence of such a preparatory process that aborted the peace negotiations of 1987-90 and 1999-2001, as briefly summarized above. Substantive negotiations should begin only after the ground rules are carefully negotiated and everyone brought on board. That is why the boring, grinding business of “talks about talks” must secretly go forward, until all is prepared for the show to start. Modi’s diplomatic style of invariably putting himself in the forefront in the full glare of the cameras to garner all the credit for himself is personalized diplomacy doomed from the start, indeed, doomed by the start.
The FARC-Colombia General (Global) Agreement dealt with the minutiae, the nuts and bolts of what needed to be negotiated. Its most important feature was that it identified the five substantive and one procedural issue on which formal negotiations would take place. The five substantive subjects agreed on after hard bargaining were: land reforms and rural development, the original source of insurgency; political participation of former militants (bringing to mind Rajiv Gandhi’s 1986 Mizoram peace accord that secured peace after twenty years of fierce insurgency by inducting Laldenga, the leading insurgent, as Chief Minister, to bring him and his cadres into the mainstream of our democracy); ending the cultivation of illegal crops grown for making drugs, including deadly cocaine; justice for victims of both State and non-state actors (some 15% of the population affected by 2,20,000 deaths; nearly 7 million displaced persons; over 30,000 kidnappings; more than 45,000 “forced disappearances”; 13,000 victims of sexual assault; 11,000 victims of land mines; plus 10,000 victim of torture); and processes of conflict termination. The sixth subject – termed “procedural” – was for implementing and monitoring the overall peace agreement. That is exactly the kind of constructive approach we should adopt in dealing with our discontents and our neighbours.
The other key procedural matter was the decision to fast-track the negotiations by holding high-intensity negotiating sessions of 11 days continuously, followed by a brief pause for each side to report back to their respective authorities. The next 11-day negotiating session would then be resumed. This ensured both determination and grit to the negotiating process. We should devise such fast-tracking procedures that would expedite our own peace and reconciliation negotiations.
To impart leadership and coherence to the negotiating process, both sides agreed to the common composition of the negotiating teams: ten on each side, of whom five would have plenipotentiary powers, comprising all interest groups – the government, army, the security and intelligence services, even business, as far as the government team was concerned, and rotating commanders and cadres on the FARC side to ensure “broad ownership and commitment” on the part of all sections of the revolutionary army to the peace process. Joint statements were issued at the end of each round of talks to keep the general public informed and, therefore, supportive of the process. When the negotiations moved to specific subjects, five panels were constituted and representatives of the general public were invited to tender evidence and offer suggestions so that the whole exercise became open and participative.
Full agreement was reached and signed on 24 August 2016, a key provision being the Special Jurisdiction for Peace through which have been set up a special tribunal for peace and special justice courts to handle investigations, prosecutions and sentencing, with no distinction between victims of state violence and injustice, and victims of the excesses of the revolutionary forces.
At the instance of the revolutionaries, the comprehensive peace agreement was put to referendum on October 2, 2016, but lost by 50.2% against to 49.8% in favour. Undeterred, Santos went back to the negotiating table, got the accord modified to meet public concerns and proceeded to a vote in Parliament that he won 130-0, with some 36 Opposition members abstaining. The Nobel Prize followed.
If Modi wants a Nobel, perhaps he had better put Colombia on his charged travel schedule!
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)