Here is the first of a series of executive summaries of key conflict, conflict resolution, and human rights matters in India and South Asia in 2018.

The Maoist rebellion

The Maoists are likely in the middle of a leadership churn, with talk that supremo and general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) Muppala Laxman Rao, or Ganapathy, has anointed a successor. This is Nambala Keshav Rao, or Basava Raju, at 58 ten years younger than his boss and a seasoned military mind. Basava Raju is head of the party’s central military commission, the umbrella operational command.

Basava Raju’s influence within the rebel superstructure is undeniable. I would argue that a transition is actually a perfect time for the government of India to push hard for a peace deal with Maoists, to claim moral high ground as well as pave the way for genuine peace. For Maoists, this would also be a time for much introspection about where to take the rebellion at a time of some vulnerability in addition to the steady depletion of leaders, cadres and territory.

But we will likely see little of peace. As the government steps up deployment of paramilitary troops and special police personnel in battle zones, in particular the rebel hub of southern Chhattisgarh, besides parts of Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar, things may get more vicious. The Central Reserve Police Force is deploying its so-called Bastariya Battalion, an all-tribal troop, to crack the Maoists’ hold in this largely tribal area. The Maoists are planning a similar response. The result will likely be a burst of mayhem with non-combatant tribals caught in the middle—in a replay of the vicious, horrific Salwa Judum encounters from 2005 on. And the Maoists will continue to watch, and wait for an opportunity for massed attacks on government troops. This is no endgame.

North-East India

The Naga peace process is now well into its third year, after a “framework agreement" was signed with much fanfare between the government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim or NSCN’s Isak-Muivah faction in August 2015. That was the easy part. Things have moved ahead as well as got messier since. The fact is that, despite pressure to effect a permanent settlement of the Naga conflict by this Christmas or before Nagaland’s assembly elections in March 2018—pressure brought on by the ruling alliance in which the Bharatiya Janata Party is a partner—settlement won’t be easy.

NSCN (I-M) is the largest rebel group, but not the only rebel group. NSCN’s Khaplang faction broke away from a ceasefire in early 2015, and has since led or supported several attacks across Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh against India’s army and paramilitaries. It is clear peace cannot come without this Myanmar-based faction being convinced to join peace talks or, at least, being held to standstill on the Indian side of the border. This is at best a thorny matter, and not only because I-M and Khaplang factions are sworn enemies. The government will try its best to get the Khaplang faction on board one way or another, in a similar manner to which it has opened a peace front with six smaller Naga rebel groups.

While citizens have in general lauded the efforts, complicated matters remain. A key one is formal integration and rehabilitation of leaders and cadres into Naga society. For one thing, some among I-M leadership feel they may be better off in a ceasefire that permits them to retain arms, a de-facto parallel administration, and the power to extort in the name of Naga nationalism. For another, there is consternation in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal, which have contiguous Naga homelands, that a deal which offers leadership positions for key rebel leaders, recognition of Naga homelands in a composite political framework, perhaps even an additional flag, would effectively mean ceding the states’ territory. This is an explosive concern, and one that can only be addressed now and later with massive compensatory development of infrastructure and employment, and ensuring a total curbing of the military capability of Naga rebels—in ceasefire or not.

The outlook for 2018? Dragging on of the peace process. Explosion on account of a knee-jerk peace deal. Chaos within rebel ranks, which leads to further confusion—and a worse-case scenario of anti-talks factions breaking away from I-M. It’s not pretty; and a status quo to continue to prepare the ground for all-round acceptance may be the only game-saver and face-saver in this vexing exercise.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.

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