How Rajiv Gandhi’s peace deals materialised: Vappala Balachandran

1298577784 A matter of honour: Rajiv Gandhi with Akali leader Harchand Singh Longowal during the signing of the Punjab Accord | Getty Images

Rajiv Gandhi’s unparalleled mandate in the 1984 general elections, in which he won 415 of 516 Lok Sabha seats, encouraged him to try to heal the wounds on our national psyche. The New York Times (August 4, 1985) thought that in doing so, he also wanted to prove the essential unity of India as dreamt by his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, who had “managed to impart that vision to his countrymen”.

The first issue he tackled was Punjab as a paradigm for settling other disputes. The New York Times described it as a calculated gesture of lowering tensions that had led to the assassination of his mother and which had “threatened to transform Punjab into a permanently wounded region comparable to Northern Ireland”.

Apart from Punjab, he also attended to the vexed “foreigners” issue in Assam, the Mizo and Naga struggles for autonomy that yo-yoed between talks and insurgency, and Kashmir and Sri Lanka, not to mention Pakistan.

Rajiv had deputed the late Rajesh Pilot to hold secret talks with the Nagas. This was revealed by chairman Isak Chishi Swu and general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) on January 13, 2003. On that day, they were in Delhi to meet Rama Pilot, MP and wife of Rajesh Pilot.

Because of Rajiv’s efforts, long periods of peace ensued, although later political developments made some of these accords less effective. Let us analyse the Punjab, Assam and Mizoram issues in detail.

Rajiv-Longowal Accord
July 24, 1985

Rajiv reached out to the Sikhs within three months of his election. As the first unilateral step, he released top Shiromani Akali Dal leaders, including president Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, from detention. He changed the Punjab administration by appointing Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh as governor of the state and as the Centre’s interlocutor. Singh was aided by two academics and former Akali finance minister Balwant Singh.

On July 2, Rajiv personally invited Longowal to Delhi for talks. He also released 1,700 alleged Sikh militants from detention. Longowal met Rajiv on July 23, 1985. The accord was signed on July 24.

Fifteen years later, a study by Prof Guruharpal Singh, emeritus professor, Sikh and Punjab studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, revealed that it “was a remarkable agreement recognising the territorial, economic and religious demands which had fuelled the Sikh agitation before June 1984 and were held non-negotiable by Mrs Gandhi”. He added that for Rajiv it was a “dynamic breakthrough, a befitting start to his premiership”.

Locally, only negative politics prevailed. Akali hardliners called the accord a betrayal. Terrorism continued. Longowal was assassinated on August 20. In July 1985, the BJP criticised the accord for giving “lenient treatment to the Sikh deserters” of the Army. It changed tack on Longowal’s 29th death anniversary (August 20, 2014), when state BJP president Kamal Sharma joined Akali leaders in bashing the Congress, but remained silent on deserters.

Assam Accord
August 15, 1985

Since 1888, the struggle for restoration of Assamese language—in place of Bengali imposed on them by the British—had transformed itself into an Assamese identity movement. The “foreigner” issue had dominated political discourse in Assam right from 1947.

The cabinet mission plan (1946) of joining Bengal and Assam in a three-tier grouping of provinces, and the long reign of chief minister (then called premier) Muhammed Sadullah of the Muslim League (1937-1946), reinforced an impression that efforts were being made to merge Assam with East Pakistan. In 1947, Assam lost the Muslim majority areas in Sylhet, following a referendum.

This impression was also partly caused by a misinterpretation of history. Yasmin Saikia of Arizona State University had pointed out in 2016 that there is historical evidence of a large Muslim presence in Assam since the 12th century. Her own ancestor, Sheikh Azimuddin from Delhi, was invited in 1595 by the Ahom king to become a Saikia, an Ahom noble.

Unrest followed with the fresh flow of migrants in 1965 and 1971 on account of turbulence in East Pakistan. Serious unrest followed when a huge increase in the electorate was detected in the 1978 Mangaldoi Lok Sabha bypoll.

Bold move: Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who signed the Assam Accord with Rajiv Gandhi Bold move: Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who signed the Assam Accord with Rajiv Gandhi

Nearly 23 rounds of talks were held by prime minister Indira Gandhi’s government with the Assam student leaders, including a personal meeting on February 2, 1980, with Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. However, the holding of the Assam assembly polls in 1983 provoked the agitators. The world was shaken by the gruesome massacre of 2,191 migrants at Nellie on February 18, 1983.

Rajiv Gandhi continued from where Mrs Gandhi had left. He announced with high drama the positive results of his secret negotiations on Independence Day 1985. The Washington Post (August 16, 1985) said: “As did his agreement last month with Sikh dissidents from Punjab, Gandhi’s accord with Assamese militants has quieted a long and bloody civil conflict, which many Indians once thought intractable.”

Perhaps the overwhelming national mandate for Rajiv in the 1984 elections (although Congress won only four of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam) and the goodwill he exhibited towards young student leaders might have facilitated the Assam Accord. It cannot be forgotten that his negotiations with the young students had elevated their status, enabling them to win the 1985 assembly polls. Interestingly, Mahanta became the youngest chief minister, and he took over the day after the accord was signed.

It is true that subsequent political developments, including efforts of the BJP to give a communal colour to the issue by passing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act have kept the problem boiling.

Mizo Accord
June 30, 1986

The only peace accord signed by the Rajiv Gandhi government that ended insurgent violence was the Mizo Accord. This is remarkable because Mizo insurgents, at the height of the insurgency, controlled practically the whole of Mizoram—except, perhaps, Aizawl.

In 1991, I met Dr Vumson Suantak, a geologist-historian, at the Virginia home of an activist who belonged to the National League of Democracy, a party that had been banned by the junta. Vumson gave me his book Zo History. It is a fascinating account of the Zo people, who came originally from Western China-Tibet and migrated to Kale-Kabaw-Myittha valleys in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, where they are called Mizo, Chin, Khyeng, Kuki, Lushai and Plains Chin people.

The book gives evidence of how the British had planted seeds of secession in India’s northeast, like what we saw in the Naga areas. He writes how superintendent A.R.H. MacDonald, posted in West Zoram during 1943-46, had encouraged them to form a political party called ‘Mizo Commoners’ Union’ to gain independence.

Vumson also gives details of assistance given by Pakistan and China to Laldenga, who founded the Mizo National Front and later became chief minister. Also how Mizo insurgents terrorised the whole of India by killing Mizoram’s police top brass at the police headquarters in Aizawl on January 13, 1975.

Back-channel talks with Mizos started through the Intelligence Bureau (IB) after Laldenga personally wrote to prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1974. These talks were supervised by diplomat G. Parthasarathy, who was chairman of the policy planning committee of the external affairs ministry. Ground-level talks were taken over by the Research and Analysis Wing, following Laldenga’s exile to London when he was released from jail by Indira, who had returned to power in 1980. Laldenga was scheduled to meet Parthasarathy on October 31, 1984. Unfortunately, the meeting did not happen as Indira was assassinated.

The late R.D. Pradhan, who was the Union home secretary who signed the accord under dramatic circumstances on June 30, 1986 before retirement, had confirmed to me that the last-mile negotiations with Laldenga were done by veteran R&AW officer R. Swaminathan. The drama associated with the signing was because Laldenga had delayed his assent well after office hours on that day, and the PM had to give Pradhan an “extension” for a few hours. It was Pradhan's retirement day. Rajiv was firm that Pradhan should have the honour of signing the accord. So, Pradhan's tenure was extended till midnight.

I am mentioning this specifically since some claims regarding who was responsible for bringing Laldenga “to his knees” have been made since 2014. As a matter of fact, no one was “brought to his knees”. Rajiv had ensured that Laldenga and his colleagues were given due respect. Also, Indira had felt that “a Laldenga at the negotiating table is better than one in the jungles of the Arakan”, as Chaitanya Kalbag had written in 1981. And that was also the reason for the success of the Mizo Accord.

Vappala Balachandran is former special secretary, cabinet secretariat.