Rebel ‘retirement’ — the ground reality

Rumela Sen | Updated on April 24, 2018 Published on April 24, 2018

The South has seen more rebels quit Maoist groups than the North   -  THE HINDU

The South has seen more rebels quit Maoist groups than the North   -  The Hindu

Informal networks play a key role in building a trust mechanism that dispels the fear in rebels to quit insurgency groups

How do rebels quit armed groups and return to the same political processes they had once sought to overthrow? A lot has been written on why men and women rebel. But we know very little about why and how rebels quit. This is, however, a predominant concern among policy-makers now, from Nepal to Colombia.

In my forthcoming book, I examine this question in the context of the ongoing Maoist insurgency in India. Data show that between 2005 and 2012, 781 rebels quit the Maoist insurgency in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. By contrast, only 54 rebels in Jharkhand and 39 in West Bengal quit the same insurgent group during the same period.

Moreover, rebel retirement is concentrated in certain districts and not others. For example, retirement in Telangana is very high in Warangal and Khammam districts. Similarly, in Jharkhand it is concentrated in Ranchi and Khunti districts and not others. Factors like policing, development, industrialisation, or insurgent organisation are frequently used to explain why rebels quitting hardly varies between adjacent districts. A negative binomial regression also refutes these conventional explanations.

Instead, membership in civic associations (data obtained from the Indian Human Development Survey) turns out statistically significant in explaining variation in rebel retirement. But what are the causal mechanisms that relate grassroots associational life to rebel retirement?

The term “retirement” was born in the conflict zones of North and South India in 2013-14. The term captures the protracted process of rebel exit better than “surrender” that focusses on the act of relinquishing arms while obfuscating the prolonged bargaining that precedes it.

My central finding is that rebels retire through informal exit networks that grow in the shadow of civic associations in the state-insurgency interface. A lot of Maoists quit in the South due to the emergence of what I call “harmonic” exit networks that weave together multiple stakeholders in an amalgam of roles and alliances to build momentum for exit and manage a myriad of uncertainties of reintegration. By contrast, retirement is very low in the North due to the development of a “discordant” exit network that exacerbates mistrust and fear among key players, deterring retirement significantly.

Raju’s story

Let me share the story of Raju Anna, a retired rebel in Warangal district, the broad contours of whose experience resonated with 34 other retired rebels I met in Telangana. The first step Raju took once he decided to quit was to send letters to his superiors in the Maoist party specifying his motivations for leaving. The party tried to persuade him to reconsider, but eventually agreed.

Despite his party’s approval, Raju could not quit because he believed that he could be killed as soon as he disarmed. The state, he complained, focusses on designing surrender and rehabilitation packages that offer livelihood opportunities for retiring rebels but overlook the looming threats to their lives. Over 70 retired rebels I met, both in the North and the South, affirmed that while rebels risked their lives to return to democracy, the state would lose nothing if it reneged on its side of the bargain and failed to protect retiring rebels. Theorising this as a credible commitment problem that state institutions do not tackle, I argue that rebels retire when informal exit networks offer alternate enforcement mechanisms that resolve this problem locally through trust and side payments. I show how the physical space and the ideational climate required for nurturing these informal networks are offered by grassroots civic associations, effectively in the South but not so much in the North.

Exit networks are robust in the South where the associational life is vibrant, and scrawny in the North where civic associations are weak. Subsequently, the “harmonic” exit network in the South helped Raju Anna retire. During his insurgent career, Raju prosecuted and assassinated a powerful landlord for his “crimes against the people,” which included bonded labour (vetti), rape, usury, and murders. Terrified and disgraced, the landlord family had fled to the capital city, where, they set up profitable new businesses and acquired substantial political clout. Raju expected that the news of his return to the village, disarmed and defenceless, would compel the landlord family to avenge the death of their patriarch.

However, Raju did not feel similarly threatened by the police and politicians who, he explained, have significant career rewards tied to the number of surrender events they supervise. They want to encourage more rebels to retire and attacking returning rebels would do the exact opposite.

In mitigating the threats to his life, Raju Anna first reached out to his family. They contacted a local civil liberty activist, who reached out to a local politician who, in turn, roped in the superintendent of police, other civil liberty activists, and bureaucrats who were all connected to each other via membership of various professional and civic associations.

Two-level network

These highly visible and socially mobile opinion makers, whom I call Movement Entrepreneurs (MEs), constitute the top rung of the two-level exit network. In the South, the MEs are reputed for speaking truth to the powers that be, holding the state accountable in courts of law, criticising rebels for human rights abuses, and organising protests and peace talks, all of which serve to create a favourable ideational climate where rebel retirement was not construed as desertion of comrades but as a step towards demilitarisation and lasting peace.

Following such destigmatisation of retirement, Raju Anna’s neighbours and close friends received the news of his impending favourable return. These everyday people in conflict zones — teachers, tailors, shopkeepers, farmers, home-makers — who I call Reintegration Stewards (RSs) — constitute the lower rung of the two-level exit network.

The RSs identify and eradicate the threats to rebel reintegration. They use scheduled meetings in sports clubs, book clubs, and professional associations to gradually forge an overarching consensus in the village that, by allowing the safe return of one rebel, would encourage other rebels to return to their families — an outcome that many families in conflict zones desired.

The RS in Raju Anna’s case also invited the landlord family to attend their meetings and persuaded the widow of the slain landlord to promise that Raju and his family would not be harmed. In places where everyone knows everyone else, such publicly affirmed pledges, constituted the trust mechanism that credibly committed local stakeholders to the safe return of retiring rebels.

In conjunction, MEs arranged for a licence to a gas station by an upcoming highway to be offered to the landlord family, which constituted the side payment that supplemented the trust mechanism. Where the Indian state failed to credibly commit to the safety of returning rebels, the informal exit networks compensated for it and offered alternate enforcement mechanisms to tackle the rebel apprehension that deterred retirement.

The RS and ME share membership of civic associations but they hardly share intimate social ties. In fact, it is this “strength of weak ties” that allows the idea of participatory peace-building to traverse greater social distance than it would through strong ties among socially similar groups.

The writer is a post-doctoral research scholar at the Department of Political Science, Columbia University. This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

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Published on April 24, 2018
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