Two months and counting the security situation in Manipur – a critical Indian state in the North East has remained on the boil with at least 121 fatalities encountered so far with numerous injured. The state policing apparatus which is the primary organisation for maintaining law and order is fractured as the armouries have been looted by miscreants and unwillingness of Meitei and Kuki policemen to operate in the same unit.
For over 300 Army, Assam Rifles and central police columns of approximately 80 to 100 personnel separating the two warring communities – Meitei and Kuki has become a core challenge.
The state of security is fractious as underlying tensions implies that internecine attacks are likely to continue.
While a committee for bringing the communities together has been constituted it is not clear if the same has even met or made progress in bringing the community leaders.
The core issue in Manipur is to bridge the divide of trust between the two communities, the first stage is to restore peace for which security operations are important.
However awaiting completion of the security stage to commence the task of rebuilding trust need not be sequential.
Security operations have a clear operational task that of preventing violence for which varied measures such as buffer zone have been taken, process of recovery of arms which include Light Machine Guns, AK-47s and other rifles, rocket launcher and 51mm mortars is underway and the need to check infiltration of militant groups of the communities in the disputes remains paramount.
The experiment of the India Reserve Battalions (IRB) drawing personnel from local areas obviously has failed in Manipur as many of the arms were looted from armouries of these units. Operating without the shield of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which has been removed from many areas in which the Army columns are operating, there is a high degree of caution to avoid an incident which may be a trap by the insurgent groups for the military.
With the use of quadcopters it is evident that the resistance on both sides quasi civil and militant is prepared to continue with violent operations for some time to come.
As the security forces attempt to gain a grip of the situation, rebuilding trust in communities simultaneously is important.
A top-down approach was attempted with the purported resignation of Chief Minister N Biren Singh who had lost the trust of the Kukis, but was stalled by the support of Meiteis to him which was possibly engineered.
As the Chief Minister has been accused of being blatantly anti Kuki given his record of termination of the Suspension of Operations with some Kuki groups, his removal from the scene may have paved the way for a compromise but that does not appear on the horizon so far.
Under the circumstances a bottom-up approach to rebuilding trust would be necessary by getting the community leaders in various hamlets opposing each other to sit and talk and attempt to reconcile the differences.
Clearly this process will have to be undertaken at multiple levels in the Valley and the Hill areas and who will lead this remains to be seen?
Obviously community leaders who seem to be marginalised for now by the younger and more aggressive groups in the State have to be brought to the fore.
Can the Army or Assam Rifles units which are permanently deployed in Manipur and thus have contacts in the politico social spectrum do this task remains to be seen?
Social media can be employed creatively as well as to curtail messaging bent on increasing the divide.
Nevertheless attempts need to be made to bridge the divide.
Preventing Spill over
The absence of violence in the North East does not mean peace which is evident from the situation in Manipur which conflagrated within days as tensions were brewing within for months. Instead of assuaging the alienation, attempts to accelerate the process of provision of ST status to Meitei’s only added to the divide.
In the North East Assam, Manipur and to an extent Tripura are seen as multi ethnic and multi religious states with a delicate balance between communities.
Any fundamental changes in the constitutional structure of these states is fraught with possibility of civil and even armed resistance. The experience of Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and resistance to the same in Assam should have been a warning to governments in the North East to bring all stakeholders on board for changes that can have adverse impact within fragile societies.
In Manipur there is greater potential of dissonance given the geographic division between the hills and the plains and the religious divide as well.
Thus, at the outset community relations and harmony are the primary task for any government having failed to do so there is now a need for reconstruction of the broken house.
There is a necessity to prevent a spill over such as demand of unification of all ethnic Zo [Kuki-Hmar-Zomi-Mizo] tribes in Greater Mizoram which would imply division of Manipur which will be unacceptable to the Meiteis and may only increase differences with the militant organisations as the CORCOM comprising primarily of Valley groups pitching in.
Myanmar has a role to play, recognising the same India’s Defence Secretary Shri Giridhar Aramane was on an official visit to Myanmar from June 30 to July 01, 2023 and interacted with top leadership of the military led State Administration Council (SAC) despite the slur of a coup hanging over the same.
In Nagaland the NSCN IM and the Working committee of the Naga National Political Groups (NNPG) appear to be divided which in turn may imply the accord that is much sought after may be now further delayed.
Interestingly US Ambassador to India Mr Eric Garetti also pitched in with comments on the situation in Manipur which indicates that the situation is under watch in other capitals of the World as well – regardless of the propriety or otherwise of the statement.
The road to peace in Manipur is long and winding yet the torturous path will have to be navigated with sagacity, a humane approach while keeping the miscreants under check.
There are no quick fixes here for after allowing the ethnic divide to foment for months rebuilding trust between communities will be difficult to say the least but nevertheless this the pathway to sustained peace and would have to be attempted with vigour.