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Manipur: No Light at the End of the Tunnel

Updated: Oct 1, 2023


India's savvy internal security managers with decades of experience in managing counter-insurgency and terrorism interspersed with riots and law and order appear to be at a wits end to come to terms with the ongoing conflict in Manipur.


Five months on there is no solution in sight while state authority eroding each day. The explosive admixture of ethnic militant groups actively supported by the civil society to target the other community in the dyad – Meitei and Kuki has two dimensions for a solution – political and military, on both fronts the State is wanting, the reasons for which are perplexing given the security first approach of the Central government in New Delhi.


The wages of the civil-militancy in Manipur will be expensive as there is potential of spreading of ethnic divide across regions in the North East which has always been a patchwork of communities who claim that they have been forcibly hemmed in by the modern State.


Here is a review-


State Identification of Triggers for Violence


As per the Chief Minister of Manipur, drugs smuggling and poppy cultivation, besides the influx of illegal immigrants from Myanmar, has been the main factors leading to violence. The Manipur crisis is due to the migrants (from Myanmar), there is an "ideological agenda, biases, factual distortions" external affairs minister S Jaishankar said during an interaction with a think tank on his visit to the United States this month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly where he gave a national statement.


The reasons for geographic segregation of the two communities – the Meitei and the Kuki has not found any mention as if the issue was purely of law and order, in which case the people would have stood by the State rather than targeting each other. In case the root causes of violence are not identified the correct palliatives cannot be administered that is the lesson of multitude insurgencies across the World


Nature of Militancy


Infusion of militant groups – Meitei as well as Kuki which were fallow for some time supported through mass action by civil society groups are the main perpetrators of violence in the State for now.


As per Afsara Shaheen, Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management writing in the Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 22, No.14, September 25, 2023 insurgent groups active before May in Manipur were – the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), National Revolutionary Front Manipur (NRFM), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and the Kuki Independent Army (KIA).


Those who have now become active include Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA), UNLF, Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF), National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak-Progressive (PREPAK-Pro), KIA, Kangleipak Communist Party-Military Council Taibanganba faction (KCP-MC Taibanganba), Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA). Coordination Committee (CorCom), a conglomerate of six Valley-based militant outfits the KCP, KYKL, PREPAK, PREPAK-Pro, Revolutionary People's Front (RPF, the political wing of the People's Liberation Army- PLA) and UNLF is also likely to be playing a role in the violence.


While these are Meitei groups the Kuki are also said to be active, Kuki National Organisation (KNO) is an umbrella group of 17 Kuki insurgent groups, and the United People’s Front (UPF) represents eight other Kuki insurgent groups. 2,200 cadres of these groups are staying under the Suspension of Operations agreement in their 14 designated camps.


The arms of these groups are under double lock and key with the groups and the government. Meitei groups have alleged that the Kuki groups are the ones to trigger violence denied by the latter. Presently however it is Meitei groups which are dominant in the Valley areas.


Vigilantes have joined these with thousands of arms looted from the armoury of the police in the State which is yet to be recovered. These vigilantes are resorting to extortion and abduction using illegal weapons. The militant groups are openly using Assam Rifles, Army, and Police uniforms. The Assam Rifles has written to the Manipur Police, stating that many trucks in Kakching district have been painted in camouflage colours with insignia of the paramilitary force, resembling their vehicles. It is not clear what action has been taken thereafter.


In a recent incident where, three unarmed tribal villagers, all Kukis were travelling from Kanchup Ponlen village in Manipur's Senapati district to the headquarters of the neighbouring Kangpokpi district for medical treatment were shot dead by assailants using Manipur police commando fatigues as per a report in the Hindustan Times. An Indian Army official aware of developments in Manipur said as per the Hindustan Times, "It is true that assailants have started misusing uniforms of police and security forces."


The divide between communities in Manipur is spreading to all sections of the society and even impacting media and the armed forces. The Assam Rifles (AR) primary mandate is counter-insurgency and border guarding. However, there has been growing mistrust between the AR and the Manipur Police. The Manipur Police have accused the AR of preventing them from doing their duty. For example, the AR allegedly blocked a road to Kwakta, preventing the local police from getting there. This allegedly allowed Kuki militants to escape after an attack. The Manipur Police have registered an FIR against the AR. The AR has also been accused of being biased in their role in tackling the situation. A group of 40 Manipur MLAs, mostly Meiteis and those from the BJP, have asked for the AR to be replaced in the State.


Meitei community apex body, the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI) again urged Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to replace Assam Rifles in Manipur by any other central force and take action against the Kuki militants. A COCOMI delegation, led by Group Captain B.N. Sharma (retd) met the Defence Minister and told him that Meitei insurgent outfits have been already banned by the Union Home Ministry before 2000, so necessary legal actions have been taken taken against them, but, no actions have been taken against the Kuki militant outfits under the pretext of Suspension of Operations (SoO) and Kuki militants are firing from hills and farmers are being killed.


The situation in Manipur has thus attained the status of a militancy with the objective of the two communities Meitei and Kuki to assert their rights in the Valley and Hill districts respectively. Towards this end constant undermining of state authority is evident targeting the other community while rescuing own people through civil agitation.


Nature of Violence


The official toll in the violence since May 3 stands at 176, with the last reported killing on September 17 being of an Army sepoy on leave, Serto Thangthang Kom. 96 bodies, nine of them unidentified, lie unclaimed in the mortuaries of three Manipur hospitals. The list of wounded has 1,108 names, while 32 are reported missing. According to police, 5,172 cases of arson have been reported, in which 4,786 houses have been gutted. Vandals have damaged 254 churches and 132 temples. Of the 4,000 weapons looted from various armouries of the state forces, 1,359 have been recovered so far along with 15,000-odd rounds of ammunition.


Targeting the other community and those who assist them through mass action as well as plain assassinations are the tactics being used by the miscreants. For instance, two lawyers in Imphal were attacked and their homes vandalized by a group of unidentified people. The lawyers had represented a Kuki professor in court. Unidentified miscreants abducted and killed an Indian Army soldier– Sepoy Serto Thangthang Kom while on leave in Manipur, PRO (Defence) said in a statement. The Manipur governor constituted a one-member committee to probe into the abduction and killing of an off-duty Indian army soldier hours after chief minister N Biren Singh assured the deceased's family that "stringent action" will be taken against the guilty. Sepoy Serto Thangthang Kom (41) was abducted by militants from his home in front of his son.


People Against the State


The government has appealed to the people to cooperate with both the Centre and the state government in restoring peace and normalcy reports the Times of India. However, the people are clearly siding with the miscreants due to ethnic affinity seeing the issue as a larger war with the State. For instance, series of bandhs and agitations led, a NIA court in Imphal East to grant bail to five men arrested on September 16 on the charge of posing as police and moving about with guns. Normal life was hit across Manipur's Imphal valley districts due to the 48-hour statewide shutdown called by Meira Paibis, a collective of Meitei women, and five local clubs, demanding unconditional release of five "village defence volunteers" arrested by police. On September 16, protesters tried to storm the Porompat police station, demanding the release of the five youths, prompting security forces to fire several rounds of teargas shells. A few protesters and an RAF personnel received minor injuries during the stand-off.


Hundreds of protesters tried to storm chief minister's secretariat in Imphal as the demand for withdrawal of Assam Rifles from Manipur getting louder in the aftermath of recent Pallel firing incident. In a brutal crackdown on a congregation by troops of Assam Rifles at Pallel of Kakching district, two persons were killed and over 80 others were injured. Many people, mostly womenfolk from various places of Imphal converged at Singjamei Bazar and marched towards the chief minister's secretariat along NH-102.


Two persons were killed and 50 others, including an Army major, were injured in fresh violence in Manipur when hundreds of people from the majority community attempted to storm tribal villages. In the morning, a gunfight erupted at Molnoi village near Pallel in Tengnoupal district between security forces and armed persons who attempted to resort to arson and violence in the village. As the news of the gunfight spread, large groups of Meitei community members, including Meira Paibis and Arambai Tenggol militiamen dressed in commando uniforms, attempted to break through security check posts and move towards Pallel.


On September 30, hundreds of members of the Arambai Tenggol, a radical Meitei organisation, gathered at Kangla Fort and pledged to “protect” Manipur, as per the Hindustan Times. Arambai Tenggol, along with Meitei Leepun, another Meitei organisation, has been accused by the Kuki groups of instigating violence in the state. Arambai Tengol describes itself as the people who come out to defend the motherland. The aim is to give a voice to Meitei nationalism which would be highly explosive in the present environment of ethnic strife between the two communities as in the past the Arambai Tenggol members have been accused of targeting Kukis. Thus what future trajectory the group takes remains to be seen?


External Influence


National Investigation Agency (NIA) has arrested a suspect from Churachandpur, who was allegedly part of a transnational conspiracy by Myanmar and Bangladesh based leadership of terror outfits to wage war against India by exploiting the current ethnic unrest in Manipur. The accused, identified as Seiminlun Gangte, was taken into custody.


“Investigation revealed that Myanmar and Bangladesh based militant groups have entered into a conspiracy with a section of militant leaders in India to indulge in incidents of violence with an intention to drive a wedge between different ethnic groups and to wage war against the government of India. And for this purpose, the aforementioned leadership have been providing funds to procure arms, ammunition and other types of terrorist hardware which are being sourced both, from across the border, as well as from other terrorist outfits active in north eastern states of India to stoke the current ethnic strife in Manipur,” the agency said in a statement as per the Hindustan Times.


Security Paradigm Ahead


Manipur CM Biren Singh said the government had rolled out multiple initiatives with the objective of establishing the rule of law in Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, Moreh and Imphal as per a Times of India Report.


The Manipur government is likely to adopt a "one district, one force" arrangement for better coordination and operations by security forces, as part of its efforts to restore normalcy in the northeastern State that has been engulfed in ethnic violence since May 3. For better operational coordination, personnel of one paramilitary force will be responsible to maintain law and order in a district. A unified command led by security advisor Kuldiep Singh is likely to order a rejig of the security personnel across the State for the "one district, one force" arrangement.


Currently, more than 200 companies of various paramilitary forces are posted in the State where at least 175 people have died in various instances of violence during the ongoing ethnic tension between the Meiteis and Kukis. The country's five paramilitary forces – CRPF, BSF, ITBP, SSB, CISF – along with the Assam Rifles and army are working in conjunction with the state police to restore peace and normalcy in the region.


In another initiative, Manipur CM Biren Singh discussed a plan to extend the India-Myanmar border fencing by 70 km during a meeting with Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and other senior officials of the State.


In a post on X (formerly Twitter), the chief minister said the additional fencing along the international border will be done to check the cross-border illegal immigration and drugs smuggling. "I was joined by Chief Secretary, DGP and officials from the Home Department. In view of the rise in illegal immigration and drugs smuggling from the neighbouring country, safeguarding our porous borders has become an urgent necessity".


The India-Myanmar border is 1,643 km long. The states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram share the border with Myanmar. Manipur (398 km), Arunachal Pradesh (520 km), Nagaland (215 km) and Mizoram (510 km) – share a 1,643-km unfenced border with Myanmar and there are 16 km FMR along these international borders. The State alleges that militants from across the border had infiltrated and assisted the vigilantes in violence. Manipur government has also asked Union Home Ministry to cancel the free movement regime along the India-Myanmar border and complete fencing. The free movement regime allows people residing close to both sides of the India-Myanmar border to venture 16 km deep into each other's territory without any document.


Manipur government has now set a 15-day deadline to surrender all illegal weapons held by any person or group across the State. A statement from the chief minister's office said that the state government was willing to take a "considerate view" of persons submitting such illegal weapons within 15 days. At the end of the 15 days, security forces, both of the Centre and the State, would undertake a strong and comprehensive search operation all over the State to recover such weapons and all persons associated with any illegal weapons would be dealt with severely as per the law, the statement warned.


Internet shutdown is another tactic that has been used by the State government . 143 days as the BJP led state government ended the country's second longest mobile internet blackout after the one in J&K since August 4, 2019, that lasted a record 552 days; it was reintroduced days later after violence broke out.


Conclusion



UN experts condemned the Indian government's "slow and inadequate response" to reported serious rights violations, including sexual violence, amid deadly ethnic clashes in the country's remote northeast. "We have serious concerns about the apparent slow and inadequate response by the Government of India, including law enforcement, to stem physical and sexual violence and hate speech in Manipur," they said in a statement.


The rule of law is a principle of governance that requires all people and institutions to be accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced, and independently adjudicated. For weeks Manipur saw unrestricted violence where retreat of the State was more than evident as militant groups supported by the civil society enforced the writ and thus challenged the establishment of rule of law. Locals surrounded police armoury and looted arms as the State looked on and while additional security forces were inducted the spread of violence geographically and ethnically meant that the same could not be controlled. The ethnic divide conflagrated leading to mass migration by both the Kuki and the Meitei to the safety of the majority areas the hills and the plains respectively and selective attacks were undertaken at those on the periphery.


Now it appears that the State government is determined to restore the situation but security alone is unlikely to bridge the divide between the two communities which has assumed a degree of permanency.


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