Understanding the Manipur Ambush

Photo MNPF 2013 Courtesy Facebook We the Nagas

Who was behind the heinous attack on Col Viplav Tripathi and his family on November 13, what was the objective, which insurgent groups are active in Manipur and why, the China factor and what next?

Insurgency in Manipur has been on the wane after the surge in incidents and violence in 2008. There were 309 incidents that year as per South Asia Terrorism Portal which had resulted in 496 fatalities of which 349 were terrorists.

This had dropped to just four incidents in 2020 with seven deaths. Thus the heinous attack which killed a battalion commander of the Indian Army along with his wife and child came as a surprise possibly even to the Indian Army.

However the potential of such attacks has remained as in the past insurgents have been successful in causing heavy casualties including strikes on Army convoys.

In one of the significant attacks in Manipur, on 4 June 2015, militants ambushed a military convoy in Chandel district, killing 18 soldiers and wounding 15 others.

UNLFW claimed responsibility for the attack.

This attack had led to a retaliatory cross border attack by 21st Para SF Battalion of the Indian Army in Myanmar within a week on 9 June 2015 of the NSCN(K) and KYKL outfits.

On 22 May 2016 in another attack Manipur insurgents ambushed and killed six Indian paramilitary soldiers in Manipur, India near the northeastern region bordering Myanmar.

The ambush on 13 November 2021, a brutal murder of Colonel Viplav Tripathi, was perhaps the low point for the militants as it also involved the wife of the officer and eight year old son of commanding officer of the 46 Assam Rifles

Days before the attack a labourer was killed in Manipur’s Imphal West district on November 09 where unidentified assailants who came on foot opened fire at a makeshift camp of the workers and then also left in the same manner.

The camp comprised of 10 labourers were engaged in the construction of a RCC bridge on Imphal River under the Central sponsored PMGSY scheme.

Possibly the attack was not investigated and action taken to nab the terrorists given a wide rope to militants in the State.

Groups Behind the Attack

Of the two groups who claimed the attack on Col Tripathi’s Quick Reaction Team, the People’s Liberation Army is well known and “stands for an independent Manipur and cessation from India to be achieved by principles of Marxism- Leninism and Mao's thoughts. It also enjoins Naga revolutionaries to join in its fight for Independence,” as per details provided by the Indian Army Web site.

The Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) on the other hand is obscure.

The MNPF was formed in 2013 as per the Facebook Page We the Nagas which reported on June 30, “Two Naga underground outfits in Manipur - Manipur Naga Revolutionary Front (MNRF) and United Naga People’s Council (UNPC) have merged together and formed a new group called Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) with an armed wing - Manipur Naga People’s Army”. The merger took place in March 2013.

The statement further asserted that “Time has come for us to struggle together to achieve our common goal by surrendering one’s own interest and give room to accommodate other parallel bodies.” “We encompass all parties for a united struggle which is our loud and clear message. We shall not demoralize our political vision by remaining aloof like the organizations under cease-fire pacts whose interest is either higher autonomy or economic package.

Organisation of Militant Groups in Manipur

Manipur militancy has two main ethnic groups operating in the State apart from the Naga insurgents.

In the Imphal Valley mainly Meitei [native Manipur community] groups operate. These have been mostly proscribed by the Ministry of Home Affairs under the UAPA. The groups include

The other militant groups are of Kuki ethnicity whose main demand is to protect their turf and operate in the Hills of Manipur with dominant presence.

The Kuki groups are presently in cessation of hostilities with the government of India and talks are ongoing.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has banned six groups in Manipur People’s Liberation Army (PLA), United National Liberation Front (UNLF), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), Kanglei Yaol Kanba Lup (KYKL) and Manipur People’s Liberation Front (MPLF)

The groups in Manipur have formed a Coordination Committee (CorCom), a conglomerate of seven [now six] Valley-based militant outfits - the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), its Progressive faction (PREPAK-Pro), Revolutionary People's Front (RPF, the political wing of the People's Liberation Army- PLA), United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and United Peoples Party of Kangleipak (UPPK) on July 2011 with a view to coordinate their activities and possibly due to limited resources,

Apart from the CORCOM there is an umbrella organisation known as the f United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW) are the main ones who have been carrying out major attacks in the North East in the recent past.

The UNLFW is a united front of armed separatist groups in India formed by the United Liberation Front of Assam, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation, and the National Democratic Front of Boroland.

The organisation was reportedly fostered in 2011 during a meeting that was attended by Ulfa leader Paresh Baruah, NSCN-K leader Khaplang and leaders of Meitei outfits, United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with SS Khaplang as the chief.

The Kuki National organisation [KNO] is one of the two umbrella bodies of 17 Kuki armed groups which is also currently holding peace talks with the government of India. The demand of the group is separate Territorial Council for Kukiland in Manipur.

Insurgent Cause

Like the Naga groups, ethnic separatism remains the main motive of the Meitei insurgents in Manipur. They have objected to so called, “forceful merger of the State to the Indian Union in October 15, 1949” whereas in August 14, 1947, Manipur Constitution Act was implemented and its self government started functioning claim the insurgents.

They also claim that Kangleipak (Manipur) never had any relationship with India and complain of brutality including imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958.

Compared to the Naga insurgency, militancy in Manipur has been politically less invective thus there have been no direct or indirect talks with the Meitei groups whose approach is irreconcilable.

On the other hand there have been not active efforts by the government to reach out to the Meitei groups.

Objective of Attack on November 13

Two senior army veteran generals have been quoted by the Hindustan Times as attributing the cause of the attack to retaliation for successful counter drug operations by the unit [46 Assam Rifles] and to reignite insurgency which had lost the sting.

“Insurgents may have carried out the attack to impose caution on the Assam Rifles as this unit (46 Assam Rifles) was extremely successful in busting drug-trafficking networks in the area. These insurgent groups are involved in illegal narcotics trade,” said Lieutenant General Shokin Chauhan (retd), who headed the Assam Rifles in 2017-18 as per the Hindustan Times.

“These insurgent outfits do not normally target women and children… The latest attack is an attempt by insurgents to establish their relevance at a time when violent incidents have reduced significantly in Manipur. A nudge by China cannot be ruled out,” said Lieutenant General Konsam Himalay Singh, a native of Manipur.

The security vacuum in Myanmar after the military coup on February 01 particularly in Sagaing region adjoining Manipur could be one factor that the insurgents have got a fillip through space and motivation to launch the attack.

China Factor

There is much speculation of a Chinese involvement in instigating the groups in Manipur to launch the attack. In the past there have been reports of China providing arms and munitions to the groups in the North East, though Beijing has officially denied such a link.

Indo Asian News Agency (IANS) in a report carried by multiple media channels in 2018 has indicated large number of weapons recovered by agencies in the North East which can be traced back to Chinese sources.

IANS Report claims that 423 illegal weapons, including AK-47s, M-16s and Chinese pistols, have been recovered. “Prominent insurgent groups, especially those from Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram, maintain regular contact with Chinese intelligence agencies and have benefited from Chinese largesse and weapons,” the agencies alerted the government as per the Report.

Linking this to large cache of 500 assault rifles, 30 Universal Machine Guns, 70,000 ammunition rounds and grenades that were offloaded on the Myanmar Bangladesh junction at Monakhali, from there the consignment was transhipped from the Parva corridor in South Mizoram to be supplied to the Arakan Army fighting the Myanmar Army in the Rakhine and Chin States.

The Report coincides with concerns of China creating a leverage through supply of weapo**ns training and bases to groups in the North East in Yunnan.

The China factor in the recent attack would have to be investigated.

What Next?

There is a possibility of Indian Special Forces launching a cross border attack in Myanmar to take out the camps of the PLA and MNPF, thus demonstrating the government’s strategy of an eye for an eye.

This pattern has been followed in the past in the North East as well as J & K.

What actions will be taken beyond to end insurgency in Manipur remains to be seen? For if this is a one off incident as that in 2015, it may be back to security normalcy of routine surveillance and patrolling.

Irreconcilable nature of demands by the Meitei groups means that negotiations may face the cul de sac as with the NSCN IM with an accord held up due to the groups demand for a distinct flag and constitution.