The Battle Within: A Detailed Study of Manipur’s Turmoil

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister is quiet on Manipur turmoil and many feel he is insensitive to many important issues like justice to women wrestlers or Manipur burning while the Home Minister went to state too late and did too little to douse off the situation.

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A woman gestures as she argues with an Indian army member in the village of Gamgiphai, Manipur state, India, August 31, 2011. (Manpreet Romana/The New York Times)

28 May 2023 could have been a unique day but for 21 opposition parties  boycotting the inauguration ceremony of the new Parliament House, amidst massive violence broken out in Manipur killing 40 Kuki militants by the security forces (SFs) and detaining of world renowned Indian women wrestlers by the Delhi police over sexual harassment including a minor, allegedly by Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, sixth time serving powerful heavy weight feudal BJP MP and the President of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), with past records of 38 criminal cases between 1974 and 2007 on numerous charges of theft, dacoity, murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping and intimidation, but acquitted in most of the cases as per his election affidavit.

Sadly, the same evening in the national capital, the horrific murder caught on the CCTV showed the accused, Sahil, stabbing and kicking the 16-year-old minor victim girl several times before proceeding to bludgeon the girl with a cement block. The footage also showed several insensitive pedestrians walking by without intervening. All these events of 28 May 2023 depict and sum-up the masses psyche, communal divide, political turmoil, insensitivity and intolerance of the nation much away from the highly publicized ‘Ache Din’ as threats to our internal and external security.

Northeast Briefly

I have had two tenures of 4 years each in the North East- the first one in Mizoram when the insurgency was at peak and my Battalion marched on foot from Agartala (Tripura) to Aijwal (Mizoram) around mid-1966. My second tenure was much later in Nagaland from Jun 1986 to Jun 1990 in the Assam Rifles. In my last tenure before superannuation in Punjab, then under the spell of insurgency, as the senior military intelligence officer, I had sufficient involvement with police and administration in taming the Pakistani sponsored Khalsitani militancy.

Insurgency in the Northeastern India involves multiple armed separatist factions operating in some states in the region connected to the rest of India by the Siliguri- Corridor also referred as ‘Chicken Neck’ – a strip of land as narrow as 14.29 miles (23.00 km) connecting Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sikkim, Darjeeling, and the Northeast India to one another and is of great geo-strategic significance for our national security. The strategic Northeastern region consists of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, often referred as the ‘Seven Northeastern Sisters’ and populated by various mongoloid tribes converted to Christianity in 19th Century. Manipur and Tripura were two princely states, and with the accession of both to India after independence in 1949 they became union territories and later full-fledged states of the union. Often Sikkim, very close to ‘Chicken Neck’, is clubbed as part of the Northeastern region for national security, economy, development and geography but it is not part of the Seven Northeastern Sister States.

Reasons For Neglect of the North East 

Very briefly at macro-level these are due to- ‘Historical Legacy’ as the region never got desired focus due to remoteness, poor communications, British policy of giving autonomy to tribal regions in the northeast , mass migration of labour, non-tribal plainsmen, Bengalis and Bangladeshis and animosity against demographic onslaught. Under the complex ‘Human Issues’ it is a well-known fact that all the tribes living in the region were never homogenous collectively and many live in overlap in neighbouring states  and Myanmar too. The three major ethnic groups-Meiteis, Nagas, and Kukis are more closer to the peoples of northern Myanmar than to the mainland India, and the accession of  Manipur into India occurred under heavy pressure from the Indian government. These issues were aggravated by economic alienation, as the partition of the country in the east severed Manipur from most natural trade links to the outside world from the coast of erstwhile East Pakistan but now as Bangladesh. Each tribe has its own dialect, culture and area of influence and interference from other tribes in not warranted. The majority of Meiteis are Vaishnites Hindus while some are Christians in Manipur with large population of Kukis and Nagas with sprinkling of Muslims and other communities like Sikhs, Tamils and Marwaris who have contributed immensely for the state’s development. Also, living in the valley are Pangals, the Bengali migrants so named, who married the local inhabitants and fair sprinkling of Muslims. Mostly, people speak Manipuri, and both Manipuri and English are the official languages of the state. Manipur’s population is largely rural, Imphal, the state capital being the only city of any size.  There have been historical inter and intra tribal animosities resulting in conflicting interests during any negotiations. Tribal students studying in mainland are mocked and ill-treated and sadly women students wrongly thought of easy virtues. This needs to be stopped forthwith.  Last but not the least reason of the unrest is the ‘Economic Neglect’ and under development of the region due to remoteness, lack of infrastructure in the form of poor road, rail, air and tele-communication network, rugged terrain and inclement weather conditions. Enormous amounts of money released by the Centre is pocketed by the politicians, contractors and bureaucrats bungling back rolling insurgency, drugs, arms ammunition and explosives smuggling. Due to some of these issues, violent Meitei insurgencies had emerged in Imphal and the surrounding valley areas by the late 1970s.  

Strategic Importance of Manipur 

Manipur as the gateway to South East Asia can play a key role as an economic hub considering India’s ‘Look East Policy’.  My daughter in 2012 was Chairperson of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Car Rally from Singapore to Guwahati, organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry/ Government of India (CII/GOI) in collaboration of Mahindra that entered India at Moreh in Manipur. She drove in entire Rally that was welcomed at Guwahati by no less than the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and huge north eastern crowd in Guwahati Stadium. 

Manipur has great potential for investment from South East Asian countries.

Manipur and the Northeast are known for all the wrong reasons and that insurgency once considered considerably coming down with hill insurgent groups has violently escalated in Manipur. Indo-Myanmar agreement helped  little bit to crack down regional insurgencies, and the route-mapping exercise for the long-awaited Imphal-Mandalay bus service, and progress on the India-Myanmar-Thailand and Trilateral Highway and Kaladan-Multimodal Transit Project got delayed and construction cost escalated due to rugged terrain, Covid, insurgency environment in Manipur and the military rule in the neighbouring Myanmar.

Improving road communication and peace in the region will enhance trade with Myanmar will improve as Manipur now connected with mainland India via two major highways. The National Highway 102 (NH-102) is the extension of Asian Highway -1 (AH-1) that traverses northwards into central Assam while the NH-37 runs westwards into southern Assam. These two highways are very essential not just for overland trade to Myanmar and provide overland connectivity with the ASEAN with development of Asian Highway but also for provide rice, petrol, cement, and other basic commodities which the state imports from other parts of India and movement of troops for the security of the region . 

Manipur has a great scope for development of tourism, cottage industry, sports and education and positive outlook and peace are the best means for the growth in Manipur and India and exploring the potentiality of Manipur.

Peace, progress and prosperity in Manipur helps India’s ‘Look East Policy’ (LEP) – or, as Modi’s administration has renamed it, the ‘Act East Policy’ helping in destabilizing Chinese influence in the region.

Lastly, the Japanese invaded Kohima via Manipur in WW II in Burma now renamed Myanmar. Hence, strategically Manipur is vital for the security of the Northeast and India.

Why Manipur is on the Edge?

Manipur is located south of Nagaland with its eastern boundary contagious with Myanmar and prior to independence, it enjoyed higher degree of autonomy under Manipur Maharaja. It has diverse ethnic population of which nearly 60% are Meiteis (Vaishnavite Hindus) and rest Christians who occupy the Manipur valley which is 1/3rd of the state. Meitei women conduct most of the trade in the valley and community enjoys high political, social, educational, medical and economic status with fairly developed road and air communication and developing rail link. Rest of the 2/3rd state is rugged poorly developed mountainous terrain inhabited by the Nagas in the north and Kukis in the southern mountain region of Mizoram, Manipur, Chin Hills in Myanmar and Chittagong Hills Tracts now part of Bangladesh, with numerous sub clans who are deprived of all such amenities, leading to disparities in living standards, political representation and human rights violations. Kukis are descendants f the Zo/Zomi based large well spread Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups having stronger tribal affinities than the Nagas and ethnic conflict between both groups is severely based on mistrust and suspicion from the British Raj days. Unlike Nagas and Mizos, just after World War 1(WW1), they had refused to serve as labour force in France towards the war effort instigated by the Bengali elements from Cachar and Sylhet and Kuki rebellion was controlled by ad-hoc Assam Rifles Brigade led by the DIG Col LW Shakespeare.

The state like rest of the Northeast and our country suffers from conflicting Interests. While basically the Nagas want greater Nagaland, Kukis more autonomy, Meiteis want Manipur as single entity. Pangals and Kukis have their vested interests. Meiteis, are also irritated as entire logistics support to Manipur comes through road network from Nagaland that could be choked by the Nagas causing greater hardships. Construction of Jiribam-Imphal 111 km long railway line project costing ₹ 13,809 crore, will connect Imphal, the capital of Manipur with the rest of India by a rail link that will be extended to Moreh on the India- Myanmar border as part of the ambitious Trans Asian Railway. Jiribam is located on Manipur’s western most boundary, adjoining the Cachar district of Assam. The project is almost complete and platform is being constructed on war footing in Imphal to speed up logistic movement of essential commodities to strife stormed state.

There is urgent need to improve road connectivity in Manipur State and  Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari recently laid foundation stones for 13 highway projects, with construction value worth ₹3,000 crore, to improve connectivity in Manipur. Imphal, the capital has an airport with flight connectivity with rest of the country. Thus, Meiteis following the Naga insurgent groups started demanding independence with factions of the Nagas, Kukis and Pangals joining the fray.

The problem gets complex as the state and people are divided in so many diverse small ethnic groups; too many are not even on socializing or talking terms and unable to get elected due to smaller population to win assembly seat(s) and matter gets complicated by predominance of money, guns and muscle power where militants cook the roost. In the last state elections one James Khuma came to lime light. He refused any party affiliation and fought election as independent candidate attacking corruption, ethnic kinship support of militants on moral and Christian ethics. Though he lost election, his campaign against corruption, ethnic domination, money and muscle power has positively affected the youth desperately yearning for change in the existing ethnic based ailing and corrupt political system to transform people towards power of real democracy. Corruption, smuggling of narcotics, arms and ammunition through Indo-Myanmar fast developing border trade, transit, Kuki dominated town Moreh with population around 20,000, sold cheaply in Cambodia, Thailand and by numerous  Northeast and Myanmar insurgent groups are lucrative business activities and human rights violation issues often crop up Manipur with heightened insurgency environment. Sizeable portion of economy of the region depends on above illegal trade and transit activities which also includes teak smuggling from Myanmar. The state is famous for producing world class sportsmen/women making India proud world over though not much infrastructure is available.

In the last state elections in Feb-Mar 2022, the Home Minister (HM) Shah promised to resolve once forever the Kuki- Meitei issue if BJP came to power and persuaded Kukis to support the BJP and signed ‘Suspension of Operations’ (SoO) agreement and 10 Kuki MLAs got elected on BJP tickets. The agreement with BJP led politicians favouring Hindutva was seen as pro- Meiteis’ anti-Christian move for political gains by the Christian Kukis and Nagas. Kukis who initially demanded separate Kuki state but now seek autonomous Kuki area with financial and legal powers. The BJP led state government on 10 Mar 2023 decided to withdraw SoO agreement suspecting Kuki National Army (KNA) and Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA) were behind the present agitation among forest encroachers.

Acting Chief Justice of Manipur High Court Justice Murlidharan had directed the Manipur Government on 27 Mar 2023 to include the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list. Both Kukis and Nagas oppose granting the ST status to Meiteis as they fear Meiteis are already better represented in jobs and government and have better economic status than the tribals that led to eruption of massive violence killing, looting and burning opponents houses and villages between the state’s ethnic Kuki tribals and non-tribal Meitei community in early May 2023. Both Kukis and Nagas argue that with the ST status Meiteis will corner more jobs and benefits than they should. Manipur’s Meitei Chief Minister (CM) Biren Singh has urged people to maintain law and order; not cause hindrances for movement of security forces (SFs) essential relief materials, rations, medicines fuel for vehicles and cooking and return back massive arms and ammunition looted from police stations, posts and personnel at the earliest or else if caught would face severe legal action.

The loyalties of police and administration are sympathetic to communities/tribes and political affiliations they belong, thus complexing the maintenance of law and order.  Though officially it has been stated 98 people and 5 police personnel including a Manipur Police officer were killed in the violence since 3 May 2023, unofficially deaths are very high while many were wounded and are missing and thousands of houses, vehicles and other properties of Kuki and Meiteis including those of the MLAs vandalized. One report says 247 churches and many temples have been destroyed by the militants and 3500 houses burnt and over 35000 people displaced are living in various temporary relief camps fearing to return back to their destroyed and vandalized homes.

Over 4000 arms including 7.62 Self Loading Rifles (SLRs), AK 47, INSAS, hand grenades and huge quantities of ammunition were looted by mobs from the armouries of Manipur Rifles and India Reserve Battalion (IRB) on 28 May 2023 while over 40 Kuki militants killed by police. Disarming two Meitei groups- Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Lepun under the patronage of the CM and the titular Maharaja who is BJP Rajya Sabha MP too is of utmost importance as they are suspected to be involved in Meitei- Kuki clashes ahead of Home Minister Shah’s visit and were involved in gun fights with Assam Rifles units. With state government’s patronage of Meitei militants, peace in the state will be a pipe dream. Over 70 bodies remain unclaimed in hospital mortuaries in Imphal and Churachandpur. Meanwhile, the state government and it’s predominantly Meitei officials have stated that illegal immigrants from Myanmar have been settling in Manipur since the 1970s. Tribal groups have said that illegal immigration is a pretext under which the Meitei population wants to drive the tribal population from their lands. However, the Supreme Court (SC) on 17 May made a critical remark against the Manipur High Court for its judgment to include Meiteis in the ST list as the community is non-tribal.

There are scores of other reasons like the state government’s clampdown on reserved and protected forests in the hill areas, the state structure, and friction between ethnic groups and Kukis’ feeling of being persecuted, alienated and neglected with poor health, education, employment opportunities and road networking creating fear-psychosis.  By conservative estimates, the state and poor people suffered losses over Rs10000 crores financially in the recent violence and state has gone two decades back as far development index is concerned.

Home Minister (HM) Shah’s Visit to Manipur

While the Army Chief, the Eastern Army Commander and formation commanders are deeply involved in restoring peace as the state administration and police have miserably failed to maintain peace and law and order situation. The HM Shah visited  state for 4 days  to review the situation and bring normalcy deliberating  in series of meetings with the army commanders, CM, representatives of both Meiteis and Kuki communities, administration, prominent citizens, sports personalities and the former Maharaja Leishemba Sanajaoba, the titular king of Manipur and the BJP Rajya Sabha member from the state as highlighted below:-

  • Judicial panel led by the retired Guwahati High Court Chief Justice Ajai Lamba assisted by retired IAS officer Himanshu Shekhar Das and IPS officer Prabhakar Aloka  has been ordered to probe Manipur violence submit its report not later than 6 months from its first sitting and an interim report could be submitted earlier too.
  • Launching of massive combing operations and strict actions against insurgents found carrying weapons and violation of cease fire.
  • Peace Committee under the Governor will be formed with politicians, Kuki and Meiteis representatives, civil society, local industrialists and sportsperson.
  • CBI to investigate six cases to identify the root cause of violence,
  • Appointment of Rajiv Singh as the new DG Police,
  • Establishment of Inter-Agency Unified Command to synergise cooperation among Army, Assam Rifles and central police organisations (CPOs), intelligence gathering and patrolling international border (IB) and violence sensitive areas.
  • Assurance of uninterrupted supply of essential items like rice, LPG, fuel, vegetables and medicines.
  • Provision of temporary chopper service at Rs 2000 a person to Churachandpur, Moreh and Kangpokpi cut off due to violence.
  • Monetary and other assistance in rehabilitation of displaced people.

Unfortunately, the PM is quiet on Manipur turmoil and many feel he is insensitive to many important issues like justice to women wrestlers or Manipur burning while the HM went to state too late and did too little to douse off the situation. Mobs are targeting BJP politicians’ houses, offices and properties and killing and destruction getting escalated day by day and police and administration has become ineffective by unfairly siding the communities they belong.

On appeal of CM to return looted weapons and ammunition, as per TV news on 2 June 140 weapons which included 7.62mm SLRs, AK 47s and INSAS rifles  were returned. While temporary compulsive peace may return due to severe but fair counter- insurgency operations launched by the SFs, long term peace and tranquility can only return once genuine problems of both Kukis and Meiteis are resolved quickly and amicably through dialogue, firm and fair handling of the situation, good governance, confidence building measures, winning of hearts and minds of the population and amalgamation of the entire region with main stream as Indians; all leading to the genuine dawn of the ‘Acche Din’. Sporadic incidents of violence, torching of houses, killings and injuring of some people were reported by the TV and print media at some places.

Suggested Immediate Actions to Restore Situation

  • Impose President Rule and let army help normalizing situation.
  • Assam Rifles known as ‘ Friends of the hill people’ be judiciously employed, avoiding deployment of Kuki- Meitei units.
  • Creation of Autonomous Kukiland like autonomous Bodoland.
  • Stop enforcing Hindutva especially on Christian dominated Kukis, Nagas, Mizos and other tribal minorities living in the hill region.
  • Meiteis are well off- rich, well represented in administration, government and businesses. They don’t need inclusion in ST list.
  • Provide roads, medical & educational facilities in inhospitable hilly terrain where Kukis live.
  • Effective border management and control on cross- border opium, drugs, arms and ammunition smuggling by the Kukis.
  • Ensure 4000 arms (sufficient to equip two brigades) & ammunition taken over by both groups are surrendered to security forces.
  • Confidence and trust deficit in various communities needs to be restored fast and fairly to bring out normalcy.
  • Cease unemployment and ensure local cottage, fruit preservation, agriculture and tourism developed to generate self-employment.
  • No forced Hindutva on Christian Kukis, Mizos, Nagas & non- Christian Meiteis or other tribal groups.

Armed Forces Special Power ACT (AFSPA) and Human Rights

Last but not the least, the human rights activists and political parties for vote banks often harshly speak to repeal the Armed Forces Special Power ACT (AFSPA) from J&K and all the Northeastern states. While the human rights activists oppose AFPSA, often exaggerating the SFs excesses, they need to convince the insurgents to shun violence and join the main stream. On return of peace in the disturbed area, the AFPSA may be completely withdrawn as was done in Mizoram (1980), Tripura (2015) and Meghalaya (2018). If the area is NOT disturbed and is peaceful, the police and the CPOs should tackle the insurgency as law and order problem and the Army and the Assam Rifles withdrawn. And what about the human rights of soldiers often killed and lynched by the insurgents and violent mobs? Ironically, while the Assam Rifles is often accused of the human rights violations in the Northeast, its team lifted the running trophy as the best team of the NHRC Debate Completion for the CPOs a few years back!

Col NN Bhatia

Col NN Bhatia is an Infantry veteran who commanded 2 Kumaon. After retiring from the Indian Army, he served in the Intelligence Bureau, specialising in industrial security.

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