Manipur: Bringing back an insurgency

During the early phases of the outbreak of ethnic violence, a significant number of weapons and large quantities of ammunition were looted from various Police Stations and Army depots in Manipur.

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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)

On September 16, 2023, an Indian Army soldier, Sepoy Serto Thangthang Kom, was abducted and killed by unidentified assailants at Khuningthek Village in Imphal East District.

On September 13, 2023, a Sub-Inspector of the Manipur Police, Onkhomang Haokip, was shot dead by a sniper at Chingphei Village in Churachandpur District.

On September 12, 2023, three civilians belonging to the Kuki-Zo community – Satneo Tuboi, Ngamminlun Lhouvum and Ngamminlun Kipgen – were killed by armed assailants in the Kanggui area of Kangpokpi District, Manipur.  An unnamed security official disclosed that the attack appeared to have been orchestrated by “trained people”, since it likely involved crossing the buffer zone which security forces have been maintaining between Meitei-dominated and Kuki-dominated areas.

According to partial data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since the beginning of the current year, Manipur has recorded a total of 124 insurgency-linked fatalities (data till September 24, 2023), the highest recorded in a year since 2010, at 138. The 2023 fatalities included 55 civilians, 14 Security Force (SF) personnel, 54 terrorists, and one in the ‘Not Specified’ category. During the corresponding period of 2022, insurgency-inked fatalities stood at seven (five civilians, one trooper and one insurgent). There was no further fatality in 2022. The 2022 tally was the lowest recorded in the state since 2019, with nine, and 2020, with seven fatalities. There were 27 fatalities in 2021.

The security situation in Manipur has been showing sustained improvement over the last several years, with occasional intervening spikes. Overall fatalities remained in the three digits for 19 consecutive years, between 1992 to 2010, with a high of 496 in 2008. In the next eight years, between 2011 and 2018, with the exception of 2012 when there were 113 fatalities, the tally remained in the double digits. Between 2019 and 2022, again with an exception in 2021, fatalities had fallen into the single digits.        

The sudden surge in fatalities is linked to the outbreak and persistence of ethnic clashes between the Kuki and Meitei communities in the state since May 3, 2023, in Churachandpur District, which spread rapidly across the state and continues till date. Prior to the outbreak of the clashes, between January 1 and May 2, 2023, Manipur had recorded four insurgency-linked fatalities (one civilian and three insurgents). On the other hand, between May 3, 2023 and September 22, 2023, 120 fatalities (54 civilians, 14 troopers and 51 insurgents, one Not Specified) have been recorded. Among these, 87 fatalities (41 civilians, 38 insurgents and eight SF personnel) were recorded in the Valley Districts while 33 fatalities (13 civilians, 13 insurgents, six SF personnel, one ‘Not Specified’) were recorded in the Hill Districts.

Four insurgent groups – the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), National Revolutionary Front Manipur (NRFM), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and the Kuki Independent Army (KIA) – were active before the ethnic violence started in May. While two militants of the UNLF were found dead at Vangli village in Churachandpur District on January 4, 2023; a student was killed at Motbung Model village in Kangpokpi District on March 25, 2023, by NRFM. Two militants were arrested during this period: a KYKL militant from Waikong village in Kakching District on March 31, 2023; and a KIA militant from the Mata Lambulane area in Churachandpur District on May 1, 2023.

The insurgent groups which have remained active or reactivated after the violence started on May 3 included: 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). All these groups had been active in the state at one stage or the other, at the peak of the insurgency. 

Meanwhile, the Coordination Committee (CorCom), a conglomerate of six Valley-based militant outfits, and all its constituents – the KCP, KYKL, PREPAK, PREPAK-Pro, Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF, the political wing of the People’s Liberation Army- PLA) and UNLF – have remained outside the negotiation process. Though the constituents of the conglomerate have remained violently active, the last incident of killing linked to the conglomerate was reported on May 22, 2016, when at least six personnel of the 29 Assam Rifles, including one Junior Commissioned Officer, were killed and seven other personnel were injured, in an ambush at Hengshi village near Joupi under Tengnoupal Police Station in Chandel District. CorCom claimed responsibility for the ambush. CorCom, meanwhile, has continued to make calls for shutdowns and boycotts. Most recently, the conglomerate called for a boycott of India’s Independence Day Celebration (August 15, 2023) in Manipur.

Meanwhile, on September 14, 2023, I. K. Muivah, Inspector General of Manipur Police (IGP, Armed Police/Operations), disclosed that a total of 175 persons, including women and children, had been killed in ethnic violence in the state between May 3 and September 14, 2023, while 1,108 persons, including women and children, sustained injuries in the violence, and 32 persons were on the missing list. No further details were provided, so it is not possible to assess that how many of these casualties were linked to ethnic clashes, and how many to insurgent violence. 

During the early phases of the outbreak of ethnic violence, a significant number of weapons and large quantities of ammunition were looted from various Police Stations and Army depots in Manipur. On September 14, 2023, IGP (Administration) K. Jayanta stated that 5,668 arms, 6,64,002 rounds of ammunition, and 14,825 explosive devices, had been looted from Police armouries in the course of the violence. Of these, SFs had recovered just 1,329 weapons, 15,050 rounds of ammunition, and 400 explosive devices, till September 13. Earlier, on August 6, 2023, the Manipur Police stated that a total of 623 arms had been looted in the Hill Districts by Kuki militants, out of which 138 had been recovered by August 5, 2023. The Police disclosed, further, that as many as 4,324 arms were looted in the Valley Districts, of which 1,072 had been recovered by August 5.

The ethnic clashes are still persisting. Also, an overwhelming proportion of looted weaponry has not yet been recovered, despite repeated appeals by the people at the helm. Most recently, on September 22, Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh’s office issued an appeal to the people to cooperate with the Centre and the state government to restore peace and normalcy, and to surrender “illegal weapons” in their possession, adding that the government was “willing to take a considerate view of the persons submitting such illegal weapons within 15 days.” At the end of this period, central and state SFs would undertake “strong and comprehensive search operations” across the state to recover such weapons, and all persons found possessing illegal arms would be dealt with ‘severely’, as per the law.

Worryingly the statement also revealed,

There have been reports of extortions, threats and abductions by miscreants using these illegal weapons. This is a serious matter and the state government will take strong action against such groups in any part of the state.

Indeed, the ongoing ethnic clashes have created an environment of complete turmoil in the state. Large areas of the state are still under curfew more than four and a half months since the violence began, and Internet services also remain suspended. On September 23, however, the Chief Minister announced that the Internet services will be restored from that date (September 23).

Such an uncertain environment, fraught with violence as well as ethnic and communal polarization, has helped insurgents make a comeback.

The Governments – Union as well as State – have been found wanting in their approach to the current situation and appear to be interested in sustaining the politics of polarisation. While additional Central Forces have been deployed, there is little political effort to bring the situation on the ground under control and restore normalcy. Indeed, there has been a sustained campaign of ethnic/communal incitement by prominent political leaders and ‘social organisations’, with the Chief Minister himself on record for making a number of misleading and provocative statements.

On August 1, 2023, Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, during a hearing in cases related to the violence in Manipur, lamented,

…There has been a delay in filing FIRs, no arrests. For the past two months, has the situation not been conducive for even recording the statements of the victims…? The state police is incapable of investigation. They have lost control. There is absolutely no law and order… There has been an absolute breakdown of constitutional machinery in Manipur for the past two months…

The state which was on a path to complete normalcy, has now been forced into instability and is confronted by deeply troubling uncertainties, all because of the abject failure – indeed, mischief – of the political class. The SFs, given their capabilities, may restore a measure of imposed order in the state, but a sustainable peace has now become a distant dream. The resolution of the state’s complex ethnic problems, in particular, the issues of a tribal status to the Meiteis and lopsided land rights between the Valley and the Hills, have now become even more intractable.

Afsara Shaheen

Afsara Shaheen is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, India

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