Manipur militancy contained but far from resolved, poses huge hurdle to India's ASEAN ambitions

Given the complexities of the situation in Manipur, there is no easy solution to the insurgency in the state.

Vinay Kaura November 16, 2018 07:32:41 IST
Manipur militancy contained but far from resolved, poses huge hurdle to India's ASEAN ambitions

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has extended the ban on eight Meitei extremist organisations active in Manipur for five more years for their continued involvement in violent activities.

Manipur militancy contained but far from resolved poses huge hurdle to Indias ASEAN ambitions

File image of Manipur Police. Reuters

As per the MHA notification, the organisations banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act are, Peoples’ Liberation Army also known as PLA and its political wing, Revolutionary Peoples’ Front (RPF), United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and its armed wing Manipur Peoples’ Army (MPA), Peoples’ Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) and its armed wing, ‘Red Army’, Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) and its armed wing, also called ‘Red Army’, Kanglei Yaol Kanba Lup (KYKL), the Coordination Committee (CorCom) and Alliance for Socialist Unity Kangleipak (ASUK).

These eight Meitei organisations were involved in 756 violent incidents in the past five years from 1 January, 2013, to 31 July, 2018, during which they killed 86 people, including 35 security forces personnel. The notification issued by the MHA said that these groups had openly declared their objective as the formation of an independent Manipur by secession from India, employing armed means to achieve their aims while making contacts with foreign sources to influence the public opinion.

While immigration — legal as well as illegal — is at the root of most of the conflicts in the North East region, the transformation of these conflicts into insurgencies coincides with a radical reinterpretation of the respective histories of each tribe in which the Indian State is often projected by the insurgents as an ‘external’ agency.

Complexities of geography and demography have further heightened the problem of insurgency. Manipur has an area of 22,000 square km, of which 1,843 km area is covered in the valley situated at the centre, while the rest are hills surrounding the valley. Nearly 60 percent of the population reside the valley area, while the rest are spread in the sparsely populated hills. Ethnically speaking, there are three major ethnic groups -- Meiteis, Nagas, and Kukis. Two-third of those living in the valley belongs to the Meitei ethnicity. The hills are inhabited mainly by different Naga and Kuki tribes. And they are closer to the peoples of northern Myanmar than they are to those of mainland India.

Violent Meitei insurgencies had emerged in Imphal and the surrounding valley areas by the late 1970s which continued to remain hot till the beginning of the present century. Aggressive paramilitary campaigns backed by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act proved fairly successful in countering insurgency. However, it has also raised voices against the use of force by security agencies. But the security forces maintain that the AFSPA is a “prerequisite” and “necessity” in countering insurgency.

Like many other insurgencies in the North East, Manipur’s extremist groups’ penchant for criminality has seriously weakened their legitimacy in recent years amongst large segments of the population. But the insurgencies’ persistence owes to many factors – the culture of fear insurgents have been able to spread over the years, connivance of corrupt elements of some state institutions, shelter given by the neighbouring countries, ethnic rivalries and internecine squabbles. It would be hard to dispute the fact that political-administrative structure in the North East is quite susceptible to abuse by extremist and militant organisations which have been able to mobilise support, build networks and make recruitment by operating through front, cover and sympathetic organisations.

It is true that the intensity of insurgency has been contained to a great extent in Manipur. Through intelligence-based operations, the security forces have ensured that insurgent camps in Manipur are eliminated and their activities contained. But, the militants continue to take advantage of the hilly terrain and porous border with neighbouring Myanmar to conduct terror attacks. After retaliatory strikes by the Indian Army in 2015, militants moved their camps across the border in Myanmar. Though Myanmar has been cooperative, there are certain limitations in joint cooperation between the two armies.

Another grave threat posed by the militant groups is the disruption of the peace process, which is reflected by the regular recovery of sophisticated weapons and apprehension of their cadres. In a recent interaction with the journalists earlier this month, a senior army official ruled out an early solution to the insurgency problem in Manipur due to the multiplicity of militant groups and their different sets of demands.

Since Independence, what attention the North East has received from the Indian government has mostly come in the field of security. The region’s insurgencies, and their links with neighbouring countries — Bangladesh, Myanmar, and China — shaped a policy framework that prioritised counter-insurgency and border security. During the last one decade or so, New Delhi seems to have placed greater emphasis on infrastructure development and regional connectivity. However, due to the very weak connectivity between northeastern India and Myanmar, the vision of a well-connected India-ASEAN remains incomplete.

Manipur’s border post at Moreh handles most of the formal and informal overland trade between India and Myanmar. Since the Modi government’s ‘Act East’ policy accords great importance to Manipur – which is set to emerge as a key centre with the Asian Highway linking India to the ASEAN – it is important to ensure security along this highway. Moreover, a 16-km Free Movement Regime between Manipur and Myanmar border, allowing free movements of local residents, adds to the responsibility of security forces.

The Naga problem also has direct ramifications on the security situation in Manipur. As recently pointed out by Indian Army Chief, Bipin Rawat, “The resolution of Naga insurgency can be a forerunner to the Manipur insurgency situation. There are some linkages between the two. But, if that resolution does not satisfy Manipuris then the insurgency in that state will take a different turn.” He was referring to the intricacies involved in the demand for a “Greater Nagaland”, which will have to be addressed in the final Naga agreement currently under negotiation.

In 2015, the Central government signed a framework agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) to end the Naga insurgency after it agreed to give up the demand for sovereignty. The demand for “Greater Nagaland” includes all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas including several districts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.

In February this year, the government’s Naga interlocutor RN Ravi had assured that “Naga peace agreement is yet to be finalised and it will not compromise the territorial integrity of any state.” However, the government informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee in July that some special arrangement would be made for the Nagas.

The 213th report on the security situation in the northeastern states tabled by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs in the Rajya Sabha had mentioned: “On being asked what the special arrangement will be, the committee was told that with respect to Nagaland... Article 371A of the Constitution makes it clear that they are special and a special status has been accorded to them. A similar kind of status, with some local variation, and some change to the Nagas in the neighbouring States can be explored.”

According to the report, Ravi informed the committee that the Nagas had now reached a common understanding with the government that “boundaries of the states will not be touched” and “some special arrangements would be made for the Nagas, wherever they are.” This has understandably added to the apprehensions in Manipur, giving an opportunity to the militant groups to spread their violent propaganda. A unity rally was organised on 31 October in Imphal for the territorial integrity of Manipur, while Naga groups held a blockade in the hills on the same day in opposition.

Given the complexities of the situation in Manipur, there is no easy solution to the insurgency in the state. But an early resolution to the Naga issue will certainly remove a major roadblock in this direction, and shape the behaviour of various players of Manipur’s political economy by minimizing the deadly impact of ‘neglect syndrome’. Needless to emphasise that a stable and prosperous Manipur will make ‘Acting East’ a reality.

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