A BLEEDING SHOULDER – INDIA’S NORTHEAST

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The Kashmir insurgency having taken centre-stage for many years now, the insurgencies of the Northeast no more occupy significant spaces of newsworthiness. Nevertheless, they aren’t dead as yet, lingering on preventing the region from going full steam on the road to development. This is an attempt to trace the histories of these insurgencies until 5 years ago when this study was undertaken. Nothing has changed drastically since then, with the insurgencies still existing or claiming to exist, with the formal burials yet to take place. Even the one notable development of the Government of India entering into a peace accord with NSCN (IM), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muviah) in 2015, is yet to draw any dividends because the exact terms of the accord are yet to be made public and implemented. This is the second episode of a 9-blog serial on the various ethnic insurgencies of the North-East.

2 Manipur – The Subjects of a Lost Kingdom

While ethnic identity is at the core of the Naga insurgency, the Manipur one is wound around historical grievances. Manipur – the name meaning ‘the land of gem’ – prides of its history as an independent kingdom since First Century AD. Its sovereignty first came under threat with the colonial expansionism of the British in early 19th Century when in 1826, at the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War, the British leased out the Kabaw Valley that formed an integral part of Manipur to Burma, with the king of Manipur unable to do much about it. The Manipuris however held onto their sovereignty until 1891 when after a brief war Britain annexed their kingdom. They still revere the Battle of Khanjam fought on April 23, 1891; their last great stand against the invaders. The British hanged the Manipuri diehards, Tickendrajit Juvraj and Thangal General, along with their lieutenants, in the heart of Imphal on August 13, 1891; a day still commemorated every year as ‘Patriots’ Day’.

Manipur was not conferred the status of a ‘Princely State’ as were many such kingdoms by the British, and was integrated fully with the British India. Consequently on the eve of the Indian independence Manipuris found their hopes dashed of reviving their age-old independent kingdom after the British left, as the whole of British India were now to form the two nations of India and Pakistan. Only the princely states had been offered the privilege of joining either nation or of remaining independent (In the event the entire lot of princely states were ultimately integrated to the Indian Union). Meanwhile the reigning king, Maharaja Bodhi Singh, had been facing an anti-feudal agitation led by the Manipur Mahasabha for a while. The agitation forced the Maharaja to set up a committee in 1947 which adopted a constitution in July that year, merely a month ahead of the handing over of power in Delhi by the British.

On August 15, 1947 when India became independent, Manipur declared itself an independent country that enjoyed universal adult franchise under a constitutional monarchy. However in little over two years’ period it was made a part of the Indian Union. Under the larger process of integrating the Indian States Manipur was virtually annexed by India on October 15, 1949. For whatever reasons the Union Government also failed to grant separate statehood to Manipur – keeping it a Union Territory – till 1972; that too only when forced by a prolonged and violent agitation. The ‘forced merger’ with the Union coupled with the unwarranted delay in granting statehood presented the ideal recipe for the kind of popular resentment that breeds insurgency.

Though the formation of the pioneering rebel group, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), in November 1964 heralded the insurgency in Manipur, it was only during the 1970s when a plethora of similar outfits entered the fray, that the movement picked up pace. In tandem with these outfits fighting for Manipuri independence (mostly belonging to Meities, the majority tribe that inhabits the valley), there are umpteen others too operating within the state with abandon. They belong to various other ethnic groups from its tribal population, which mostly inhabit the hills. With the Nagas forming a major chunk among these, the NSCN-IM finds it a home-ground. Besides the feud with its traditional rival, the NSCN-K, it is constantly engaged in clashes with Kukis – the third largest ethnic group after Meities and Nagas – who has not taken kindly to the outfit’s oppressive ways. Following Naga-Kuki clashes in the 1990s, various Kuki outfits have emerged eager and fighting; and so have various other tribal outfits like those of the Paite, Vaiphei and Hmars, and even some Muslim ones to safeguard the interests of the ‘Pangals’, the Manipuri Muslims.

Manipur today is one of the most chronically insurgency-struck states of the Northeast. By 2005 the state was estimated to have over 12,000 militants with an arsenal of nearly 9000 weapons operating within its territory. Seven valley-based Manipuri outfits sworn to Manipur’s independence, including the UNLF, have come together to form a group called CorCom, which has been in the forefront of attacks on security forces. They however have an avowed policy of not targeting the state police as far as possible. The strategy is to single out the army and paramilitary for their attacks, to make it appear an anti-India struggle, while they win popular support by sparing the local police. The Manipuri insurgents also stand out for their diehard attitude in that they seldom surrender, which also reflects a higher standard of discipline. With an efficient intelligence network and modern armoury, they had even managed to carve out several ‘liberated zones’ in the past. The security forces however have the upper hand, at least for now, having dislodged the militants from their strongholds by 2007 end.

At the moment there are some 30 insurgent outfits active in Manipur, fighting each other or fighting the security forces. Extortions, however, are their favourite activity. Abductions, kidnappings and terrorist acts are commonplace. Such rampant lawlessness is taking a terrible toll, hampering the development projects. No institution – be it a school or a hospital or a place of worship, leave alone the commercial establishments – is spared from the excesses of the insurgents, as they carry on with their extortions with impunity. The depravity of the militants has sunk to its ugliest depth with them kidnapping children to be trained and inducted into their ranks. Compounding the state’s woes are the Naga insurgents whose writ run on the two road links Manipur has with the rest of India, NH-39 and NH-53. These insurgents from Nagaland and hill districts of Manipur run frequent ‘tax’ collection points all along these highways where the motorists are made to pay at gunpoint.

Manipur was declared a ‘disturbed area’ in 1980 and the AFSPA duly imposed, which remains in force till now. Perceived as a draconian law, it has drawn the ire of the people at large and has been the cause of perpetual civil unrest all along. Incidents of the nature of ‘Malom Massacre’ of 2000 and the custodial death of the woman, Thangjam Manorama, in 2004, which led to the infamous ‘mothers’ nude protest’, have put the security forces time and again on the back foot.

Manipur has been a crucible of violence for quite a while now, characterized by killings, counter-killings and mindless acts of terrorism. The latest spark was ignited by the proposed visit of the NSCN-IM leader Muivah in 2010 to visit his native village in Manipur. The Government of Manipur, fearing civil disturbance – because of his outfit’s demand for the merger of Manipuri areas to Nagaland, resented by the Meities and supported by the Manipuri Nagas – denied him permission for the visit. While the local Nagas took to the streets to protest the government order (some even stormed the security post at the entry point to Manipur resulting in police firing and deaths), their brethren within Nagaland went on to blockade NH-39. The blockade, which lasted for more than two months, forced the Manipur government to airlift the essential commodities. The situation was eventually resolved by the central government’s intervention – Muivah was persuaded by New Delhi to call off his visit – and the blockade lifted.

Excepting for a Suspension of Operations (SoS) agreement – in effect a ceasefire – between the centre and state governments and the Kuki leadership in 2008, no peace agreement has so far been arrived at by the government with any of the Manipuri insurgent groups. With almost all these groups – UNLF, PLA (The People’s Liberation Army), PREPAK (The People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak), KCP (The Kangleipak Communist Party) and KYKL (The Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup) to name the most prominent ones – stubbornly resisting any kind of negotiations, the government is left with no option but to press on with its counter-insurgency operations. A unified command structure established in 2004 is doing a fairly competent job. There has indeed been a marked decline in insurgency-related fatalities since 2008.
[If you ask a commoner on the streets of Imphal today, he will tell you that Manipur is presently ruled by three governments: One that of the State Government with its civil laws, a second one of the armed forces with the AFSPA, and a third one of the insurgents with their diktats. A strategy the government employed to woo one outfit with privileges – like impunity for carrying arms – to inform on another further muddled the situation (It is not clear the present Biren Singh government is following this strategy; but the previous Idobi Singh one did). No wonder it’s such a free-for-all. That Manipur has been able to produce world class sports persons like Mary Kom and artists of international acclaim like Ratan Thiyam – of the Chorus Repertory fame – amidst this turmoil speaks volumes about the courage and resilience of the people who live there. They deserve the highest accolades the country can offer; not terror and bloodshed.

Bollywood starlet Priyanka Chopra’s biopic on Mary Kom, Manipur’s Olympic boxer; went largely unwatched by Manipuris because the insurgents had ‘banned’ the screening of Hindi films since 2000 after one of their leaders was allegedly beaten to death by the security forces.

For all its tribulations Manipur has been fortunate to have some highly committed civil society and women’s organizations which are rendering yeoman service to usher in peace and harmony. The Meira Paibis – Women Torchbearers – have been crusading against human right violations and illegal detentions on the one hand, while on the other combating social evils like drug abuse and alcoholism that are devouring the vitals of the Manipuri society. Demonstrations for peace and protection of human rights by the Nupi (women’s) movement are a regular feature of the state; so are the human rights workshops for women, a series of which are being conducted since 1997 by the Manipur Chanura Leishem Marup (MACHA LEIMA). Other groups like the United Committee of Manipur (UCM) have been constantly focusing on civil liberties and violation of rights. Most of them are staunch opponents of the AFSPA; more intensely so after the controversial death of Thangjam Manorama in 2004.

The Manipur government has also been going all out to contain the insurgency in the state even by offering monetary incentives for the militants to lay down arms. The latest package (as of 2013) included a 5-lakh rupees’ fixed deposit and a monthly stipend of Rs.5,000 for every militant who surrenders. Meanwhile the statistics of the insurgency-related fatalities during the new millennium (2001-2013) present a gruesome picture; 3093 killed – 1909 militants, 330 security personnel and 854 civilians.

[Surprisingly the monetary incentives have not brought about the surrender of the cadres in any sizeable number. And even if they do – cash-strapped freebooters they are – they are likely to pick up the money and revert to their ways. Instead the government would do well to assert itself and establish the rule of law so that they are brought to book. It has a moral responsibility to wean these desperate young men and women away from the destructive path they have chosen. Most of them are drug addicts and afflicted by AIDS. (Manipur and Nagaland have the highest recorded prevalence of AIDS in the country.) Their rehabilitation and resettlement in the society poses a bigger challenge than apprehending them.]

[To be continued. Next: Assam – A Demographic Nightmare]

Capt. D P Ramachandran
Capt D P Ramachandran is a war veteran & military history enthusiast who writes about Indian Army’s battles of the past.
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