M.P. Nathanael | After 1-yr unrest, Manipur in need of a healing touch

The eerie silence that pervaded the area around Nayanseina village near the Churachandpur-Bishnupur border in Manipur stood shattered a little past midnight on April 27, 2024, when a bomb exploded in the India Reserve Battalion camp harbouring a company of CRPF’s 128 Battalion. Four CRPF personnel were seriously injured, two of whom succumbed to the injuries later. Though Kuki militants were suspected to be the culprits, the security adviser, Kuldeip Singh, a former director-general of the CRPF, wisely chose to refrain from naming any group.

The northeastern state has been roiled by clashes between the Imphal Valley-based Meitei community and the Kuki-Zo tribes, who inhabit the hills largely towards Churachandpur and Kongpokpi for the past one year. After a brief lull for a month, the violence returned when extremists from the two communities exchanged fire in the Tengnoupal-Kakching area on April 12. Two men were injured. While the Kuki-Zo tribals are Christians, the Meiteis are largely Vaishvanite Hindus, with a fair sprinkling of Christians and Muslims among them.

Two Kukis guarding their village were killed and their bodies brutally mutilated in Kamu Saichang village on Imphal East-Kangpokpi border on April 13 by the “Arambai Tenggol”, a radical outfit that claims to protect the interests of Meiteis with a call to return to their erstwhile religion Sanamahi. The video of brutal killing and dragging of the two slain Kukis went viral, leading to tensions between the two communities.

The withdrawal of 50 companies of the BSF and CRPF from Manipur for deployment in West Bengal added to the consternation of both communities. They blocked the roads to prevent the departure of the Central forces, which speaks volumes for the confidence they repose in these forces. Despite the Assam Rifles playing a significant role in containing the violence, there was a clamour among the Meiteis for the withdrawal of this oldest paramilitary force in the country. According to the Reporter’s Collective, a report prepared by the Assam Rifles blames Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh’s “political authoritarianism for the conflict”, though the authorities deny having prepared the report.

With over 5,600 weapons looted from police armouries along with about 6,50,000 rounds of ammunition, of which just about 1,500 weapons and 20,000 rounds have been recovered, the fear looms large that these weapons are being used to attack the Kukis. The arms looted include sophisticated weapons like AK assault rifles, light machine-guns and explosives.

If the weapons are in the possession of militant outfits like the People’s Liberation Army, People’s Republic of Kangleipak, United National Liberation Front (now surrendered without weapons) and Arambai Tenggol -- though not declared a militant outfit -- the return of normalcy cannot be expected. Despite appeals to deposit the looted weapons, the response has been poor. Of late, weapon drop boxes have been placed at vantage points with the message that the looted weapons be dropped in these boxes. The response needs to be monitored.

As the Arambai Tenggol enjoys the patronage of the erstwhile maharaja and parliamentarian Leishemba Sanajaoba, and even the incumbent CM, this outfit, with a strength of over 50,000, calls the shots. No one dares to disobey its diktats. On January 24 this year, 37 MLAs and two MPs were directed to take an oath to convey their demands to the Centre. Among its demands are the abrogation of the “Suspension of Operation”, better known as SoO Agreement, with the Kuki-Zo, border fencing along the Indo-Myanmar border, the Assam Rifles’ withdrawal from Manipur, the relocation of Myanmar refugees from Manipur to Mizoram and the removal of illegal migrants from the Scheduled Tribes list.

The SoO, that was signed in 2008 by the Kuki National Organisation and United People’s Front combine, a conglomeration of 24 surrendered Kuki outfits, the Centre and the Manipur government, which was extended on a yearly basis till February 29, 2024 has not been extended further. The state withdrew from the agreement in March last year and failed to send its representative to the meeting convened to extend the agreement this year. The agreement is now in a limbo.

The death toll since the ethnic conflict began on May 3, 2023 has risen to 230, with over 65,000 displaced people languishing in 320 relief camps. Over 1,100 people from both communities have sustained serious injuries in the unabated violence that continues to rock the state.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “because of the timely intervention of the Government of India and efforts made by the Government of Manipur, there has been a marked improvement in the situation in the state”, much more still needs to be done. Any claim of normalcy having been restored would fall flat until the Meiteis can freely move to the hills, and the Kuki-Zo tribals confidently venture into the Imphal Valley without fearing any attack by Meiteis.

The denizens of Churachandpur have had to face inconceivable misery since the mayhem of May 3 last year. The district hospital is handicapped for want of an adequate number of specialists and para-medical staff as all Meiteis have chosen to stay safe in Imphal.

Those requiring specialised treatment have to visit Aizawl in Mizoram by the meandering road through the hills, covering a stretch of over 400 km via Thanlon and Parbung. Air travellers must go to Aizawl or Silchar to board a flight, though the nearest airport at Imphal is just 60 km away. The state needs to step in to mitigate the people’s misery by deputing specialists and other staff from Central institutions like the AIIMS.

While the Kuki-Zo have been demanding a separate administration for the Kuki-Zo dominated areas, the Meiteis oppose this. The Union home ministry needs to step in to restore peace in the state by inviting the Kuki MLAs and the representatives of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum, the All-Tribal Students Union Manipur, Kuki Inpi and the Meitei leaders for peace talks, and extracting a promise to abjure violence. The Naga tribal leaders and their MLAs, who surprisingly have remained aloof so far, need to be roped in as intercessors.

The restoration of peace will remain a far cry until the rank and file of the Arambai Tenggol and Manipur Leepun, the two radical outfits, are reined in. That most of the weapons looted last year from state police armouries are still in the hands of the miscreants poses a serious threat. A massive drive to retrieve these weapons through specific and accurate intelligence needs to be carried out.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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