Manipur Unrest: A Complex Threat
The cycle of violence seems unending in Manipur, no matter how many Para Military and Army companies are pushed into the troubled state. Article 355 is already in place, giving the central government complete control of state law and order. This move is one step short of enforcing Article 356 on the state, which means a President’s rule. That is unlikely to happen as Manipur is BJP ruled state.
Manipur has a history of insurgency and violence. The first known insurgent group is from the Meitei group, the UNLF (United National Liberation Front), founded in 1964, which wanted independence from India.
The central government and the state government are at a loss of thought on actions to be taken to reverse the violent trend. Is making another state for the Kuki-Zomis and Nagas in the Hills of Manipur an answer, or will such a move further impinge upon national security? This article examines the issues that besiege Manipur and, consequently, the Indian Union.
Origins of the Problem
Manipur is a border state of India in the northeast and shares a long border with Myanmar in its east. Refer to the map given above. By now, it is common knowledge that the recent problem in Manipur is about coexistence between the majority group and minority tribes. The majority population group, the Meitei, comprises Hindus residing in the Imphal valley. Surrounding the valley are the hills of Manipur, occupied by hill tribes consisting of the Nagas and the Kuki-Zomis. These hill tribes have different ethnicity from Meitei and are practising Christianity.
The Kuki-Zomi and Naga tribes have the status of Scheduled Tribes, thus giving them certain privileges, such as land, culture and reservations in government jobs and educational institutions. The Meiteis are not part of the Schedule Tribe list. The demographic distribution of Manipur as per the 2011 census is Hindus: 41.39 %, Christians: 41.29%, Muslims: 8.4%, Sanamahi 7.8% (a sun god worshipping sect) and others:1%. The Meiteis have been the ruling class and have enjoyed power in Imphal. They also occupy a chunk of the government jobs in the state.
Manipur has a history of insurgency and violence. The first known insurgent group is from the Meitei group, the UNLF (United National Liberation Front), founded in 1964, which wanted independence from India. Then came the PREPAK (People Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak) andthe PLA (People’s Liberation Army). All wanted independence from India. There was internal strife amongst the Meitei groups as also inter-tribal rivalry.
Despite Manipur getting statehood in 1972, violence in Manipur did not abate. The increase in violence led to the declaration of Manipur as a disturbed area from 1980 to 2004. Consequently, Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was put in place.
As peace returned after 2012, the state governments became more popular. The Centre, too, started giving more attention to the North East in continuation to its ‘Look East’ policy.
Over a period of time, due to the improved situation in the state, the provisions of the Disturbed Area Act have been removed from districts which have shown the absence of violence. As on 01 Apr 2022, the disturbed area tag was removed from 15 Police Stations’ jurisdiction, and AFSPA from 19 Police stations in Manipur, thus, making most of Manipur free of special provisions imposed by the central government.
As peace returned after 2012, the state governments became more popular. The Centre, too, started giving more attention to the North East in continuation to its ‘Look East’ policy. Violence gave way to a more peaceful way of showing dissent and discontent. More and more insurgent groups came over the ground. Stray violent incidents sometimes marred the peace, but the graph showed a gradual downward trend.
Deep seated rivalry amongst the ethnic groups of Manipur is coming to the fore. Furthermore, forces inimical to the state are taking advantage. The BJP government is in the majority, yet rules with the support of seven Hill District elected MLAs who belong to the NPP (National People’s Party). Since the BJP is projected as the Hindu party, the hill districts oppose them. They proclaim that they have lost trust in the ruling party to protect minority interests. They are demanding a separate state/ administered region for the hill tribes. BJP’s emergence in the state is a late phenomenon.
Before 2017 Manipur was governed by Indian National Congress (INC). Congress too was facing similar problems. BJP came to power in Manipur on a developmental agenda and on promises to end the 2016 economic blockade by Naga United Council (NUC). They had hoped to placate the Nagas and the Kukis both.
The present chief minister, a Meitei himself, who beat the anti-incumbency vote in 2022, has been unable to deliver on his promises. It is a failure of his administrative policies. E.g., The Manipur government issued an order for the eviction of people from the forests who do not have legal holdings of the land. The eviction order met with massive opposition from the hill districts asking the government to refrain from imposing it.
During an anti-encroachment rally by the All Tribal Students Union Manipur, violence broke out in the southern town of Churachandpur, spiralling out of control.
To add fuel the fire, the High Court in Imphal asked the Manipur government to take up with the central government a case for granting the status of ‘Schedule Tribe’ for the Meiteis. The clashes in Manipur resulted from these issues for which the state government was responsible. During an anti-encroachment rally by the All Tribal Students Union Manipur, violence broke out in the southern town of Churachandpur, spiralling out of control.
Since the disturbances in Manipur, the Chief Minister has been shuttling up and down to Delhi to seek the central government’s help, he has called for an all-party meeting which has met with partial success. What needs to be debated is: whether it was a failure of administrative capability or a failure of his intent. Because if it is the latter, Manipur, it will once again slip back into trouble state status.
Violence will become the ultimate outcome unless all sides decide to find a solution. There is no right or wrong once distrust engulfs the two opposing parties. Neither side is willing to give up their point of view. The Meitei feel that since there is no restriction on buying land in the Valley, the influx of Nagas and Kuki-Zomis would engulf them. Hence, they demand the Schedule Tribe status, as is given to the hill tribes, for themselves. The Nagas and Kukis opine that Meiteis are in the majority and enjoy power in Imphal; why do they need reservations? Inimical elements colour it with religious identity and fill social media and other means with negative propaganda.
Security in the Northeast cannot be looked at in isolation from any particular state. The history of the North East from the Indian independence is full of strife and insurgent movements. There is an insurgency in all seven states of the northeast. The reasons can be traced to the British, who gave these states the status of ‘Excluded Areas’, giving them a belief that they were not inclusive of the Indian identity.
When the British left India, these areas expected to get autonomous status, if not complete independence. Nothing like that happened, and they were all made inclusive of the Indian Union. This inclusion caused heartburn in many politicians and activists in these states. They demanded independence, and when it was not forthcoming, they resorted to violence to secure their political aims. Consequent to the British legacy, insurgent groups in all seven states asked for either independence or autonomy. The oldest amongst them are the Naga insurgent groups. Mr Phizo formed the NNC (Naga National Council) in 1946, even before Indian independence.
Consequent to the British legacy, insurgent groups in all seven states asked for either independence or autonomy. The oldest amongst them are the Naga insurgent groups.
At one time, 70 big and small rebel groups were active across the seven sister states. Out of the seven states, three states: Meghalaya, Assam, and Tripura border Bangladesh, and three border Myanmar while one, Mizoram has borders with both Bangladesh and Myanmar. Today a mere 15 are involved in insurgent activities. Understanding the role of the two neighbouring countries named above is essential. When 15 out of the 70-odd groups were banned by the government of India, declaring them unlawful or terrorist organisations, their cadres took shelter in bases in either Myanmar or Bangladesh or both. Noteworthy was the ability of the insurgent groups operating in these states to align with each other against a common enemy: the Indian state and the Indian security forces. This alignment resulted in sharing each other’s bases, providing information and the ability to operate in each other’s areas, thus making quick getaways after strikes.
While the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) could operate from Arunachal Pradesh to bases in Bangladesh, NSCN- Issac Muivah and Khaplang (National Socialist Council for Nagaland -IM &K) operated seamlessly from North Sagaing district in Myanmar through the border across Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura into Bangladesh. They strongly connected with the PLA (People Liberation Army) and the UNLF (United National Liberation Front), both Manipur-based groups. For the sake of brevity of the article, the bases and the insurgent groups operating from Bangladesh will not be discussed any further. Because the ULFA is no more a force, and its leaders are in Jail. So is the case with insurgent groups in Meghalaya and Tripura. Mozoram was the first to renounce insurgency.
By 2017 it was declared by the Border Security Forces of both nations; there was no more presence of Indian insurgent groups inside Bangladesh. This victory is due to India’s excellent relations with the Bangladesh government under Sheikh Hasina Wazed in the last ten years.
The security concerns for all states bordering Myanmar remain a cause for worry, despite India’s attempt to improve ties with Myanmar. Since 2010 India has improved its ties with Myanmar, the military government or the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. These efforts led to cooperation between the two militaries, and pressure from both sides resulted in the insurgent groups either dissipating or going deeper inside Myanmar. One of the examples of the joint operation was ‘Operation Sunrise’ in 2015. It was reflected in reducing violent incidence in border states from 2012 onwards. (Refer to Table 1 at the end of the article) This decline was attributed to better cooperation between the two militaries of India and Myanmar.
The open border with Myanmar (16 Km of the border between the two countries was open and allowed free access to the population on either side. This limit now stands annulled due to the problems in Myanmar) has contributed to the ethnic strife in all the border states in India which border Myanmar.
It is alleged that the influx of refugees has changed the demographic structure in the hill districts in India, especially after the military coup in Myanmar in 2021.
The problems persisted as persecution of minorities in Myanmar brought an influx of refugees into India. The reverse was also true of migration from India during times of strife. The civil population, caught between the crossfire of the security forces and the insurgent groups, found shelter in safe camps across the borders. It is alleged that the influx of refugees has changed the demographic structure in the hill districts in India, especially after the military coup in Myanmar in 2021. Since then, many refugees have been alleged to have crossed the border into India and Bangladesh. Most of them have found shelter in the hill districts. This migration has caused the current strife in Manipur.
The Meitei allege that the new refugees, under pressure from the Kuki-Zomis and Nagas of the hill district, are encroaching on their land in the valley and the forests. The land, therefore, has become the prime reason for the dispute. They also allege that on the encroached land thrives crops of poppy which are used to make drugs.
However, the recent military coup in February 2021 in Myanmar has resulted in a setback. Border management has suffered as civil war rages inside Myanmar. Many new Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO’s) have surfaced to fight the Myanmar military junta (Tatmadaw). These are now called People’s Defence Forces (PDF’s). The Tatmadaw is stretched and fatigued leaving little space to fight the insurgency on their border or destroy camps existing on Myanmar’s soil near the Indian border.
Couple this with the fact that there is a common ethnic bond between the Kuki-Zomi and Naga tribes in Myanmar and those in India; any retaliation against these ethnic tribes in Myanmar sends hordes of refugees into the Indian hill states of Nagaland and Manipur. When insurgency was at its zenith, most Manipur-based groups had their bases close to the Manipur border inside Myanmar in South Saigaing districts primarily because connectivity and infrastructure at the Manipur border were better than in other places. If the current violence in Manipur has escalated, an outside hand cannot be ruled out. This could have come from the old cadres of the Manipuri insurgents’ groups in Myanmar, seeking action in Manipur to up the ante.
Since the violence also has an ethnic angle, the chances that some of these elements belong to the Kuki-Zomi or Naga insurgent groups cannot be ruled out. Time and again, as peace returns to the strife-torn state, a new violent incident comes to light, and the perpetrators are unknown entities.
With insurgency ebbing in the region, their first priority would be regrouping and preparing for a long battle with the Indian state.
There are equal numbers of Meitei-dominated rebel groups (PLA, UNLF, PREPAK (P)) as there are Kuki-Zomi and Naga groups (KUKI-ZOMI National Front, Manipur Naga Revolutionary Front (MNRF)) rebel groups in Manipur. Earlier, they had shared an amicable equation with each other and the NSCN (IM & K) groups. It is hard to guess their current orientation towards the latest violence in Manipur.
There would be no reason to believe that the insurgent groups would start an ethnic war in Manipur now. With insurgency ebbing in the region, their first priority would be regrouping and preparing for a long battle with the Indian state.