Conflict and ethnic strife plague India’s strategically located northeastern state of Manipur

Both Kukis and Nagas oppose granting the ST status to Meiteis as they fear Meiteis are already better represented in jobs and government and have better economic status than the tribals, led to the eruption of massive violence, killing, looting and burning opponents of houses and villages between the state's ethnic Kuki tribals and non-tribal Meitei community in early May 2023.

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Col NN Bhatia (Retd)
Col NN Bhatia (Retd)
Col NN Bhatia (Retd), besides being a combat military veteran is perhaps the only freelance consultant in Industrial Security. He has audited large numbers of core strategic industries in both private and public sectors such as Aeronautics, Airports, Banks, Defence, DRDOs, Mints, Nuclear Energy, Oil, Power, Ports, Prasar Bharti (AIR & Doordarshan Kendras) Railways, Refineries, Space, Ship Building, Telecom & various vital Research Centres & Laboratories and conducted numerous Industrial Security & Disaster Management Training Programs, Seminars, Workshops & Exhibitions & interacted with numerous Ministries, Departments & NGOs and undertaken Industrial Security Audits, Reviews, Training & Advice in Disaster Management & handling of IEDs & Explosives. He has vast experience in the management of the Human Resources, Training & Development, Liaison, Fire Fighting, Logistics, Equipment & Material Management, Strategic Decision-Making Process, clearance of Maps & Aerial Photography (GIS), Explosives handling, Industrial Security & Disaster Management. He is physically, mentally and attitudinally sound having good communication skills to undertake Industrial Security Consultancy, IED handling, Coordination & Liaison Assignments to add to the productivity of the Organisation. He can also organise discreet customised intelligence gathering & surveillance operations on a turnkey basis for his clients. He is a prolific writer written numerous articles on industrial security, national and geostrategic security issues and 5 books- KUMAONI Nostalgia, Industrial and Infrastructure Security in 2 volumes, Soldier Mountaineer (biography of international mountaineer Col Narender Kumar 'Bull' and Reminiscing Battle of Rezang La. *Views are personal.

Multiple armed separatist factions operate in some northeastern states in the region connected to India by the Siliguri-Corridor, also known as ‘Chicken Neck’ – a narrow strip of land connecting Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sikkim, Darjeeling, and Northeast India, which is of great geostrategic importance to our national security. The strategic Northeastern region consists of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, often referred to as the ‘Seven Northeastern Sisters’ and populated by various mongoloid tribes converted to Christianity in the 19th Century. Manipur and Tripura were two princely states, and with the accession of both to India after independence in 1949, they became union territories and, later, full-fledged states of the union. Regarding national security, economic development, and geography, Sikkim is frequently grouped with the Northeastern region, but it is not one of the Seven Northeastern Sister States. 

Reasons For Neglect of the North East  

Very briefly, at the macro-level, these are due to ‘Historical Legacy’ as the region never got desired focus due to remoteness, poor communications, the British policy of giving autonomy to tribal areas in the Northeast, mass migration of labour, non-tribal plainsmen, Bengalis and Bangladeshis and animosity against the demographic onslaught. Under the complex ‘Human Issues’, it is a well-known fact that all the tribes in the region were never homogenous collectively, and many live in overlap in neighbouring states and Myanmar too. The three major ethnic groups-Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis, are closer to the peoples of northern Myanmar than to mainland India, and the accession of Manipur into India occurred under heavy pressure from the Indian government. These issues were aggravated by economic alienation, as the country’s partition in the east severed Manipur from most natural trade links to the outside world from the coast of erstwhile East Pakistan but now as Bangladesh. Each tribe has its language, culture, and sphere of influence; therefore, intertribal interference is unwarranted. In Manipur, most Meiteis are Vaishnites Hindus, while some are Christians. There is also a sizable population of Kukis, Nagas, Muslims, Sikhs, Tamils, and Marwaris who have made significant contributions to the state’s development. Also residing in the valley are Pangals, so-called Bengali immigrants who married locals and many Muslims. Mostly, people speak Manipuri, and both Manipuri and English are the state’s official languages. Manipur’s population is mainly rural, with Imphal, the state capital, being the only city of any size. Historical inter and intra-tribal animosities have resulted in conflicting interests during negotiations. Tribal students studying on the mainland are mocked and ill-treated, and sadly, women students are wrongly thought of easy virtues. This needs to be stopped forthwith.

Last but not least reason for the unrest is the ‘Economic Neglect’ and underdevelopment of the region due to remoteness, lack of infrastructure in the form of poor road, rail, air and telecommunication networks, rugged terrain and inclement weather conditions. Enormous amounts of money released by the Centre are pocketed by the politicians, contractors and bureaucrats bungling back rolling insurgency, drugs, arms ammunition and explosives smuggling. Due to some of these issues, violent Meitei insurgencies had emerged in Imphal and the surrounding valley areas by the late 1970s.   

North East India
North East India. Image: Wikimedia

Strategic Importance of Manipur  

  • As the gateway to South East Asia, Manipur can play a key role as an economic hub considering India’s ‘Look East Policy’. 
  • Manipur has great potential for investment from South East Asian countries. 
  • Manipur and the Northeast are known for all the wrong reasons, and insurgency, once considered considerably coming down with hill insurgent groups, has violently escalated in Manipur. The Indo-Myanmar agreement helped a little bit to crack down on regional insurgencies. The route-mapping exercise for the long-awaited Imphal-Mandalay bus service and progress on the India-Myanmar-Thailand and Trilateral Highway and Kaladan-Multimodal Transit Project got delayed. Construction costs escalated due to rugged terrain, Covid, the insurgency environment in Manipur and the military rule in neighbouring Myanmar.
  • Improving road communication and peace in the region will enhance trade with Myanmar will improve as Manipur is now connected with mainland India via two major highways. The National Highway 102 (NH-102) extends Asian Highway -1 (AH-1) that traverses northwards into central Assam, while the NH-37 runs westwards into southern Assam. These two highways are essential not just for overland trade to Myanmar and provide overland connectivity with the ASEAN with the development of the Asian Highway but also for delivering rice, petrol, cement, and other essential commodities which the state imports from different parts of India and movement of troops for the security of the region.  
  • Manipur has a great scope for the development of tourism, cottage industry, sports and education, and a positive outlook and peace are the best means for the growth in Manipur and India and exploring the potentiality of Manipur. 
  • Peace, progress and prosperity in Manipur help India’s ‘Look East Policy’ (LEP) – or, as Modi’s administration has renamed it, the ‘Act East Policy’ helping in destabilising Chinese influence in the region. 
  • Lastly, the Japanese invaded Kohima via Manipur in WW II in Burma, now renamed Myanmar. Hence, strategically Manipur is vital for the security of the Northeast and India.

Why is Manipur in Turmoil?

Manipur is located south of Nagaland, with its eastern boundary contagious with Myanmar, and before independence, it enjoyed a higher degree of autonomy under Manipur Maharaja. It has a diverse ethnic population, of which nearly 60% are Meiteis (Vaishnavite Hindus), and the rest are Christians who occupy the Manipur valley, which is 1/3rd of the state. Meitei women conduct the majority of commerce in the valley, and the community enjoys a high political, social, educational, medical, and economic status, along with fairly developed road and air communication and developing rail links. The rest of the 2/3rd state is rugged, poorly developed mountainous terrain inhabited by the Nagas in the north and Kukis in the southern mountain region of Mizoram, Manipur, Chin Hills in Myanmar and Chittagong Hills Tracts now part of Bangladesh, with numerous sub-clans who are deprived of all such amenities, leading to disparities in living standards, political representation and human rights violations. Kukis are descendants f the Zo/Zomi-based large well, spread Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups having stronger tribal affinities than the Nagas, and ethnic conflict between both groups is severely based on mistrust and suspicion from the British Raj days. Unlike Nagas and Mizos, just after World War 1 (WW1), they had refused to serve as a labour force in France towards the war effort instigated by the Bengali elements from Cachar and Sylhet and the Kuki rebellion was controlled by ad-hoc Assam Rifles Brigade led by the DIG Col LW Shakespeare. 

Competing interests plague the state, the rest of the Northeast, and our nation. The Nagas want a larger Nagaland, the Kukis want greater autonomy, and the Meiteis want a unified Manipur. Pangals and Kukis are motivated by self-interest. Meiteis are also irritated because all of Manipur’s logistical support comes from Nagaland via a road network that could be blocked by the Nagas, causing even more hardships. As part of the Trans Asian Railway, the ambitious Jiribam-Imphal railway line project will connect Imphal, the capital of Manipur, to the rest of India via a rail connection extended to the India-Myanmar border at Moreh. Jiribam is situated on Manipur’s westernmost frontier, adjacent to the Cachar district of Assam. The project is nearing completion, and the platform is being built on a war footing in Imphal to expedite the logistical transportation of essential goods to the conflict-torn state.

There is an immediate need to enhance road connectivity in the state of Manipur. Nitin Gadkari, the Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways, has recently laid the foundation for 13 highway projects with a construction value of 3,000 crores to enhance connectivity in Manipur. Imphal, the capital, has an airport with flight connectivity with the rest of the country. Thus, Meiteis, following the Naga insurgent groups, started demanding independence, with factions of the Nagas, Kukis and Pangals joining the fray.

The problem becomes more complicated as the state and people are divided into so many diverse small ethnic groups; too many are not even on socialising or talking terms and are unable to get elected due to a smaller population to win assembly seat(s), and the dominance of money, guns, and muscle power where militants rule the roost further complicates the situation. In the most recent state election, one James Khuma rose to prominence. He refused any party affiliation and fought the election as an independent candidate attacking corruption and ethnic kinship support of militants on moral and Christian ethics. Even though he lost the election, his anti-corruption, anti-ethnic dominance, anti-money, and anti-muscle power campaign had a positive impact on the youth yearning urgently for change in the existing ethnically-based, ailing, and corrupt political system, thereby transforming people towards the power of genuine democracy. Corruption, smuggling of narcotics, arms, and ammunition through Indo-Myanmar’s rapidly developing border trade, transit, Kuki-dominated town Moreh, with a population of approximately 20,000, sold cheaply in Cambodia, Thailand, and by numerous Northeast and Myanmar insurgent groups, are lucrative business activities. Human rights violation issues frequently arise in Manipur’s heightened insurgency atmosphere. A substantial portion of the regional economy depends on the illicit trade and transit activities described above, including the smuggling of teak from Myanmar. The state is renowned for producing world-class athletes, making India happy around the globe despite its limited infrastructure.

In the last state elections in Feb-Mar 2022, the Home Minister (HM) Shah promised to resolve once forever the Kuki- Meitei issue if the BJP came to power and persuaded Kukis to support the BJP and sign the ‘Suspension of Operations’ (SoO) agreement and 10 Kuki MLAs got elected on BJP tickets. The agreement with BJP-led politicians favouring Hindutva was seen as pro- Meiteis’ anti-Christian move for political gains by the Christian Kukis and Nagas. Kukis initially demanded a separate Kuki state but now sought an autonomous Kuki area with financial and legal powers. The BJP-led state government on 10 Mar 2023 decided to withdraw the SoO agreement suspecting Kuki National Army (KNA) and Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA) were behind the current agitation among forest encroachers.

Acting Chief Justice of Manipur High Court Justice Murlidharan had directed the Manipur Government on 27 Mar 2023 to include the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list. Both Kukis and Nagas oppose granting the ST status to Meiteis as they fear Meiteis are already better represented in jobs and government and have better economic status than the tribals, led to the eruption of massive violence, killing, looting and burning opponents of houses and villages between the state’s ethnic Kuki tribals and non-tribal Meitei community in early May 2023. Kukis and Nagas argue that with the ST status, Meiteis will corner more jobs and benefits than they should. Manipur’s Meitei Chief Minister (CM) Biren Singh has urged people to maintain law and order, not cause hindrances to the movement of security forces (SFs) essential relief materials, rations, medicines, fuel for vehicles and cooking and return massive arms and ammunition looted from police stations, posts and personnel at the earliest or else if caught would face severe legal action. The loyalties of police and administration are sympathetic to communities/tribes and political affiliations they belong, thus complexing the maintenance of law and order. Though officially it has been stated 98 people and five police personnel, including a Manipur Police officer, were killed in the violence since 3 May 2023, unofficially, deaths are very high while many were wounded and are missing and thousands of houses, vehicles and other properties of Kuki and Meiteis including those of the MLAs vandalised. One report says the militants and 3500 houses burnt have destroyed 247 churches and many temples, and over 35000 displaced people live in various temporary relief camps, fearing returning to their destroyed and vandalised homes. Over 4000 arms, including 7.62 Self Loading Rifles (SLRs), AK 47, INSAS, hand grenades and huge quantities of ammunition, were looted by mobs from the armouries of Manipur Rifles and India Reserve Battalion (IRB) on 28 May 2023, while over 40 Kuki militants killed by police. Disarming two Meitei groups- Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Lepun under the patronage of the CM and the titular Maharaja, who is BJP Rajya Sabha MP too, is of utmost importance as they are suspected to be involved in Meitei- Kuki clashes ahead of Home Minister Shah’s visit and is involved in gun fights with Assam Rifles units. With the state government’s patronage of Meitei militants, peace in the state will be a pipe dream. Over 70 bodies remain unclaimed in hospital mortuaries in Imphal and Churachandpur. 

Meanwhile, the state government and its predominantly Meitei officials have stated that illegal immigrants from Myanmar have been settling in Manipur since the 1970s. Tribal groups have said that illegal immigration is a pretext under which the Meitei population wants to drive the tribal people from their lands. However, the Supreme Court (SC) on 17 May made a critical remark against the Manipur High Court for its judgment to include Meiteis in the ST list as the community is non-tribal. There are scores of other reasons like the state government’s clampdown on reserved and protected forests in the hill areas, the state structure, friction between ethnic groups and Kukis’ feeling of being persecuted, alienated and neglected with poor health, education, employment opportunities and road networking creating fear-psychosis. By conservative estimates, the state and poor people suffered losses of over Rs10000 crores financially in the recent violence, and the state has gone two decades back as far as the development index is concerned.

Home Minister (HM) Shah’s Visit to Manipur

While the Army Chief, the Eastern Army Commander and formation commanders are deeply involved in restoring peace, the state administration and police have miserably failed to maintain peace and law and order. The HM Shah visited the state for four days to review the situation and bring normalcy, deliberating in a series of meetings with the army commanders, CM, representatives of both Meiteis and Kuki communities, administration, prominent citizens, sports personalities and the former Maharaja Leishemba Sanajaoba, the titular king of Manipur and the BJP Rajya Sabha member from the state as highlighted below:- 

  • A judicial panel led by the retired Guwahati High Court Chief Justice Ajai Lamba, assisted by retired IAS officer Himanshu Shekhar Das and IPS officer Prabhakar Aloka has been ordered to probe Manipur violence submit its report not later than six months from its first sitting, and an interim report could be submitted earlier too. Launching of massive combing operations and strict actions against insurgents found carrying weapons and violating the ceasefire.
  • Peace Committee under the Governor will be formed with politicians, Kuki and Meitei’s representatives, civil society, local industrialists and sportspersons.
  • CBI to investigate six cases to identify the root cause of violence,
  • Appointment of Rajiv Singh as the new DG of Police,
  • Establishment of Inter-Agency Unified Command to synergise cooperation among Army, Assam Rifles and central police organisations (CPOs), intelligence gathering and patrolling international border (IB) and violence-sensitive areas.
  • Assurance of uninterrupted supply of essential items like rice, LPG, fuel, vegetables and medicines. 
  • Provision of temporary chopper service @ Rs 2000 a person to Churachandpur, Moreh and Kangpokpi cut off due to violence. 
  • Monetary and other assistance in the rehabilitation of displaced people.

On appeal of CM to return looted weapons and ammunition, as per TV news on 2 June, 140 weapons, including 7.62mm SLRs, AK 47s and INSAS rifles, were returned. While temporary compulsive peace may return due to severe but fair counter-insurgency operations launched by the SFs, long-term peace and tranquillity can only return once genuine problems of both Kukis and Meiteis are resolved quickly and amicably through dialogue, firm and fair handling of the situation, good governance, confidence building measures, winning of hearts and minds of the population and amalgamation of the entire region with the mainstream as Indians; all leading to the genuine dawn of the ‘Acche Din’. Sporadic incidents of violence, torching of houses, killings and injuring of some people were reported by the TV and print media in some places.

Armed Forces Special Power ACT (AFSPA) and Human Rights

Last but not least, the human rights activists and political parties for vote banks often harshly speak to repeal the Armed Forces Special Power ACT (AFSPA) from J&K and all the Northeastern states. While the human rights activists oppose AFPSA, often exaggerating the SF’s excesses, they must convince the insurgents to shun violence and join the mainstream. In return for peace in the disturbed area, the AFPSA may be withdrawn entirely, as was done in Mizoram (1980), Tripura (2015) and Meghalaya (2018). If the area is NOT disturbed and is peaceful, the police and the CPOs should tackle the insurgency as a law and order problem, and the Army and the Assam Rifles withdrawn. And what about the human rights of soldiers often killed and lynched by insurgents and violent mobs? Ironically, while the Assam Rifles is often accused of human rights violations in the Northeast, its team lifted the running trophy as the best team of the NHRC Debate Completion for the CPOs a few years back!


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