January 23, 2020
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At The Mercy Of The Gun

Militants unleash a reign of terror, asking ministers and legislators to resign or face death

At The Mercy Of The Gun

"Please do not kill me yet. I have only just become a minister after having lost three previous elections and am still learning (the job). Please tell me how to serve the interests of the people and please do not ask me to resign (from the state assembly), for that amounts to surrendering my commitment to the voters."
—M. Hemanta Singh, Manipur’s minister of state for sport and youth affairs, at a rally in Imphal in January.

Never before in the decade-and-a-half- old insurgency problem in the Manipur valley, has the fear of death stalked its leaders to such an extent. Last month, Chief Minister Rishang Keishing wrote to each of the ministers and 55 M L As , including those from the Opposition, asking them not to move within and outside the capital, Imphal, unless provided with adequate security.

A majority of them have since refused to even step out of the fortified Babupara Colony, where most ministers and M L As  live. Others, including Opposition leader and former Manipur People’s Party (M P P) chief  minister R.K. Ranbir Singh, who have not been accommodated at Babupara, are crying foul and demanding Keishing’s resignation. The fear psychosis stems from an ultimatum served to each minister and M L A in January by the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Front (R P F) , asking them to resign from the assembly or face death at the hands of its armed wing, the People’s Liberation A rmy (P L A) .

Prior to the diktat, the R P F asked select ministers close to the chief minister to resign by December 31 as the government had "failed" to secure four "popular" demands of the Manipuris. The militants want the government to:

  • Lift the 100-year- old  garrisoning— since colonial times— of the "sacred" Kangla Fort in Imphal, once the seat of spiritual and temporal power of the ancient Manipuri kingdom.
  • Lift the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in force in the hill areas  since 1958 and in the valley since 1980.
  • Stop "Operation Sunny Vale," an army-led counter insurgency drive launched last August. (Incidentally, insurgent groups like the RPF, PLA, the United National Liberation Front — UNLF— and its armed wing, the Manipur People’s Army, have been forced to seek refuge in the hills as a result of frequent army raids.)
  • Respect Manipur’s "territorial integrity," which, it is popularly felt, may be violated if the Centre carves out a "South Nagaland" to appease the Naga insurgents with whom it is believed to be carrying on a "dialogue."

These apart, the insurgents’ demand for an independent Manipuri "nation" remains. As a warning, PLA militants shot at a Congress MLA and former PLA sympathiser S. Rajen Singh on Christmas day but "spared" his life. The reported move by Deputy Chief Minister R.B. Koijam to use it as an opportunity to topple Keishing led to the January ultimatum, lest the RPF and PLA be seen as favouring the chief minister’s rivals.

Keishing is not taking the threats lightly. He admits that  the situation in the state is at its worst. "Things were very bad when I first came to power in 1980, but this is the worst I have ever seen in Manipur. The insurgents are better armed and possess more sophisticated weapons than before." But he is quick to add: "No matter what they do, the fact remains that they can never achieve their stated objective and the only lasting solution can be through a dialogue within the Indian Constitution."

The main Opposition part y, the MPP, on the other hand, has been trying to thwart the R P F threat by supporting the four-point charter. It has also demanded the dismissal of the Keishing government for jeopardising the lives of all legislators by not fulfilling the "people’s demand which the Opposition has been voicing for long." M P P leader R.K. Ranbir Singh and party chief O. Joy Singh led a nine-member delegation to Delhi to apprise Home Minister S.B. Chavan, Minister of State in the P M O Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi and Opposition leaders about the situation in Manipur and also to seek Keishing’s ouster.

Ranbir Singh is scathing in his criticism of the chief minister. "While Keishing has sought to overlook the gross human rights violations that have taken place since the launch of Operation Sunny Vale last August, I, as well as the other M L As ,  have been feeling extremely insecure ever since the R P F issued the ultimatum. The government has discriminated against our party by providing our M L As inadequate security and even though I have not been given safe accommodation, they want to cut down the number of my security guards."

However, state Chief Secretary K.K. Sethi insists that the government is not taking any chances with the security of legislators and is doing "whatever possible within the resources at hand". Deputy Inspector General of Police (Range), Aramabam Pradeep Singh, adds that despite the "best efforts" to provide security to as many MLAs as possible, all of them could not be given adequate cover at all times on account of a shortage of personnel and escort vehicles.

Sethi admits that ever since the RPF threat the atmosphere is "slightly more tense". Says he: "The situation is very fluid and we have reports of fresh, sophisticated, arms coming in. However, though the physical movement of ministers and legislators may have been curtailed, the government continues to function and there is no slowing down of its working." 

Sethi and Pradeep Singh point out that the security forces have been able to curb the extremists’ activities in the valley and put them on the backfoot. In 1995, 642 extremists were arrested, 49 killed and 197 weapons seized from them along with 3,920 rounds of ammunition.

At the same time, the security forces suffered setbacks too. Between July 16, 1995 and January 15, the militants killed 30 security personnel, injured 62 and snatched 52 assault arms along with 4,623 rounds of ammunition. During the same period, 102 civilians were killed and 87 injured by the militants.

That the separatists’ writ runs in Manipur is evident from the fact that every government servant "contributes" a percentage of his income to their "cause". While the U N L F— which even boasts of administering a "Liberated Zone" in the hills— has fixed a 1 per cent cut from the gross income of all government servants, it has asked cabinet ministers to pay Rs 15 lakh each and ministers of state Rs 10 lakh each. The RPF reportedly charges between Rs 200 and Rs 300 per person depending on the income slab. While the Opposition M L As have been spared "as they have no source of making money," Keishing admits that "most people" are paying up "out of fear."

With general elections round the corner, both the Congress and the M P P, which are planning to contest the two Lok Sabha and the lone Rajya Sabha seats, have reason to fear the worst. While the M P P plans to "appeal" to the insurgents not to disrupt the elections, Ranbir Singh "cannot really say whether they will listen". Keishing too appre hends more violence during the polls: "There is a strong possibility of an up surge in violence and we will have to take security measures to keep the polls as peaceful as possible." At the same time, he is confident of a 70 per cent voter turnout "which will show whose side the people are on".

Even while the Manipuris were struggling to come to terms with insurgency in the state, the recent upsurge in militancy has made their lives more uncertain as there is no telling when and where an ambush or shootout will take place. Though, unlike Kashmir and parts of Nagaland, shops and establishments function normally during the day, Imphal, like every other town and village in the state, turns into a ghost city at dusk. With virtually nobody daring to step out after dark, it’s only the dogs on the streets which keep a silent vigil.

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