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No End To Despair

Manipur's tragic and sustained downward spiral continues, reinforced by the collapse of the state government, and the centre's manifest lethargy in evolving an effective strategy of recovery.

No End To Despair
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

On November 22, the Manipur cabinet approved the extension of the 'disturbed area' status of the state for another year (from December 1, 2007 to November 30, 2008). The cabinet meeting accepted that the law and order situation in the state had progressively worsened and asked the security forces to neutralise the gains made by the militant outfits by intensifying counter-insurgency operations.

With 361 deaths (till November 30) in the current year, Manipur remains the second most conflict ridden state in the northeast, behind Assam with 388 fatalities. With another month to go before the end of the year, fatalities in 2007 have already surpassed the 311 militancy-related fatalities that occurred in Manipur in 2006. While fatalities among the militants in 2007 have remained more or less comparable to the previous year, it has certainly worsened among the civilians and the security forces. According to the currently available data, civilian deaths have already increased by over 42 per cent and those of Security Forces (SFs) by 39 percent.

Militancy related fatalities in Manipur: 2006-2007

 

Year
Civilians
SFs
Militants
Total
2006
96
28
187
311
2007*
137
39
185
361

*Data till November 30, 2007
Source: Year 2006: Ministry of Home Affairs &
Year 2007: Institute for Conflict Management

Fatalities alone, however, do not reflect Manipur's dire predicament. Activities of about 10,000 cadres of 15 militant groups of varying sizes and character, compound an endemic collapse of the administrative machinery, taking Manipur to the threshold of a failed 'state' within the Indian union. Each of Manipur's nine districts (four in the valley and five in the Hills) has been affected by the unending militant violence, severely impacting on the very limited local capacities for governance, justice administration, and the provision of minimal security to citizens. state police sources indicate that, while almost all the 59 police stations have been reporting militant violence, as many as 32 of them have been slotted in the 'high' violence category.

The impunity with which militant outfits have carried on their activities in Manipur has been a matter of deep concern among policy makers over a number of years, and the year 2007 was no different. Interestingly, major incidents of civilian casualties (incidents in which three or more persons were killed) in the entire year numbered only two: on March 8, five migrant workers were shot dead by unidentified militants at Ningthoukhong Kha-Khunou Patmang in the Bishnupur district and on June 9, 11 Kuki tribals were killed by unidentified valley-based militants at Moreh in the Chandel district. The remaining 121 civilian fatalities were, thus, parts of sustained waves of 'small' attacks, each rooted in elements like defiance, occasional acts of bravado or of pure misfortune, failing to capture the fancy of the media and of policy makers.

Some of the militant acts that, nevertheless, caught the media's attention included high profile attacks involving VIP targets. state Chief Minister (CM) Okram Ibobi Singh himself survived an attack on November 23, 2007, when security forces recovered an explosive device from Langthabal Hao-Lamkhai junction along National Highway 39 in the Imphal West district, minutes before the CM's convoy was due to pass through the route. Three days later, on November 26, Manipur state Legislative Assembly Deputy Speaker Th. Shyamkumar Singh's convoy was ambushed by unidentified militants under Lamlai police Station in the Imphal East district. Two SF personnel and a civilian driver were injured in the attack. There were, furthermore, several incidents of firing and grenade explosions targeting the residences of Ministers and Members of the state Legislative Assembly.

Media in the state has also been subjected to continuous challenges from the militants. Both the English language and the vernacular media are expected to carry the Press Releases by the militants and a failure to do so is often accompanied by threats and/or actual reprisal attacks. The situations, however, enter into a complex area when rival outfits forbid the publication of each other's releases, pushing Media establishment into an irreducible quandary. On August 1 and again on October 11, for example, the two factions of the People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) issued respective bans on the media against publication of the other group's materials, pushing the print and visual media in the state into a complete shutdown for several days. The state government created further difficulties for the hapless media by instructing them not to publish any militant literature.

Apart from the overall insecurity resulting from the threat to and loss of life, Manipur now has one of the most comprehensive networks of terrorist extortion in the country, affecting almost every earning citizen in the state, even as the state and its agencies remain virtually paralysed – with the exception of the Army and Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) engaged in a Sisyphean counter-insurgency effort that has done nothing to permanently diminish the intensity or expanse of extremist depredations. In the month of September 2007, drug stores in Imphal shut shop after militant groups sent in hefty extortion notes. The state government's assurance notwithstanding, the shops remained closed almost for a month, and were eventually forced open by the state police. Similarly, five insurance companies in the state shut down business for about a fortnight in May-June 2007 after extortion demands by unidentified outfits.

The militant power demonstrated in the numerous 'decrees' issued during the previous years was further consolidated through new diktats in 2007. On October 6, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) announced a ban on the use of tobacco products and mitha manna (betel leaf). Several attacks were carried out on traders and shopkeepers selling these products in Thoubal, Bishnupur, Imphal East and Imphal West districts. At least one such attack took place in the capital, Imphal, itself. On November 7, the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) announced a ban on use of Bengali-script textbooks in the junior primary stage (classes I to IV) in the valley districts from next year.

The state's woes are further aggravated by the activities of Naga insurgents operating in neighbouring Nagaland as well as in the Hill districts of Manipur. The impact of their activities has been most visible in the dominance that they maintain on the two National Highways, NH-39 and NH-53, cutting off Manipur's links with Assam and mainland India at a whim. NH-39 connects Dimapur in Nagaland with Imphal and NH-53 links Silchar in Assam to Manipur's capital. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) has set up 26 permanent 'tax' collection points along this stretch of the NH-39. The mode of 'tax' collection at these points is both systematic and elaborate. According to one estimate, every commercial vehicle passing through this route pays out at least Rs  4,000 per trip as 'taxes' to the NSCN-IM. Truckers who fail to pay the 'taxes' and/or produce pre-paid slips are often beaten up and are forced to pay exorbitant 'fines'. On many occasions, trucks have been looted or burnt for non-compliance. With no cooperation from either the state of Nagaland or the government in New Delhi, the impact of such sustained extortion has been severely felt on the prices of essential commodities in Manipur, on a permanent basis.

Since 2005, eight Kuki militant outfits have been roped into a ceasefire agreement with the Army. However, such ceasefires, as evident in any other state of the region, have made little difference to the levels of violence. Inter- and intra-outfit clashes among the groups continued through 2007 in Thoubal, Churachandpur, Chandel and Bishnupur districts. On May 29, the Zougam faction of the Kuki National Front (KNF) killed five of its cadres who deserted the outfit's camp at T Bijang in the Churachandpur district. On June 9, suspected valley-based militants killed 11 persons belonging to the Kuki tribe in separate incidents at Moreh in the Chandel district. On June 24, six Kuki Liberation Army (KLA) militants, including a top leader identified as Thunder Kuki, his wife and his deputy, Kingson, were killed by a group led by the outfit's 'publicity secretary' Mosaun Kuki, between Bongbal and Rongyang under Yairipok police Station in the Thoubal district. The Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA) chief, K. Hangshing, was killed by a rival outfit in his brother's house in the Srinivaspuri locality of the national capital, New Delhi, on November 12.

Since its induction into Manipur in the late 1970s, the Army has led countless synchronised operations against the militants and their areas of domination, loosely described as 'liberated zones'. However, the impact of these operations on the capabilities of the militant groups has, at best, been transient. With little help coming from the state police Force, the militants have regained their 'lost' areas once the Army has withdrawn to its base areas. The most recent instance of this phenomenon was the campaign to gain control over the New Somtal area in the Chandel district. Spread over 1,000 square kilometres and located in the south-eastern corner of Chandel district along the Indo-Myanmar border, New Somtal has been a bastion of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) for the past several years. The inaccessibility of the area and its proximity to the Myanmar border have been cited as the difficulties which have prevented the Army from securing a conclusive victory in New Somtal. At least two major operations in 2006 (in January and December) had failed to clear the area of the UNLF presence. On November 18, 2007 the Army launched a two-pronged operation in New Somtal, targeting the '293rd battalion' of the UNLF. Troops moved in simultaneously from the Khengjoi and Sehlon ridges and, by November 30, claimed to have 'cleared' seven villages of the militant presence. The Army claimed to have pushed the militants into the Myanmar side, but assertions to the contrary were made by the UNLF. Interestingly, no fatalities occurred in the continuing operation, in which the UNLF reportedly resorted to heavy 81 mm mortar shelling. In fact, while retreating, the UNLF had strewn the area with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) forcing the Army to use bulldozers to detect and detonate these.

The Army's operations in the state appear to be clearly handicapped by the lack of adequate support from the state police. In 2004, Manipur created the Unified Command Structure (UCS) to coordinate the activities between the Army, the CPMFs and the state police, under the command of the Chief Minister. The UCS experiment has, however, been marked by a clear lack of unity of effort. While the Army is in favour of bringing back the Imphal municipal areas under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the state government, which de-notified AFSPA from those areas in August 2004 under popular demand, has decided to maintain the status quo.

Police modernisation is long overdue in Manipur. In spite of a healthy police-population ratio of 646 per 100,000 (the national ratio is 142) and a police density (policemen per 100 square kilometre area) of 73 (the national average is 49), the state police plays only a marginal role in the Army and CPMF-led counter-insurgency operations. Hostile terrain and demands of the militancy situation require additional recruitment – a necessity that was outlined as early as 1999, but was kept under wraps by the state government. Between 2002 and 2005, Manipur recruited just 823 constables and 10 sub-inspectors and assistant sub-inspectors. The bulk of the constable's appointments (821 out of 823) was done in 2005. As per an estimate in 2005, 13 of the police Stations in the state did not have a single vehicle and 11 police Stations were not connected either by telephone or by wireless. Utilisation of the available resources has been far from satisfactory. For example, out of the Rs  40.8 million made available by the Central government for modernisation in 2004-05, the Manipur police department could spend only Rs  29.5 million.

Manipur is currently implementing an Rs  248 million action plan for reduction of violence in the state. An entirely Central government funded initiative, crucial components of the plan include recruitment of 1,640 police personnel, including 404 in the Intelligence Branch of the state police and 1,197 in the district police units.

None of the major active insurgent groups has expressed a desire to engage in a dialogue process with the government, in spite of the periodic appeals on part of the state government. On the contrary, the UNLF, which celebrated its '43rd Raising Day' on November 24, reiterated its demand for a plebiscite under the auspices of the United Nations. Rejecting the peace talks as a "trap to suppress the liberation struggle", the UNLF 'central committee' underlined its commitment to the cause of independence of Manipur through a 'vigorous armed struggle'.

Manipur's tragic and sustained downward spiral continues, reinforced by the collapse of the state government, and the centre's manifest lethargy in evolving an effective strategy of recovery. Interestingly, none of the militant groups in the state appears to be fighting to win in terms of any of their declared political objectives.

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