Monday, Aug 08, 2022

Surrogate Wars, Surrogate Governments

Some can't fight, so they do it through their proxies; the law is absent; the government abdicates, having disarmed its police at places, so any wonder then that in such a vacuum, parallel structures of governments should sprout up and assert themsel

For almost a week last fortnight, after clashes between two underground militant organizations, the United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF) and the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) in the Chakpikarong sub-division of the Chandel district, in Manipur, residents of a number of villages were subject to widespread fear, forcing many to flee their homes. 

Although the exact numbers are not known or disclosed, both the underground organizations acknowledged having suffered casualties. Clashes between underground organizations are not altogether new in this area, but the tragedy has been not so much theirs, as it has been for the unarmed and hapless public, most often impoverished villagers in sparsely populated peripheries of the State.

But the Chakpikarong clashes have other very strong undercurrents of old tensions running below the obvious surface. Although the physical clashes were between the UKLF and the UNLF, in spirit it was between two old time antagonists, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim -- Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) and the UNLF. The latter, drawing its strongest support from amongst the Meitei community in the Imphal Valley, is the only Meitei militant organization that has come out openly to challenge the NSCN-IM's demand for a 'Greater Nagaland', which the Naga militants aspire to create by splintering Manipur and other neighbouring states. Others too are opposed to the move, but none of them have demonstrated their opposition publicly, unwilling to risk their relationship with the NSCN-IM -- by far the most well-armed and powerful insurgent organization in the region. 

Most Kuki underground organizations, particularly the Kuki National Front (KNF), and the Kuki National Army (KNA), are also opposed to the NSCN-IM's vision of an integrated Naga homeland carved out of land that is also home to the Kukis. It is to the credit of the military strategists of the NSCN-IM that, amidst this open and emotive opposition to their homeland move, they have been able to set up their own satellites deep within communities that are hostile to its political ambitions. 

The UKLF, a relatively new Kuki militant group in the Chandel district bordering Myanmar, is one such, and came into being not long after the bloody Kuki-Naga feud in the mid 1990s. The NSCN-IM has also set up another Kuki extremist group, the Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA) in another Kuki stronghold -- the Sadar Hills Autonomous District Council (ADC), in the Senapati district in the north of the State -- and likewise has also been patronizing similar organizations among other communities, both in the Manipur Hills and the Meitei dominated Valley.

The recent Chakpikarong clashes must be seen against this background. The Chandel district is within the areas that the NSCN-IM considers as Naga contiguous territories, and hence part of its vision of the contentious Greater Nagaland. In reality, it is a mixed-population district, with many small communities, most of them now politically aligned to the Naga identity, although many among them share close ethnic affinity with the Kukis, their immediate neighbours in the district. 

Much to the chagrin of the Nagas, Kuki intellectuals refer to the Naga tribes in this district as 'Old Kukis' who have switched identity affiliation. This dichotomy between political and ethnic identities throws up a number of obvious social tensions and it is no coincidence that some of the worst clashes between the Kukis and Nagas during the feud in the 1990s occurred in the Chandel district. 

Further, valley based underground organizations, particularly the UNLF have been making deep inroads into the Kuki inhabited areas of the district, a fact viewed with resentment and suspicion by the NSCN-IM. Before the Naga ceasefire, clashes in the area used to be directly between the NSCN-IM and the UNLF - NSCN-K (the rival Khaplang faction of the NSCN) combine. 

Ever since the Naga ceasefire in 1997, however, the NSCN-IN can no longer risk open encounters, as these would violate the 'Ground Rules' of their agreement with the Union Government. Its satellite organizations are, consequently, pressed into action under direct or indirect goading. In the present instance, the UKLF became the instrument in an attempt to neutralize the presence of the UNLF in the Chakpikarong area. 

What is unfolding is thus a war for the control of territory and, in a distant way, one prompted by the unresolved and explosive question of the NSCN-IM's Greater Nagaland dream - a war in which one of the parties is fighting by proxy.

The proxy war aside, one other player is conspicuous by its absence -- the law. The entire Chakpikarong area, as in much of the rest of Chandel district, as well as the adjoining Sugnu subdivision of the valley district of Thoubal, have become virtually a 'liberated zone', where the writs of many different rebel organizations are the only law. At present, unless overwhelming numbers of Central Forces are brought in, it is difficult for the government to bring the situation under control. 

It is not very far from here, in the Sajik Tampak, that underground forces of the UNLF repelled advancing Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers after a pitched three-day battle in January 2003. In these areas, the Government has, as a policy, even disarmed its police forces, since it had become routine for police stations, most of them under-manned and ill-equipped, to be overpowered and robbed of weapons by militants who were vastly superior in numbers and armament. 

Thus, the Chakpikarong police station, for instance, has only about three unarmed policemen. Three times the number of unarmed policemen is present at the Sugnu police station, and they -- for obvious reasons -- have not been able to make a difference in the situation. 

Not only are the law enforcement agencies absent, there are also no signs of direct government presence. The fair-weather roads in the area remain in a pathetic state of disrepair for years together; the public health centers are without doctors; the sub-divisional offices are without officers; general scarcities are endemic, and the only things not in short supply are diseases and epidemics of malaria, cholera and dysentery. 

In such a vacuum, it is only natural for parallel structures of government to sprout up and assert themselves. It is a situation, as T.S. Chonghring, an Anal tribal chief in Chakpikarong, told Imphal Free Press, a case of the government abandoning the people, driving them into the hands of laws and forces other than the government's own.

Pradip Phanjoubam is Editor, Imphal Free Press. This article appears here courtesy South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal