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The Colour Red

Manipur has long been stained by the incessant bloodshed of its multiple and fratricidal insurgencies, but October 21, 2008, will go down as a moment of reckoning for security planners in India...

The Colour Red
The Colour Red

"Maoist ambitions in India now extend to the farthest reaches of the country, and this is not just a fantasy or an aspiration, but a strategy, a projection, a plan and a programme under implementation… (T)he Maoists’… inventory of ‘immediate tasks’ (includes)… ‘Coordinate the people’s war with the ongoing armed struggles of the various oppressed nationalities in… Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and other parts of the Northeast.’ "

--What Maoists Want
February 2007

Manipur has long been stained by the incessant bloodshed of its multiple and fratricidal insurgencies, but October 21, 2008, will go down as a moment of reckoning for security planners in India. The day witnessed the single biggest militant attack, in terms of fatalities, in the recorded history of militancy in Manipur, as 18 persons, including three security force (SF) personnel, were killed in an explosion targeting a game of lagao (dice gambling) in the Ragailong area of capital Imphal; far more significantly, on the same day, one of the state’s leading militant formations, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) inked a three-point pact with the Left Wing extremist Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) -- the group is already known to be active in over 220 districts in 22 states across the country -- calling for consolidation of "mutual understanding and friendship" to "overthrow the common enemy", the "reactionary regime of India". The latter event, far more than the first, bears the potential of transforming the very character of militancy in the state. 

Amidst utter confusion regarding the identity of the militant group responsible for the explosion, the Military Council (MC) faction of the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) claimed responsibility for the attack. A statement released by the group’s ‘military affairs secretary’ Lanheiba Meitei on October 22, said that the blast was directed at teaching the state as well as central SFs (Army and the para-military forces) a lesson for ‘promoting dice gambling’, which is "alien to the culture of Manipur". Threatening to carry out more attacks in future, the outfit warned people to stay clear of the SFs and not to organise protests condemning the blast. It is customary for militant formations in Manipur, seen to be ‘sons of the soil’, to express their remorse at any unintended loss of civilian lives in the aftermath of an attack. On this occasion, however, the KCP-MC chose to do away with such formalities. 

According to data till August 31, 2008, Manipur is now the most violent state in India’s North Eastern region. Compared to 209 fatalities in the neighbouring (and much larger) state of Assam, which saw the highest numbers killed in 2007, Manipur has recorded 314 fatalities. Of these, 65 per cent were militants killed. In spite of recurrently high fatality rates in militant ranks over the past several years -- 56 per cent of 388 in 2007; 60 per cent of 311 in 2006; and 49 per cent of 410 in 2005 -- there appears to be no visible decline in the overall dominance exercised by the 15 active militant groups in the state. Indeed, Manipur is proof of the reality that killings alone do not exhaust the debate on militancy. Rampant incidents of abduction and extortion; the forcible closure of business, educational and government establishments; militant decrees targeting the day to day lives of the people; and attacks on senior officials and politicians, including the Chief Minister and his cabinet colleagues; have contributed significantly to an atmosphere of abject insecurity and chaos in this state.

Militancy Related Fatalities 2003-2008

* Data till August 31, 2008
Source: Ministry of Home Affairs, government of India 

Against this backdrop, a pact between one of the state’s most potent militant groups and the CPI-Maoist -- the architect of the most menacing and rapidly augmenting insurgency in India -- has unprecedented significance, not only for Manipur, but for the Northeast region in entirety and, indeed, for the country at large. 

The joint declaration by the PLA and the CPI-Maoist followed a two day meeting between the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF, the political wing of the PLA) and the CPI-Maoist at the ‘Council Headquarters’ of the former at an unspecified location in Manipur on October 21 and 22. According to the three point pact, both the PLA and the CPI-Maoist would, henceforth,

  • Honour and support the sovereignty of the two ‘countries’ (the sovereignty of India and the sovereignty of Manipur); 
  • Extend full moral and political support to each other in the liberation struggles to overthrow the common enemy, ‘the Indian reactionary and oppressive regime’
  • Recognise and honour the historically endorsed territorial integrity of the two ‘countries’, namely Manipur and India. 

The pact is a natural culmination of Maoist strategy, and represents a pattern which can be expected to be repeated with other groups within Manipur as well as with militant outfits in other states of the Northeast. SAIR, in its previous issues, has detailed the ascent of the Maoist movement in India and had noted increasing Maoist mobilisation and consolidation in pockets of several North Eastern states. In this context, the pact with the RPF/PLA further underlines the Maoist potential to engulf the entire country, contradicting the scenario of a constrained and limited Maoist presence repeatedly projected by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). 

The inroads the CPI-Maoist are making in the Northeast come as no surprise. The essentially socialist outlook of a majority of the insurgent movements in the Northeast and their abhorrence of the ‘domination of a colonial India’, make them natural allies of the CPI-Maoist. The ethnicity-based insurgencies of the Northeast are, moreover, progressively approaching exhaustion or have been trapped in an unending and un-winnable stalemate with SFs for years, making them attractive targets of a Maoist effort to ‘mop up’ their surviving potential in alliances or, eventually, under the Maoist banner. Manipur is also the locus of the most abject collapse of governance, with vast areas virtually abandoned by the state, a terrain that is difficult for SF operations, and administrative instrumentalities that have been dysfunctional for decades; in sum, ideal territory for Maoist mobilisation and strategic extension. 

The movement into Manipur -- and, indeed, other theatres of the Northeast -- was also inevitable in terms of the repeatedly articulated strategy of the Maoists. The Maoist Party Programme document unambiguously expresses its solidarity with armed militant movements in other parts of the country including the Northeast. 

The struggles of the Kashmiri, Naga, Assamese, Manipuri and other nationalities in north-eastern region are already going on by assuming the armed form. The people of these oppressed nationalities are not only fighting for their identity but also for the just cause of achieving their honourable right of self-determination, including the right of secession and the demand for secession…

Our party must unequivocally support these nationalities’ struggles. It must also resolutely oppose the vicious attempt of the Indian ruling classes to suppress these movements with their military might. The right of self-determination including, and up to, the right of secession, must be firmly upheld and highlighted in all circumstances.

Similarly, Maoist Strategy and Tactics of Indian Revolution document makes it obligatory for the party to "be in the forefront of every democratic demand of the nationalities whether it is for autonomy; for equal status for their languages; for separate statehood; against economic, social cultural and other forms of oppression by a certain dominant nation." 

The alliance between the Maoists and the RPF/PLA will have defining impact on the course of the insurgencies in Manipur -- though it is not expected to result in any extraordinary spike in violence in the immediate future. The PLA can, however, be expected to gain in strength over the coming months, profiting from its strategic alliance with a powerful nation-wide insurgency, particularly in terms of improvements in training, tactics and strategies of irregular warfare which the Maoists have evolved to a fine art. Significantly, the RPF/PLA’s camaraderie with other Manipuri insurgent groupings such as the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) [the three constitute an umbrella organisation, the Manipur People's Liberation Front (MPLF)] and the UNLF’s strategic linkages with the KCP-MC, would suggest that the pact with the Maoists could gradually be extended to embrace all these outfits. 

The KCP-MC, created out of a split in its parent group in the last quarter of 2007, has seen phenomenal growth in its brief existence. Irrespective of its actual involvement in the October 21 explosion, the Institute for Conflict Management database records 80 incidents involving the KCP-MC before this last incident. With an estimated 110 active cadres, the group’s activities include abduction, extortion, attacks on politicians, bureaucrats and SFs and the imposition of several dictates and restrictions on the media. The group’s cadres have been described by the Police as ‘experts’ in manufacturing improvised explosives devices (IEDs). With 370 kilometres of the 1,640 kilometre-long open and porous Indo-Myanmar border running along Manipur, smuggling of small arms and explosives from the Southeast Asian arms markets is not particularly difficult. KCP-MC, like any other militant formation in the region with surplus funds, faces little challenge in going in for a radical makeover. 

At present, no area in Manipur -- either in the Valley or the Hills, including the state capital Imphal -- is free from militant activities. A lion’s share of the violence is, however, orchestrated by the Valley-based Meitei groups (like the KCP-MC, UNLF, PLA, PREPAK), who accounted for over 63 per cent of the total 465 incidents reported till August 31, 2008. Imphal, spread over 30.75 square kilometres, has been described by the Manipur Home Department as the nerve and extortion centre of militant activity. The Institute for Conflict Management database records at least 170 militancy related incidents in and around Imphal in the current year alone. Heavy security presence in the capital does not appear to have deterred the militants in the least. Just two days before the October 21 explosion, PREPAK militants had executed a grenade attack right in front of the Chief Minister’s bungalow, breaching high levels of security.

Given the character of militancy in Manipur -- especially in the four valley districts (Imphal East, Imphal West, Bishnupur and Thoubal) -- the state Police, which is familiar with the intricacies of the conflict and its key players, should have the lead role in counter-insurgency (CI) operations, backed by the Army and Central Para-Military Forces (CPMFs). Manipur has a healthy Police-population ratio (Policemen per 100,000 population) of 554 and Police density (Policemen per 100 square kilometre area) of 63.8, as against the All India averages of 126 and 44.4 respectively. However, the Force has a current vacancy of 28 per cent against a sanctioned strength of 22,936 men. Worse, the Police have preferred to relinquish all initiative in CI operations, allowing the Army and CPMFs to shoulder virtually the entire burden. Despite the creation of a Unified Command Structure in the state in 2004, to coordinate the activities of the Police, the Army and the CPMFs, there has been little operational improvement. 

Authorities in Manipur insist that popular support for the militants is on a decline, but this is difficult to reconcile with the realities of the ground. Public opinion in Manipur has been hijacked by community-based organisations, which have little influence on the militant outfits, but which are deeply divisive and partisan, either favouring particular armed underground groups, or ambivalent in their approach towards militant violence. The influential United Committee Manipur (UCM), for instance, has maintained a studied silence on KCP-MC excesses and attributed the October 21 explosion to the "inherent weakness and total failure of the government in maintaining law and order." Another prominent ‘civil society’ group, the All Manipur United Clubs' Organisation (AMUCO) has implicitly supported insurgent activity and responded to the October 21 attack with qualified criticism, stating: "regardless of the non-state or state actors or agencies who may have been perpetrators, this should never be considered a part of the ongoing armed conflict since the attack targeted a crowded place." The ethnically polarized civilian population has tended to seek refuge in an imaginary insularity which offers no protection, but which has prevented the consolidation of public opinion against the militancy and violence that dominate state politics. The state leadership, in turn, has failed comprehensively in managing the minimal tasks of governance and in executing its basic duty to protect the lives and properties of citizens. 

There have been repeated calls by the state leadership -- including the Chief Minister -- for a dialogue with the insurgent groups and a negotiated ‘solution’ to Manipur’s multiple insurgencies and this has been picked up by the security establishment as well. On October 24, 2008, a senior officer of the para-military Assam Rifles called for a ‘political dialogue’ between the militants and the government to secure a ‘lasting solution’ to the enduring conflict in the state. Such an approach, however, ignores a long historical record that demonstrates that insurgent groups almost never engage in good-faith negotiations when they are in an ascendant -- and it is more than evident that Manipur’s militants are fighting anything but a losing battle. With the new alliance between the RPF/PLA and the Maoists -- and the potential for further consolidation of the Maoist presence and support to the militancy in the state, Manipur is heading for an insurgency far more intractable than the disorders it has experience in the past. Unless the security establishment addresses this augmenting challenge with determination and a strategic perspective far more coherent than is currently manifest, the situation in Manipur threatens to hurtle entirely out of control. 

Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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