Monday, Sep 26, 2022

The Itchy Backs

The nexus, rooted in ethnicity, between establishment politicians and militants would be tragic if it had not become almost routine in the Northeast.

The nexus between establishment politicians and militants would be tragic if it had not become almost routine. On August 17, 2007, Manipur Police personnel raided the official residences of three Members of the state's Legislative Assembly (MLAs), identified as W Brajabidhu, Bijoy Koijam, K. Meghachandra and a former MLA, N Sovakiran. These raids led to the arrest of 12 militants belonging to different insurgent groups operating in Manipur. An M-16 rifle, a 9mm pistol, live ammunition and a number of extortion notes were recovered from the house of one of the MLAs. Addressing a subsequent press conference, the state's Director General of Police (DGP), Y. Joykumar Singh, said that the MLAs, all belonging to the Congress Party, were present in their houses during the raid and were unapologetic about the arrests. The MLAs later described charges of collusion as baseless. Till the writing of this report, no action had been taken against the errant politicians.

For years, Manipur has been wracked by an unending militancy, with some 15 active outfits presently operating in both its valley and hill areas. While militancy has shown signs of decline in some states of the Northeast, Manipur's tryst with militant violence remains unrelenting, impacting on all the nine Districts of the state. For two successive years, 2005 and 2006, Manipur has been the most violent theatre of the conflict in the Northeast with 410 and 311 fatalities respectively. Assam, with 11 times the population, and 3.5 times the land area, accounted for 254 and 242 fatalities over the same period. Available data portends an equally dreadful year 2007. According to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the first six months of the current year recorded 184 fatalities, including 40 civilian and 25 security force (SF) deaths. The Institute for Conflict Management database indicates a total of 295 fatalities till October 10, 2007. 

The vacuum in governance is both a consequence and cause of militancy in Manipur. The civil administration has ceased to function across vast stretches of the state and intermittent military operations have had little impact on the level of militancy. The militants have carved out several more or less 'liberated zones' within the state and also operate from neighbouring Myanmar's Sagaing Division, carry out attacks targeting civilians, SF personnel and government servants, and run an enveloping extortion network across the state--extending right into the capital city--with impunity. 

Certainly, politicians in the state are under tremendous pressure, and militant attack on leaders and party workers have been a recurrent phenomenon. Over the past months, such incidents have included:

June 10: A girl, identified as Nabizam alias Baby alias Boilar, sustained injuries in a grenade attack by unidentified militants at the residence of a former legislator, Abdul Salam, at Hatta Golapati in the Imphal East District.

July 22: At least six armed militants waylaid the Wangoi legislator, Salam Joy Singh and his five-man Police escort at Irom Meijrao, under Wangoi Police station in the Imphal West district. The militants overpowered the escort personnel and decamped with their service weapons. 

July 29: Unidentified militants fired some rounds at the residence of the legislator Thangjam Nandakishore in connection with a monetary demand at Thambalkhong in the Imphal East District.

August 2: Suspected militants hurled a bomb at the residence of legislator Joy Singh at Kakwa in the Imphal West District, though no causality was reported. Singh had objected to the militants' demand for a percentage of the MLA's Area Development Fund.

August 7: A group of ten suspected militants attacked the convoy of state Education Minister L. Jayentakumar, and MLAs, Dr. M. Ratankumar and Th. Lokeshor, near Khudengthabi and Lokchao on the Imphal-Moreh section of National Highway (NH)--39, though the targets escaped unhurt.

August 8: Suspected militants hurled a grenade at the private residence of Congress Party MLA, Moirangthem Oken Singh, at Heirok in the Thoubal District. The grenade landed on the outhouse but did not explode. 

August 20: Suspected militants hurled a hand grenade at the residence of a legislator, L. Nandakumar Singh of the Congress party, at Nagamapal in the Imphal West District. The grenade failed to explode.

September 14: Unidentified militants attacked the residence of MLA and Chairman of the Manipur Pollution Control Board, E. Dijamani Singh, at Hiyanglam in the Thoubal District. No injury was reported.

In militancy-ridden Manipur, buying peace with the militants is commonplace and is seen across the political spectrum simply as a strategy of survival. The nexus between politicians and militants is, consequently, pervasive. As former Manipur Governor Ved Marwah expressed it, "There are hardly any politicians in Manipur of any stature who do not have links with the insurgent groups."

In December 2005, the then Army Chief J.J. Singh stirred a hornet's nest by claiming that Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh had paid a 'donation' of INR Five million to the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and INR 10 million to the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The Chief Minister and the KYKL rejected the allegation. However, while describing the charge as "forgery, cheating and political victimization", the KYKL admitted that it receives financial help from 'different people', including politicians, though "not as much as INR Five million from a single individual".

In addition to Ibobi Singh, there is a long list of politicians, including Chief Ministers, who have been similarly accused of buying or attempting to buy peace with the militants. In the late 1980s, the then Manipur Governor, General K.V. Krishna Rao, accused then Chief Minister Rishang Keishing of contributing INR Three million to the coffers of the then undivided National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). Keishing's linkages with the Naga militants found mention in another state Governor's report, when Lieutenant General V.K. Nayyar accused him as well as another senior state politician, R.K. Dorendro, of financing the NSCN. Keishing, during another stint as Chief Minister in the mid 1990s, was accused of supplying uniforms to the Isak-Muivah faction of the NSCN (NSCN-IM). Investigations into this incident were allegedly hushed up and the blame was eventually pushed off on to a Manipur Rifles Commandant. In 2000, at least five state Ministers were accused of reportedly contributing funds and official vehicles to unnamed militant outfits and even participated in the funerals of militants killed in encounters with the SFs. A state government inquiry was ordered, but was never completed. 

Both politics and militancy in the Northeast are rooted in ethnicity and the nexus between the two power centres is inherently linked to such primordial loyalties. Both militants and politicians share a common support base. Instead of choosing to confront each other and erode the support base, both tend to collaborate and benefit from the prevailing state of affairs. In 2003, Manipur Power Minister Phungzathang, belonging to the Zomi tribe, provided two vehicles and a sum of INR 260,000 to the militants of the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA). Similarly, the Naga MLAs in Manipur have often openly spoken in favour of the NSCN-IM's demand for the merger of Naga-inhabited areas of the state with Nagaland. These politicians have periodically led delegations to the highest echelons in New Delhi in support of these demands. 

New Delhi's intermittent attempts at breaking the nexus display a lack of sincerity. In 1997, an 'action plan' drawn up by the MHA, following then Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's visit to the Northeast, proposed a vigilance system to monitor the politician-militant nexus in the region. In 2001, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee decided to set up a judicial inquiry into the charges of the politician-militant nexus in the region. Nothing has been heard of either 'initiative' since the respective announcements. In August 2007, reports unveiled another of New Delhi's proposed mechanisms to counter the nexus and the militant extortion network. The proposed mechanism involves setting up of local units of the Enforcement Directorate (An agency under the Ministry of Finance, which investigates financial irregularities) and in coordination with the banking sector, to evolve an anti-dote to the thriving problem. It remains to be seen whether this new proposal will have any eventual impact on the ground, or whether it will go the way of its predecessors. 

The nexus between politicians and militants has conveniently been described as a natural corollary to Manipur's thriving militancy. Notwithstanding occasional action by the enforcement agencies--as in the present raids and arrests--these linkages have sustained militancy for decades, providing the militants a steady source of finance and at least some safety from SF operations. Stringent punitive action could have been a decisive deterrent to such alliances. Regrettably, errant politicians have, so far, retained complete immunity against the 'long arm of the law'. 

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