With 248 militancy related deaths in 2006 (data till October 22), Manipur remains the third most violent theatre of conflict in the country, behind Jammu & Kashmir and Chhattisgarh. While each of Manipur’s nine districts has been affected by unending militant violence, severely impacting on the capacity of the state to govern, administer justice, and provide minimal security to its citizens, the pattern of violence has been the most persistent and convoluted in the hilly district of Churachandpur.
Located in the south-western corner of Manipur and spread over an area of 4,570 square kilometres, Churachandpur or Lamka (as the locals call it) meaning 'roads meeting at a mouth', is the largest district in the state. While it shares its northern and eastern boundaries with six of Manipur’s districts (Imphal East, Tamenglong, Senapati, Bishnupur, Thoubal and Chandel), in the west and south, it is bound by Assam, Mizoram and Myanmar. The district population was 228,707, according to the 2001 census, and was distributed across several tribes, most belonging to the Kuki-Chin-Mizo group. The district also has sizeable Meitei (dominant in the valley areas of the Manipur) and a marginal Naga (dominant in the Hill districts of Manipur) population.
In an age of competitive primordial assertion, ethnic diversity has been the bane of Churachandpur. The district has scarred by the bitter ethnic clashes between the Kukis and the Nagas that have recurred in several of the Hill districts in the state since 1992. Similarly, in 1997, the Kuki and the Zomi tribes clashed, resulting in an undocumented number of fatalities and large internal displacement. With passing days, several militant groups, each claiming to represent specific tribes, and more often than not, multiple outfits claiming to represent the same tribe (e.g. there are about nine groups claiming to represent the Kukis), have cropped up in the state, and almost all of them have significant presence in Churachandpur. Even the Valley-based outfits, such as the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), have found secure bases in Churachandpur.
The geography and patterns of population settlement in the district have facilitated the militants in no small manner. As per the 1994-95 satellite imagery, the total built-up area of Churachandpur was 6,726 Hectares (Urban - 585 Hectares and Rural - 6,141 Hectares), just 1.47 per cent of the total land mass, and the cropland area is 9,928 hectares (2.17 per cent of the district territory). Apart from a handful of tiny townships like Henglep, Thanlon, Tipaimukh and the district headquarters at Churachandpur, the population is located over many scattered villages, often separated by hills, rivers, rivulets, streams, bamboo groves and thickets, each afflicted by serious problems of transportation and communication. For example, many interior villages in the district can only be reached after a journey involving a three to four days’ trek from the district Headquarters.
While Churachandpur has been the hotbed of intense militancy, the incident that brought the district to the national limelight in 2006 was the rape and molestation of at least 25 women belonging to the Hmar tribe, by cadres of Valley-based militant groups, the UNLF and the KCP. On January 6, 10 girls, some of them minors, were raped or molested and several villagers assaulted in Parbung village in the Tipaimukh sub-division, located in the southern part of the district. One boy, whose two sisters were sexually assaulted, was shot dead the same night. Ten days later, on the night of January 16, about 18 armed militants assaulted about 402 villagers of Lungthulien. They went on to molest and rape 15 girls and women aged between 12 and 27. The villagers were so terrified that early in the morning of January 17 many of them fled to neighbouring Mizoram. 650 people were accommodated in camps set up by the Mizoram government at Sakawrdai.
Fear of reprisal attacks by the militants ensured that the incidents were brought to the notice of an unresponsive and incapacitated administration only in the month of March. Widespread condemnation forced the state government to appoint a one-man Inquiry Commission, whose report has since been submitted. Notwithstanding the finding of the Commission, the state’s ability to prosecute the militants remains severely limited, to say the least. Both the state and other agencies have found it convenient to view the incident as an isolated and horrific act that needs immediate punitive action – though the latter remains improbable. Moreover, one can hardly ignore the fact that the tribal population of Churachandpur has constantly been subjected to systematic acts of terror by Valley-based militant groups, who have tended to exploit the schism between the Valley and the Hills. For a number of years, the UNLF maintained ‘liberated zones’ in areas like Henglep, until the Army claimed to have flushed them out in January 2006. ‘Operation Dragnet’ launched by the Army on January 20, resulted in the death of seven UNLF militants and two army personnel including a Lieutenant Colonel. Although Army personnel are deployed in areas like Parbung and Lungthulien, militant activities continue to be reported from adjoining areas, and prominent incidents this year include:
February 6: Fifteen Border Security Force (BSF) trainees were injured in a bomb explosion triggered by suspected UNLF militants at Mualkawi near Lamka.
February 16: The body of a security force (SF) man, T. Ginlunlang Simte, suspected to have been killed by militants, was recovered by the Churachandpur district Police from Tolbung village.
April 21: Suspected militants shot dead an unidentified youth near Khuga Dam.
May 4: Three suspected militants were killed while four persons, including two SF personnel, sustained injuries in an encounter at Rengkai.
May 5: Unidentified militants shot dead a civilian, Genminlun alias T. Benjamin, at Bijang.
May 8: Two Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) cadres, Ningthoujam Shyamkahai and Khundrakpam Ranjit, were shot dead in an encounter with the SF personnel at Zouveng Meetei Leikai.
May 28: UNLF killed a youth at Meitei Leikai in the Churachandpur town.
June 18: Unidentified gunmen killed a youth, Seitin Chongloi at K. Salbungvill.
August 3: Two motorcycle-borne militants fired at a SF patrol party at the New Bazar area of Churachandpur town and killed a BSF soldier besides injuring a civilian.
September 18: A SF personnel belonging to the Assam Rifles was killed and five others sustained injuries in an attack by PLA at Telkotjang.
Planting of anti-personnel landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the groups like the UNLF and the KCP to deter the movement of the SFs has been constant in the militancy in Churachandpur. Areas like Singngat, Thanlon, Henglep and Tipaimukh sub-divisions have been the worst affected. A number of civilians have also been killed, injured or maimed in landmine/ IED explosions. Separate data for Churachandpur is unavailable, but official data for the state indicates that three persons were killed and 30 were injured in 37 IED/mine blasts in 2004. The situation worsened in 2005 with 26 persons killed and 75 injured in 66 blasts. Till August 2006, there have been 33 incidents of IED/mine explosions, in which 17 persons have been killed and 73 were injured. A bulk of these incidents has taken place in Churachandpur district. The Hmar Students` Association, in fact, quotes much higher figures for the district, claiming that 81 persons have died in landmine blasts and booby traps planted by militants at Tipaimukh between September 2004 and January 2006. Recently, on August 15, 2006, a 57-year old man, identified as Lalroshang was killed in a landmine explosion at Parbung. In a muted official response, on September 18, 2006, the Manipur state Legislative Assembly passed a resolution condemning the planting of IEDs/mines.
While Valley-based militants appear to carry a mandate of sorts to target the non-Meitei population in the state, which is often implicitly endorsed by sections of the intelligentsia and human rights groups located in the Meitei dominated capital, Imphal, (this was evident in the muted reaction that the mass rape incidents attracted in mainland Manipur), such violence is only a part of the narrative on militancy in Churachandpur. The hill based militant outfits are also responsible for a substantial share of militancy-related excesses, and 13 of these groups operate in Churachandpur, each claiming to represent the rights of particular tribes. Incidentally, nine Kuki groups had signed a ‘cessation of hostility agreement’ with the Union government in September 2005. That has, however, done little to lessen the spate of violence in the district.
Incidents of the tribal militants rising against atrocities on their own constituencies by Valley-based militants are surprisingly rare. In January 2006, the UNLF and the Hmar People’s Convention-Democracy (HPC-D) militants clashed in the Parbung area, and this resulted in the migration of the civilian population to Mizoram. On January 27, 2006, the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), in a statement, accused UNLF of pursuing divisive tactics among various tribal communities. On September 15, 2006, the obscure Hmar National Army (HNA) issued a Press Release with a warning that if the Manipur government failed to look into its demands of relief and rehabilitation facilities to the Hmar Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) within 45 days, it would be constrained to serve a ‘quit notice’ on the Meitei community in Churachandpur. The notice, however, was never served.
Such symbolic bravado notwithstanding, internecine clashes among the tribal groups have brought about bigger miseries upon the people. Just the past six months several such incidents have been witnessed:
April 18, 2006: HPC-D cadres killed Isaac L. Hmar, the ‘information secretary’ of the Hmar Inpui, a Hmar community- based organisation believed to be opposed to the HPC-D.
April 25, 2006: Two unidentified militants were killed and a civilian was critically wounded in an exchange of fire between cadres of two rival militant groups at Lhangjol village.
September 21, 2006: Three ZRA cadres were beaten to death after being abducted by rival cadres of the Kuki National Army (KNA) at Sielmat.
September 26, 2006: HPC-D militants killed two HNA cadres in the Khomoi village under Chuarachandpur police station saying that the HNA is "an organisation which the Hmar nationals did not accept".
Attacks on civilians have also been common, and the more prominent of recent attacks include the killing of a civilian, Songkhotinthang alias Tinthang, at Bijang Buite Veng by the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) on April 22; the killing of a youth, Ginpithang Kipgen, at a place between Nengthal and Ngathal, by ZRA militants on June 30; and the killing of two civilians and injury to four others, when a group of ZRA cadres opened fire towards a crowded church, targeting a patrol party of the Assam Rifles at Vengnuom on August 20. These incidents are only the most significant in widespread regimes of intimidation, extortion and quotidian violence by terrorist groups across the district.
The situation in Churachandpur is part of the enveloping anarchy in Manipur, and must be blamed squarely on the collapse of governance in the state. The problem here can by no means be attributed to a dearth of security personnel or resources. Compared to the national average of 122 policemen per 100,000 population, Manipur has a ratio of 535/100,000. In addition, the presence of the Army and para-military forces make it one of the most heavily securitized states in the entire country— the expenditure on security is substantially underwritten by the centre. With the state administration constantly surrendering to terrorist pressures over the years, districts like Churachandpur can be expected to remain subject to cycles of militancy in the foreseeable future.
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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