Victims of crossfire

Published : Sep 10, 2004 00:00 IST

Cleaning up the airport road in Imphal after a spell of rioting. - ROBERT SAPAM

Cleaning up the airport road in Imphal after a spell of rioting. - ROBERT SAPAM

ON the night of August 15, troops of 33 Assam Rifles deployed at Wagabai in Manipur went to Kairak village and asked the residents to stand up against militants and not allow them to operate against the security forces from their premises. The dos and don'ts from the Assam Rifles came following intermittent firing at the troops by militants from inside the village, which started at 7-15 p.m. and lasted for over an hour and a half. The militants used weapons such as AK-47s and light machine guns, and Lethode from three places inside the village at a distance of 500 to 600 metres.

As many as 20 different insurgent groups in Manipur are engaged in a bush war with the security forces, and the worst victims of it are the average Manipuri citizens. The insurgency-ravaged State is characterised by scenes of heavily armed militants, sheltered in villages, launching attacks on the security forces, and following these, the Army descending on the villages. The security forces sometimes merely warn the villagers against harbouring militants, but sometimes they round them up at the dead of night and subject them to hours of interrogation and various forms of mental and physical torture to extract information about the militants.

When an Army brigade was sent in April to Sajik Tampak, a strategic area in Manipur's most backward Chandel district to secure a "liberated zone" of the militants, a large number of villagers fled their homes for fear of being caught in the shootout between the troops and the militants. Villagers who shelter militants out of fear and succumb to the pressures of interrogation by the troops run the risk of being identified as "informers" and being shot by the militants. If they do not divulge information about the militants during interrogation, they run the risk of being suspected as "sympathisers" or even "activists" of the outlawed organisations and being arrested.

For mediapersons also it is tightrope walking. Unidentified gunmen killed Lalrohu Hmar, Editor of Shan Daily, a Hmar language newspaper published from Churachandpur district, and Th Brajamani Singh, Editor of Manipur News, an Imphal-based English daily. No militant group has claimed responsibility for the killings. It is a well-known fact that the two were killed for writing against militants.

Incidents of armed forces personnel beating up correspondents who report the excesses committed by them are not uncommon.

Similarly, when the militant Revolutionary People's Front (RPF) "banned" all kinds of entertainment in Hindi, the cable operators of Imphal were told not to telecast any Hindi channels. They had no choice but to fall in line. However, the Assam Rifles forced them to air some Hindi movies. The next day, RPF cadre swooped down and closed the cable TV offices. The government, in turn, said that cable TV operators would not be allowed to broadcast if they did not air Hindi programmes. For a long period, Imphal had to do without the service of its two cable TV networks. They were able to come on air again later without Hindi channels.

FOR ordinary Manipuris, the widespread extortion by underground outfits is a bane. Right from an ordinary paan shop owner to a senior government employee, everyone has to pay "protection money" regularly, which the militant groups term as "contribution for the revolution". Even Ministers and police personnel have not been spared.

Some government departments allegedly pay a fixed percentage of their revenues to insurgent groups every month. Insurgent groups have even begun to influence the grant of government contracts and development projects and the clearing of bills. These outfits allegedly siphon off rice, sugar, wheat and other essential commodities meant for the Public Distribution System and distribute these at reduced prices in the areas dominated by them, in order to earn a Robin Hood image. "For many of the underground outfits, political objectives have taken a back seat. They have become mere extortion groups. If you don't pay you will attract the wrath of the underground. If the security forces come to know that you are paying the underground, then you attract the wrath of the men in uniform. For ordinary citizens like us, it is the proverbial situation of being caught between the devil and the deep sea," said a resident of Imphal.

Between 1992 and 2000, more than 1,000 civilians have fallen victim to militants' bullets across the State. According to the police, 33 people have been killed by security forces between January 1 and July 11. Significantly, 17 of them had no known links with insurgent groups.

On the other hand, exposure to heavy military hardware in areas like Sajik Tampak, bordering Myanmar, has affected the psychology of the villagers, particularly children.

Villagers often become victims of turf wars between the security forces and militants. The security forces try to bring poor villagers inhabiting areas that serve as approaches to the militants' bases to their side by undertaking development activities such as the building of roads, the provision of safe drinking water and the organising of health camps. This is considered an essential part of counter-insurgency operations, for gaining control over the areas dominated by militants.

On the other hand, the militants also require the help of villagers for safe passage to and from their jungle hideouts. In order to earn the sympathy of the villagers, they distribute essential items, which would have reached the villagers had the of government machinery worked in a normal way.

While the actions of the security forces often gives rise to allegations of excesses and atrocities, the rise in the incidence of extortion, kidnapping for ransom, looting and intimidation by militants has given some degree of legitimacy to harsh laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958.

As long as the insurgent outfits of Manipur continue to wage war, the presence of security forces in the State is inevitable. The presence of security forces, in turn, as has been the experience of average Manipuris, is bound to lead to a situation in which they cease to enjoy the rights of law-abiding citizens as enshrined in the Constitution. The people of Manipur do not want to be caught in the crossfire any more. They want the Centre to initiate a dialogue with the underground outfits to bring an end to the conflict. Once it is resolved there will be no need for the security forces to raid villages, and the militants will not slap "revolution tax" on the people. Until that day the average Manipuri will have to live in terror.

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