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A promise to Manipur

Print edition : Dec 03, 2004 T+T-

The Rs.250-crore special package and the Prime Minister's assurance of an experts committee review of the AFSPA could be the first in a series of steps to restore peace in the State.

in Guwahati

AFTER a four-month impasse over the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, in Manipur, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre now wants to "write a new chapter".

The trouble-torn northeastern State is limping back to normal after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured a delegation of the Apunba Lup, the umbrella organisation of 32 organisations spearheading the movement seeking the withdrawal of the Act, that he would consider replacing the AFSPA with "a more humane law that will address both the concerns of national security and the rights of citizens".

The Centre's decision defused the explosive situation created by the alleged rape and custodial killing of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama after she was picked up by Assam Rifles personnel on the night of July 10. A protest by a dozen women in the nude on July 15 snowballed into a widespread movement demanding the withdrawal of the AFSPA from the State. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil visited the State in the first week of September to no avail.

The UPA government has agreed to a suggestion by the Apunba Lup that an expert group look into the legal, constitutional and "moral" aspects of the AFSPA. The group, comprising members of Parliament and other politicians and people's representatives from Manipur, will be formed soon. Manmohan Singh told the Apunba Lup delegation, when it called on him on November 1, that his "hope and belief is that it will be possible to work together with the people of Manipur to write a new chapter in the history of the State". As a goodwill gesture and to create a congenial atmosphere, Apunba Lup suspended its agitation programmes, including that against the teaching of Hindi.

The Prime Minister's assurance came nearly three weeks before his scheduled visit to Manipur and was preceded by the UPA government's announcement of a Rs.250-crore package for Manipur for development projects in education, health, power, transport and communication. The package was finalised when Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh called on Union Minister for Development of the Northeastern Region, P.R. Kyndiah, on October 26.

Prof. Arambam Lokendra, who led the Apunba Lup delegation, told reporters after the meeting that it had only pressed the demand for the withdrawal of the AFSPA. "If POTA can be repealed why not this Act, which has brought only misery to the people for the last 46 years?" Lokendra asked. He said the delegation had made it clear that an amended AFSPA was not acceptable to the people. "It has to be reviewed and replaced. You cannot throttle the democratic rights of the people in the name of national security," he added.

The Apunba Lup agreed to send the delegation after much prodding by Manipur Governor S.S. Sidhu and after several rounds of discussion. Both the UPA government and the Ibobi government will continue to be under pressure as the Apunba Lup will keep up its agitation until the AFSPA is replaced with a humane law.

VARIOUS organisations in Manipur have for long alleged excesses on innocent people by security forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations and demanded the withdrawal of the AFSPA. The UPA government dithered even to review the AFSPA as it deemed the Act necessary for the Army to carry out counter-insurgency operations. Bowing to public pressure, the Ibobi Singh government withdrew the disturbed area status of a 20-square kilometre area covering seven Assembly segments under the Imphal municipal limits, to render the AFSPA ineffective there. However, this failed to assuage the public anger. The Apunba Lup intensified the movement for the withdrawal of the Act from the whole of Manipur.

While the Prime Minister's assurance to the Apunba Lup and the special package helped restore a semblance of order in the State, these developments came in the backdrop of a crackdown by the security forces on rebels in the Chandel, Churachandpur and Bishenpur districts bordering Myanmar.

The Army claimed that in a major counter-insurgency operation carried out in the first week of November in Churachandpur, it busted rebel camps at Beheng, Theigothang and Zou Khunam. An Army press release said the general layout of the camp at Zou Khunam and the documents seized showed that it was probably the temporary headquarters of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). While the underground cadre fled the area, troops recovered large quantities of grain, medicines, computer peripherals, uniforms, formation signs, underground literature, ammunition and explosives, the release added. The authorities clamped indefinite night curfew in the district to aid the security force in cutting off the rebels' routes.

The troop build-up in the area began about two months ago when the Army moved its 44th Mountain Brigade to the Chakpikarong area near Sajik Tampak, a strategic area in Chandel, Manipur's most backward district. Following this, some militants escaped to other interior areas, particularly to the adjacent Bishenpur and Churachandpur districts.

A large Army contingent was sent to Sajik Tampak to "neutralise the militants and secure the area" before the Lok Sabha polls in the Outer Manipur constituency on April 20. The militants clamped a ban on political parties and electioneering and the polls witnessed violence, with the militants targeting political workers and security forces.

The 44th Mountain Brigade, after a heavy gun battle, secured Sajik Tampak, which the PLA used as a transit point to and from the "liberated zone" on the Myanmar border. The People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the UNLF and the Kangleipak Communist Party are the other militant groups that have camps in the area.

A crackdown in Churanchandpur and Bishenpur districts by the Army came close on the heels of the recent visit to New Delhi by Myanmar's military ruler, General Than Shwe. Earlier, on June 20, a 14-member delegation of the Myanmar Army, led by its vice-chief Lt.-Gen. Ye Myint, held a meeting with the officials of the Indian Army's 3 Corps at Dimpaur in Nagaland. Than Shwe assured Manmohan Singh that Myanmar would not allow the use of its territory for insurgent activities against India. During the visit, a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Field of Non-traditional Security Issues was also signed by External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh and Myanmar's Minister for Foreign Affairs U Nyan Win (Frontline, November 19).

The Army authorities denied media reports that it was a joint crackdown against the underground outfits and said they were not aware whether the Myanmarese Army had sealed the border to prevent the militants from entering its territory.

"The security forces had been carrying out counter-insurgency operations in several areas of Manipur as a normal duty and at least 20 militants have been killed, 59 ultras apprehended and 35 weapons recovered since September 3," Defence Public Relations Officer Maj. S.D. Goswami told Frontline.

While the security forces are mounting pressure on the underground outfits, the Rs.250-crore special package comes as a relief for the Ibobi Singh government and gives the State government the opportunity to use development activities to fight insurgency. The Chief Minister raised the demand for the special package at the meeting of the Chief Ministers of the northeastern region with Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil in Shillong on September 4 and also during Patil's visit to Manipur the next day.

Ibobi Singh said economic adversities coupled with the lack of development had turned the northeastern region into a breeding ground for militancy. He laid emphasis on addressing the problem of increasing unemployment in Manipur, particularly that of the 4.5 lakh educated youth, which was the main cause of social tension and which fuelled insurgency and alienation.

While the government insisted that Manipur's narrow resource base was not enough to meet the State's requirements and maintained that the annual Plan allocation was inadequate, the hard fact is that a major chunk of the fund is siphoned off by corrupt officials and unscrupulous contractors and never reached the people at the grassroots. Infrastructure deficiencies had impeded investment, trade and commerce and added to the geographical isolation of the State.

As the State gets ready to roll out the red carpet for the Prime Minister, both the UPA government and the Ibobi Singh government, would be expected to follow up the crackdown by the security forces with sincere efforts to initiate a political dialogue with the underground outfits. Unless the disgruntled youth are brought back to the mainstream, no amount of money pumped in for development activities can usher in peace and progress in Manipur.