It has been more than a month since violence broke out in Manipur between the Kuki and the Meitei communities, which incidentally belong to the same ethnic stock, but little is being done to keep the situation from spiralling out of control.
The much-delayed visit of Union Home Minister Amit Shah to the State’s trouble-torn areas—Moreh, Kangpokpi, Churachandpur, and Imphal—has not yielded much result on the ground. Reports continue to pour in of firings and casualties. Worse, there are reports that certain sections of the paramilitary forces serving in some of these areas stood aside and did not make any effort to protect civilians.
The most disturbing incident, however, involves Assam Rifles, which is facing widespread criticism and resistance from the public. In one incident, a stand-off arose between personnel of 37 Assam Rifles and the Manipur Police, when three ‘Casspir’ vehicles belonging to the former blocked the entrance and the roads leading from Sugnu police station. Although this happened after the Home Minister’s visit, and there are videos of the stand-off in the public domain, there has not been any official response yet about what transpired, adding one more complex layer to the already difficult situation. This has increased concerns over the lack of accountability that marks the heavy militarisation in Manipur.
Also Read | What is really behind the violence in Manipur?
Another major grey area that has emerged is the nature of the Suspension of Operations (SoO), which has its own chequered history. On August 1, 2005, the Army signed a pact with the United People’s Front (a body formed by different Kuki-based militant outfits and the Kuki National Organisation) in this regard. There were no ground rules then and the pact was not recognised by the Manipur government. Subsequently, on August 22, 2008, a tripartite agreement was inked with certain ground rules that were agreed upon by the signatories.
Among the ground rules were the following: the security forces, including State and Central forces, shall not launch any operations nor will the Kuki groups; the Kuki signatories shall abide by the Constitution of India, the laws of the land, and the territorial integrity of Manipur; Kuki cadres are to be confined in designated camps identified by the government; and the arms of the Kuki groups would be deposited in a safe room under a double-locking system.
- A war-like situation can be said to prevail in Manipur. Little is being done to prevent the situation from getting out of hand following the violence between the Kuki and Meitei populations in Manipur that began more than a month ago.
- The ground rules of the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement have been flouted. The Security Adviser to the Manipur Chief Minister has said that both cadres and arms have gone missing from the designated camps, pointing to an intelligence failure.
- The imposition of an economic blockade, in total violation of all human rights conventions and practices, leads to scarcity of goods and food and medical supplies in the State. The Central government and its various agencies need to address it without skirting around the issue.
Suspension of Operations
By all accounts, these ground rules have been flouted, given the presence of armed cadres in the rally taken out in Churachandpur on May 3. The Security Adviser to the Manipur Chief Minister has gone on record to say that both cadres and arms have gone missing from the designated camps. What this points to in the context of the violence in Manipur is intelligence failure.
This leads to the larger question: Was this an instance of convenient ignorance? All SoO camps are within a tight radius of the Assam Rifles encampment, whose personnel note down entries and exits and movements in and around the camp. How did it come to a situation where armed cadres were able to leave the camps? What are the reasons for such personnel not being reported or action not being taken to contain them? These are questions that need to be addressed, and soon.
The dust will take a long time to settle in Manipur and the immediate focus needs to be on stopping the violence. To begin with, the process of ascertaining facts and setting the chronology of events must start. For this to happen, the status of the SoO will need to be revisited. But all this is easier said than done.
A case in point is the Home Minister’s appeal to Kuki groups in Kangpokpi to call off the economic blockade. This resulted in the ‘lifting’ of restrictions on the movement of goods vehicles bound for Manipur on the National Highway for a period of seven days, which in turn led to violence within the Kuki community itself. The Committee on Tribals Unity (COTU), which announced the lifting of the blockade, had to face a rebellion within its ranks when its followers stormed the houses of two of its leaders, leading to firing in which one person was reportedly shot dead.
‘Economic blockade’ is a common phenomenon in the socio-political scene of Manipur, and has spread to neighbouring Assam and Mizoram as well. National Highway 2 is essentially the State’s lifeline since all major goods are brought in by this route. That road is entirely blocked.
The imposition of such a blockade, in total violation of all human rights conventions and practices, leads to scarcity of goods and food and medical supplies in the State. The irony, of course, is that the Home Minister’s tweet for the blockade to be lifted was addressed to people who have been living with an Internet ban for more than a month.
A war-like situation can be said to prevail in Manipur. The Central government and its various agencies need to address it without skirting around the issue. The longer the delay, the more damage this can cause, not just to Manipur but to the entire north-eastern region.
Chitra Ahanthem is a freelance journalist and writer. She is the former Editor of The Imphal Free Press published from Manipur.