By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On March 2, 2021, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) ‘executed’ a Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) militant, Thokchom Nando Singh, at an undisclosed location for “raping and murdering”, Lungnila Elizabeth (8), in 2003. Elizabeth, the daughter of Francis Ngajokpa, the then Minister for Taxation and General Administration, was abducted by Thokchom Nando Singh and his three associates from near her school on November 3, 2003; nine days later, on November 12, her corpse was recovered from a nearby village swamp.
In the past too, UNLF, an Imphal Valley-based group, has ‘executed’ persons accused of rape.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), two fatalities (including the March 2 ‘execution’) have been recorded in the State since the beginning of 2021 (data till March 7, 2021). The other fatality in the current year is a Kuki militant, killed in a factional clash. On January 23, suspected militants opened fire at Mujibur Workshop, a motorcycle workshop, killing a customer, Thangminlen Guite (45), in Moreh town in Tengnoupal District. Later, United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF) claimed responsibility for the attack on Guite, asserting that the victim belonged to the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and had killed UKLF ‘Town Commander’ of Moreh, John Gangte in 2019.
In 2020, four incidents of killing resulted in seven fatalities – one civilian, three Security Force (SF) personnel, and three militants. Seven incidents led to nine fatalities – four civilians and five militants – in 2019; 21 incidents resulted in 23 fatalities – seven civilians, seven SF personnel, and nine terrorists – in 2018; and 37 incidents resulted in 55 fatalities – 23 civilians, nine SF personnel, 22 terrorists, and one not specified – in 2017. Incidents of killing and resultant fatalities in the State have been declining since 2018.
The fatalities registered in 2020 were the lowest in the State since 1992. A previous low of nine fatalities was recorded in 2019. Since the beginning of the troubles in the State, fatalities in a year have only been in single digits in these two years. There was a high of 496 fatalities in 2008.
Overall terrorism-linked incidents also fell from 250 in 2019 to 112 in 2020, the lowest number recorded in a year since 2001. The previous low of 95 was recorded in 2000 (but data for 2000 is available only from March 6).
The geographical area of insurgent activity also continues to shrink. Incidents of killing were reported from four of the State’s 16 Districts in 2020: Tamenglong (one fatality in one incident), Imphal West (one fatality in one incident), Noney (two fatalities in one incident) and Chandel (three fatalities in one incident). In 2019, fatalities were recorded in five of the State’s 16 Districts: Kangpokpi (three fatalities in two incidents), Pherzawl (two fatalities in one incident), Tengnoupal (two fatalities in one incident), Noney (one fatality in one incident), and Bishnupur (one fatality in one incident).
The State is evidently going through a phase of deepening peace.
However, it is widely believed that, for enduring peace in Manipur, it is necessary that all ongoing negotiations with State-based insurgent groups must reach their conclusion at the earliest. It is also important to bring the groups outside the purview of the talks to the negotiating table.
The negotiations with the Hill-based groups – the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) and Kuki militant conglomerates [KNO and United People’s Front (UPF)] – have not reached any conclusion and have been lingering since long. While talks with the NSCN-IM began in 1997, talks with KNO and UPF began in 2008.
On March 3, 2021, the NSCN-IM declared that the “Indo-Naga political talks are back on the table” and progressing. The outfit further asserted that the Framework Agreement signed on August 3, 2015, had been “brought back to life” for removing any misinterpretation. Earlier, on February 9, 2021, Union Minister of State for Home G. Krishna Reddy observed, “Negotiations with Naga groups are at an advanced stage. However, no time-frame for agreement can be indicated at this stage.”
Separately, on February 25, 2021, the Union and the Manipur Governments extended the tripartite Suspension of Operations (SoO) Agreement with UPF and KNO by another six months. The SoO agreement will now expire on August 31, 2021.
As the talks meander on, these groups continue to violate the agreements they have signed – NSCN-IM on July 25, 1997 and KNO-UPF on August 22, 2008. Both groups continue to engage in factional clashes and acts of extortion.
Of the seven fatalities in 2020, three (all militants) were due to factional clashes. On March 13, 2020, a Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) militant was killed in a factional clash with the NSCN-IM at Longchai village in Tamenglong District.
On December 17, 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) filed a charge sheet before the NIA Special Court in Nagaland stating,
The investigation of the case has revealed well organized extortion racket by NSCN-IM involving criminal intimidation of various companies undertaking road construction projects in Manipur… The developmental funds of the government have been illegally diverted in an organised manner and collected by NSCN-IM operatives through extortion by committing a terrorist act punishable under UA (P) Act.
Unsurprisingly, the State Government, through a letter by the State Chief Secretary J. Suresh Babu on May 20, 2020, had requested the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) to make the NSCN-IM immediately vacate “unauthorised” camps “mushrooming” in the State. The NSCN-IM reacted saying that the “Indo-Naga ceasefire” and the peace process “covers all Naga territories”. NSCN-IM further warned,
The Manipur government and the political leaders of the State should exercise caution and restrain themselves from giving out any irresponsible statement to provoke the Nagas.
KNO-linked factional clashes are reflected in the January 23, 2021, incident (above).
Meanwhile, the Valley-based insurgent groups remain outside the purview of talks and continue their activities, including collaborations with other groups. Indeed, such collaboration between different Northeast militant groups based in Myanmar does pose an occasion threat. On July 29, 2020, a joint team of three militant groups – the Manipur-based People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), and the Assam-based United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) – killed three Assam Rifles personnel in an ambush at Khongtal village under the Chakpikarong Police Station in the Chandel District of Manipur. Another five SF personnel were injured in the attack. The responsibility for the attack was claimed in a joint statement issued by Ruichumhao, ‘defense secretary’, MNPF; MM Ngouba, ‘chief of army staff’, PLA; and Paresh Asom aka Paresh Baruah, ‘chief of army staff’, ULFA-I.
The Government has, however, reached out to Valley based civil society groups and also fulfilled their long-standing demand for the implementation of the Inner-Line Permit (ILP) system. ILP is a document that allows an Indian citizen to visit or stay in a State that is protected under the ILP system implemented under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR) 1873.
Further, the Coordination Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), a conglomerate of civil society organisations based in the Valley, has been reassured by Union Home Minister (UHM) Amit Shah that the Centre would not grant autonomy to any community in Manipur. COCOMI assistant coordinator, Khuraijam Athouba declared,
We made our position very clear to him on the issue of Manipur’s territorial integrity. He assured us that no autonomy will be granted to any community in Manipur. He said the Central government is working out a formula to resolve all internal contradictions in Manipur so people (from different ethnic communities) can work and live together in harmony.
On September 27, 2020, UHM Amit Shah announced that the Centre would settle the issues of Northeast’s remaining rebel groups, which are still outside the purview of peace processes, by 2024. He added,
In the past six years under Modiji’s [Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s] Government, several peace initiatives were taken in the Northeast. Agreements signed with eight extremist groups saw hundreds of rebels laying down weapons. The issues of remaining small number of groups will be settled by 2024 by taking along the chief ministers of the region.
However, this optimism confronts strong challenges from the ground. The Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), the political wing of PLA, has ruled out autonomy within the Constitution of India as a solution in the case of Manipur. In a statement on February 25, 2021, RPF ‘president’ Irengbam Chaoren declared,
Other than complete independence, we don’t see any movement which seeks autonomy or special rights within the Constitution of India as capable of determining the future of Manipur…
RPF acknowledged the weakness of the present armed movement and blamed ‘materialism’ and pursuit of a ‘luxurious life’ for the scenario. At the same time, RPF countered UHM Shah’s assertion that militancy in the Northeast would be over by 2024. Instead, the RPF ‘president’ asked the Government of India to first focus all their attention and energy on averting the ‘balkanization of India’.
Earlier, on February 16, 2021, Kanglei Yowal Kanna Lup (KYKL) ‘chairman’ N. Oken asserted that the ‘movement’ in the region had entered a point where there was a need to push it with new vigour. Oken stated,
We must fight against those adversary forces that have been sent to our land, equipped with the idea of Akhand Bharat, tightly anchored to Hindutva… In the face of the alleged colonial situation that our people have now experienced, all the revolutionary organizations in our region must unite as one body, leaving aside old divisive theories.
Meanwhile, there was a major change in the organisational set-up in United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the oldest militant group of Manipur. On February 15, 2021, the UNLF ‘Central Committee’ expelled its former ‘chairman’ Khundongbam Pambei from the organisation for his ‘anti-party activities’ and ‘counter-revolutionary charges’.
Worryingly, according to an April 24, 2020, report, both the UNLF and People’s Revolutionary Army of Kangleipak (PREPAK), have camps in Rakhine and Chin states, and are allegedly providing logistical support to the Arakan Army (AA) in Myanmar. AA is active in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. According to a December 7, 2020, report, the Myanmar-based United Wa State Army (UWSA) and AA are supplying weapons to insurgent groups in the northeast at China’s behest.
There is a possibility that the declining trend in violence in Manipur could reverse due to recent political developments in Myanmar. The February 1, 2021, the coup by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army), followed by civilian protests and violence as a result of a crackdown, could impede further cooperation with India on the security front, as Myanmar’s domestic issues takes precedence. In fact, the regime is trying to court all remaining Ethnic Armed Organisations to join ongoing peace talks, so that the forces have a free hand to deal with the protests. In the emerging situation, cooperation between the insurgents could provide augmenting spaces for Indian Insurgent Groups based in Myanmar to revive and carry out violent incidents across the border into India.
The peace achieved in Manipur over the past few years is evident in the continued decline of violence-linked fatalities. However, an amicable resolution of the Hill-Valley divide in ways that meet the dominant groups’ aspirations, is necessary for a stable resolution. Moreover, to tackle the Valley-based groups operating out of Myanmar, closer and institutionalised security cooperation with the Tatmadaw is crucial.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management