India: Troubling Spike In Manipur – Analysis
By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On February 20, 2022, two Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel were injured in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explosion in Wangoo Tera area of Kakching District.
On February 12, 2022, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was detonated inside the Ukhrul Forest Division Office in the Phungreitang area of Ukhrul town. No casualty was reported in the incident.
On February 11, 2022, a grenade was hurled at the gate of the residence of Mohamad Fakhruddin, a National People’s Party supporter, at Khabeisoi in the Imphal East District.
On January 12, 2022, a Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) militant, ‘lance corporal’ Pouluanthai Gangmei, was abducted and subsequently killed by the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) in an area between Awangkhul and Warngkhung under the Noney Police Station of Noney District.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), two fatalities have been recorded in the State since the beginning of 2022 (data till February 20, 2022).
On January 5, 2022, one Assam rifles trooper was killed in an IED explosion at Lilong Ushoipokpi Sangomsang, along the Imphal-Moreh Road in Thoubal District.
The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database indicates that Manipur has already recorded 32 terrorism-linked incidents in 2022 (data till February 20), including two incidents of killing, resulting in two fatalities. During the corresponding period in 2021, the State recorded 23 terrorism-linked incidents, including one incident of killing, resulting in one fatality.
The State recorded a total of 27 fatalities [eight civilians, five Security Force (SF) personnel and 14 militants in 11 incidents of killing through 2021. In 2020, four incidents of killing led to seven fatalities – one civilian, three SF personnel, and three militants. Significantly, fatalities registered in 2020 were the lowest in the State since 1992. Seven incidents resulted in nine fatalities – four civilians and five militants – in 2019; 21 incidents led to 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. There were 36 fatalities (14 civilians, 13 SF personnel, nine terrorists) in 2016.
Thus, the trend of decline in fatalities established since 2018 was reversed in 2021, even as overall terrorism-linked incidents increased from 113 in 2020 (the lowest number recorded in a year since 2001) to 195 in 2021. There was a total of 250 incidents in 2019.
The State also witnessed four major incidents (each involving three or more fatalities) in 2021, resulting in 18 fatalities (six civilians, five SF personnel and seven militants). This was the highest number since 2017, when three major incidents led to 12 fatalities. The year 2020, 2019 and 2018 did not record any major incidents.
In a major incident, on November 13, 2021, five SF personnel, including the commanding officer of Assam Rifles, Colonel Viplav Tripathi, were killed after their convoy came under heavy attack by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) militants near S. Sehken village under the Behiang Police Station, close to pillar number 43, on the India-Myanmar border, in Churachandpur District. Colonel Tripathi’s wife and son, who were accompanying him, were also killed in the attack. Another five troopers were injured in the attack. This was the worst incident targeting SFs in the State, in terms of overall fatalities, since the June 4, 2015, attack, when militants ambushed a military convoy of the 6th Dogra Regiment of the Indian Army, killing at least 18 Army personnel and injuring 11, at a place between Paralong and Charong villages in Chandel District. The Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), had jointly claimed responsibility.
The remaining 20 fatalities in 2021 were linked to eight groups: 13 fatalities (four civilians and nine militants) to the Kuki National Front-Nehlun (KNF-N), Kuki National Liberation Army (KNLA), Liberation Tigers of Tribals (LTT), Socialist Democratic Front of Kukiland (SDFK), all non-Suspension of Operation (non-SoO) Kuki groups; three fatalities (all militants) were linked to linked to SoO Kuki groups – the Kuki Revolutionary Army and United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF); two fatalities (one civilian and one militant) to the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) and Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM), both Naga groups; and one fatality (one militant) to the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), a Valley-based group. One civilian fatality remained unattributed.
Through 2021, the Valley-based insurgent groups [UNLF, PLA, People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), KYKL and KCP], did not engage in peace talks, remained active and mostly operated out of the Myanmar. The November 13 ambush by the PLA and MNPF highlighted the potential danger these groups pose, especially after the February 1, 2021, coup d’état in Myanmar. Intelligence reports indicate that nearly 300 Valley-based insurgent groups’ cadres are currently stationed across the India-Myanmar border and are fighting the anti-coup forces on behalf of Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army).
Further, UNLF continued with efforts to revive its organization. At its 9th General Assembly held between December 21 and 28, 2021, it declared its ‘8th Central Committee’ that would oversee the group’s activities between 2022 and 2025, with N.C. Koireng as its ‘chairman’. Other prominent members include N. Thabal as ‘vice chairman’, N. Lancha as ‘general secretary’ and M. Chaoba as ‘Chief of Army Staff-Manipur People’s Army (COAS-MPA).’ Earlier, on February 15, 2021, the UNLF ‘Central Committee’ had expelled its former ‘chairman’ Khundongbam Pambei from the organisation for his ‘anti-party activities’ and ‘counter-revolutionary charges.’
Meanwhile, on February 14, 2022, Union Defense Minister Rajnath Singh appealed to the militants in Manipur stating, “we are ready for a dialogue with insurgent groups because all the problems vexing this region, be it unemployment or poverty, should be resolved.” However, two-days later, on February 16, 2022, KYKL ‘chairman’ N. Oken asserted, “social and cultural identities have been gradually diluted” due to Hinduization and warned that “it is self-evident that if we continue to be a part of India under its colonial rule, we will cease to exist as a people.” Clearly, the Government’s efforts to bring rebel groups on board are unlikely to fructify unless the fear of loss of identity and issues of development are adequately addressed.
On the other hand, the long-drawn negotiations/peace process with the Hill-based groups – the NSCN-IM and Kuki militant conglomerates [Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and United People’s Front (UPF)] – are yet to see a conclusion. While talks with the NSCN-IM began in 1997 and continue without a final outcome, dialogue with the KNO and UPF began in 2008. The SoO with Kuki groups is periodically extended. The current extension is valid through February 28, 2022.
On August 2-3, 2021, NSCN-IM enforced a 12-hour total shutdown in the ‘Naga areas’ of Manipur to protest against the “failure of the Centre” to fulfil the 2015 Framework Agreement During the duration of the shutdown shops and business establishments remained closed.
Moreover, the Hill-Valley divide remains and is aggravated periodically. The latest point of friction is the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Councils Bill 2021. While Hill-based civil society groups want it for “equal development” the Valley-based groups oppose it, arguing that the provisions are against “co-existence and equitable sharing,” and could lead to the “bifurcation” of the state. The Bill has been put in cold storage for now.
Further, the drug trafficking routes covering Manipur complicate the security situation. According to media reports, the November 13, 2021, ambush on Colonel Viplav Tripathi and his convoy was a reaction to his pro-active approach on drugs and weapons smuggling cases, under the ‘Ruihhlo Do: A War Against Drugs’, during his stint in Mizoram, which upset the militants. Indeed, the Police registered a total of 313 drug related cases in 2021 and made 467 arrests. The prominent cases of drugs recoveries in 2021 included:
December 7: Drugs worth over INR six billion were seized from drug smugglers in Imphal, Manipur, and the border town of Moreh in Tengnoupal District.
December 4: Security Forces seized 100,000 Yaba tablets valued at INR 50 million from a vehicle moving from Moreh to Pallel in Tengnoupal District.
Indeed, in an interview, on November 17, 2021, Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh asserted, “I am totally for war on drugs. Manipur falls within the Golden Triangle taking advantage of which this smuggling is taking place. Enemy increases because of such actions.”
There is an urgent need for greater vigilance to tackle drugs and arms smuggling in Manipur. Further, the long-drawn negotiations with Hill-based groups need to be brought to a conclusion in good faith. For, the Valley-based groups, cooperation with Myanmarese authorities remains crucial. Finally, any arrangement that sustains the Hill-Valley divide needs to be effectively countered, and sentiments on both sides need to be assuaged.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management