By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On March 22, 2020, unidentified militants lobbed a grenade at a Border Security Post (BSF) post located at Wangjing Tekcham Leikai in Thoubal District. There was no report of any causality in the incident.
On March 13, 2020, a Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) militant was killed in a factional clash with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) at Longchai village in Tamenglong District.
On January 8, 2020, a bullet ridden body of a non-local, identified as Nilesh Baburao Jadhav, was recovered from Terapokpi Chingdol in Imphal West 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 2020 (data till March 29, 2020).
Through 2019 the State registered nine insurgency-linked fatalities (four civilians and five militants) as against 23 [seven civilians, seven Security Force (SF) personnel, and nine militants] recorded in 2018. Total fatalities thus saw a decline of 60.86 per cent in 2019 as compared to 2018. Overall fatalities in the State in 2019 were the lowest since 1992. A previous low of 23 was recorded in 2018. At the peak of insurgent violence in 1997, the State registered 495 fatalities.
Significantly, fatalities 2019 in all categories (civilians, SFs and militants) were the lowest recorded in single year since 1992. The number of civilians killed, at four, was the lowest since seven such fatalities were recorded in 2018. At peak, 266 civilians were killed in 1993.
For the first time since 1992, no fatality was recorded in the SF category in 2019. A low of six fatalities in this category was recorded twice: in 2010 and 2013. At peak, 111 SF personnel were killed in 1997.
The number of militants killed (5) in 2019 was also the lowest in any year since 1992. A previous low of eight was recorded in 2016. The peak fatality in this category was in 2008, when 341 militants were killed. Meanwhile, SFs continued to operate against the insurgents, leading to the arrest of 259 militants in 2019, adding to the 172 arrested in 2018.
Incidents of killing also registered a steep decline. Seven incidents of insurgency-related killing were recorded in 2019, as compared to 22 such incidents in 2018.
The geographical area of insurgent activity also shrank. Incidents of killing were reported from five of the State’s 16 Districts in 2019: 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). Incidents of killing were reported from eight Districts in 2018: Noney (seven fatalities in seven incidents), Imphal West (five fatalities in five incidents), Chandel (three fatalities in three incidents), Churachandpur (two fatalities in two incidents), Kangpokpi (two fatalities in two incidents), Thoubal (one incident with one fatality), Tengnoupal (one incident with one fatality), and Kamjong (one incident with one fatality).
Despite the decline in violence, areas of concern persist, such as extortion and abduction by militants.
According to the SATP database, three extortion cases were reported in 2019, as compared to two in 2018 (such incidents tend to go grossly under-reported, as individuals under threat incline to reach private settlements with the militant groups). There are several national projects under construction in the State and the private companies that execute these projects routinely targeted for extortion. Most prominent amongst them is the INR125.24 billion Jiribam-Imphal Railway Project that will connect State Capital Imphal to rest of India. A Noney District resident, who received compensation in lieu of his land acquired for the project, in an interview to The Wire, disclosed that, out of the money he had received, he had to pay 20-30 per cent to ‘underground groups’. The report mentions the presence of NSCN-IM, ZUF, Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA) and Kuki National Front (KNF) in the area.
The SATP database shows that 16 persons (10 incidents) were abducted in 2019 in addition to 24 persons (in 12 incidents) abducted in 2018. As with extortion, abduction cases most likely are a fraction of the actual incidents in the State.
Moreover, violence continues to affect small pockets of the Hill Areas. Out of the five Districts from where killings were reported in 2019, four are Hill Districts, while one lies in the Valley. In 2018, out of the eight Districts from where killings were reported, six were Hill Districts (Noney, Chandel, Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal and Kamjong), and two were Valley Districts (Imphal West and Thoubal). Manipur has a total of 16 Districts: 10 Hill Districts (Chandel, Tamenglong, Senapati, Ukhrul, Pherzawl, Noney, Tengnoupal, Kangpokpi, Kamjong and Churachandpur) and six Valley Districts (Bishnupur, Imphal East, Imphal West, Kakching, Thoubal, and Jiribam).
And the reason is simple. Talks with major militant formations representing Naga and Kuki communities residing in the Hills have not resulted in any final outcome. These groups include NSCN-IM, ZUF, KNO, and UPF.
The Hill Districts based militant groups – Kuki National Organisation (KNO), United People’s Front (UPF), and NSCN-IM – are demanding ethnic homelands exclusive for the respective tribes that they claim to represent, often excluding other tribes inhabiting the common area, creating an atmosphere of deep distrust. At times, even local conflicts between neighbouring villages of different ethnicity are projected in community terms, leading to widespread violence. For instance, on March 16, 2020, some miscreants suspected to be from the Naga community set ablaze a jhum (slash and burn) cultivation of some Kuki villagers on ‘disputed’ land in the Kamjong District. In retaliation, Kukis set ablaze a Naga owned petrol station at Chassad and blocked a major road in the Sampui area. On March 17, Nagas from Kamjong village went to the site to clear the road, leading to a clash between the two sides during which over 50 houses were set ablaze. The Administration had to impose Section 144 (prohibiting assembly of four or more persons) in the area and curbs on internet usage throughout the State to contain the fallout.
Nevertheless, after the latest round of talks held between the Naga militant groups and Government of India (GoI), on an October 31, 2019, deadline, initially at least it appeared that the issues between NSCN-IM and GoI had been amicably resolved. However, increasingly it appears that this is not the case. On March 9, 2020, the emissary of the NSCN-IM collective leadership V.S. Atem in his meeting with Nagaland Governor R.N. Ravi conveyed,
Until and unless, GOI [Government of India] recognises the Naga national flag and Naga constitution (Yehzabo) as inseparable from the agreement which would be chalked out, there would be no solution because that would be tantamount to deviating from the principle of the Framework Agreement. A solution without a flag and constitution can never be honoured.
Also, after the talks, on October 31, 2019, civil society groups based in Imphal Valley Districts [Bishnupur, Imphal East, Imphal West, Kakching, Thoubal, and Jiribam], fearing possible implications of GoI’s negotiations with NSCN-IM on Manipur’s territorial integrity, took to the streets. Understandably, on December 20, 2019, the Manipur Legislative Assembly reaffirmed the earlier adopted resolution No 121 to protect the territorial integrity of Manipur. Resolution 121, adopted on July 23, 2018, seeks an amendment to the present Article 3 of the Indian Constitution, incorporating the requirement of mandatory prior consent of the State Legislatures of affected states while forming a new State or changing boundaries or names of existing States.
Meanwhile, the Suspension of Operations (SoO) Agreement with the Kuki militant conglomerates KNO and the UPF, was extended on February 21, 2020. The SoO Agreement now will be valid till August 31, 2020. On June 25, 2019, in the seventh round of the ‘political dialogue’ between Kuki conglomerate (KNO, UPF) and the Governments (Union and State), there was a discussion on the creation of a Territorial Council for the community. KNO ‘spokesperson’ Seilen Haokip, observed, “To be precise we are doing a comparative study of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC). Based on the BTC pattern, we are pushing with our demand for Territorial Council (TC) and trying to find a way to improve it (TC)”. Later, on November 23, 2019, GoI interlocutor for the Kuki talks, A.B. Mathur, stated, “Talks are under way. We are hoping to arrive at an agreement soon. We cannot put a timeline on it as it is a complex issue, and we are looking at the charter of demands the groups have placed before us.”
Valley-based major militant groups – United National Liberation Front (UNLF), People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Kanglei Yawaol Kanna Lup (KYKL) – present in Myanmar continue to benefit from the porous Indo-Myanmar border. A February 2020 report indicated the presence of a large number of militants in the southern zone of the Sagiang Division in Myanmar. The report mentioned the presence of UNLF with 3,000 cadres; PLA with 2,000; and around 1,000 cadres of KYKL in the zone. This is in spite of measures such as the 2015 surgical strikes by India and 2019 operations by Myanmar’s Tatmadaw, which forced these groups to shift deeper inside Myanmar territory.
Another potentially polarizing issue was the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA 2019) facilitating citizenship to ‘illegal migrants’ from six non-Muslim minority communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Jain, Buddhist, Christians and Parsis – from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. However, after the approval of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) regime for the State, which automatically puts the State out of CAA purview, the agitating public has become calmer.
The outbreak of Novel Corona Virus 2019 (COVID-19) in India, with some early cases detected in Manipur, could severely undermine the State finances, as the lockdown restricts economic activities. This could potentially add to existing financial burdens of Manipur, leading to a diversion of the Government’s attention away from development projects, to meet the immediate public needs of food, essentials and emergency health services. A June 12, 2019, report mentions that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) banned all transaction of funds from the account of the Manipur Government due to a mounting overdraft, forcing the Government to freeze recruitment in all State Government Departments.
The outbreak of COVID-19 is, moreover, an unprecedented situation, the likely long-term impact of which will be visible in the coming months and years; intuitively, it is certain to impact the State Economy negatively in the immediate future.
As we witness continuous declines in violence in Manipur over the past few years, there is a need to actively address the Hill-Valley divide in the State. Sagacious political accommodation is needed to avoid ethnic tensions getting linked with the inevitable financial crisis, to undermine the relative peace that has been established. Active vigilance is required by the State and SFs to preempt or contain ethnic violence between the major Hill tribes, as there might be conflicting interests over emotive issues like land, with both sides trying to reach an agreement with the Government. Besides, the Valley-based outfits holed up in Myanmar can potentially strike at any time, to reclaim legitimacy, if there is a settlement with the Hill tribes that is not acceptable to Valley formations.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management