Since the outbreak of violence in May, the ball has remained in Modi’s court. But it seems he expects the suffering of Manipuris to be drowned out by the cacophony of elections.
The recent six-month extension of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA, in Manipur seemed procedural and routine. After all, the entire state has been continuously declared a disturbed area since 1999, with the exception of Imphal Municipality since 2004, following protests led by Irom Sharmila. At both the national and Manipur levels, AFSPA has endured despite numerous calls against its use as an instrument of hard power of the State.
In 2022, the home ministry conducted a review of AFSPA in all seven Northeastern states and made modifications to the areas where the Act applied. In Manipur, the disturbed area notification was removed from 15 police stations in six districts, leaving areas under 82 police stations in 16 districts still designated as ‘disturbed’.
By March 2023, the jurisdiction of four police stations was exempted from AFSPA, bringing the total to 19 police stations where AFSPA did not apply. The point to note is that these are all Meitei-dominated areas. Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, speaking to the media, stated: “The state government of Manipur, under the guidance of visionary leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi and constant encouragement and support of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, has been working to improve the law and order situation in the state. With the financial assistance provided by the central government, the state government has been able to persuade many underground organisations and insurgent groups to come to the table for peace talks or to surrender and join the mainstream…These actions have resulted in reduction of insurgent activities coupled with the increased ability of the state police forces”.
Allowing an ethnic cleaning
However, just three months later, the ‘vision’ of Modi, ‘support’ of Shah, effectiveness of the police, and peace moves lay in tatters. The obvious question is: why did such optimism turn out to be a short-lived mirage? The trigger that lit the flame of ethnic strife was a Manipur High Court judgment directing the state government to grant tribal status to the Meitei community. Although the court’s order was dated 29 March, it was made public only on 19 April. When the areas under AFSPA were reduced and five police stations were added in March, it must have been clear to both the central and state governments, through their intelligence agencies, that ethnic tensions would rise and violence was a potential outcome.
Yet, when violence erupted in early May, the political leadership at both the central and state levels effectively abdicated their responsibilities. They implicitly turned partisan, allowing the ethnic cleansing of Kuki-Zo community members in the Imphal valley. Later, they seemed content with managing boundaries that catered to the ethnic separation of the two communities. The wreckage of the Prime Minister’s so-called vision seemed to be clouded by the silence of the graveyard. Worse, the local police, with the tacit connivance of the state’s political leadership, practically handed over huge quantities of arms and ammunition to the Meiteis. Not a single round of bullet was fired nor was anyone hurt when the looting happened.
The exemption of AFSPA from the jurisdiction of 19 police stations, even after the outbreak of violence and the knowledge that thousands of looted weapons and ammunition remained predominantly with the Meiteis, indicates a lack of seriousness on the part of both the governments in recovering these weapons, which is an obvious prerequisite for controlling violence and commencing political negotiations.
On the Kuki-Zo side, it is reported that the Tripartite Agreement known as the Suspension of Operations, signed in 2008 between the Union, state, and nearly thirty Kuki insurgent groups (including two groups incorporated in December 2022), now exists mainly on paper. While sporadic joint checks on cadres in designated camps along with their weapons are conducted, there are indications of their involvement in the ongoing cycle of violence. With camps providing refuge, it is much easier to leave the camp clandestinely and carry out hit-and-run attacks against Meiteis, which is perhaps the tactic being adopted. Since the Suspension of Operations is still in place, the government is bound by the agreement and cannot launch operations against the camps.
Party interests took precedence
In difficult internal security situations, the legitimate role of hard power is to bring violence under control, allowing political negotiations to take place. Unilateral solutions favouring any party involved in the conflict should not be imposed by using the state’s hard power in a partisan manner. Such an approach might have worked with the Muslim community in Gujarat, but expecting it to succeed with the Kuki tribals, who have a history of resorting to arms, is an illusion, as evidenced by the ongoing cycle of violence in Manipur.
Violence cannot be brought under control without ending the partisanship of the state government and its police forces and recovering the arms and ammunition that were looted. Both these measures demand the dismissal of the state government and the extension of AFSPA to the entire state.
While the recovery of arms has supposedly started with the Army, Assam Rifles, Central Para Military Force (CPMF), and local police operating under the supervision of the Joint Command, the existence of 19 police station territories that are practically inaccessible to the Army and Assam Rifles provides ample hiding places for the looted weapons. On the Kuki side, their designated camps offer safe havens. Understandably, they have recovered minuscule quantities of arms and ammunition that can be best described as ‘peanuts’. However, to energise the recovery process, which is expected to be long-drawn, an essential condition is the imposition of central rule.
However, by not dismissing the BJP government in power, the central government has preferred to place party interests over national interests, knowing very well that the Manipur situation is intimately linked to long-standing tribal issues, especially with Mizos, Nagas, and similar ethnic groups across the border in Myanmar, some of whom have taken shelter in Mizoram and Manipur.
So, unless Modi’s vision takes a U-turn in dealing with violence in Manipur, progress towards normalcy is unlikely. Since the outbreak of violence in May, the ball has largely remained in the PM’s court. But it seems that he expects the suffering of Manipuris to be drowned out by the cacophony of state and national elections. If this is the case, it could be a reprehensible and highly lamentable act of shortsightedness in the practice of statecraft.