Manipur: A Blueprint with Immediate and Long-Term Measures to Contain Violence

security
The situation in Manipur is far from being normal notwithstanding the proclamations of 'normalcy' by authorities. Failure on the part of the Union government to address the longstanding issues in the Northeast could affect India's territorial integrity.
author Sanjiv Krishan Sood
Nov 14, 2023

The recent statement by the chief minister of Manipur that the violence in the state is 90% under control is shocking given the fact that almost six months of ethnic violence there remains unabated and keeps flaring up sporadically.

The situation is far worse than even what prevailed during the partition. Even at the height of ethnic cleansing during that time, there still remained and continue to exist several pockets where minority communities continued to live peacefully within the majority-dominated areas. Malerkotla in Punjab and Nuh (notwithstanding the recent aberration caused by some troublemakers from outside) in Haryana are such examples of peace and harmony. Similar islands of Hindu minorities exist in Sindh province in Pakistan and many areas in Bangladesh. The situation is entirely different in Manipur.

The ethnic divide between the Kuki and Meitei people in Manipur is complete. Being at the receiving end of violence, there are no more Kukis left in the Valley dominated by Meiteis and similarly no Meiteis remain in hill areas dominated by Kukis. In fact, the establishment has been compelled to separate Kuki and Meitei communities from each other by way of creating buffer zones and deploying security forces along these buffer zones to regulate entry and exit in a manner similar to what happens on an international border.

Also read: What’s Behind the Manipur Violence and Why Stopping It Poses a Test For Modi

Thousands of automatic weapons, including rocket launchers and lakhs of ammunition, have been looted from police and India Reserve Battalion (IRB) armouries. These are being used by perpetrators of violence with impunity in targeting civilians. The state government has been reduced to meekly requesting the looters to return these weapons and ammunition without any result. Over 200 lives have been lost and more than 75,000 persons have been internally displaced. However, the lack of action on the part of both the Union and state governments (ruled by the BJP) is inexplicable. This inaction has angered the public against both the state and Union governments.

The state unit of BJP is reported to have stated this in unequivocal terms in a letter written to the center, “…. public anger and protests are slowly turning the tide, placing the responsibility of this prolonged disturbance squarely on the government’s failure to address the situation”.  The chief minister who is a Meitei himself appears to be fast losing support within his own community with his house and the house of the state BJP chief being attacked by Meitei people.

Representative image of a Manipur Police checkpoint. Photo: X/@manipur_police

It is a sad reflection on the incompetence of institutions of state if a large part of the population has no faith in state police and are compelled to raise and depend on Village Defence Committees to ensure their own safety and security from people of other community. The incompetence of the Manipur Police has been proved beyond doubt by its abject surrender to mobs who looted their armouries. People do not trust it to provide security to them. Not only the police, the bureaucracy as well as state government have proved themselves to be totally incompetent. People have lost confidence in the institutions of the state. The writ of the state doesn’t appear to run any longer in Manipur and it is fully and truly in the midst of a civil war. The situation if not controlled doesn’t portend well for the peace and stability of the entire North East India, large parts of which were in turmoil till a few years ago.

In spite of the situation being so serious and its ramifications for the future of the Northeast, the policy of the Union government continues to remain in drift. It is surprising to note that the Union government continues to repose faith in Biren Singh in spite of violence. The statement by the Union home minister that chief minister has not been removed because “he is cooperating” is bewildering because the decision about the imposition of the President’s rule has to be based on the law and order situation in the state. It is irrefutable that the law and order situation in Manipur has broken irrevocably and the imposition of the President’s rule would have been a logical step to restore normalcy.

The fact that Manipur Police and Assam Rifles deployed to control the violence are not trusted by one or the other parties in conflict makes the case for imposition of the President’s rule even stronger. Decisions like leaving out 19 police stations located in the valley – dominated by the Meitei community – while extending AFSPA to the rest of the state or scrapping of “suspension of operations” agreement only with Kuki insurgent groups are astonishing and smack of partisan state leadership. The Meitei insurgent groups, however, not only continue to remain armed, they have, in fact, added to their inventory with most of the arms looted from police having gone to them.

Also read: 143 Days for Manipur Mayhem: The Centre Must At Least Give Biren Singh Marching Orders Now

The status of imposition of Article 355 remains shrouded in mystery in spite of the fact that a retired IPS officer has been appointed to oversee the functioning of Manipur Police purportedly under provisions of this article. However, no notification regarding the imposition of 355 is available in the public domain. In a reported response to an RTI query, MHA was not able to provide any clarity on this issue by stating that they do not have any information on the imposition of Article 355.

The officer appointed for such oversight is supposed to report directly to the Union government in order to obviate any interference by the state government. However, being an outsider, this officer probably does not have any control over the day-to-day functioning of Manipur Police, which is deeply divided along ethnic lines. Police, the main agency responsible for controlling the situation, are acting in a partisan manner. The situation is so bad that police personnel belonging to one community cannot go to patrol the area where the other community is dominant. The Peace Committees set up in June have achieved no success and violence continues.

Early resolution of the conflict is extremely important to ensure that the secessionist insurgency in the North East isn’t revived. The burning of over two hundred churches and almost two dozen temples may also be exploited by communal elements by giving it a colour of the Hindu-Christian conflict. In fact, the chief minister of Mizoram in a recent interview to a prominent media group has alluded to the communal nature of the problem. With inimical neighbours like China ever ready to fish in troubled waters, the integrity of the nation is at stake.

The suspicion amongst communities is so deep-rooted that bringing normalcy will be a long-drawn affair. However, a start has to be made and the first step in that direction must be to contain widespread violence.

Priority therefore must be to restore peace at the earliest. Imposition of the President’s Rule in the early stages itself would have gone a long way in controlling the violence through the deployment of centrally controlled and impartial Central Armed Forces, like CRPF, BSF, ITBP, SSB, etc., besides the Indian Army. Imposition of the President’s rule and deployment of these forces even at this stage will infuse confidence amongst people as these forces are unconcerned with local ethnic loyalties. This cannot be said of Manipur Police which is accused of openly siding with the Meitei community. On the other hand, Assam Rifles is accused of being partial towards Kukis by Meiteis. The imposition of the President’s rule will also remove the Biren Singh Ministry – which has lost legitimacy in the eyes of all communities – and create confidence amongst the population.

It is important that the weapons looted by miscreants must return to the armouries. The armed forces will have to conduct aggressive operations to recover these. This is possible only by delegating adequate powers to them through the imposition of AFSPA in the entire state including 19 police stations in the Manipur valley left out of its ambit so far. Delegation of such powers to Central Armed Forces will enable them to operate freely and conduct searches and combing operations to recover the looted weapons besides enabling them to apprehend insurgents, extortionists, and criminals indulging in violence and stop indiscriminate killings and help establish the Rule of Law. Special investigating teams and fast-track courts should also be considered to investigate and bring the culprits to trial at the earliest. Bringing perpetrators of violence, and those who have committed heinous crimes, especially against women and children to justice is the only way of bringing closure for the victims.

Gun drop box placed in Imphal Manipur. Authorities are asking people to voluntarily return snatched and looted weapons. Photo: Twitter

The political leaders and bureaucrats must increase their visibility in the trouble-prone area and visit them frequently to assess the situation firsthand and redress grievances of people on the spot, wherever possible, in order to restore the confidence of the masses in the establishment.

The peace committees need to act proactively and be innovative in their approach. People with impeccable integrity must be identified and incorporated into these committees. The community leaders, like village heads (known as “Gaon Budhas” in those areas) who are well respected by communities in the North East, and prominent women organisations must be roped in to initiate dialogue amongst communities and remove suspicion and schism between communities. The realisation that the lives of different communities are inexorably interlinked and interdependent is the only way to contain the violence. Naga leaders – who have continued to remain neutral – can be gainfully utilised to bring about a rapprochement.

Long-term measures 

Priority must be given to ensure effective Border Management of India – Myanmar Border to prevent illegal entrants from coming in and settling down in India which is said to be one of the main reasons for the strife in the state. The deployment of a border guarding force close to the border will also ensure the effective implementation of the “Free Movement Regime” and proper maintenance of records of local tribals coming in and going out.

Deployment of Border Guarding Force and the consequent necessity to create infrastructure for providing logistics to troops deployed close to the border on BOPs will add to employment and therefore prosperity of the border population. Deployment of a force exclusively for Border Guarding will also release the entire Assam Rifles for dedicated deployment to control internal security problems in Manipur and other States of the North East which is the primary role of this elite force.

The government must also ensure that remote areas of the state are provided with good administration and that the fruits of development reach the Hill communities. One of the major grievances – and true to a large extent – of Kukis is that most of the development has taken place in the 10% Valley area occupied by Meiteis. The remote hill areas must be developed and provided connectivity.

My own experience in Churachandpur in Manipur is that bureaucrats and police rarely if ever visit remote areas unless, of course, things have changed in the last 10 years since I was there. The remote hill areas are still in a time-wrap with hardly any facilities and access to institutions and authorities to project their problems. As late as 2007, it took me over six hours to reach Behang – a border town along the India-Myanmar border from Churachandpur – a distance of only about 70 kilometres. My contacts informed me that there has been only a marginal improvement in the situation even after 15 years.

As provided in Article 371C of the constitution, the Committee of the Legislative Assembly of the state consisting of members of the Manipur Assembly elected from the Hill Areas of the state should be allowed to function effectively. Arrangements like Autonomous District Councils may also be considered in order to give more autonomy to Hill districts. Necessary financial grants should be made available to these councils to enable them to carry out developmental work.

Also read: Manipur: Both Centre and State Played a Principal Role in Ethnic Violence, Claims Fact-Finding Team

The Act East policy of India, which is aimed to enhance connectivity, trade, and improve relations with our Eastern neighbours, should be extended to include the development of North Eastern states and improve connectivity which is presently restricted only to main towns or capital cities of these states. Railway and Road networks are said to be the greatest integrators of communities. India must focus on ensuring connectivity to the remotest parts while at the same time ensuring that the fragile ecology of the area is not disturbed.

We must enhance investment to improve the human development index. Focused investment in the education sector, environment-friendly industry, and agricultural activities in these states are essential. Investment in industry and infrastructure will lead to better avenues for employment and wean citizens away from indulging in violent criminal activities and drugs. The network of rail and roads in the remotest parts of these states is essential to integrate them with the main stream.

Allotting large tracts of land for something like Palm cultivation as widely reported in media doesn’t appear a viable option as it will adversely affect the biodiversity of the area. Planting palm oil trees harms the quality of the soil, depleting large amounts of nutrients from the soil thus degrading it. The resultant increase in use of herbicides, insecticides, and fertilisers contaminates water bodies and affects groundwater and the aquatic biodiversity.

It is important to stop poppy cultivation in hill areas of Manipur through effective surveillance and deterrent action besides affirmative action by providing sustenance alternatives. People should be encouraged to take to poultry farming, dairy farming, and cattle rearing. The hill area having terrain and weather conditions similar to other areas of the Northeast, should be suitable for coffee, pineapple, orange, banana, and medicinal plantations or even rubber plantations. These cash crops will provide alternative means of income to hill people and thus decrease dependency on Poppy cultivation.

File photo of violence in Manipur. Photo: Twitter/@MangteC

The question of the inclusion of Meiteis in Schedule Tribe has to be deliberate, deeply after taking all factors into account. The authorities must consider recommendations made by various committees set up by the government from time to time in this regard. Assessment of five important criteria with regard to the Meitei community namely, primitive traits, distinct culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness recommended by the Lokur Committee in 1965 will provide useful insights in determining the issue.

The recommendations of the Bhuria Commission (2002-04) which focused on a wide range of issues from the Fifth Schedule to tribal land and forest, health and education, working of Panchayats, and the status of tribal women to determine the Schedule Tribe status will also provide a benchmark to decide this vexed issue. Besides these, the recommendations made by the High-Level Committee (HLC) under the chairmanship of Prof Virginus Xaxa in 2013 to study critical issues related to tribal communities, like livelihood, employment, education, health, involuntary displacement, and migration besides legal and constitutional matters must also be studied.

An important point to consider is that the grant of Scheduled Tribe Status to Mieteis will deprive them of the benefit of SC and OBC reservations in government jobs. The model of reservations in government jobs adopted by Nagaland also should be studied. While all 16 Naga tribes are eligible for reservation as Schedule Tribes for Union government jobs, only eight most backward Naga tribes are eligible for reservation in state government jobs. However, the demand of Meiteis for Schedule Tribe Status is mainly for the purpose of purchasing land in Hill areas not for reservation in government jobs.

The most important reason for strife in Manipur is the Land. The grouse of the Meitei people is that they are confined to just about 11% of the land area of the state in the valley being deprived of acquiring land in the hill areas because they do not have the status of Scheduled Tribes. The land in Manipur is regulated by two laws. First, The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960 (MLR & LR Act, 1960)” and the other pertaining to the regulation of land in Manipur is ‘The Manipur Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2014 (Manipur Act No. 10 of 2014)’ aims to conserve the paddy land and wetland and to restrict the conversion or reclamation thereof in order to promote growth in the agricultural sector in Manipur. T

The Manipur Land Reform and Land Revenue Act, 1960 is extended to the whole Valley along with a small portion of the hill area. The state government of Manipur has attempted on several occasions to make some amendments to MLR & LR including efforts to introduce the New Land Use Policy, 2014. Each such attempt has led to more conflict and polarisation in the state as these are considered to interfere with the tribal land ownership system based on traditional customary laws. These are considered attempts to marginalise the tribals and alienate them from ownership and possession of land. Tribal lands are privately owned by tribal individuals and remaining lands belong to whole community of respective village. In case of Kuki tribe, the village chief is generally accepted as the owner of all lands of village.

Section 158 of the MLR and LR Act provides special provisions regarding Scheduled Tribes. This Section states that “No transfer of land by a person who is a member of the Scheduled Tribes shall be valid unless – … (b) where the transfer is to a person who is not a member of any such tribe, it is made with the previous permission in writing of the Deputy Commissioner, provided that the Deputy Commissioner shall not give such permission unless he has first secured the consent thereto of the District Council within whose jurisdiction the land lies…”. However, since the MLR & LR act is not applicable to hill areas, this legal protection is theoretically not available to hill areas implying that non tribals can buy land in Tribal areas. Reportedly, there have been some such land transactions in the past. Under such circumstances the authorities need to take a close look at the entire gamut of Land laws and identify issues which need proper interpretation and implementation to the satisfaction of all ethnic communities.

Continued turmoil in Manipur is a serious threat to the security and integrity of India. In the worst-case scenario, it has the potential to turn into a secessionist insurgency or a festering communal problem at best (sic). Restoring normalcy at the earliest is most important. The situation therefore must be addressed with urgency, the first step towards which is to ensure that violence is contained while at the same time simultaneously preparing ground for addressing issues having long-term implications as discussed above.

As the common saying goes “Roof must be repaired when the sun is shining.” It is still not too late and the authorities must rise above the parochial consideration of ethnicity, religion, and region to resolve it.

Sanjiv Krishan Sood retired as additional director general of the Border Security Force.

Make a contribution to Independent Journalism