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Manipur in India’s Northeast Remains in the Grip of Uncertainty and Fear

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The Pulse | Security | South Asia

Manipur in India’s Northeast Remains in the Grip of Uncertainty and Fear

Rumors are circulating in Imphal that the government is considering ceasefire agreements with Indian separatist groups sheltering in Myanmar.

Manipur in India’s Northeast Remains in the Grip of Uncertainty and Fear

Security forces with seized weapons at Imphal East in Manipur, India.

Credit: PRO Defence Kohima

It has been more than ten months since the northeast Indian state of Manipur erupted in ethnic riots that killed hundreds of people and rendered thousands homeless. Violence has receded but sporadic clashes between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities have fueled apprehensions that the government may not have a roadmap in place for bringing the sensitive border state back to the road to normalcy.

While the Meitei majority, who mostly inhabit Manipur’s Imphal valley follow Hinduism and Sanamahism, the Kuki-Zo tribal communities are Christian and live in the state’s hill districts.

The ongoing turmoil in Manipur was waiting to happen; developments over the past several decades had sharpened the divide between the two communities, and all it needed was a trigger, which came in April last year after the High Court ordered the state government to recommend the inclusion of the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe category to the central government. On May 3, 2023 violence erupted in Manipur following a protest march against the judgment by members of the Kuki and Naga tribes, who inhabit Manipur’s hills. There’s hardly any doubt that the conflict in Manipur is over resources and ethnicity rather than religion. Issues have piled up, spawning a multi-layered and complex situation.

During my visit to the state’s capital, Imphal, between February 23-25, I interacted with a cross-section of people and gained interesting insights into the continuing violence and tensions in Manipur, especially in Imphal valley.

Widening Arc of Arambai Tenggol

On February 28, an unusual episode unfolded in Imphal amid the ongoing crisis in Manipur. Additional Superintendent of Police Moirangthem Amit Singh and his colleague were allegedly abducted from Imphal West by an armed group identified as the Meitei vigilante group Arambai Tenggol. Despite the deployment of security forces, the assailants, numbering around 200, abducted the officers. The police managed to rescue Moirangthem and his colleague within hours. Subsequently, the Manipur Police commandos staged a symbolic protest by laying down their arms in response to the incident.

Everyone in Manipur is talking about the Arambai Tenggol. A radical youth organization that surfaced in the early 2020s to protect the interests of the Meitei community, it has expanded in a brief span of time owing primarily to the insecurity among the community over being reduced to a minority in the state. The Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun have filled a void left by the older Meitei insurgent groups, such as the People’s Liberation Army, Kanna Yawol Kanna Lup and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak as they now operate mostly out of camps from Myanmar’s Sagaing Region.

The hill districts surrounding Imphal are inhabited by the Naga and Kuki-Zo communities among whom about 30 rebel outfits are active. Out of these, as many as 25 entered into ceasefire agreements with the government. The groups are allegedly flouting ceasefire ground rules such as keeping weapons in designated camps. This was also noticed in neighboring Assam and Nagaland. The colossal quantity of sophisticated weapons available to these groups was a factor that fueled insecurity among the majority Meitei community and also caused the emergence of radical outfits as a shield against the hill-based groups.

While the Arambai Tenggol’s growing strength has evoked jubilation among some Meitei youth, a section of the intelligentsia is concerned over the future trajectory of the state, the unresolved issues and if the government would be able to implement effective policies to bring normalcy to the state. Many of those I interacted with are wondering whether the government has a plan to restore normalcy in Manipur.

So far, New Delhi has only announced the decision to fence the India-Myanmar border and terminate the Free Movement Regime between the two countries. The SoO (Suspension of Operations) agreement that was signed between the Kuki-Zo rebel groups and the government ended on February 29.

It seems that the government’s plan is only to check further violence and recover as many of the weapons that were looted from the police armories as possible.

Deluge of Guns in Manipur

The situation in Manipur is somewhat similar to some conflict zones in neighboring Myanmar.

When I was in Kalay last year, I observed that residents had armed themselves with all sorts of weapons ranging from the MK-12 assault rifle and the single-barrel 12-bore gun to hand-made weapons for defending themselves against the military.

Likewise, Manipur is awash with weapons. The overground rebel groups in the hill districts were already well-armed. More weapons became available, especially in Imphal valley, after the police armories were looted last year.

Security forces have been confiscating weapons from different parts of the state. These operations, notwithstanding, there are reports of the Arambai Tenggol and the over ground Pambei-led faction of United National Liberation Front (UNLF) moving around freely with their weapons. On March 4, the UNLF apprehended three persons at Langol with weapons and ammunition on the charge that they were causing trouble and fear’ among the public. Excess guns have given birth to gangs of miscreants that were beneficiaries of the weapons looted from police armories.

There are widespread allegations that the Arambai Tenggol and the Pambei-led UNLF are linked to Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh and other top political functionaries. Several of Imphal’s residents are certain that these allegations are not just speculation but based on hard facts.

They also say they know why the government has turned a blind eye to these armed Meitei militias. “In the hill districts, functionaries of the [Kuki-Zo] rebel groups that entered ceasefire agreements with the government have been moving around with their weapons freely for years. This is a phenomenon discernible in the entire state and not just in Imphal valley. Checking the Arambai Tenggol and the UNLF faction could mean an advantage for the hill-based groups,” claimed an academic who did not wish to be named. Incidentally, on March 10, armed Kuki militants killed two youth at Motbung in Manipur.

A Divide Too Wide

While violence in Manipur has receded, the divide between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities remains wide. The boundaries between the two communities are sharply drawn; the Meitei cannot venture into the hills and members of the Kuki-Zo communities do not feel safe to visit the valley.

It could take years to bridge the gulf. Both sides are uncompromising and hardening their stances on their respective positions.

There is wide support among all sections of the Meitei in the valley for the fencing of the 247-mile-long Manipur-Myanmar border, implementation of the National Register of Citizens, deportation of all Myanmar nationals from Manipur and the abrogation of the SoO agreement between the 25-odd rebel outfits of the Kuki-Zo community and the government.

On the other hand, the Kuki-Zo are refusing to budge from their demand for a separate administrative unit in the hill districts they inhabit in Manipur.

Over the past many months, a sizeable chunk of Kuki-Zo residents from Manipur has relocated to other states and capitals, including Guwahati in Assam. They are mostly from Imphal where their residences were either burned or they were forced to flee for safety. Given the authority that is being wielded by the radical outfits and rebel groups, which are growing in number in Manipur, there is little chance of the displaced families from either the Meitei or the Kuki-Zo communities returning to resettle in their original places of habitation in the near future.

Are Efforts on to Bring Separatist Groups From Myanmar?

Rumors are circulating in Imphal that a non-government organization is trying to negotiate ceasefire agreements between the government and the separatist groups from the Imphal valley that are sheltering in Myanmar, similar to the one that was signed with a faction of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) last November. The rationale of these efforts stem from the increasing vulnerability of these groups, in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region, where most of their camps are located and which is a stronghold of resistance to the military regime.

In a series of interviews to this correspondent last year, leaders of several resistance groups in Myanmar alleged that the Meitei separatist outfits, the Zomi Revolutionary Army and a section of the Shanni community in the region were collaborating with the military against the resistance movement. Many clashes between the resistance groups and the Meitei outfits have been reported over the past three years.

The fate of the Meitei outfits is dependent upon the position of the junta. They could find themselves in a defenseless position if the military is unable to retain its hold over the region.

In fact, barring a few instances, the military has been unable to recover territories it has lost to the resistance groups. This apart, the fence to be erected along the Manipur-Myanmar border will work against the interests of the separatist groups.