The euphoria in India over the success of the G20 summit has led to a strategic neglect of conflict-ridden Manipur. The fallout in the North-East has been exacerbated by gross inaction on the part of the Centre and the state government. The 28-month-old civil war in Myanmar has partly fanned the Manipur flames, resulting in over 200 people being killed, thousands displaced and 4,000 weapons stolen, besides an influx of refugees from Myanmar. Ethnic cleansing has partitioned Manipur — a Kuki-free Imphal valley and Kuki-inhabited hill areas devoid of Meiteis. The acute polarisation has sparked fears of a revival of insurgency, given the access to weapons, mostly taken from state armouries.
Lt Gen PC Nair, Director General, Assam Rifles, said last month: “The situation is unprecedented… we have never faced a situation like this.” This happened after Union Home Minister Amit Shah, on March 25, withdrew the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from 16 out of 39 police stations in four districts of Imphal to demonstrate normalcy, a move that has not been reversed.
Former Chief of Army Staff Gen MM Naravane said: “Insurgency has drastically reduced — almost nil,” allowing for a rebalancing of the Army towards the north and the transfer of operational responsibility in the North-East to the Assam Rifles, a departure from the norm, except during the wars of 1965 and 1971.
The civil war in Myanmar between the military junta and the forces opposed to it — the National Unity Government (NUG) and the Resistance — is in its third year. The main theatre of fighting is the Sagaing region and Chin state, close to Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur. As the junta has lost control of these areas, it is resorting to aerial bombing, including the use of napalm and looting and burning of villages. This has resulted in nearly 60,000 Chin, Kuki and Zomi refugees fleeing to Mizoram and Manipur, some of whom are NUG legislators. Because of the porous 1,600-km-long border with Myanmar and the free movement regime of 16 km on either side, arms, narcotics, gold and precious stones are being smuggled into Manipur.
Remember the Golden Triangle? Drug trafficking is nothing new for Manipur and even security personnel are allegedly involved in it. In February 2013, a Colonel was arrested with drugs worth Rs 6 crore. Details of the intricate drug trade network in Manipur were covered in an article published in the Goa Chronicle on September 15. It is an eye-opener. A UN report states that since 2021, there has been a 33 per cent increase in poppy cultivation in Manipur. Meiteis allege that this is a cash crop for the Kukis. But according to the Goa Chronicle, every community has a stake, including the Muslim Pangals.
The Myanmar conflict has seriously hampered India’s Act East Policy, which is designed to advance trade and interaction with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Earlier this month, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar told the media, “India’s most ambitious infrastructure projects are with Southeast Asia, but they are facing big challenges because of a breakdown in Myanmar’s internal security system.” The nearly two-decade-old multimodal Kaladan project, which transits through insurgency-infected Rakhine state en route to Mizoram, has been periodically blocked by the Arakan Army. The India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project connecting Moreh in Manipur with Mae Sot in Thailand has been held up due to fighting in the Sagaing region. Jaishankar met Myanmar Foreign Minister Than Swe at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting this month and told him about the perilous effects of the fighting and airstrikes close to the India-Myanmar border.
The People’s Defence Forces (PDF) of the NUG are heavily invested in the Sagaing region and dominate it. With the civil war stalemated and the prospects of conflict resolution bleak in view of a divided ASEAN, Delhi should review its policy of putting ‘all eggs in the junta basket’. Indian agencies should cultivate Chin National Front and Arakan Army to facilitate the construction of its infrastructure projects. Further, reviving contact with the democratic forces and establishing communication channels with the NUG/PDF, including the supply of weapons, are viable options.
But it is Manipur, the pivot to India’s Act East Policy, which requires immediate treatment, even if it is akin to shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. The Central and state governments allowed Manipur to bleed, permitting the seeds of new insurgencies to be sown and putting the Army, Assam Rifles and other security forces in unsavoury predicaments that challenged their impartiality.
A CRPF security adviser guides CM Biren Singh, while the Army and central paramilitary forces have been requisitioned to assist the civil authorities in areas not covered by AFSPA. Two FIRs filed by the Manipur Police against the Assam Rifles, alleging bias for the Kukis, and the Meiteis’ demand for the removal of the Assam Rifles reflect the fragile ground reality, even as questions are being raised about the release of banned terrorist groups by the Army and the Assam Rifles.
Incidents involving the use of firearms are frequent, with casualties on both sides. A dysfunctional Unified Command, unlike the one in J&K, has failed to stamp out violence. Security forces have questioned the wisdom of the Centre in dividing areas of operational responsibility — allotting Imphal valley to Manipur Police and the hill area to the Assam Rifles.
Army’s 3 Corps, which has a dual role, has reverted to internal security duties in Manipur. The major task for the Army and the Assam Rifles is to recover looted weapons. Although weapon deposit boxes have been placed at various locations, the majority of the people tend to take selfies beside them. At seminars on Manipur and the North-East, commonly used words and phrases describing the situation are ‘anarchy’, ‘another Cambodia’ and ‘total mistrust between communities’. Surprisingly, like the PM, neither the Army Chief nor the Chief of Defence Staff has visited Manipur. Area experts say that the government has shown conspicuous lack of political will to nip a potential insurgency in the bud. The North-East is represented by 25 Lok Sabha MPs, mostly belonging to the BJP and its allies, including two from Manipur, which is the traditional tinderbox of insurgency in the region. Curbing violence and creating a level playing field through the imposition of the President’s rule are prerequisites for a political solution.
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