THE past nine months have witnessed grave travesty of justice in Manipur. People have been uprooted, countless lives have been lost and several women have been sexually assaulted. One can imagine the sangai, the famed dancing deer of Kangleipak (ancient Manipur), shedding tears.
The ad hoc manner in which normalcy is being sought to be restored in the state is bewildering. Even as the ethnic chasm deepens, the most disturbing thing is that the state has allowed a radical outfit, the Arambai Tenggol, to have free rein. These ‘dart-wielding horsemen’ of yore have anointed themselves as the protectors of Meitei supremacy.
On January 24, the group’s leader, Korounganba Khuman, summoned 37 Imphal valley-based legislators and two MPs and coerced them into taking an oath in front of Manipur’s primordial deity Pakhangba to ‘protect Manipur’.
While it is not altogether a new phenomenon in the North-East (the All Assam Students’ Union and the United Liberation Front of Asom had exhibited such vigilantism during their heyday), the chastisement that the valley is witnessing is disturbing.
Some of the demands that elected representatives have been pressured to convey to New Delhi, including the institution of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Manipur and the fencing of the border with Myanmar, are perfectly valid, the latter notwithstanding the fact that the Free Movement Regime would have to be reworked.
However, demands such as the withdrawal of the Assam Rifles, abrogation of the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with Kuki militants and the removal of ‘illegal’ Kuki immigrants from the Scheduled Tribe list are fraught with danger.
The fact that the Kangla Fort episode took place close on the heels of a three-member Union Government team visiting Imphal is even more disconcerting. Certain informed people are questioning whether the Kangla event had the blessings of the Centre, so silent it has been both in the run-up to the event and afterwards.
Although it began as a localised arrangement, the SoO pact with Kuki militants was formalised on August 22, 2008, after a due process by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The events of May 3, 2023, triggered clashes between the Meiteis and Kukis. The SoO mechanism may be faulted for a number of reasons, including the fact that arms which are now being used against the Meitei community and security forces were permitted to be retained. The Union Government has to be called out for this unacceptable oversight. The history of cessation of hostilities with belligerent groups in the North-East shows that in most of the cases, illegal arms were allowed to be retained. The erstwhile Bodo Liberation Tigers in Assam, too, was allowed such absurd concessions.
But it is also true that if the Kukis were allowed to retain their arms, organisations such as Arambai Tenggol and other Meitei groups looted police armouries after May 3 without let or hindrance. Indeed, these are the very weapons that are being used to threaten, maim and kill Kukis.
A dialogue process, if it leads to the cessation of violence by even a minimal degree, is desirable. New Delhi should not, therefore, even countenance the abrogation of an arrangement that has withstood 15 long years.
Negotiations, great effort and bridge-building have gone into firming up such an agreement. Course correction should guide discretion and the rule of law. Rearguard action, including stringent enforcement of the SoO ground rules, should be accorded priority.
By the same token, the issue of ‘illegal’ migrants among the Kuki population has to be carefully handled. After all, if there are ‘new Kukis’ such as Thadous in Manipur, there are also Meiteis who are Christians. It would, therefore, not be correct to take a simplistic view of matters. In any event, if an NRC exercise with 1951 as the cut-off year is undertaken, as demanded by Arambai Tenggol, the question of illegal migration would be automatically addressed.
Regarding the clamour for the removal of the Assam Rifles from the valley, it is a ridiculous demand. If the Arambai Tenggol feels that the Assam Rifles is being partisan and is consequently seeking the ouster of the force from Manipur, it is clearly because of the firm manner in which the personnel have acted against valley-based insurgent groups such as the United Liberation Front (Koirang), People’s Liberation Army (Manipur) and the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak. These and a couple of others, collectively known as the Group of Five, are largely from the Meitei lot.
Moreover, it is a known fact that the Assam Rifles has decisively acted against Kuki militants. Derision for a force raised as the ‘Cachar Levy’ way back in 1835 — and one which has been hailed as the ‘Sentinels of the North-East’ — is unwarranted.
It is a poor reflection on a republic which has stepped into its 75th year that a section of its citizenry is seeking the removal of a force that has sacrificed so much for Manipur.
Radicalisation of the kind that Arambai Tenggol symbolises has to be nipped in the bud. The Indian republic cannot afford to stand by and watch such absurd abandonment of authority.
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