Imphal: In a devastating ambush Thursday morning on a five-vehicle convoy of the 6-Dogra Regiment in the Chandel district of Manipur close to the Indo-Myanmar border, at least 17 soldiers were reported killed and 16 others injured. The soldiers, who had completed their posting at the remote Moltuk village, were leaving with bag and baggage and probably had home in mind rather than a gunfight. The attackers probably had intelligence of this vulnerable moment and timed their ambush accordingly.
Claims are now beginning to come to newspaper offices, and so far they confirm suspicions that the attack could have been the handiwork of the newly formed ‘United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia’, or ULFWSEA, constituting a number of insurgent groups from the Northeast, under the leadership of S.S. Khaplang, the chief of one of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland factions with which the Government of India had only recently called off its ceasefire.
Khaplang still holds a ceasefire with the Myanmar government. Nearly all of the insurgent groups from not just Manipur but also the entire north-east, now have their bases in Myanmar and are enjoying the safe sanctuary provided by Khaplang.
The Government of India ended its truce with Khaplang thinking he had been reduced to a spent force in India, and focused on pursuing peace with the stronger rival NSCN faction led by Isak Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah with which it has been holding talks since 1997. Thursday’s ambush could be Khaplang’s message that he can still hit back within Indian territory in many different ways, other than dramatically announcing the arrival of ULFSEA.
Army kills woman activist
The deadly attack has also changed the complexion of the public outrage building up over the killing of a woman, M Ruisoting Aimol, a 56 year old social activist belonging to the small Aimol tribe in Chandel district, by troops of the 20 Assam Rifles posted at Bonyang village.
According to villagers, the soldiers, accompanied by an officer, came to the village in a white Maruti Gypsy with some masked men on May 31 at 9.45pm and searched out the woman. They then allegedly planted some incriminating items at her place before shooting and injuring her. Villagers later brought her to a hospital in Imphal where she succumbed to her injuries on June 2.
The villagers further allege that the soldiers had also come to the village on May 27 at 11.35pm and harassed them. The news of these atrocities remained lost in the din of the hotly contested Autonomous District Council elections in the hill districts, polling for which was held on June 1. However after the dust of the electioneering settled, public attention shifted back to the case of the murdered woman.
The Aimol tribe called a general strike, and several civil society bodies all over the state responded to the call. However, no sooner did the strike begin, it was called off following a truce the Manipur government brokered between the aggrieved Aimol tribe and the Assam Rifles.
The AFSPA debate
In Manipur’s absurd theatre today, even grief and mourning are open to bargain and negotiation. This is understandable, considering the climate of official impunity introduced by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Victims virtually have no guarantee that perpetrators will be punished, so rather than lose everything, they intuitively bargain for at least some material compensation. In most cases the price demanded is a government job or cash.
Thursday’s devastating ambush and the atrocious killing of Ruisoting Aimol a few days earlier illustrate the tragedy of an increasingly violent civil conflict and the government’s inability to come up with a liberal answer to the challenges posed by it.
The violence of insurgency and counter-insurgency is used by each side to justify its actions. The AFSPA debate, so sensitive in the north-east region, thus gets reduced to an instrumental “you hit me first” debate, or that of extraordinary situations requiring extraordinary measures. Lost in the process is the ethical question of whether the ends always justify the means.
Placing the two kinds of violence on opposite poles is also false for one more reason. The objection to AFSPA is not so much to the state meeting a military challenge to itself with military means. It is more about making the crimes committed under the cover of AFSPA accountable to democratic law. This is what the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee’s recommendations on the law said in 2005; this is also what the Veerappa Moily Administrative Reform Committee 2005 recommended; this is what Santosh Hegde Commission on encounter deaths in Manipur 2013 also said.
Let the AFSPA debate then not be swayed by the immediate, and instead be debated and resolved on the plane of moral imagination.
Pradip Phanjoubam is editor of the Imphal Free Press.