New Delhi: Manipur’s famed Kangla Fort standing in the middle of capital Imphal is today witness to an event that has all the makings of an acrimonious chapter in the north-eastern state’s insurgent history.
Today’s special event, commencing at the citadel of the state’s majority community, the Meiteis, at 11 am in the presence of chief minister N Biren Singh, will clearly have two beneficiaries – the chief minister and the Narendra Modi government.
Two other figures in the limelight, militant leaders Kh. Pambei and Th. Thanil, can at best be put for now as the ones who caved in to the pressures of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the Biren government to experiment with a peace that may descend on the valley areas of Manipur someday.
As far as the central and the state governments are concerned, the Kangla event will certainly help swell their optics, spread nationwide three days ago by the Union home minister Amit Shah by announcing that his ministry had signed a ceasefire agreement with ‘Manipur’s oldest valley-based armed group, the United Nationalist Liberation Front (UNLF)’ in New Delhi.
Peace is the need of the hour across the North-East long-mired in conflict, particularly so in Manipur which is simmering in ethnic strife even after six months have passed. However, the reality of the latest declaration of ‘peace’ by both New Delhi and Imphal in the valley areas is a bit opaque. What meets the eye is more optics than the truth on the ground. A bit of explaining is warranted then; the mist around the optics led by Shah himself needs lifting to arrive at the facts.
Is it the UNLF?
Shah called the group that has agreed to enter into a ceasefire with the government as ‘UNLF’. What he kept away from his statement was the whole truth.
The reality is that it is only a faction of the UNLF – much smaller in terms of cadre capacity than the one that has decided to stay away from the latest ‘ceasefire’ with the government.
The Kh. Pambei group, seen close to the chief minister in the state, has only 65 cadres while the faction led by K.H. Achou Singh, better known as Koireng, holds control over 300 cadres.
UNLF has led the oldest insurgency in the North-East after the Naga Insurgency. That it may want to enter into a ceasefire with the Union is a welcome move. However, it must also be kept in mind that a large section of UNLF is not yet ready for peace talks with the Modi government.
The non-talks faction are holding on to their demand that for talks to roll, dialogue on Manipur’s ‘sovereignty’ and ‘plebiscite’ must be on the table in the presence of a ‘third party as witness’.
Pambei and his general secretary Th.Thanil may form part of today’s celebratory function at Kangla but the gulf within the overall UNLF leadership has certainly made put them in an uneasy spot. That uneasiness was palpable in the 59th Raising Day of UNLF held on November 24 in Manipur.
Thanil, speaking on the occasion, reiterated to the Meitei community that the armed group is “not surrendering” to India but is party to a process that would lead to a ‘political settlement’ of their struggle. He referred to “feelers” from New Delhi prodding them to ponder over it. Pambei was missing from the event.
Concurrently, the non-talks faction of UNLF, celebrating its Raising Day, accused the Pambei faction of not only “undermining” their “principled stand” but also “misleading the people”.
“Ultimately, our sovereignty and independence will be compelled to sell out as the price for a ‘development package’”, its top leadership said at the event.
That R.K Meghan, an ideologue of UNLF freed by the government in 2019 from Guwahati jail and now residing in Imphal, is staying away from the latest ‘ceasefire move’ further points to the gulf.
Any compulsion on the Pambei faction?
While the cadres of the Koireng faction are currently located beyond the international border in Myanmar, Pambei’s men are said to have slipped into Manipur during the recent ethnic strife of the Meiteis with the Kuki community.
There have been allegations of valley-based militant groups, including UNLF, participating in the recent violence in Manipur.
A report in The Frontier Manipur on November 28 on the Pambei faction’s decision to enter into a ceasefire with the government said, “The general secretary of the party (Thanil) states (at the raising Day) that after an understanding was reached between authorities representing the Government of India and UNLF under the leadership of Chairman Kh Pambei, the two sides decided not to act against each other. This is probably why central and state armed forces were not acting against them even as UNLF still remains a proscribed armed group.”
If this is the truth, then what is at the top of the Pambei group’s mind is to trade with Delhi for a cover for its cadres who are already in Imphal. Security forces have already gone after the cadres of People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA) and some other valley-based armed outfits.
The militants, in spite of the government’s ban on their outfits, could openly operate in the valley areas during the ethnic strife also because, unlike in the hills of Manipur, the security forces don’t have extra powers under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) anymore. On one occasion, security forces had to release some militants belonging to a proscribed group due to public pressure.
After relenting to the longstanding demand of the Meiteis for the removal of AFSPA from the valley areas, the Modi government is dithering now to bring back any stringent law particularly when it had gone to town as a proof of ‘peace’ in Manipur.
What needs holding up here is also the voluntary ‘shut-down’ of sorts by the valley-based media organisations at a time when UNLF was set to enter into a ceasefire with New Delhi. According to local journalists, the decision was taken by media groups “to stay away from the barrage of statements issued by both the factions of UNLF justifying their positions to the public”.
While print versions of local newspapers have begun publishing only four days ago, their online versions didn’t even have the report of UNLF’s ceasefire talks with the Union till a day ago. The only exception was, the online news outfit, The Frontier Manipur.
This uneasiness of the local media to function independently was at a time when the national media was awash with news about ‘UNLF ceasefire’ in Manipur by Shah. Biren arrived at the Imphal airport on December 1 to a ‘hero’s welcome’ only by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) colleagues.
Why continue UNLF ban during ceasefire?
Though the ceasefire has been lauded by the Union and Biren government as arrival of peace in Manipur, the MHA has not lifted the ban on UNLF, a first in any North-East peace initiative.
The ban on NSCN (Issac-Muivah) was lifted in Nagaland when the Union had entered into a ceasefire agreement with it. Ditto with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).
With only a faction of UNLF ready to join the peace talks with the Modi government, lifting of the ban is clearly not feasible at the moment. To stem the question though, the MHA has formed a tribunal under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to adjudicate whether there is sufficient reason for its renewal of the ban this past November 13 on not just the UNLF but seven other valley-based armed groups. The tribunal is to be headed by Gauhati high court Justice Sanjay Kumar Medhi.
This is the third such tribunal to look into the matter hence the move comes across only as a palliative of sorts by Delhi for the majority community which has been upset with Prime Minister Modi for not even visiting them during the recent violence.