The killing of six soldiers of the 29 Assam Rifles comes as a painful reminder of the chaos and lawlessness Manipur has been descending into over the past few years. That the harrowing ambush was executed about a year after the killing of 18 soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment on June 4, 2015 in the same district – Chandel, bordering Myanmar – reflects the level of activity and control the armed underground groups still hold in this already battered state. It is also confirms the widely held belief in the region that the Indian media and national leaders consider a tiny state like Manipur newsworthy only when it comes to the killing of jawans guarding the frontier. That state violence and the militarisation of the region – and the violence perpetuated by non-state actors – leave no room for governance and development is a secondary concern.
Manipur has the record of being the state with the highest number of bandhs, blockades and total shutdowns in the country. There is a mushrooming of joint action committees for every issue – rape cases, justice for victims killed by security forces, the demand for a new administrative sub-division – with a free license to dictate bandhs in any part of the state. With an ineffective state machinery, people have no faith in the due process of law, and take to the streets for every demand and issue. The ethnic cleavages and hardening of positions on all sides, coupled with the unwillingness to imagine a political society beyond the narrow confinements of one’s community and territory adds to the growing unrest. There are more than 40 armed groups in a state of 2.7 million and 33 ethnic groups. And the numbers keep increasing every year. Shrinking economic opportunities and increasing competition for jobs have accentuated the mistrust and rivalry to a level that influences political demands and election outcomes.
In September 2015, the state assembly passed three controversial bills to tackle the issue of influx of ‘outsiders’. The proposed measures were opposed by tribal bodies which said these infringe on existing constitutional safeguards guaranteed to them under Article 371C. Whatever the intended purposes, the bills have been seen as a move that will jeopardise tribal control over their traditional lands. The protest against the bills led to the deaths of nine innocent tribals in Churachandpur district on the intervening night of August 31 and September 1, 2015. Local tribal groups have called them ‘martyrs’ in the struggle to safeguard their land rights. Over 250 days later, their bodies remain unburied for lack of a consensus between the state government and the tribal groups. By custom, tribals bury their dead as early as possible, usually within 24 hours. This disruption of custom has made it difficult for the inhabitants of Lamka in Churachandpur district to carry on their normal activities. Knowing there are unburied bodies in their midst, Christmas feasts were called off perhaps for the first time in the town’s history last year. Incapable of making sense of this digression, the tribals are a distraught lot and frustration levels are running high.
Although India is largely oblivious to the death of the nine tribals, the killing of the Assam Rifles soldiers in Sunday’s ambush by the Coordination Committee (CorCom) militants has brought Manipur back on to the front pages, if only momentarily.
Formed in 2011, CorCom attacked the security forces last year, killing 18 jawans of the 6 Dogra Regiment. CorCom members were also responsible for the rape of 21 Hmar tribal women in the Tipaimukh district in 2006 and for planting landmines in the tribal district of Chandel in 2007. According to a press release by the JAC Against Anti-Tribal Bills on January 2 this year, “The chief minister told the team that the state government has difficulty in meeting the demands of the tribal representatives since the three Bills were passed due to pressures from CorCom, a conglomeration of proscribed Meitei militant groups operating out of Myanmar”. Whether chief minister Ibobi Singh said so in as many words or not, many tribals in Manipur believe CorCom had a role in pushing for the three controversial bills that have brought the state to the brink of a complete divide since September last year.
On its part, the state has been directly responsible for a number of human rights abuses and violence. A corrupt bureaucracy and the lack of political will has resulted in weak governance, thereby making the role of the military more significant. Besides engaging in counter-insurgency operations, the Indian military and paramilitary forces are involved in community work, building roads, maintaining communication lines, sponsoring beauty pageants and donating computers to schools. This dependency on the military for civilian activities gets aggravated in the shadow of a negligent state government. This cycle perpetuates an ecology of heightened importance for the military in the region and also for the state government to rely on it for many basic services. Incidentally, the team that was ambushed on Sunday was returning after inspecting a landslide area where some villages had been cut off due to torrential rain.
To end the violence in the region, the Narendra Modi government must move beyond its development-military approach and bring about a political settlement to the issue. Both development- and military-centric approaches are found to increase intense rivalry and animosity between communities in the absence of a proper political solution. This further divides society along ethnic lines and other forms of loyalties. With the Naga Accord on the cards, the tribals in the state – both the Nagas and the Zou groups under UPF/KNO – are likely to arrive at a political settlement of some sort, the details of which are not out yet. Likewise, the government must also bring the valley-based armed groups to the negotiation table in order to herald a lasting peace in the state and region.
Along with the demand for the inner line permit, sections of the Meitei community are demanding their inclusion in the scheduled tribe (ST) list. The impressive performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Assam assembly election came largely due to promises made about expelling undocumented migrants and including of several communities in the ST list. With Manipur heading to the polls in early 2017, the BJP will hope to replicate its success in Assam. A helpless Congress, both at the Centre and state, will make all attempts to tighten its grip. Whether the BJP works to bring peace and development in the state by initiating political dialogues with all armed groups – or further polarises the public with the threat of an ‘outsider takeover’ and promise of ST inclusion – will be crucial in deciding the future of the state. A response in the form of the surgical strike into Myanmar in the aftermath of last year’s attack on the armed forces will only feed the nationalistic feelings of the Indian middle class. Manipur’s problems will persist and the state will deteriorate at the expense of the army winning hearts in mainland India. Manipur cannot be sacrificed at the altar of jingoistic nationalism for transient outcomes. It deserves careful and sincere handing by New Delhi and all stakeholders in the state so as to solve its many problems.
Golan Suanzamung Naulak is a Chevening scholar, studying South Asian history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.