A standoff between a mob and security forces in Imphal, June 15, 2023 (Photo: AFP)
IN ORDER TO SEE JUST HOW COMPLEX AND fragile law and order in Manipur is we will have to go to a young girl’s body found in Imphal 20 years ago. When the body of eight-year-old Lungnila Elizabeth was found on November 12, 2003 in a gunny bag not far from Little Flower School where she studied in Class 3, it had decomposed beyond recognition. She was identified by her family by the ribbon in her hair and her school badge. The daughter of Manipur’s then- Education Minister Francis Ngazopka had been abducted a week earlier. The distraught father had reportedly even paid a ransom of `10 lakh to her abductors, but they had still killed her.
Sometime later, after the police had given up on the case, a local insurgent group, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), disclosed that one of Elizabeth’s abductors was James Kuki, who belonged to a Kuki outfit. UNLF revealed that he lived in Imphal itself, but by that time Kuki was alerted and fled with his wife to Nagaland.
Nagaland was a neighbouring state, but for Manipur Police he might have fled the country itself. There was no coordination between the two state police forces. In any case, Nagaland Police, like their counterparts in Manipur, had little control over areas where the writ of insurgent groups ran. So, nobody was surprised that Kuki was detained by the Naga insurgent group, National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) and later let out on ‘parole’.
Four years later, the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The CBI investigators, after realising that the state police would be of little help, decided to directly get in touch with NSCN-IM. A senior official went to Camp Hebron, the headquarters of the group, about 40 kilometres south of Nagaland’s business hub, Dimapur.
At first, the group’s military chief was reluctant. But after hours of persuasion, he relented. He told the CBI official that they would not nab Kuki but would tell CBI where he was hiding.
And that is what happened. Kuki was nabbed and put on trial. In March this year, 20 years later, Kuki and one of his associates was sentenced to life imprisonment by a local court in Imphal. One of the other accused, Thokchom Nando Singh, who had earlier escaped from police custody, was tracked down, not by police but by UNLF and then executed in March 2021.
It is this complexity and structural weakness of the state that is coming into play in the current crisis in Manipur. It has deepened so much that a retired Army general from the state had to come on Twitter to express what he was witnessing. L Nishikanta Singh, who retired as lieutenant general, tweeted that his home state had become “stateless”. “Life and property can be destroyed anytime by anyone just like in Libya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria, etc.,” he wrote, ending with an appeal. “Is anyone listening?” he called out. It prompted responses and appeals to New Delhi from several Army veterans, including former Chief of the Army Staff General (retired) VP Malik.
But as violence continues unabated, there are no signs that anyone is listening. This is despite Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit to the state where he appealed that peace be given a chance for 15 days. Even his colleague, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma made a trip to the state where he met Kuki tribal leaders and rebel groups. Chief of the Army Staff General Manoj Pande also flew in to take stock of the situation. But it has had little effect so far.
On June 13, nine people were killed in gunfire, as armed gangs loomed large, killing people from other communities as retribution. Two days later, a mob threw petrol bombs at the Imphal house of Union Minister RK Ranjan Singh. It was the second time his house was attacked. He told a news agency that the law and order situation in Manipur had totally failed.
As six weeks pass, the violence has escalated to a point where the warring ethnic groups of Meiteis and Kukis are clashing with each other, armed with sophisticated weapons. From the ground, reports indicate that security forces are unable to control much of it. The situation is so grim that a convoy of the Assam Rifles has been stuck in the state’s Bishnupur district since June 1 and the government had to fly supplies to them on a chopper. So far, over a hundred people have died in the violence. Forty thousand people have been shifted to camps. In a worrying situation, over 3,000 weapons, including automatic weapons, have been looted from armories.
The tension between Kukis and Meiteis is old. But this time, in spite of old, familiar wounds, it has also assumed a religious undercurrent (Meiteis are predominantly Hindu while Kukis are Christian). Reportedly, about 250 churches and 17 temples have been burnt. All attempts to bring the two ethnic communities to the negotiating table have failed so far. The distrust is so much that Kukis have alleged that the state forces are helping Meitei insurgent groups against them.
The tension between Kukis and Meiteis is old. But this time, in spite of old, familiar wounds, it has also assumed a religious undercurrent. Reportedly, about 250 churches and 17 temples have been burnt. All attempts to bring the two ethnic communities to the negotiating table have failed so far
Share this on
AT THE RECEIVING end is Chief Minister N Biren Singh who has failed to control the situation from early on, letting the situation precipitate to such a level. Threatening the fragile peace is the Kuki assertion in districts like Churachandpur where voices in favour of separation from the Meitei-dominated state are becoming vociferous. In Imphal Valley, Kukis were identified and targeted, while in the hill districts the same fate was meted out to Meiteis who are in a minority there. For days, the forces had to resort to a transfer, for Kukis from Imphal and of Meiteis in a reverse journey from the hill districts to Imphal. Most Kuki government officials have left Imphal as the state failed to provide protection to them. Even Kuki MLAs and police officers were not spared. A soldier was seriously injured after armed men fired at an Army party in Imphal on the night of June 18. The problem is magnified in the so-called buffer zones which are areas just outside the valley. While both sides are armed to purportedly defend their villages, several times they have been attacking each other, leading to more violence. An Indian Express report on June 20, quoting sources among the security establishment, said that there were no orders to disarm gunmen on either side. The forces are now using drones to keep a watch on swathes of unpopulated land, but it is proving difficult.
It has reached a point where the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ally in the state had to defend its position. Yumnam Joykumar Singh, the former deputy chief minister, told journalists that his party and BJP ally, the National People’s Party (NPP), could not remain “silent spectators” and if “they” (the state government) have failed, then they have no business to remain where they are. He also questioned the peace committee formed in the aftermath of the violence that has 51 members, a large number that he said “makes it unwieldy”. He said it should have had members from other communities like the Nagas who are crucial to any semblance of peace in the state.
The real fear is that the after-effects of Manipur may now spill over to the neighbouring states of Nagaland and Mizoram, especially in the wake of attacks on churches. Chief Minister Singh called his Mizoram counterpart, asking him to take measures to ensure the safety of members of the Meitei community who have migrated to the state. The impression, some Manipur watchers say, is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is unwilling to replace Singh because it would be seen as his own defeat. But that is not stopping even Meiteis from turning against New Delhi’s way of handling the situation. In Imphal West, several people broke radios, as a symbolic gesture against the prime minister’s Mann ki Baat, saying they wanted to hear “Manipur ki baat”. Modi last spoke about Manipur in the 100th episode of the programme.
For years, the entire Northeast has faced terrible violence, particularly in Manipur. Till a few years ago, insurgency in the state was a sort of cottage industry. At one point, there were as many as 25 insurgent groups in Manipur, belonging to various ethnic communities, including Meiteis and Kukis. Estimates by the police in the late 2000s revealed that there were about 15,000 people involved in militant activities in Manipur. It is with hard efforts that the situation, despite occasional flaring up, was brought under control. What made it worse is the politico-insurgent nexus in the state, summed up once to this writer by the former governor of Manipur, Ved Marwah: “There are hardly any politicians [in Manipur] who do not have links with one insurgent group or the other.” This, coupled with the complex identities of ethnicities and their claims on various areas in the state, is the reason Manipur continues to be in crisis.