Dialogue  April-June, 2006, Volume 7  No. 4

Manipur seeks development to defeat insurgency

Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury

Manipur today is probably the only state in India where nearly 30 small and big militant organisations operate and the state administration is often held hostage by these groups for whom extortion is the main mantra and ideology has taken a back seat. The situation in the Northeastern state poses serious threats to national security today. Bandhs and agitation by the civil society groups have today become a norm in Manipur, one of the culturally richest states in the country. There is an increasing feeling among Manipuris that the rebels must hold out and the Army should cease counter-insurgency activities to give peace a chance. The warlike situation must end.

Manipur was formally merged with India in October 1949, now termed as ‘annexation’ of Manipur by the Indian State by these separatist groups. So whereas, the Manipur People’s Liberation Front (MPLF) comprising of the insurgent groups Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (Prepak) described it as ‘black day’, receiving support from another insurgent group, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), the political party Manipur People’s Party (MPP) described it as ‘gloomy day’, and the All Manipur Students’ Union (AMSU) termed it as ‘eclipse day.’ It is widely perceived in Manipur that merger of Manipur with the Indian State by the then king, Maharaja Budhachandra Singh, has brought a lot of hardship to the people and backwardness to the region in all spheres. The attempts to the mainstream diverse identity of the Northeast has caused a psychological rift and a feeling of the being different. The Indian State’s response to solve the problems of Manipur has mainly been limited to fire-fighting.

With three major ethnic groups in Manipur, its insurgency is also primarily divided into insurgent groups of Meitei , Naga and Kuki. While the Meitei insurgents’ prime objective is to free their pre-British territorial boundary from “Indian occupation”, the Naga insurgents of Manipur support the demand of sovereign ‘Nagalim’ (Greater Nagaland) comprising of Nagaland along with the Naga majority areas of Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh. The Kukis on the other hand support the demand of separate Kukiland for which Kukis of Burma are also fighting.

Encouraged with the growth of Naga insurgency, a section of Meitei youths under the leadership of Hijam Irabot, a local communist leader opposed the merger of Manipur in Indian Union and set-up Manipur Red Guard with a view to wage war for liberation of this state from Indian occupation. This first symptom of secessionist tendency among the Meiteis gave birth to ethnicisation of politics in this state. The revolt though, failed to draw mass support and gradually fizzled out particularly after the death of Irabot, ethnic politics remained the focal point in the state.

The insurgency in Manipur like other states of northeast began with an ideology for restoration of the pre-British politico-ethnic supremacy of the Meiteis, later turned into ethnic conflict and finally entered into a cross-current of socio-political whirlpool due to individualized interest of the multiplying leaders of its respective insurgent groups. The Meiteis in the valley viewed the growth of Naga militancy in Nagaland and its close link with the Nagas of Manipur as danger to their political supremacy in the state. With a view to restore their pre-British pride some of the educated Meitei youths known to be the followers of Irabot regrouped and formed UNLF in 1964 under the leadership of Arambam Somorendra Singh and launched an underground movement. With sustained anti-Indian campaign a breakaway group of UNLF later established an underground government called Revolutionary Government of Manipur (RGM) under the leadership of Oinam Sudhir Kumar with its headquarter in erstwhile East Pakistan.

The Nagas and the Kukis of Manipur initially remained indifferent to the Meitei rebels to their obsession to respective ethnic politics. The Nagas of Manipur were supporting the movement of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) demanding a sovereign ‘Nagalim’ (greater Nagaland) including the Naga inhabited territory of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Burma. The Kukis, who live side by side with the Nagas however, never supported the latter instead often clashed with them and formed underground group to fight for their separate sovereign identity. The Kukis were getting support from Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and Kuki National Army (KNA) the insurgent groups in Burma. Similar to the demand of separate Kukiland in Burma, the Kukis of Manipur too came up with a demand for separate Kuki district and subsequently for a separate Kuki state.

Defeat of Pakistan in Indo-Pak war of 1971 and emergence of Bangladesh was a great set back to Meitei insurgents operating from the pre-war East Pakistan. Indian security forces arrested a number of insurgents but most of them were gradually released and the secessionist movement apparently subsided for a while. However, by late 1970s and early eighties the UNLF cadres, who were reportedly trained in erstwhile East Pakistan and China regrouped and revived their movement with the objective of ‘liberating Manipur from Indian occupation through armed struggle’. The insurgents asserted that their territory was forcibly merged with India and therefore, they had waged armed struggle for restoration of Manipur’s independence.

They founded a number of underground organizations prominently Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) led by Nameirakpam Bisheshwar allegedly a China trained rebel in 1978, Peoples Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) led by R.K.Tulachandra in 1977, Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) in 1980. They resorted to violence in Manipur valley and indulged in looting of banks, raiding police stations, killing of police personnel, snatching their arms and so on.

Major insurgent groups of the Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis include PLA, UNLF, PREPAK, Manipur Liberation Front Army (MLFA), Kanglei Yawol Khnna Lup (KYKL), Revolutionary Joint Committee (RJC), Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), Peoples United Liberation Front (PULF), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-I/M), Naga Lim Guard (NLG), Kuki National Front (KNF), Kuki National Army (KNA), Kuki Defence Force(KDF), Kuki Democratic Movement (KDM), Kuki National Organisation (KNO), Kuki Security Force (KSF), Chin Kuki Revolutionary Front (CKRF), Kom Rem Peoples Convention (KRPC), Zomi Revolutionary Volunteers(ZRV), Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), Zomi Reunification Organisation (ZRO), and Hmar Peoples Convention (HPC).

The prominent issue for the insurgent groups is “sovereignty”. To this goal, the rebels, now fully equipped with modern sophisticated weapons, have been battling on for an independent sovereign state of Manipur for decades with their styles of operation often like that of Latin American revolutionary, Che Guevara and other forms of guerrilla warfare in West Asia. However, the insurgent groups are more and more focusing on extortion these days and provide a lip service to their cause.

Manipur’s ethnic minorities which constitute nearly 40 per cent of the population, are also fighting either for separation from the mainland or merger with another State, and in some cases, for autonomy or self-rule. The movement can no longer be treated as ethnic crisis only. However, for years - the resistance movement has led nowhere and its direction is not clear. And the insurgents too are sharply divided among themselves pursuing different political goals with different ideological commitments. Certainly, they are unable to pose a unified threat to Delhi while the Indian Army is engaged on too many fronts to gain a total military victory, probably through all possible military means, with its overwhelming superiority in manpower and conventional weaponry over the various ethnic rebels in the State.

 Quite unlike rebellion, or say resistance movement in other parts of the Indian NE Region, the insurgency in Manipur is ridden with factionalism (Naga insurgeny is dominated by two groups NSCN I-M and NSCN K and both have now signed ceasefire agreements with the Centre). One wonders as to whether these groups are fighting for a cause. These varied factions of rebels complicate their respective agenda. The ethnic tribal minorities have also suffered due to the armed conflicts in the State. Except men with vested interests, no one likes to keep the insurgency alive.

 Following insurgency, Manipur’s economy is in shambles. None of the underground leaders seem to have the vision and the ability to look beyond the narrow confines and ideas in which they are stuck in. The insurgents as entities need money to sustain their movements. These so called insurgents have accumulated cash through contract works and extortions. Most Manipuris are today confused about the rebel groups and are victimised by them.

India has special economic zones where business and commerce are encouraged with the government offering special incentives as part of the overall economic policy. In fact Paona Bazaar in the heart of Imphal can be declared as a ‘Special Economic Zone’. The state government must formulate an agenda where economic development should be given an earnest and thoughtful consideration. A discourse towards formulating a comprehensive policy that will eventually lead to creation of an atmosphere conducive to business will be a good beginning.

Manipur is in a precarious position. The government is too preoccupied with security issues to initiate any major development projects that could at least lead to employment. In such an atmosphere of political uncertainty and instability, there is no way that economy will grow and investment will pour in. There will be no one willing to invest money in Manipur as most investors are risk-averse by nature. In Manipur, as soon as a business is set up, a demand letter is immediately forwarded by an insurgent group. The jobs that were likely to be created with the setting up of a business disappear in thin air.

The state can no longer continue with this present predicament and sooner than later this has to come to an end. The “revolutionaries” have failed Manipur and with the rising frustration of the people, the time is coming when a massive revolt against these revolutionaries could occur. The rebels seem to be becoming unpopular with each passing day with the recent incident by the KCP (City Meitei) faction summoning Newspaper Editors and holding them hostage. Moves such as this will seriously impair their ability to carry forward their struggle. The migration of the educated youths to other parts of India in search of jobs and livelihood has become regular these days. In this era of globalization where the mantra is to make money, the Manipuris are on the reverse road to poverty, degradation and deterioration. The insurgents need to forget this whole ‘revolutionary’ idea as they are increasingly becoming a joke unto themselves. Criminalization of the movements is a reality now. A complete breakdown in the law and order scenario is well envisaged and only people with vested interests would gain in such chaos. The people of Manipur will be extremely happy and get a respite if the ceasefire between the Security Forces and State militant groups takes effect because of the hardships due to the prolonged armed conflict.

Insurgents are frustrated people who have been brainwashed. Except for some of the leaders of these groups there is no ideological commitment to be seen in the cadres. Unemployed youth are easy targets of these groups, who run extortion rackets to support their activities. In Manipur almost everybody is paying to one or more of the ‘revolutionary’ groups for their safety. So much so that even ministers and police personnel have not been spared. The student organizations have been co-opted by the militant groups and even some of the women’s groups have contact with them. In some of the villages when the military arrests some body on suspicion the women groups get the person released. The contractors serve as agents of underground groups. Anti-India programs are organized with financial support from the underground groups. Money is siphoned off to leaders of the underground movements abroad who purchase weapons from foreign countries and send them to India. The state government should take a tough stand with the support of Central government against the separatist groups to bring them to table.

 The local press has to publish all extortion related activities or statements of these groups otherwise they’ll not be allowed to operate. Young people join the extortion groups. Sometimes young people would join CRPF and Assam Rifles and use government weapons for extortion whenever they would get a chance. They sometimes even go and join the camps of insurgents. Most of these underground groups have no plan or constitution for an independent or sovereign Manipur. The leaders of the groups are living abroad and are not concerned. The worst thing that has happened in Manipur is that most of the insurgent groups are becoming merely ‘extortion groups.’ They have also begun investing in the economy through different individuals in sectors such as hotels, transportation, contracts, etc. Once vested economic interests would be created and the political objectives take a back seat it would be very difficult to bring these groups to give up. The insurgents are clearly working to institutionalize the extortion and corruption and that would prove very difficult to break.

 As of today, Manipur is the worst case scenario in the Northeast as far as insurgency is concerned. Apart from the fact that there are more militant groups in the state than anywhere else — at least seven prominent groups operate in Manipur — the rivalries between these outfits often leads to greater violence. Kidnappings and killings are common in Manipur. What worries the security forces is the parallel government run by militant groups. No transporter can operate in Manipur without having paid at least three prominent militant groups. The outfits dispense instant justice, provide protection and rule certain areas with impunity.

 Manipur might be the only state in India witnessing unending turmoil and perhaps Manipur is also the only state in the country to witness calling bandhs to protest against another bandh. The socio-economic condition of the state is severely affected and so are lives, especially of the youth. The future of Manipur is bleak in the absence of strong political will. The state witnessed over 100 bandhs in 2000 and it cost the state domestic product about Rs 4, 479 lakhs daily. According to KYKL, which once banned bandhs and strikes in Manipur in 2003, a single day’s bandh in the state leads to a loss of over Rs 9 crores and with 72 bandhs in 2001-2002 the cost to the state exchequer was of a mind-boggling Rs 676.48 crores. Bandh or strike supporters now target public and private property. One of the worst forms of arson in recent times was the burning down of state library by the Mayek (script) activists during its agitation against the non-implementation of the Meitei Mayek in the state.

 Development is the key to solving Manipur’s problems and it must go on inspite of everything. However, about half of Manipur’s net GDP is from the agriculture sector. In spite of Manipur having a literacy rate of over 60% there is no undertaking in Manipur, which can employ more than 500 people. Scientific advancement, technological achievement and information revolution are the need of the hour. Earlier, the Manipur society was so prosperous that there are no beggars on the streets or servants in homes and nobody starves. The eating habits also reflect the past richness of the society.

 The Prime Minister emphasised on the need to resolve insurgency to boost the state’s economy when he visited Manipur in 2004.

 “I dream of a Manipur free of violence. When that day dawns we will also have a Manipur free of the security forces who are now there to deal with that violence. While it is unfortunate that the brave men of our armed forces have on occasions become the object of public resentment because of the unacceptable behaviour of a few, we must remember that they are here to uphold the rule of law. I assure you that the rule of law will always prevail, whoever the lawbreaker. If peace is given a chance, I am certain that we will not have to burden our armed forces with duties they are not supposed to perform. I hope peace returns here, sooner rather than later, and this will enable us to correct how we manage internal security”, Dr Manmohan Singh said.

 “Manipur is a rich storehouse of culture with distinctive qualities and characteristics, a repository of culture, tradition, life and aspects of the communities inhabiting the State. The folktales, folk-songs, ballads, proverbs, riddles, sayings, chants, beliefs, folk arts, dances and practices, constituting the culture of the Meiteis, the Muslims, the Nagas and Kukis inhabiting the plain and the hills to Manipur are well-known all over the globe. It is no wonder that Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru referred to Manipur as the Switzerland of the East and the Jewel of India,” he added.

 “Manipur needs to look to the future with hope and confidence, I do believe that the creativity, the spirit of adventure and the cultural and spiritual values of the people of Manipur must and will find a space for free expression in an India that is growing, an India that is multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-faceted. I am aware of Manipur’s problems in some ways they are unique but in many ways they are common to the North-East as a whole, indeed, to large parts of the sub-continent. Every Indian yearns for a life of peace and security, both economic and personal, and a life of dignity. It is only but natural that the people of Manipur also seek the same. This is a natural yearning of all human beings in a civilized society. It is a right our democracy assures every citizen.

 I have come to Manipur to start a new process, recognizing your legitimate aspirations for a life of dignity with self-respect. That new process will be one in which we can ensure the security of all our people and the security of the nation in a manner that is humane and just. That was my message to the people of Kashmir. That is my message to the people of Manipur. Violence, militancy and terrorism offer no long-lasting solutions to the complex challenges our societies face. I dream of a Manipur free of violence. When that day dawns we will also have a Manipur free of the security forces that are now there to deal with that violence. While it is unfortunate that the brave men of our armed forces have on occasions become the object of public resentment because of the unacceptable behaviour of a few, we must remember that they are here to uphold the rule of law. I assure you that the rule of law will always prevail, whoever the lawbreaker. If peace is given a chance, I am certain that we will not have to burden our armed forces with duties they are not supposed to perform. I hope peace returns here, sooner rather than later, and this will enable us to correct how we manage internal security,” the Prime Minister noted.

 A new style of peace process in which social workers and intellectuals will be included to mark a radically different approach to the raging insurgency should be initiated, involving well planned negotiations and a measure diplomacy to offer political concessions to the revolting parties. Whatever concessions offered should not in any way disturb the territorial integrity of Manipur, which could have a cascading effect on the insurgencies in the Northeast as well as Kashmir.

 In a democratic set up, criticism as a concept is officially tolerated and Government is flexible when the situation demands it. Atmosphere conducive to rebels operating in different parts of Manipur can be created for a meaningful peace process by addressing the issues, which prompted them to take up arms in the first place. Secondly, political concessions have to be offered to the groups depending upon credible negotiations.

 Just to blame the hostile foreign countries for keeping alive the insurgency - is not an answer to this decades long unanswered question. The gradual turn of events since Indian independence shows that local issues including caste and ethnicity have come to centre stage at the cost of national issues, which is not a healthy trend. Contemporary India of over half a century is a grown-up democracy and perhaps needs a radical transformation in its federal structure for constitutional integration of its entire population.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati