Dialogue October-December, 2004, Volume 6 No. 2
Optimism in Dark times
Two momentous developments have infused an air of optimism in Manipur in the past month. This is despite there being little respite in the everyday staple of insurgency related violence the state has come to be so accustomed to. As late as November 11, three pan vendors were kidnapped and shot dead by unidentified gunmen, most likely extortionists in the guise of insurgents, a proliferating new breed of criminals outlawed both by the legitimate as well as the many parallel laws operating in the state. But despite this grim backdrop of mindless violence, the mood is unmistakably replete with expectation and hope.
The forthcoming visit by the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, after the recent “breakthrough” in the deadlock over the demand for the repeal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, spearheaded by the Apunba Lup, a conglomerate of 32 different civil society bodies, is one of the causes.
The Prime Minister, had promised he would have the Act either overhauled to give it a human face or else replace it with another that is not so callous about human rights.
There are high hopes in the state that when the Prime Minister lands here on November 22, he would be bringing some good tiding on the front, as well as announce other measures for uplifting the state’s ailing economy and exploding unemployment rate.
He is also expected to announce the formal handing over of the Historic and sacred Kangla Fort to the Manipur government after more than a century of military garrisoning, an emotional local issue so long ignored by the Union government.
Hope also is pouring in from another development. A day after the Prime Minister visits Imphal, he would be flagging off the Indo-ASEAN car rally from Guwahati.
The rally, which will be making its exit from Indian soil at Moreh
in Manipur, it is generally believed, would be the symbolic flagging off of India’s new “Look East Policy” initiated by the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Most in Manipur associate this new foreign policy orientation with a Prophesy in the Meitei’s ancient books called the “Puya” whereby it was predicted that prosperity would return to the erstwhile kingdom after its “Eastern Door” opens once again.
This “Eastern Door”, once an important gateway of an important trade route, became shut after the departure of the British from the sub-continent toward the middle of the last century.
The Prophesy may well turn out to be good intuitive economic vision. For geography confirms that the northeast region can be the bridgehead of commerce between three huge and expanding economic zones namely South Asia (India in particular), Southeast Asia (ASEAN) and the Far East (China).
It is relevant to note here that China too has been on a “Look ASEAN” drive for the past decade or so.
There is no need to see these developments in terms of military rivalry alone, but more as economic opportunities that can benefit all the three massive markets with growing influence.
If such a reality does come about, then the prophesy of the “Puya” may not be just a matter of myth. Manipur and the entire northeast region can become the hub of a new and vigorous market. This is indeed no small reason for the region to be optimistic about.
In all likelihood, the return of hope and economic opportunities may turn out to be the solution to the vexing problem of insurrections as well.
Manipur: What Next?
The handing over of Kangla Fort, the traditional seat of Manipur power, to the state government by none other than the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, on November 19 will be remembered by every Meitei because this fort has a special place in the Manipuri psyche. The gathering of a massive crowd at the Kangla Fort Maidan, despite the mass curfew imposed by the Revolutionary People’s Forum, the political wing of the dreaded underground outfit, People’s Liberation Army (PLA), proved beyond doubt how Meitei society responded to the gesture of the Prime Minister. For the first time after 1915, the Assam Rifles had to shift its headquarters from Kangla Fort, which is reputed as the seat of Manipuri culture.
The people in Manipur, of all walks of life, responded positively to the gesture of Dr Singh. Said Mr Tarapat, a senior journalist, “I was at Kangla Fort to cover the historic event of its transfer to the state government. And when the Prime Minister was making this gesture, I wept loudly. I am sure every member of our community felt the same way. We are very happy and it was our proud moment.”
According to Mr Tarapat, an expert on underground movements in the North East, particularly in his home state Manipur, the Prime Minister took some time to go deep into the problem of Manipur soon after the state witnessed violent demonstrations following the alleged rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama Devi by some Assam Rifles jawans. Dr Singh understood the significance of Kangla Fort for the people of Manipur, which is why he was successful in implementing this difficult task.
Now that the Fort has been handed over to the state government and the government has decided to convert this Fort into a heritage centre, the Apunba Lup, a umbrella of 32 organisations, is sharply divided on the question whether to continue the stir demanding the annulment of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, which was imposed on September 8, 1980. In fact, different underground outfits, mainly PLA members, are reportedly putting tremendous pressure on the Apunba Lup to resume an aggressive agitation for the withdrawal of this “draconian Act.” It is in this context that Apunba Lup representatives met the Prime Minister during latter’s Imphal visit and set December 10 as the deadline to resume agitation if the Act was not withdrawn.
Why the withdrawal demand?
People of Manipur, including the hill tribes, are protesting against this Act and asking for a more humane law to deal with the anti-national forces in the state as well as in the entire North East region. In fact, for nearly four years, a 33-year-old lady Irom Sharmila by name had often been going on fast, pleading for the rescinding of the Act. A student, Pebam Chittaranjan, immolated himself on August 15 this year. Activists claim over 20 persons in Manipur were killed so far this year in fake encounters. Besides, many were tortured and harassed in the name of cordon-and-search operations. The alleged rape and killing of Manorama Devi brought the people of Manipur under one platform to voice their protest and demand the immediate withdrawal of this Act.
The law was originally called Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act. Then it was renamed as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Its predecessor was the Assam Disturbed Areas Act, 1955, passed by the Assam assembly to meet the insurgency problem posed by A Z Phizo (this Act is still there). Again, this 1955 legislation was modelled on an Ordinance passed by the British government in 1942, ironically, to put down the freedom movement.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has indicated replacing this Act with a more humane law to deal with the situation. But at the same time he appreciated the role of security forces in protecting the most difficult areas. Because of the unacceptable behaviour of a few, the entire force should not be punished, he observed. In this context it may be mentioned that the Upendra Commission, set up to probe the killing of Manorama Devi, has submitted its report to the Manipur government, despite many adversities.
A communication gap between the security forces and the people of Manipur has always been a problem. In the early eighties, soon after the Namthilok ambush organised by an armed Naga underground outfit, the security forces launched massive combing operations, and in the process many lost their lives while several houses were razed to the ground. Another infamous human rights violation was witnessed by the people of Manipur after the Oinam ambush in the late nineties. And now the Manorama Devi episode has rocked the state.
Unlike other states of the region, different Meitei insurgent outfits are certainly getting food, shelter, and information from their own people. This is one of the major factors why a sense of distrust always prevails between the security forces and the people of Manipur. The security forces are of the view that the local population hardly provides any information about the movements of militants although they provide shelter, food and also sometimes safe passage.
Areas of Strength
I. Charoren is the chairman of the Revolutionary People’s Forum (RPF). He is also known as Commander-in-Chief. The RPF and its armed wing, PLA, are active in South East Manipur and the Chandel district. R K Meghen is the chief of the United National Liberation Front, and its armed wing is Manipur People’s Army. It has influence in West and South Manipur, Thangkhul Naga-dominated Ukhrul district, and National Highway 53 between Jiribam and Imphal.
Prepak is another very old organisation, and at present one Subash is the head of this group. It has also limited influence in the city of Imphal.
Kanglai Yawol Kann Lup (KYKL) is a recent phenomenon. Achao Toijamba is the chairman of this outfit. This group has emerged mainly to punish corrupt officials. It has also launched a war against drug traffickers.
However, the influence of these outfits is gradually decreasing in Manipur. All have taken the path of extortion. In fact, it is an open secret in Manipur that the funds that come from New Delhi are divided among ruling politicians, officials, and underground outfits. Employees of both the state and central governments pay “heavy taxes” to different outfits to lead a secure life. This is the reality of Manipur today.
It is high time the people of Manipur, particularly the women groups, came forward and involved themselves in different developmental activities. At the same time, they should use their influence to bring the underground boys into the mainstream of life. If they are determined, they can ensure a durable peace in the state by creating a conducive atmosphere.
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