By: Vaishnavi Verma, Research Analyst, GSDN
Manipur has been under chaos for three and a half months as a result of the continuing ethnic strife between the highly armed Meitei and Kuki-Zo groups. The state is essentially divided between the Meiteis of the Imphal Valley and the Kuki-Zo of the highlands. All politicians, the state administration, the police, and the bureaucracy are split along ethnic lines.
A 15-day halt to violence had been requested by India’s Home Minister Amit Shah in order to reach a settlement and bring about normalcy. However, intermittent violence has persisted in rural regions. For all practical purposes, the security in Manipur is being overseen by the former Indian Police Service Officer Kuldiep Singh, who has been appointed as the security adviser to the Manipur government.
The greatest police-to-population ratio is found in Manipur (1,388 to 100,000). Furthermore, 36,000 central forces have been sent to the state. In Manipur, there are 125 companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Border Security Force (BSF), the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). The Indian Army has a Mountain Division and the along with an Assam Rifles battalion which also are operating in Manipur as part of the Spear Corps of the Indian Army who is overseeing the operations from the military point of view.
The military forces have continued to provide a ray of hope for citizens living in isolated areas, in addition to being stationed near contentious borders and quelling insurgencies in the North and East. Their role in fostering national development is widely known.
Because they are apolitical, they have been a benefit to democracy rather than a danger. In Pakistan, the army chooses the caretaker government, but in Bangladesh, the army has a significant influence in deciding election results. In India, political parties would try to profit from the military forces’ triumphs in every sector, but the forces themselves stay in the background, unseen and silent, seldom speaking.
The unpredictable scenario in Manipur also favours the revival of old rebel groupings that have either signed peace treaties with the government or have just remained inactive. The Indian Army is the only thing standing between the warring groups and the state
The Indian Army’s reaction to Insurgency
Because of the foresight of the Central Government and the Armed Forces, the Army’s counter-insurgency deployment in the state has been in existence since 1980. The Army fought rebel organisations of the three ethnic communities – Nagas, Meiteis and Kukis, battling for independence for 30 years after 1980, finally putting Manipur under control.
Peace treaties were made in 1997 with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) and in 2008 with the Kukis, with the rebels relocating into camps guarded by the Army and Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs). The Meitei rebels never signed an agreement and instead went inactive. The majority of the rebel organisations’ weaponry were transported from China via Myanmar.
The Assam Rifles’ insurgency grid, which works under the Indian Army’s Spear Corps, has mostly stayed intact. This unit is also in charge of the India-Myanmar border. A Mountain Division is also permanently stationed in Manipur and Nagaland each. Except for 19 police stations situated in seven of the state’s sixteen districts, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that was invoked in Manipur remains in effect.
Given its extensive expertise, the Indian Army had maintained a close eye on the growing situation in Manipur after the Manipur High Court’s decision on Scheduled Tribes Status for Meiteis on April 20, 2023 and its reaction to the outbreak of violence on May 3, 2023 was prompt. The Indian Army’s biggest handicap is that it is acting under the local administration in the ‘Aid to Civil Authority’ mode. This puts lots of restrictions on the planning and execution of the counter insurgency operations by the Indian Army.
Immediately after the outbreak of unrest on May 03, 2023, 130 Army and Assam Rifles Internal Security Columns (8,000-10,000 personnel) were deployed to restore the law and order. The Air Force assisted in bringing in more soldiers. Anarchy peaked between May 03-05, 2023 dropped between May 06-21, 2023and then surged again.
At the moment, the situation is unpredictable, with periodic outbreaks of violence. The Indian Army intends to conduct combing operations to recover stolen weaponry. Furthermore, the Armed Forces have secured 36,000 internally displaced individuals and cared for 21,000 people who sought refuge in Army Camps. Manipur’s two vital roads, NH-37 and NH-2, which are considered its lifelines, have remained open.
The present circumstance is one of the most difficult the Indian Army has encountered in its ‘Aid to Civil Authority’ mission. Deep schisms exist between the Meiteis and the Kukis. Unlike in communal riots, minority settlements are invaded and set on fire, notwithstanding the presence of the Army. Often the Indian Army columns going in dangerous regions are obstructed by crowds led by women, who are also accused of partisanship.
When the identities of 21 Meitei officers of the Indian Army working in the state were disclosed on social media, the Army was quick to publicly reassert its neutrality. There have been allegations of clashes between the Army and the partisan police, which the Army has denied.
Manipur’s current state is best defined as the proverbial calm before the storm. According to reports, the ‘Aid to Civil Authority’ approach would be reassessed as the situation evolves. Ethnic extremists have taken control of the political arena.
There would be few takers for a compromise solution that does not include a Union Territory or a territorial administrative council for Kukis and Nagas, which may be unpalatable to the Meiteis since it would spell the end of the ancient Meitei country. Nagas have always wanted Nagalim or the larger Naga nation.
Round two of ethnic conflict needs to be avoided at all costs and an acceptable compromise formula needs to be reached at the soonest possible. There are 4,000 looted weapons, the majority of which are with the Meiteis. Dormant Meitei rebel organisations with secret weapons may reappear. Kuki-Zomi militants might abandon the 2008 Suspension of Operations (SOO) agreement, leading to the stealing of the weapons from the designated armouries, and reappear as community heroes. Given the Naga-Kuki animosity and claims on each other’s land, Nagas may also violate the 1998 truce and enter the conflict.
Secessionist insurgencies in the Northeast have run their course and are unlikely to recur. However, if a full-fledged internal ethnic insurgency breaks out in Manipur, the Army’s presence would have to be doubled. A scenario like this would have a knock-on impact on Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Assam, pushing the Northeast back four decades. This will also have a significant impact on the Army’s capabilities on the northern front.
It would be advisable for national political parties, to reconsider their approach to the Northeast. In this location, communal and majoritarian reasoning are inapplicable. It demands secular and constitutional government that protects ethnic and tribal interests. Currently, the scenario seems to be frighteningly identical to that of the 1960s and 1970s. The sole redeeming grace is the lack of clamour for separation.
The Indian Army has always strived towards country building and national harmony. It has endeavored to offer assistance in the most difficult situations while neglecting its own losses and misery. Respect for it has grown as a result of its impartiality, faith in the people, and prioritisation of Indian safety and security. The Indian Army has always kept silent and let its actions speak for themselves.
The Spear Corps and the Mountain Division of the Indian Army in Manipur are doing a phenomenal task in curbing and controlling the ethnic strife in the state. Though faced with immense challenges and complexities, the Spear Corps and the Mountain Division in Manipur are working day and night to ensure that peace and prosperity reigns supreme once again in the beautiful border state of Manipur.