By Sudeep Chakravarti
It was bizarre even for Manipur, a state at the forefront of India’s intended push into Myanmar and farther south-east, an increasingly important security and geo-economic brick in this regional house of dreams. It also highlighted how charged the process of conflict management is.
On 10 May, several cadres of a faction of the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) assaulted security guards at a district hospital south-west of state capital Imphal. The guards had prevented the entry into a ward by Ningthoujam Nongdren Khomba, leader of the faction. The rebels left after a while in a flurry of off-road vehicles.
The good news: the leader and cadres were fortunately unarmed during the visit. They had formally signed a memorandum of understanding with the state and central governments only the previous day, 9 September, to enter into peace talks. As a gesture, 44 members of this KCP faction had given up 22 automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and were evidently housed in a nearby camp of Assam Rifles.
Technically, such memoranda amount to ceasefire, not formal surrender, as a lengthy prelude to rehabilitation and integration. (Such absence of conflict is taken by government to mean peace.) This face-saver—sometimes through the strangely-worded “suspension of operations”, or plainly worded “ceasefire”—is designed to defang what in jargon are non-state armed groups. There are several dozen in various states of play in Manipur, a roiled geography of wounded ethnicity, religion, ideology and ego. A state half the size of Haryana on most days makes administering the vastly larger Assam—home to similar conflict—look like a walk in the park.
There have been notable successes in curbing conflict in the past three years. On 9 September, the state and central governments also signed pacts for suspension of operations with two major groups of Kuki rebels, the Kuki National Liberation Front and the Kuki Revolutionary Front, and a few rebels of the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup. This last like KCP is also faction-ridden, and belongs to what the security establishment terms VBIG, or valley-based insurgent groups. It’s a moniker for rebels largely of Meitei extraction, and resident of the vast Imphal valley ringed by hills. These hills form the redoubts of the tribes, among them Kukis and Nagas. While three major Naga rebel factions squabble over domination in Manipur, they are generally ranged against other ethnicities.
A total of 155 rebels came to ground with an impressive amount of arms and ammunition on 9 May. This followed earlier rounds of agreements over the past several months with rebel groups and factions involving several hundred rebels. This is in addition to arrests and deaths. In 2012, more than 600 rebels were arrested, and more than 300 either surrendered or entered into creatively worded deals. Many rebels were killed.
Several leaders have also been arrested, the most high-profile being Raj Kumar Meghen, chairman of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), in 2010. Meghen, better known by his nom de guerre Sana Yaima, was apprehended with the support of authorities in Bangladesh—for decades a haven, like Myanmar, for several North-East Indian rebels groups.The combination of a relatively India-friendly government in Bangladesh, cultivation of Myanmar by India, increased security pressure in India, and even local disenchantment with rebel groups has triggered such interdiction, arrest and deals. But while weakened, UNLF is still a force, though not perhaps as influential as the People’s Liberation Army, a left-wing group that has deepened relations with the Communist Party of India (Maoist). At any rate, relative success in Manipur led the home ministry to declare in its report for 2012-13: “…these (valley-based) groups are in a state of disarray and the likelihood of their shunning the path of violence has increased considerably.”
The government hasn’t yet gathered courage to acknowledge the master chefs of Manipur’s alphabet soup: successive governments of India and Manipur, and the security establishment. From the late 1960s, a steady infusion of political and policy arrogance, administrative mismanagement and increasing corruption-fuelled heartburn. UNLF, which demands a United Nations-monitored plebiscite to decide the fate of Manipur, was only the first manifestation. China and Pakistan—and later Bangladesh—stirred the pot for their own geopolitical ends.
It continued to be peppered by India’s security establishment, which played off one ethnicity or group or faction against the other. Then there are those who thrive on the economy of conflict.
And so, while it is a fine thing to lessen conflict, peace cannot return to Manipur till the cures arrive for such ills of policy, of governance.Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business.