It is foolish to look at greater links with Myanmar and beyond without sorting out conflict in Manipur
A file photo of the city of Imphal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Perhaps it’s because I’m fresh from a conference on India’s so-called Look East Policy in the context of the North-East, but it has only deepened my belief that it is foolish to look at greater links with Myanmar and beyond without sorting out conflict, particularly in the gateway state of Manipur. The time for swift and sustainable decisions for resolution of conflict has surely arrived for this geopolitical sweet spot.
The potential returns cannot be understated. In a similar way that China seeks to feed its southern fringe with oil and natural gas shipped overland by pipelines from Myanmar’s coast, India too can bring in such feedstock to energize its weakened North-East and east. Trade is a given. Chinese investment is building infrastructure and the economy in Myanmar’s centre and north-east. Similar ties for India in Myanmar’s centre and north-west can bring both security and economic benefit in chess play that focuses on securing advantages, not killing the king.
Manipur’s location makes it a crucial pivot, alongside Nagaland and Mizoram—two other states that share borders with Myanmar. Moreover, Manipur is at present the only state among the three where conflict is rife, and ill-feeling against India severe.
This was again brought home on 15 October. Much of the state came to standstill that day acquiescing to a protest call by CorCom, or Co-ordination Committee, of six major rebel groups operating in Imphal Valley and adjacent areas. The annual point of angst marks India’s annexation of Manipur under a merger agreement effective from that day in 1949.
Domination by India formed the core of a burst of nationalism that exploded in the 1960s and has not subsided. Overreaction by the army and paramilitary as the heavy hands of a deliberately paternalistic policy decided in New Delhi only made it worse. Paranoia, not parley, remains the cornerstone.
In early September, I wrote in this column about such groups being under severe pressure and several hundred rebels from various groups and factions being reeled in with deaths, arrests, ceasefire and surrender. Several groups and factions are extortion- and lifestyle-led, long diminished from the lofty ideologies that drove them. But there is still much emotional influence wielded among the majority Meitei by the six groups that make up CorCom: United National Liberation Front; Revolutionary People’s Front and its military arm, the People’s Liberation Army; Kangleipak Communist Party; Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup; People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK); and a faction, PREPAK-Progressive.
Alongside, Manipur has to deal with issues that are at their root as “anti-national”—from the government’s point of view—as insurgency. Central government funds have been poured into Manipur hand over fist for decades, not only for the purpose of what is termed security related expenditure, but also for the state’s development. The rotten civic, socio-economic and industrial infrastructure in Manipur is a cumulative result of political and security establishments leaching such funds.
The problems have been compounded by Manipur’s tricky ethnic mix that includes Meitei, Naga, Kuki, and Zomi—a clutch of tribes and sub-tribes. Local politics is firmly rooted in such identities, exploited both by India’s security establishment and successive governments in Manipur; and, naturally, by rebel groups that speak for distinct ethnicities.
India has traditionally relied on the principle of attrition, not empathy, to wear out conflict that has largely been of its own making. Logistics and sanctuary underwritten to rebels at one time or another by China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar would be impossible without feeding off local resentment.
Perhaps the time has now arrived for a series of overdue gestures from India’s political establishment to give conflict resolution in Manipur a serious push, wow public opinion to woo rebels.
At the top of this chart would be the urgent repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which has achieved little beyond further alienating the people.
A significant gesture would also be to do away with the practice of appointing former chiefs of police or senior intelligence officials as governors. Generally they do little for governance and constitutional imperatives, and enhance the perception of domination by India.
It is probably a bit too much to expect India’s leadership to have the courage to apologize for past mistakes. But in the absence of that moral high ground, the government can still initiate meaningful discussions with ethnic groups—both above the ground and underground—to work towards political solutions, including, as a start, real administrative autonomy within the geography of Manipur.
Offer amnesty to rebels to participate in peace talks. Indeed, why not a coordination committee for peace?
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. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org