Manipur police commandos detain and question locals after a rally against the Manipur state government in Mao. (AP file Photo)
Thursday's ambush of an Indian army convoy by militants in Manipur's Chandel district, about 15 km from the Myanmar border, in which 18 army personnel lost their lives has been described by the Prime Minister as a senseless act.
While the perpetrators are yet to be identified, all available evidence indicates the ambush was authorised by a new umbrella militant outfit called the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW in short) formed a couple of months ago under the leadership of Khaplang, chairman of NSCN(K), a Naga insurgent group active in eastern Nagaland and having camps in the adjoining areas of Myanmar.
UNLFW is said to be a conglomerate of NSCN(K), United Liberation Front of Assam - Independent (ULFA-I), National Democratic Front of Boroland - Songbijit (NDFB-S), and Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO). This is not the first ambush inspired by UNLFW. There were two other ambushes on the Assam Rifles in the past few months, resulting in a loss of lives.
NSCN is a Naga insurgent group formed in 1975, having Naga sovereignty as its objective. In 1988, the group split into two factions, NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K). The Government of India and NSCN (IM), the larger group, entered into a ceasefire agreement in 1997 and peace talks soon after. The ceasefire still holds -- incidentally, it is one of the longest ongoing ceasefires in the world -- and the negotiations continue.
NSCN(K) also desired a ceasefire and in 2001 the government entered into such an agreement. Owing to strong differences between the two factions of NSCN, and also the fact that Khaplang himself lives mostly in Myanmar, direct formal peace talks with him could not commence.
Meanwhile, the Naga civil society tried its utmost and with persistence, to bring peace between the rival factions and to end factional killings. NSCN(K) keeps on splitting. In 2010, it split, leading to a new faction called NSCN-KK. In March 2015, Khaplang expelled two NSCN(K) leaders and unilaterally abrogated the ceasefire with the government on the ground that the ceasefire did not lead to any political solution.
The expelled leaders formed a new outfit called NSCN (Reformation) and in April 2015 signed a ceasefire agreement with the government for a period of one year. The government expressed its dissatisfaction with the Khaplang faction as its cadres continued to commit ceasefire violations and extortions.
NDFB(S) and ULFA(I) are also anti-talks factions, and have split from the parent organisations when the latter settled for negotiations with the government.
Reports that many other Meitei insurgent groups such as KYKL and KCP were closely involved with Khaplang in planning the creation of UNLFW, as a coordinating body to achieve the common objective of fighting against the government, are worrying. This tie-up could lead to various Northeast insurgent groups finding safe havens in NSCN(K) camps in Myanmar, easier procurement of illegal arms, better training for militant cadres, etc.
Manipur is largely comprised of hills (80% of the area) dominated by the Naga and Kuki tribes and the valley area (the remaining 20%) is almost exclusively inhabited by the Meiteis (read Manipuris).
There has been a large number of Meitei militant groups operating in the valley for several years. Their principal grievance is that the merger of Manipur state was done under pressure and that the Government of India gives more attention to Naga issues and not to issues related to the Meiteis.
Irrespective of the merits of these arguments, the fact remains that neither the government nor the Meitei insurgent groups ever seriously attempted to get to the negotiating table. The Meitei insurgency is being treated essentially as a law and order problem. It is important that a serious political dialogue is started with the Meitei groups to look at their social, developmental and political issues.
Even as regards the negotiations with Naga groups, with whom negotiations are going on or are to be commenced, the groups must feel convinced that the government is serious about finding a mutually acceptable solution. It is easier said than done. A lot depends on the reputation and credibility of the government’s interlocutors.
Simultaneously, the government should seek necessary cooperation from the Myanmar authorities to deny safe havens for militant groups active in India. The international border has to be managed in an effective manner to stop crossing over of militants.
Taking into account the cross movement of insurgent groups in the Northeast, the responsibility of sealing the India-Myanmar border should be the sole responsibility of the Army. A proper assessment of the performance of the Assam Rifles should be done and a decision taken about their deployment in the Northeast or elsewhere.
The state police forces should be strengthened substantially. They can be supported by central police organisations, which have been substantially strengthened in the last decade. If conditions in the Northeast improve, the government should review the use of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in specific areas.
The author is former home secretary and interlocutor for talks with the Naga group NSCN-IM. The views expressed are personal.