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Manipur: Timorous Transformations

With 262 insurgency related fatalities, Manipur remains the most violent State in India’s Northeast, as the first half of 2009 draws to an end. Assam, the other major theatre of conflict in the region, with 11 times the population and 3.5 times the land mass, stands at second place, with 224 fatalities. There are tentative trends, however, that suggest some gains for the counter-insurgency grid in Manipur, which is beginning to inflict costs on the insurgent outfits, neutralizing significant numbers of their cadres and reducing their areas of dominance.

Insurgency-related Fatalities in Manipur, 2008 ‘“ 2009

Year Civilians SFs Insurgents Total
2008 (TOTAL)

2008 (January-June)

131

82

13

6

341

153

485

241

2009

(January-June)*

45 6 211 262

*Data till June 24, 2009
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal

The first six months of 2009 saw 262 insurgency related fatalities, 21 more than the total for the corresponding period in 2008. This increase, however, primarily reflected increased militant fatalities, to the tune of 38 percent. While the death of Security Force (SF) personnel stood at a low six for both years, a significant 45 percent decrease has been recorded in fatalities among the civilian population.

The insurgent groups have overwhelmingly singled out non-local, Hindi and Bengali speaking targets among the civilian population, even as they have made efforts to consolidate their support base within the indigenous population of the State. Of the 45 civilians killed in 2009, 24 persons belonged to this category ‘“ comprising migrant laborers and petty traders who were killed in at least 14 attacks in all the four Valley Districts. In the biggest attack of 2009, unidentified insurgents killed nine non-locals inside the Keibul Lamjao National Park at Khordak Awang Leikai area in Bishnupur District on May 11. Exactly a month later on June 11, four non-local laborers were killed when unidentified insurgents opened fire on them inside the Central Agriculture University campus at Iroisemba under Lamphel Police Station in Imphal West District. Police suspect the insurgents belonging either to the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) or the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) were behind these attacks. Two camps have since been opened by the Manipur Police for the non-locals in State capital Imphal, which house some 250 persons.

Unlike the killings among the non-local laborer classes, which do not register in the imagination and or concerns of the scores of non-governmental organizations and human rights outfits operating in Manipur, one killing that created great sensation was that of Mohammed Islamuddin, a 53 year-old professor of the Imphal based Manipur University (MU), on May 25, 2009. Three gunmen sprayed bullets on Islamuddin, the only professor belonging to the State’s minority Pangal (Muslim) community, killing him on the spot. A day after the attack, the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) issued a Press release claiming responsibility for the “public execution”. It accused the academician of being a “ring leader of a clique within the MU which was usurping all powers of the University and using it to their selfish ends.” A Joint Action Committee of the University, however, refuted the KYKL’s charges as “baseless and unfounded”. The People’s United Liberation (PULF), an Islamist outfit, and the Meitei Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) condemned the incident. KCP ‘secretary general’ Khamba Luwangcha said it was unfortunate that such a killing should have come at a time when the people were crying out against “state sponsored terrorism”.

As argued previously in SAIR, fatalities alone do not exhaust the contours of insurgency. The dominance of the insurgent in Manipur is also strongly reflected in the enveloping regime of extortion that targets Government offices, local self-Government and educational institutions, health centers, commercial establishments and the wider civilian population alike. Thus, in the first week of May 2009, a series of gun attacks were carried out at the residences of the Chief Engineer and three Executive Engineers of the Manipur Minor Irrigation Department following their failure to meet several extortion demands made by insurgent groups operating in both the Hill and Valley regions. Engineers, like other civilians, continue to be soft targets for the militants and are attacked with alarming regularity. The militant groups have also not spared the health sector, and people in capital Imphal have repeatedly faced hardship due to militants’ targeting of pharmacies with extortion demands. Unable to cope with the militant exactions, some 40 pharmacies across the State resorted to a strike on May 13, 2009. Earlier, the pharmacies had shut down under similar circumstances on May 1. On that occasion, however, Police broke the locks and forced the chemists’ shops to open the next day. Reports indicate that the Kangleipak Communist Party [Military Council (MC) faction] had demanded INR One million as ‘˜tax’ from the pharmacies. Earlier, there were reports that various militant groups had demanded INR 200,000 on an annual basis from each pharmacy.

Another group that has been particularly affected by the militants’ extortion enterprise is the dry fish traders (fermented and dry fish are popular in Manipuri cuisine). Militant groups such as the UNLF, KYKL, PREPAK, KCP and KCP-MC have reportedly demanded INR 800,000 as ‘˜annual tax’ from the dry fish trading community.

Educational institutions have also been brought under pressure by the extortion network, as a result of which the Kanan Devi Memorial School at Pangei in the Imphal East District was shut down for an indefinite period. Extortion demands have also forced the closure of two Government colleges in capital Imphal.

Apart from damaging the economy, militant extortion has also adversely affected the state’s efforts to restore civil governance and deliver developmental services. Unable to cope with militant demands, members of various Gram Panchayats (village councils) in Imphal West District have fled their homes and taken refuge at the District Rural Development Agency office in the Imphal West Deputy Commissioner’s Complex since May 8, 2009. Groups such as the KYKL, KCP-MC and PREPAK are reportedly demanding 30 per cent of the funds sanctioned under State Finance Commission and 12th Finance Commission schemes. They have also demanded INR 50,000 from each of the Gram Panchayats. “They even enter our houses and threaten us. We are not able to move out of our houses without fear. That is why we have taken shelter here,” said Haojam Lal Singh, the Presidents of one of the village councils, in a June 25 report. These threats and the consequent flight of officials and elected representatives from rural areas have resulted in the collapse of essential services and governance across much of the State.

The Manipur Government has initiated some steps to end the practice of insurgents extorting a percentage of Government employees’ salaries every month. In the past, a proportion of salaries were paid to insurgents out directly from the offices. Since April 2009, the State Government has asked the employees to collect their salaries from banks. The Principal Secretary of the Manipur Government’s Finance Department, A.N. Jha, in a memorandum issued on April 18, 2009, stated that not only salaries but all payments, travel and dearness allowances, provident fund and other entitlements of the employees, would be paid through bank accounts. It is not clear, however, that such a measure would be helpful in preventing the insurgents from collecting their ‘˜share’ from the Government employees. The Government has also drawn up a list of individuals and business houses that were believed to be contributing regularly to militant coffers. Again, in a situation where the state has failed comprehensively to protect its citizens, it is not clear whether it can effectively stop the flow of extorted revenues by such measures.

The overflow of the insurgency from neighboring Nagaland continues to trouble Manipur. Major parts of Manipur’s four Valley Districts ‘“ Tamenglong, Senapati, Ukhrul and Chandel ‘“ remain affected by the activities of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM). There is, however, some indication of a decline in the level of influence the NSCN-IM once exerted in the Hill Districts. While occasional killings ‘“ such as the February 13, 2009 incident, in which the NSCN-IM cadres abducted a Sub-Divisional Officer of Khasom Khullen in Ukhrul District and two of his colleagues and later killed them ‘“ do continue, their incidence has declined significantly in 2009.

An attempt by the NSCN-IM to establish a permanent camp at Siroy in Ukhrul District in Manipur was foiled in February 2009. After a two week-long standoff, the insurgents, who had already set up the camp, were provided safe passage by the para-military Assam Rifles, and the camp was dismantled. Another three other unauthorized camps ‘“ established prior to the 1997 cease-fire between the NSCN-IM and the Government of India in Nagaland ‘“ at Bonning (Senapati District), Ooklong (Tamenglong District) and Phungchong (Chandel District), however, remain.

Operation Summer Storm, a counter-insurgency operation jointly launched by the 57 Mountain Division of the Army, para-military Assam Rifles and Manipur Police, involving about 500 SF personnel, was one of the initiatives indicating the State’s growing seriousness in combating the insurgency. The operation targeted PREPAK in the Loktak Lake area and the adjoining Keibul Lamjao National Park of Bishnupur District, located south of capital Imphal, between April 11 and 21, 2009. The 10-day offensive resulted in the killing of 12 militants, the neutralization of five camps, and the recovery of 10 weapons.

Despite the relatively low costs it imposed on the 500 strong PREPAK cadres, Operation Summer Storm did ensure the rather peaceful conduct of Parliamentary elections in the State. The sanitization of Loktak Lake, in the proximity of capital Imphal, ensured that there was no base for the insurgents to launch their attacks. A healthy 63 percent of voters cast their ballot in Outer Manipur and another 60 per cent in the Inner Manipur constituencies on April 16 and 22 respectively. The NSCN-IM’s support for the candidature of Mani Charenamei of the People’s Democratic Alliance, who was seeking re-election from Outer Manipur, did little to boost his electoral prospects. Charenamei, an avid supporter of the Naga outfit’s formation of Nagalim (greater Nagaland) lost to Thangso Baite of the ruling Congress party. Barring minor attacks on party offices and candidates, the elections were largely peaceful.

Increasing synergy between the Manipur Police and Assam Riffles is beginning to show some results. On January 18, the Assam Rifles retaliated to an ambush by the UNLF, killing five of its cadres at Khenjang in Chandel District. On March 7, a joint team of the Manipur Police and Assam Rifles shot dead the leader of the Azad faction of the PULF and three other cadres of the outfit during a pre-dawn encounter in the foothills of Tekhanbi Kachin in Imphal East District. The slain PULF cadres included the ‘˜chairman’ of the faction, Mohammed Azad alias Abul Kalam, ‘˜finance secretary’, Mohammed Sahid alias Raj Khan, Mohammed Firoz Khan, and Mohammed Azad Khan alias Ijaaj Khan.

At least ten militants of Manipur-based outfits were arrested from cities like Bengaluru in the South Indian State of Karnataka and from national capital New Delhi, while engaging in fund raising and gun running activities, during the first half of 2009. On January 17, 2009, for instance, seven top KCP militants were arrested from unspecified locations in New Delhi in Operation Grand Slam conducted by a joint team of the Army, Manipur Police and Delhi Police. Details of the group’s activities and the draft of a Press release intended for publication on January 26 (Republic Day) were recovered from the hideout. Three days later, on January 20, another two militants the same group, including its leader, were arrested by a combined force of the Manipur Police, Army, Delhi Police and Bengaluru Police in Bengaluru city. The militant leader confessed his identity as Naorem Brojen, chief of the City Meitei faction and Mobile Task Force of the KCP. His disclosures led to the arrest of another cadre of the City Meitei faction at Hennur Road in Bengaluru. Again, on March 16, one PULF militant, Mohammed Abdul Noor, was arrested by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police from the Munirka locality of the national capital. He had reportedly come to the city along with accomplices to collect a consignment of arms, explosives and funds. Abdul had joined the PULF in 2006 as a Delhi-based coordinator and was involved in planning the abduction of an assistant engineer with the Public Works Department in Manipur.

After years of vacillation, Manipur appears to be taking small steps towards augmenting counter-insurgency capacities. The Government has also decided to implement a two-point action plan for the reduction of extortion and violence. Sources indicate that the Manipur Government intends to further improve the police-population ratio, which is currently at a very high 627 (the Indian average is 125). In its meeting on May 19, 2009, the State Cabinet agreed to induct 1,600 Police Commandos, in addition to the existing 1,600 Commandos who are currently deployed in the Valley Districts of Imphal East, Imphal West, Bishnupur and Thoubal. The new batch of Police Commandos is to be deployed in the Hill Districts, thus covering the entire State with the trained strike force. Reports of June 10, 2009, stated that a Commando post and an India Reserve Battalion post were opened at Ukhrul and Senapati, respectively, two of the worst affected Districts in the State. Official sources also disclosed that the Cabinet had agreed to add one Company each to the existing six battalions of the Manipur Rifles. The Government has also reportedly decided to recruit 2,400 Police Constables for deployment in the Armed Reserve in all the Districts, except in Imphal West. It has also decided to recruit Village Defense Forces to assist the Police in the four Valley Districts.

The problem in Manipur has not, however, been a deficit of Force, but of political will to confront the insurgents on a sustained basis, within the framework of a coherent strategy. While there are incipient signs that this may be changing (and it remains to be seen whether the change is sustained) re-establishing the writ of the state in Manipur is still a long way off.

* The article was originally published at www.satp.org affiliated to the Institute for Conflict Management.

*The article is written by Sandipani Dash

* The author is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management.

* The article has been published with due permission from the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM).

* You may visit www.satp.org for further readings.

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