A rejoinder to, “Manipur Turmoil Ethnic Clash, Not Counter-Insurgency: CDS Chauhan”, Hindustan Times, May 30, 2023
By Jagat Thoudam
I don’t want to do anything that harms the Indian Armed Forces or compromise the national security of the country through my opinions. But given the gravity of the situation in Manipur, I believe our discourses have to be an informed one devoid of malice and threat. The bottom-line should be honesty. However, after reading the statement of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Anil Chauhan, I am compelled to share my views on this issue.
The esteemed General reportedly stated, “This particular situation in Manipur has nothing to do with counter-insurgency and is primarily a clash between two ethnicities. It is a law and order kind of situation and we are helping the state government” (The Hindustan Times, 30th May 2023). This statement I believe is the half-truth. While it is true that security forces have extended help to the Manipur Government from time to time, reducing the present violent crisis to a time tested epitaph of “ethnic clash” between two ethnic groups must be taken with a pinch of salt.
My firm belief based on my experience of involving in various issues that affected Manipur as a social activist is that whatever is happening in Manipur is the direct impact of the primarily counter-insurgency oriented policies of the Government of India. The simple proof of this statement is that of the deep involvement of the Assam Rifles (AR), the best counter-insurgency force in India, in the present crisis in Manipur. According to the Assam Rifles Act and Assam Rifles Rules 2001 (amended), it has three key roles. The first role is providing security of the 1643 Km long Indo-Myanmar borders (IMB). One third of its approximately 67,000 personnel (47 battalions) are deployed in this task. Second role is counter-insurgency operations in areas specified. And finally, its role is to aid civil authorities for maintenance of law and order.
Guarding of Indo-Myanmar borders by AR instead of the Border Security Force or any other agency specialised for border security points towards handling the border security to an agency which has the expertise of counter-insurgency. The crisis of Manipur revolves around this same force in itself proves that the crisis is all about counter-insurgency. Precisely, on this count, the Suspension of Operation (SoO) with the Kuki Militant outfits has resulted in providing the room for making them grow rapidly manipulating the system under the nose of AR, which fits into counter-insurgency operations of the Indian Military.
Again, a very important issue in the present crisis is about the policy of Government of India towards the people of Manipur especially the Meiteis. The chains of events culminating to the present crisis clearly illustrate the continuation of the Indian perspective of looking at Manipur from the point of view of counter-insurgency. Policy measures are tilted towards facing the highly inflated threat to national security rather than nurturing an integrative value or policy. This is despite some laudable attempts made by the BJP Government at New Delhi. For example, the Hon’ble Union Home Minister Amit Shah on 16th October, 2021 on eve of renaming of Mount Harriet to Mount Manipur at the Andamans as tribute to the freedom fighters of Manipur acknowledged that Manipur was the only Princely State that had its own constitution before India adopted the present constitution in 1950. Deriving power from this Constitution, Manipur established a democratic form of Government. Very sadly Manipur was reduced to the status of a District after merger to India in 1949 and put under a Chief Commissioner appointed by the Central Government as the head of the Administration of Manipur.
Manipur as an Asiatic power before Anglo-Manipur War of 1891 was acknowledged by the judgement of the Calcutta High Court in 1885 as, “Manipur was an Asiatic power in alliance with Queen Empress” (Quoted by Prof. Gangmumei Kamei in A History of Modern Manipur 1826-2000, published in 2016). However, instead of recognising this unique position of Manipur and approaching the insurgency issue politically, like Union Home Minister Amit Shah is doing, Policy of Government of India dominated by the Security/military experts continue to look at the Meiteis very suspiciously who use their unique constitutional position of the pre-Merger days demanding restoration of its lost sovereignty from India. What needs to ponder here is how a population of Meiteis, majority of whom were devout Hindus with strong cultural and religious connections to mainland India got alienated and took up arms against the Indian State.
The counter-insurgency operations in Northeast India in general and Manipur in particular is facilitated and made very effective by the dual command and control of AR. At the time of independence, the command and control of AR were under the Ministry of External Affairs, reflecting the overall perception or view of the Northeast from New Delhi. In other words, India viewed the region as an alien land. However, after the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) took over AR’s administrative control while the operational control remained with the Ministry of Defence (MOD). As a result, the Director General of AR based in Shillong has administrative responsibility and reports to the Home Secretary in MHA. AR battalions, brigades, and headquarters of the Inspector General Assam Rifles (IGAR) North and South function under the operational control of the Indian Army. Despite internal confusions to the detriment of the growth of the force, this dual control makes the counter-insurgency operations possible. None knows what transpired between the CDS and Union Home Minister during the Hon’ble Minister’s three day visit to Manipur. But it is reasonable to assume that vital information related to operational activities of some AR units was not revealed by the esteemed CDS to the Union Home minister.
Counter-insurgency operation is not only about gun fights with the insurgents/militants. Operational considerations for effects-based counter-insurgency planning focuses on certain key activities like fracturing the insurgency movement by dividing one part against another and offering amnesties. AR through the SoO pact literally provided amnesty to the Kuki militants and used these outfits to fight against the valley based insurgent groups. At the same time, AR has given the Kuki-militants geographical dominance in the South and Southwest parts of Manipur such as Churachandpur and Phezrawl districts as well as in Moreh of Tengnoupal district, Kangpokpi district and other areas. In other words, despite the ground rules of the SoO that Kuki militants must not leave the designated camps, AR has virtually allowed them to freely operate in the Kuki dominated areas of Manipur. One does not need any proof for this affirmation. One has to just look at the pattern of Kuki militant attacks in the present violence.
On the other hand, AR in its counter-insurgency activities has slowly but gradually deligitimised the valley based insurgency movement. At the same time, AR has been able to demoralise the valley based insurgent movement by creating and sustaining the perception that long-term trends are adverse and by making the lives of the insurgents unpleasant and dangerous through military pressure and psychological operations. Delinking the valley based insurgent movement from its internal and external support by AR is another sustained activity in which the force has destroyed the political, logistics and financial connections. However, in the case of the Kuki militants, despite the SoO pact, AR has allowed the Kuki militant outfits to continue to have political connections even with the elected representatives (the 10 Kuki MLAs is a case in point), logistic support from AR itself and allowed the outfits to undertake extortion activities (collect taxes). The final component of counter-insurgency operation undertaken by AR is deresourcing the valley based insurgent movement both by curtailing funding streams and causing it to waste existing resources. The ethnicisation of business and trade at Moreh is an avid example in which the Kukis are favoured by AR. Moreover, the resource base of the Kuki militant outfits are allowed to grow under the benevolence of AR. Narco-activities of Kuki militant outfits using illegal Kuki migrants including poppy cultivation, opium and brown sugar production and drug trafficking take place with the full knowledge of AR. These are the main source of funding for the Kuki militants and one should not be surprised if the Kuki militants are wielding expensive sophisticated weapons with endless bullets and ammunitions supply.
Now the question is: Is it ethically justified when AR creates the conducive environment through its counter-insurgency operations for the Kuki militants to push forward their agenda of creating a Kuki homeland at the cost of Manipur? Despite knowing that this narrative and operation is dangerous for the very idea of Manipur, why does AR or the CDS allow it to happen? Perhaps, because of the operational control of AR by the MOD, the MHA and in particular Union Home Minister Shri Amit Shah might not have been appraised of various operational considerations of the counter-insurgency activities.
Coming to the present crisis, the resultant outcome of the misfired counter-insurgency-created Kuki aggrandisement is pushing out Meitei population from Kuki dominated areas by burning down the houses and claims it as their land through armed occupation. The ensuing crisis is predicated as an ethnic clash because civilians are affected while in truth it is an outcome of the counter-insurgency ploy that has allowed Kuki militants to grow to a monstrous size. Earlier, I have put forward the same argument that there is a deliberate attempt on the part of either the Kuki intelligentsia or the Indian military establishment to depict the ongoing crisis in terms of Kuki-Meitei clash. Let us look around us, Kuki militants have not stopped their acts of violence – scaring away Meitei civilians from their habitat areas by firing gun shots and lethod bombs, burning down of Meitei houses and properties. The whole motive is to provoke a violent response from the Meitei population in the absence of timely and appropriate response from security forces. Once entangled, the picture that emerges is that of an ethnic clash.
AR and the Army have done a commendable job in containing insurgency in Manipur and the Northeast. However, the general perception of the Meitei population is that AR is not performing its duties honestly just as RN Ravi, the Governor of Tamil Nadu, had earlier accused the AR of failing to execute its role in the Northeast. Meiteis further feel that AR has sided with the Kuki militants and helping them. At a deeper level, the potential harm of this perception is that of creating a vicious cycle of relentless violence spearheaded by disgruntled civilians who might join ethnic based insurgent outfits to express their angst and dissatisfaction. Would General Anil Chauhan be honest enough to sincerely admit that the present crisis is the fallout of the insurgency obsessed policy of Government of India as advised and advocated by security/military experts? I strongly believe it is the right time to abandon the Counter-insurgency Obsessed Policy of Government of India and reframe the military policy in Manipur beyond the counter-insurgency considerations to face the emerging new threat to the national security of India by narco-terrorists.
(Jagat Thoudam is Advisor, Indigenous People’s Front of Manipur)