Manipur: Consolidating Gains
On December 27, 2022, the Government of India (GoI), the Government of Manipur and the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF), a Manipur-based insurgent group, signed a tripartite peace agreement. As per the agreement, the ZUF has agreed to give up violence and join the peaceful democratic process. Manipur Chief Minister (CM), Nongthombam Biren Singh noted.
In yet another milestone, the Government of India and the Government of Manipur signed a 'Cessation of Operation' Agreement in New Delhi with the Zeliangrong United Front that has been active for more than a decade. This will be a significant boost to the peace process in Manipur.
The ZUF is a militant group formed in 2011 by the indigenous Zeliangrong Naga communities living at the tri-junction of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. The Zeme, Liangmai and Rongmei Nagas constitute the 'Zeliangrong' group. This militant organisation has had an antagonistic relationship with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM). In this context it will be new a new challenge for the Government, which signed a Ceasefire Agreement with the NSCN-IM in 1997, and a "framework agreement" purportedly outlining the essentials of a final settlement, in 2015. Despite all hype, GoI has failed to reach a final agreement till date.
On March 1, 2022, Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced that GoI would talk with all the militant outfits in Manipur and solve insurgency-related problems in the State by bringing all the cadres of the extremist groups into the mainstream. He added,
There will be no fire to any Manipuri youth, no youth will go to jail. All the cadres of the extremist outfits would come into the mainstream and they would work for the development of Manipur and the country.
However, the invitation for the peace talks was not accepted by the Manipur Valley-based insurgent groups such as the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the Revolutionary People's Front/People's Liberation Army (RPF/PLA), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP). These groups remained active and mostly operated out of Myanmar.
Despite the refusal to engage in peace talks, some of the Valley-based militants surrendered in 2022 and joined the mainstream. These included:
November 16: 31 cadres of different militant groups joined the mainstream, including 17 cadres of the Kangleipak Communist Party-People's War Group (KCP-PWG), four UNLF cadres, six PREPAK cadres, three KYKL cadres and one PREPAK-Vice-Chairman (PREPAK-VC) cadre. The surrendered cadres laid down arms before the Chief Minister Biren Singh, including one M16 rifle, one M4 carbine, one gun, another rifle, 11 Pistols, one improvised explosive device (IED) and three live rounds.
September 15: 13 militants, including 12 KCP-PWG cadres and one KYKL cadre, surrendered in Imphal West District before Chief Minister Biren Singh. They also laid down two M79 grenade launchers, three 9-mm pistols, two detonators and two radio sets.
June 13: RPF/PLA 'Lieutenant Colonel' Irom Ibotombi Meitei alias Ibotomba alias Keirungba alias Chingkei surrendered before Chief Minister Singh in Imphal West District. He had joined the outfit in 1994-1995 and was RPF/PLA's 'deputy assistant secretary' of health and family welfare.
According to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, a total of 23 outfits in Manipur under two conglomerates [United Peoples' Front (UPF) – eight, and the Kuki National Organization (KNO) – 15] are currently under Suspension of Operation (SoO) Agreements with the GoI, since August, 2008. SoO Agreements with KNO and UPF are valid up to February 28, 2023.
These various developments have had significant positive impact on the security situation in the state, which at one time was reeling under a virulent insurgency.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Manipur recorded seven fatalities, including five civilians, one trooper and one militant, in 2022. This is a significant fall from 27 fatalities, including eight civilians, five Security Force (SF) personnel and 14 militants, recorded in 2021. The 2022 tally is an all-time low in fatalities recorded in a year since 1992, along with 2020, when there was an equal number of fatalities.
Overall fatalities peaked at 496 in 2008. A high of 266 civilian fatalities were recorded in 1993, while SF fatalities hit their highest mark at 111 in 1997. A maximum of 359 militants were killed in 2008.
Overall terrorism-linked incident have also come down from a high of 922 in 2008, to 163 in 2022. Incidents of killing, in particular, declined from 309 in 2008, to seven in 2022.
However, there are still several security concerns.
Five civilians were killed in 2022. Though the number in this category has declined from eight in 2021, there was a single civilian fatality in 2020.
There were, however, a few failed attacks as well. On December 6, a China-made hand grenade was hurled at the residence of Khaidem Yamba at Khurai Konsam Leikai, in Imphal East District. The grenade failed to explode. Khaidem Yamba is a nominee of the Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Office, and had received extortion demands from as many as four insurgent groups in the past.
Several attacks were foiled during the year. Most recently, on December 20, 2022, an IED was detected in the Khurai Ahongi Telepati area under the Porompat Police Station in Imphal East District and was later defused.
However, the ineffective enforcement of peace agreements signed earlier and the lack of monitoring of groups under peace talks, are also raising security concerns. Indeed, on December 24, 2022, Chief Minister Singh stated that some of the Kuki militants who were under the SoO were involved in poppy cultivation and were collecting ‘tax’ from poppy cultivators. The cadres of these Kuki groups currently reside in designated camps set up by the government in different Kuki-dominated areas of the Hill Districts of Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal and Chandel. The involvement of these Kuki militants in poppy cultivation was revealed during the interrogation of the village chairman Henkholun Kipgen and village secretary David Kipgen of Selsi village in Kangpokpi District, who were earlier arrested by the Kangpokpi Police on December 22.
Further, the boundary disputes between Hill and the plains Districts caused significant friction in the State. For instance, on November 16, 2022, a sit-in protest was staged at Nongshum village in Imphal East District, demanding the settlement of the boundary dispute between Imphal East District (Valley District) and Kangpokpi District (Hill District) by setting up a District Boundary Commission to stop the Kuki SoO militants from interfering in the matter. Commenting on the issue on December 25, 2022, Chief Minister Singh appealed to all the people not to be too anxious or restive about the matter, as no changes had been made to the district boundaries demarcated in 1960, and reaffirmed in 1972, and no changes had been made to the district maps.
The failure to hold elections for the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) has also peeved the Hills people, after the lapse of the last term in November 2020. In this regard, a team of ex-ADC members submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 22, 2022. Out of the 60 seats in the Manipur Legislative Assembly, the Valley accounts for 40 Assembly seats and the Hills accounts for 20 seats. The six ADCs of Manipur were established in the Hill areas under the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971 and vested with legislative powers for administrative and welfare services. The failure to conduct ADC elections two years after the lapse of the last Council is interpreted by the Hill ADC members as a suspension of the democratic process and suppression of Constitutional rights of the Hill tribal people of the State.
Intelligence reports indicate that nearly 300 cadres of Valley-based insurgent groups are currently stationed across the India-Myanmar border, and are fighting anti-coup forces on behalf of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army). Once the situation improves in Myanmar, these battle-hardened insurgents could venture into India and create disturbances.
Given the persistence of disturbances, Manipur (except Imphal Municipal area), along with the entire State of Nagaland, Assam, and parts of Arunachal Pradesh (Tirap, Changlang and Longding districts and two police stations in Namsai district bordering Assam), are under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA).
Though the security situation in Manipur has improved considerably over the past several years, several concerns remain, and need to be addressed to ensure an enduring peace. Any pattern of neglect, on the security or political front, can only provide the insurgents opportunities to regroup and create new security challenges.