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Armed forces are playing a neutral role in Manipur The Statesman 22 Aug 2023
The Ipsos trustworthiness index of global armed forces of July last year, places India at the top with 64%. As per the Ipsos website this ‘reflects the confidence that people have in the integrity, bravery, and commitment to duty exhibited by armed forces members in India.’ Every internal assessment displays the Indian armed forces as being the most respected government organization within the country.
Apart from being deployed along troubled borders and containing insurgencies in the North and East, the armed forces have remained a beacon of hope for those residing in remote locations. Their contribution to nation building is well established. They have been the force which has rescued Indians trapped in global trouble spots.
The armed forces are always at the forefront in battling any disaster the nation faces, apart from keeping its enemies at bay. In brief, the armed forces have never let the nation down and fulfilled every task to perfection.
Being apolitical, they have been an asset to democracy rather than a threat. In Pakistan, the caretaker government is the choice of the army, while in Bangladesh, the army would play a major role in determining the outcome of elections. In contrast, in India, political parties would attempt to cash on successes of the armed forces in every sphere, while the forces themselves would remain in the background, invisible and quiet, rarely commenting.
Emerging from the masses, the Indian soldier, once he dons the uniform, considers the nation first, respecting all communities and religions. He has no favourites.
They are also the force whose very presence infuses confidence and restores calm after a period of violence. It has been rare that the armed forces are compelled to open fire on violent mobs, since they are trusted and respected by all communities for their neutrality and fairness. Their presence itself is enough to cool tempers and restore order.
Therefore, it came as a surprise, when in Manipur, demands were raised from sections of society, including MLAs from a specific community, for removal of Assam Rifles from the state. The request included replacing the force with any other Central Armed Police Organization as they considered the Assam Rifles biased.
The Assam Rifles, currently an all-India force, under the Home Ministry, is officered by the Indian army, thereby has imbibed its ethos and functioning, including neutrality and respect for all communities. It is omnipresent in the North East and is rightly termed as ‘friends of the North East, sentinels of the North East.’
The Assam Rifles have always been in Manipur and despite a few setbacks have performed creditably. While some sections of society insisted on their removal there were others who thought otherwise. A video doing the rounds showed Kuki-Zo women pleading with the Assam Rifles not to leave, singing, ‘Assam Rifles, please do not leave us.’ This incident emerged after the government issued orders for a battalion to withdraw from a village located close to the Meitei majority, Imphal West.
The incident also highlighted differing perceptions between communities. There was also an FIR filed by the Manipur police against an Assam Rifles unit for blocking their way with armoured vehicles, enabling militants belonging to a rival community to escape. While the FIR has little value, it brings to fore differences in perception in restoring the situation between state and central security forces.
In most trouble spots there is support provided by state police forces including intelligence, enabling better coordination. In the case of Manipur, the state police had itself lost credibility when it permitted its armouries to be looted without firing a single shot. It has been accused of supporting specific communities in specific regions and thus targeted when they enter rival dominated localities. This has compounded problems for security forces. Most of the looted weapons have yet to be recovered.
As the CDS, General Anil Chauhan stated, ‘The situation in Manipur is primarily a clash between two ethnicities. It’s a law-and-order kind of situation and we are helping the state govt.’ Based on this assessment, the strategy of the armed forces, from the commencement of the crisis, was to act as a buffer and separate the two warring communities, while providing succour to all those affected. It refused to be drawn into the conflict.
It will take time for state police forces to regain credibility and trust. In fact, the government may even have to consider revamping them. Till then their responsibility may have to be undertaken by central police forces as also the Assam Rifles. While central police forces may be at a disadvantage, being new to the region, the Assam Rifles are well aware of the internal dynamics and have their own intelligence networks.
Peace would ultimately flow through political dialogue which would include healing wounds and reducing differences between communities. In this, the role of the uniformed is limited. Even among politicians there is this a misbelief that the armed forces can restore peace. The armed forces can only enable; the solution would have to be political. Further, without AFSPA, the army’s hands are tied restricting their ability to operate freely.
In J and K, the army changed the scenario allowing the government to push through political amendments which resulted in an improved environment, which was very visible in the run up to this year’s Independence Day. As a democracy, the army has little role in governance, though for years during terrorism in Kashmir, they were the voice for local communities. Despite its involvement in anti-terrorist operations for a prolonged duration, the army remains respected in Kashmir.
The force has always worked for nation building and national unity. It has attempted to provide succour in most difficult scenarios, ignoring its own losses and discomfort. Respect for it has flowed because of its neutrality, belief in India’s populace and considering safety and security of Indians foremost. The army, has, as always maintained silence and let its deeds do the talking.
To drag it into an ethnic conflict on illogical grounds of partiality is damaging. Rightfully, the government has ignored the irrational demands of removal of the Assam Rifles, aware of its true role.