Total Views 192 , Today Views 3
How the Army is building confidence and healing wounds in Manipur TOI blog 10 Jul 2023
Images of women (Meira Paibis) gheraoing an army column to prevent them from arresting members of a known militant group, KYKL, display the complexity of the situation in Manipur as do images of thousands of innocents, internally displaced, living in army established relief camps, many being transported in army vehicles. Over a hundred and fifty have been killed in senseless violence and villages burnt on both sides.
Irrespective of the ethnicity they belong to, all who lost their lives were Indians, and this projects sadly on state governance. Media inputs on the turmoil are dependent on which ethnic group is being represented or has provided inputs. The two major ethnic groups currently involved, as also backed by their sympathizer terrorist groups, are the Meitei’s and Kuki’s, both of whom blame the other for the current mess.
The Manipur crisis erupted on 3rd May and first responders were the army and Assam Rifles, senior officials of which had been monitoring the internal security scenario. Initial columns entered without requisition from the civil administration, they were meant to support. Possible causes for the situation having reached its nadir have been elaborated by many earlier and need no reiteration. Suffice it to say, it is a fact that the trigger was due to inability of decision makers to comprehend the fallout of their actions. Hence, resolution will be slow.
State security forces were considered biased
State security forces were considered biased, limiting their ability to control the situation. The responsibility therefore fell upon the army and Assam Rifles. Within two days of the violence commencing, over 50 columns of the army and Assam Rifles were rushed in, increasing to 160 by the end of May. To a large extent this rapid deployment helped reduce bloodshed.
Adding to security concerns were looting of over 4000 weapons from police armouries. These weapons disappeared without any active police response casting aspersions on complicity of state security forces and the administration. Since the induction of the army such incidents have ceased. Only 1500 have been recovered thus far. It is these weapons which are possibly instigating ongoing violence.
Conflict between communities
The problem is compounded by the fact that none of the militant groups nor ethnicity seeks independence, hence are not waging war against the state, thereby cannot be treated at par with terrorists. AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) has been lifted from large parts of Manipur, including the Imphal valley, which imposes additional caution.
The current scenario is a conflict between communities, supported by sympathizer militant groups, including elements in Myanmar. Hence, the primary task of the army was to separate warring groups, reduce bloodshed, protect lives, rebuild confidence and create an enabling environment for peace. Adding to its problems was lack of trust on civil administration, local polity and state police forces. The army and Assam Rifles were compelled to act based on their own judgement.
Higher levels of violence occurred in villages where the two major communities had resided peacefully. Here the army established buffer zones while dominating hot spots. On multiple occasions the army controlled its retaliation despite provocation including firing by militant groups. Three security personnel have lost their lives thus far. It was this impartial approach which enabled it to gain trust from both communities.
Simultaneously they acted to move those affected or even threatened by violence into relief camps established as part of Company Operating Bases. Regaining looted weapons to bring down levels of violence is work in progress. All columns displaying neutrality sought to reassure the population of their intent of creating an environment of peace.
Northeast’s deepest complexities
It was to avoid bloodshed that the army suspended operations against known militants, including those involved in the killing of its own soldiers from 6 DOGRA in 2015, due to resistance by local women groups (Meira Paibis). Simultaneous has been provision of logistics and medical support to all communities without bias.
As Shekar Gupta wrote in his opinion piece in The Print, ‘They (army and Assam Rifles) do not fire at people flashing their weapons at them, forget disarming them. For the most battle-hardened, specialised and successful counter-insurgency army in the world, this is an unfamiliar, first-time experience of dealing with the northeast’s deepest complexities.’
Importance of Manipur to national security
The army is aware of the importance of Manipur to national security. The Chinese have always attempted to keep the North East on the boil. They have funded and armed terrorist groups, located in Myanmar with links to those in Manipur. The influx of refugees from Myanmar has added to local tensions. An open Myanmar border enables free movement of arms, drugs and populace. This security concern has been largely ignored by the centre. Currently only about 10 Kms have been fenced, with some more is on the cards.
Chinese backed Myanmar groups were aiming to prolong the conflict within as also force the army to react by employing undue force thereby pushing attempts at resolving peace further away. The army, on the contrary, interacted with multiple players in the region, seeking to ease tensions, bring about an enabling environment, rather than enforce its writ through brute force. All through support and backing from the state has been missing, mainly because of lack of trust.
The prolonged presence of the Assam Rifles in the state was exploited to build local networks and trust. Both communities were supported, provided logistics and medical cover. The army was assisted by its veterans from both sides of the divide.
Bringing succour to the public
All through, there were organizations, many Pak and China backed, launching false narratives against the army on social media, including that of partiality, suppressing state police forces etc. This had no impact as locals were aware of the truth. It was known that it is the army and Assam Rifles, alongside other central forces, working to bring succour to the public.
What has hurt the Manipuri population, spreading across all communities, has been silence of the national leadership, including the PM, on the senseless violence and hatred artificially created between communities. The state may be small but is a vital link to our ‘Look East’ policy which will be an economic booster. Inimical forces will attempt to disrupt our development and the only way to counter them is by displaying our spirit of oneness. Delhi has to intervene to push through peace overriding the authority of the state administration, which has lost respect of the people.
With enforcement of peace by the army, highways, blocked for weeks, to prevent movement of essential commodities, are reopening. Schools shut for two months are recommencing. However, so high is the distrust between the communities that they have refused to heed to the CM’s request to remove bunkers created for protection from attacks, though the army remains as the buffer.
Ultimately the army can build confidence, it can help heal wounds and reduce fear. It cannot resolve differences. That is not its task. It is the role of the polity at the state and centre. It is time Delhi takes note and the PM addresses the people of the state. The centre must remember that the army has to move back for its primary task of securing the LAC as early as possible.