Photo Credit: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters
For years, Manipur’s people have been appealing and agitating for the removal of the act which grants immunity to military forces operating in parts of India declared as “disturbed” areas. But in the last week of May, the efforts received an unexpected boost when Tripura lifted AFSPA. “We wanted to send 25,000 cards,” said Babloo Loitongbam, the executive director of Human Rights Alert, an Imphal-based organisation, “but the post office did not have enough. We are sending 3,500 in the first batch.”
Unlike Tripura, where the act was put in place in 1997, AFSPA and its colonial precursors have been in force in Manipur since 1950. The colonial Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance of 1942 was first deployed in the state to quell popular unrest when Manipur was merged into India. It became the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act in 1958 which was put in place to help the army crack down on the violent ethnic insurgencies taking root in the state.
Sixty four years under AFSPA and its predecessor have scarred Manipur. Despite the heavy military presence, the state remains one of the most violent parts of India. Over the last decade and a half, several insurgent groups in the state have morphed into extortion rackets. There is an accompanying breakdown in the functioning of the state government. Corruption is high. Not to mention a runaway VIP culture.
In recent days, buoyed by the lifting of AFSPA in Tripura, the people of Manipur had intensified their campaign asking for its removal. But those hopes received a bodyblow this Thursday when militants killed 20 soldiers of the Indian army in an ambush in Chandel. Claims reaching newspaper offices in Imphal suggest the attack was carried out by the newly formed United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia, comprising a number of insurgent groups from the North East, under SS Khaplang, the head of one of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland factions.
The ambush is certain to be cited by the armed forces to make the case for the continuation of AFSPA in Manipur, even though there is overwhelming evidence on the ground that AFSPA is doing more harm than good in one of the most exquisite states of India.
A land mauled by violence
Manipur is a narrow valley surrounded by hills. This valley – more of a plateau, really – is so small – less than a tenth of the state’s area and about the size of Delhi – that no matter where you go within it, you see the hill ranges bounding it to the east and the west.
The valley used to house a large ancient lake that would swell and ebb with the rains. In recent times, that lake has receded – Manipur’s famous Loktak lake is all that is left.
Today, most of the plateau is used for growing paddy. It also houses towns like Moirang apart from the state capital of Imphal. The people who live here are the Meiteis – Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. They account for two-thirds of the state’s 25 lakh population. The remaining one-third population that lives in the hills is almost entirely tribal – predominantly Nagas and Kukis.
The lives of Manipuris, however, contrast disturbingly with their arcadian surroundings. Violence is so commonplace that it pops up in most conversations. Every person encountered during a ten-day visit to the state – in buses, in jeeps, in hotels, homes and offices – had an incident to narrate. Incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder are high. Outsiders are frequently told to be back in their hotel rooms before dark.
The history of violence
In Manipur, shortly after India’s independence, insurgency first started in four Naga-dominated hill districts where people wanted their own country. In the sixties, the valley began to see its own insurgent groups. In an article Blue Print for Counterinsurgency, EN Rammohan, a former director general of the Border Security Force and advisor to the Manipur government, said this was a response to corruption and underdevelopment where a set of cronies close to the Indian National Congress captured most contracts in the North East and then siphoned away the money.
Insurgency spread to the non-Naga tribal districts like Churachandpur after the Nagas staked claim over a wider area called Nagalim and issued notices to other tribes like the Kukis asking them to leave. Subsequently, groups fighting for autonomous regions for Hmars and others also came up .
In the early decades, the groups raised revenues through donations. But the requests soon turned into threats, and by the early 2000s, most insurgent groups in the state had mutated into extortion gangs. They also developed links with local politicians. Rammohan writes, “In the elections of year 2000, the different groups were hired by politicians of all hues, both state and national. The groups freely used their guns to intimidate voters and the elections were completely rigged.”
Between the early 2000s and now, things have changed further. The groups continue to have links with political parties. For instance, in the autonomous council elections in the state on the first of this month, insurgent groups in the five hill districts issued diktats variously prohibiting the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party from contesting.
At the same time, the quantum of extortion – while still quite high – has come down. A Congress leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “At one time, people were scared to build houses or buy new cars. In the last five years, that has changed.”