Faced with New Delhi’s alternating intransigence and incompetence, militant groups in Manipur are threatening to take their battles to the streets.
Armed ethnic groups have parcelled Manipur into tribal fiefdoms, and are now holding the state’s economy for ransom. Two groups – the Meitei-dominated United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and a faction of Naga insurgents, the National Socialist Council for Nagalim-Isak Muivah group (NSCN-IM) – are at constant loggerheads, jeopardising the state’s growth potential. “There are many armed groups in Manipur because arms are easily available. If you have two pistols, you can form a group and start collecting money from the people, from the state government departments,” explains R K Meghen, alias Sanayaima, the reclusive 65-year old leader of the UNLF.
National Highway 39 passes through Senapati District of Manipur, an area that particularly illustrates the complexities of a region where tribal hostilities have assumed layer upon layer of competing influences. Rival histories, competitive jostling for identity and geographic location, and other such dynamics have combined to make the hidden war in this area almost intractable. Senapati District is a stronghold of the NSCN-IM, and the Naga underground elements here virtually run a parallel administration. “I have to collect tax, and you will have to give it to me voluntarily,” says Brigadier Phunthing of the NSCN-IM.
In addition to the Senapati and Ukhrul hill districts in Manipur, the NSCN-IM also lays claim to the state’s southern hill districts of Tamenglong, Churchandapur and Chandel. The group is demanding the integration of these districts to form a state called Greater Nagaland. But this goal is in direct competition with the UNLF’s agenda of an Independent Manipur. Caught in the crossfire is the Kuki tribe, which hope to claim the hill districts for a separate Kuki state. “In Manipur there are three communities: Kukis, Nagas and Meiteis. So you can’t have a solution for one and ignore the others, if you want the entire region to be in a situation where there is peace, stability and tranquillity,” says Seilen Haokip, a spokesperson for the Kuki National Organisation.
The Kukis, primarily hill tribals, say the British divided their traditional lands of Zale’n-gam, between India and Burma. Modern Zale’n-gam runs from the Sagaing Division in Burma in the east, to the Nantalit River in the north, to the Burmese Chin state in the south. The Kuki National Organisation (KNO) agitates for statehood for Kuki-dominated areas in Manipur within the Indian Constitution. “If India wants us to be part of the Indian union, we are happy to do that. Then recognise our territory by way of statehood,” says Haokip. “The KNO’s objective is to find solutions within the framework of the Indian Constitution. We firmly believe in being Indian.”
Divided by the Indo-Burmese border, the Kuki community wants New Delhi to constitute the state of Kukiland, culled from the Manipuri hill districts. They also claim to have petitioned Rangoon to delineate a similar state in Burma. This writer recently visited the jungle camps of the Kuki National Army in southeast Manipur, and saw armed Kukis training close to the India-Burma border, near Moreh. The Kukis have eight armed factions, which are all united under the KNO. Currently the Kukis are maintaining a ceasefire with the Indian Army in accordance with an agreement signed in August 2005. The pro-India stance of the Kuki National Army (KNA) allows them to carry arms and keep training despite the ceasefire.
The KNA is tiny but tough. Recruits who fall out of line invite harsh punishment. The medical facilities at KNA camps are basic, and simple infections can claim lives. This tough existence is rationalised by the language and spirituality left behind by American Baptist missionaries, who worked to convert the Kuki and Naga tribes to Christianity during the first half of the 20th century. Visitors to Kuki camps can still hear the English refrains of gospel songs:
He gives me love and happiness,
To give me comfort while I am on earth.
There is nobody else besides Christ who can make me happy…
KNA recruits are young, many just 15 years old. To motivate them, a strong sense of faith is crucial. At all KNA camps, the Bible and the gun lay side-by-side. Similar sights can be seen at NSCN-IM camps in Nagaland.
The Kuki children’s army prays, then loudly takes an oath. “Hallelujah, I have finished all sins. I am done with my past life, I am going to reach for the everlasting life. In everything you do rejoice in God. Thank You.” Their small chests bulge outwards. “I will always work for my God and my nation. For the sake of my nation I will undergo every suffering. For the sake of my nation I will stick to my path. For the sake of my nation I will wage war.” Ironically, Nagas and Kukis are adherents of the same faith, yet they continue to engage in a brutal ethnic clash, including with each other.
The NSCN-IM claimed nearly 900 Kuki lives during the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s. The Kuki militia does what the army cannot – it protects Kuki villages from both the UNLF and the NSCN-IM. Its force is 1500 men strong, and is armed with an array of weapons. “At present, we use AK-47s, M16s, DC and 60mm mortars,” says Major D J Haokip of the Kuki National Army. Like the Nagas, the Kukis are deeply suspicious of the Meiteis. “When the NSCN-IM aggressed on us, and from 1992 to 1997 slaughtered us, where was the UNLF?” asks spokesman Seilen Haokip. “Did they ever prevent the NSCN-IM from killing Kukis? Were they able to protect them if they did? 900 would not have died – 350 villages were uprooted, more than 50,000 have been displaced.”
Ten years ago, Ngamkholien was a victim of the Naga-Kuki conflict. He is now a committed Kuki militant. “I love my land and my nation. And I cannot tolerate it being oppressed and violated. That’s why I have sacrificed my life to take up arms,” he says. But UNLF leader Sanayaima says that the Indian Army’s ceasefire with the KNO’s armed wing is nothing but a strategy by New Delhi to keep the ethnic cauldron simmering. “India is very much trying to keep us divided on ethnic lines, pitching one ethnic group against another – the same old divide-and-rule policy. The colonial game still going on,” he says.
The failure of India’s quasi-federal constitutional arrangement to accommodate regional aspirations and assertions of ethnic identity is evident in Manipur’s restive existence. The UNLF’s secessionist agenda is to spark an Utop Lan, a Manipuri Uprising, and the inspiration is the Maoist movement in Nepal. “The Nepal experience is very inspiring,” Sanayaima said during an interview at the India-Burma border. “We’ll come to see some sort of Intifada … That is part of the strategy, and part of the strategy is to tell the world that something is happening here, and you are morally obliged to come to our help. India should not be allowed to simply massacre our people.” The UNLF’s rebellion has been ongoing against the Indian state since 1964. Now it plans to take the war out of the jungles and into the streets of Manipur, by sparking civil unrest. “One of the biggest factors in our strategy is that we’re fighting with the people, not just the armed cadres. We’re fighting along with our people,” Sanayaima said. “Take our population into consideration, and then take India’s deployment – about fifty to fifty-five thousand. Pitted against two million people, 55,000 is nothing.”
Sanayaima, who happens to be a descendent of Manipur’s royal family, plans to mobilise the state’s citizens by proposing a solution that he knows Delhi will not accept. “We’ve made a four-point proposal,” he explains. “Number one is to hold a plebiscite under the UN. Number two, that UN peacekeeping forces are deployed in Manipur. Number three, UNLF will deposit all its arms to the UN authority on a date fixed by the UN prior to the date of the plebiscite. And India should also reciprocate by withdrawing all its forces from Manipur. Number four, the UN is to hand over power according to the result of the plebiscite.”
In order to earn the goodwill of the Manipuris, Sanayaima says that the UNLF has flagged off development projects in rural areas. “If you go to rural areas you’ll find many projects being implemented by us – irrigation systems, water-supply streams, even roads in interior areas,” he notes. “Otherwise, these would have gone to the pockets of the authorities.” Local politicians and officials are also ‘persuaded’ to allot funds to the UNLF’s projects, using threats if needed. “We ask MLAs, ministers, bureaucrats to do what is beneficial for the people. We want to tell them that one day they will have to join the people when the people rise up. Otherwise, they don’t have any future.”
For 26 years, Manipur has been ostensibly run by the Indian Army under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Human-rights violations fuel the secessionist fire, one of the most recent and notorious being the 2004 rape and murder of activist Manorama Devi, allegedly by soldiers from the Assam Rifles. For Meitei insurgents, this tragic incident was not an accident. Rather, they see it as an inevitable product of the conflict. “It is this conflict situation that will push the people forward, to rise up against the system that represses them. And ultimately, they will rise up,” said Sanayaima.
The rebel chief is particularly sure of this last point. For more than 10 years, the UNLF’s armed force, the Manipur People’s Army, has fought a hidden, protracted war against the Indian Army. Now it wants to take this war aboveground, in the form of a popular uprising such as the Palestinian Intifada. Doing so just might take the Indian government by surprise.
From the last Indian Army post at Hengshi, this writer trekked for five days along the Indo-Burmese border of southeast Manipur, to reach the operational headquarters of the 293rd battalion of the Manipur People’s Army, the MPA. It was a long, difficult trek through densely forested hills and bamboo jungles, escorted the whole way by MPA cadres.
The Manipur People’s Army is a well-oiled guerrilla force. Wireless radios, intimate familiarity with the terrain, and local intelligence have helped them to successfully take on the Indian Army over the past decade. The force’s cadres walk the mountains with practiced ease, even though most of them are not hill people, but rather Meiteis from the Imphal Valley. For these rebels, war with the Indian Army is all about fighting for their “freedom”. The UNLF contends that the Merger Agreement, signed in 1949 between Maharaja Bodh Chandra Singh and then-Home Secretary V P Menon, was flawed. It soon became the bone of contention between the Meitei secessionists and the Indian government. According to the UNLF, from 1947 to 15 October 1949, the day Manipur officially merged with India, Manipur was in fact an independent country. Manipuri secessionists say that any accession was actually the annexation of an unwilling people, and herein lies the genesis of the Manipur-India conflict.
What is worrying is that the conflict shows no signs of letting up. Instead, it continues to draw youngsters such as Chinjacha, a national sports champion, into a bloody battle with the Indian Army. “I was a good martial-arts player,” Chinjacha recalled. “I was a kickboxer, and I won three or four medals at the state level, and also at the national level.” Alienation is what drives these young guerrillas. The Manipur People’s Army does not pay its fighters, but it has high morale and could fight on for years.
Clearly, the root of the conflict is political; there can be no military solution to the hidden wars of Manipur. Indeed, Sanayaima, the man who leads Manipur’s violent secessionist movement, was once a student of international relations and political science at Calcutta’s Jadavpur University. Sanayaima says that when very young, he did believe in the idea of ‘India’. “I grew up and I thought that I’m an Indian. When I was in school, I thought of myself in that environment. But when I began to grow and reach the level of college, I gradually realised that India is something different from what we are.”
Nonetheless, without a creative political and administrative strategy in place, the central government is preparing for a new phase of military operations. In fact, India has begun transferring military equipment to Rangoon in advance of a major joint military operation against Indian separatists based in the Burmese frontier. Reports suggest that New Delhi has given Burma an unspecified number of T-55 tanks, armoured personnel carriers, 105mm light artillery pieces and mortars. The India-Burma joint military action is intended to search and destroy camps of insurgent groups such as the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Khaplang faction (NSCN-K), the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the UNLF.
The NSCN-K, located just across the India-Burma border, says that about 3500 Burmese soldiers have been deployed to Burma’s northern Sagaing Division. But the Manipur People’s Army says it is equipped and ready for an extended guerrilla war. The MPA told this writer that its plan is to hit the Indian Army and political institutions in a series of strategic manoeuvres, which Sanayaima says is aimed at sparking a mass uprising against the government. “We’ll always try to give a surprise to the Indian forces. Even Pranab Mukherjee, India’s [then-] Defence Minister, admitted in Parliament that it was difficult to get to our base areas,” the UNLF leader said. He also indicated that the MPA’s 2000 fighters are prepared for an urban guerrilla war. “We have always avoided direct confrontation, and that is part of our strategy. We fight when we want. We fight when we can.”
Conflicting ethnic aspirations have brought tribal formations in Manipur to the edge of all-out civil war. And the troubled Northeast continues to hamper New Delhi’s broader vision of plugging into the economies of its eastern neighbours. The current reality is that India’s much-discussed integration with Southeast Asia actually comes to a sudden halt on the Indian side of the Moreh bridge in Manipur, at the main link between Burma and India. This bridge, painted yellow in Burma and white in India, stands witness to Manipur’s deepening ethnic conflicts, and to opportunities that continue to be lost for this region in a fast-globalising world. The Moreh bridge is actually the entry point of the much-ballyhooed Asian highway project, for which the Indian Border Roads Organisation has already built the first 100 km in Burma. Yet New Delhi continues to fail to tap the potential of this highway, either to reduce ethnic tensions or to enable the growth of trade – to the detriment of many, in and out of Manipur and the rest of the Northeast.