|Villagers turn up in molcham to debunk the kidnap story.|
Last December, more than 1500 people living along the Burmese border in Manipur suddenly began leaving their villages, in flight from a counter-insurgency operation by the Indian Army against cadres of the Manipur People’s Army (MPA), the armed wing of the nearly 43-year-old insurgent group United National Liberation Front (UNLF). The Indian Army had just begun a major operation to purge MPA cadres from an area the insurgent group had been calling a “liberated zone”. Heavy artillery bombing and mortar shelling followed, and intermittent encounters between the two forces were also reported.
The Indo-Burmese frontier in the southeastern part of Manipur is almost devoid of the presence of state authority and government infrastructure. When this writer trekked into the area a few weeks before the military operation began, the army controlled the area up to Hengshi in Chandel District, beyond which the insurgents held sway. Caught in the crossfire, the predominantly Kuki-Chin villagers on both sides of this line were living a life of daily uncertainty.
As the fighting intensified during the following days, villagers from Chandel District, southeast of Imphal, began converging at a village called Molcham, seeking safety in numbers. They were soon moved out of this area, however, allegedly by the army, to a village called T S Laijang, near a new army post. The UNLF has charged the military with having used the villagers as human shields, and of herding them away – under the guise of humanitarian intentions – so that they would not be able to speak to the press about their experiences of the counter-insurgency operation. The army has denied all such accusations.
Another 300 villagers from Molcham managed to make it to the border trading town of Moreh, where another controversy erupted. The refugees were initially provided relief by a local NGO, but were whisked away the day after their arrival to T S Laijang under controversial circumstances, allegedly by members of two Kuki organisations – the Kuki Students’ Organisation and the Hill Tribal Council – in an act said to further the interests of the Indian Army. A group of journalists and state-assembly legislators were due to arrive at Moreh to meet the group just as it was being taken away. As with the previous incident in T S Laijang, the UNLF characterised the move as an attempt to forestall the villagers from telling the true story of what had taken place in Molcham.
Local media reports told of atrocities by security forces, while military officials reiterated that their forces were engaged in providing a secure environment for the villagers. Such statements were eventually called into question shortly thereafter, during a High Court inquiry into alleged atrocities at Tuyang village. Tuyang was one of the villages that took the brunt of the counter-insurgency operation from December through February this year. The severity of atrocities reportedly committed by the army forced the Tuyang village chief, Limkhojam Haokip, to seek judicial intervention in February. Haokip and a village secretary filed separate writ petitions, charging that the villagers were being utilised as forced labour by the paramilitary Assam Rifles, and that troops were beating up villagers and preventing the injured from being taken to hospital.
Subsequently, the High Court on 22 February issued a rule of notice to the Assam Rifles, after taking into consideration a report filed by the director of the Manipur Police Training School. Based on the report, the judges observed that the petitioners’ allegations appeared to be correct.
Even as these dramas were playing out, in mid-March nearly 400 villagers who had remained holed up in T S Laijang along with a group of Indian Army troops suddenly disappeared. Several Kuki organisations charged the UNLF with having kidnapped the villagers and handing them over to the Myanmar Army. These organisations issued a statement alleging that, in the early morning of 13 March, militants rounded up the villagers, beat them up and took them away. The villagers were said to be detained at Lalim Namunta village in Burma, about an hour’s walk from T S Laijang.
Over in New Delhi, soon after the disappearances a rally was organised that was led in part by the Kuki Students’ Organisation (KSO). Memorandums were submitted to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demanding the clearing of Chandel District of UNLF activists. The KSO memorandum charged the UNLF of laying landmines in the area. It also alleged that the Rangoon junta had a “tacit understanding” with the UNLF. The rally turned violent after the Delhi police detained a number of protestors.
Several Kuki groups proceeded to call a bandh on the stretch of highway between Moreh and Imphal, continuing to demand the rescue of the missing villagers. But even as the strike was in progress, a media team from Imphal gained access to Molcham, where the villagers who had been reported kidnapped had suddenly appeared to tell their stories. The villagers proceeded to debunk the kidnapping story, saying that they had returned to the area as the fighting had subsided, in order to attend to their jhum (shifting cultivation) fields.
After hearing of the media visit, the Kuki Student’s Organisation and the Hill Tribe Council attempted to detain the reporters on their way out of the area. Activists took away the journalists’ notebooks and cameras, and the reporters were made to sign a declaration promising not to write articles related to the three-day affair. The media team was eventually freed after intervention by a team from the All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union. Following intervention by the state police, the journalists’ cameras and notebooks were returned, and their stories were widely published.
The Kuki groups cried foul, accusing the media of bias. They set up their own fact-finding team, which eventually came out with a report suggesting that more than 400 villagers had in fact been kidnapped from T S Laijang, which the report claimed had been abandoned by the Indian military in mid-February. The Kuki groups said their fact-finding team had also visited the Moreh relief camp, where it found that nearly 500 villagers who had been able to sneak back from Burma were taking shelter. The report charged that about 40 UNLF cadres had “escorted” the 400 villagers, including women and children, to Lallim Namunta, in Burma. Along the way, the group was said to have been accosted by the Myanmar Army, but to have been released following an agreement.
The UNLF categorically denied the allegations. In a public refutation, it accused the ethnic NGOs – namely the Kuki Students’ Organisation, the Hill Tribal Council and others – of being used by Indian intelligence agencies as anti-UNLF propaganda tools. At the time of going to press, the controversy continues, with all sides sticking to their stories. The Manipur police’s stance is currently unequivocal: no Kuki villagers were abducted.
Despite the outcry from the Kuki NGOs, the governments of both India and Burma are maintaining a silence. Meanwhile, whatever the truth about what happened to the villagers, one thing is clear: peace continues to elude these Manipur borderlands. The people here remain victims to countless ‘misunderstandings’ amidst the ongoing battle.
~ Yumnam Rupachandra is the Manipur-based correspondent for The Statesman.