On 17th August 2021, the Apunba Manipur Kanba Ima Lup (AMKIL) organized a public discussion on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) at the Dhanamanjuri University (DMU) in Manipur. On the 63rd anniversary of the Act having been enforced in the state, the acting-Chairperson of the Manipur Human Rights Commission, Khaidam Mani, detailed the history of the Act and how it came into force in 1958 to quell the issues of insurgency and instability. However, asserting that “innocent civilians” have persistently been penalized under this “draconian and outdated law”, he also stated that the purpose of AFSPA was originally supposed to serve as a protection against incursions by external forces. In his opinion, since Manipur has for long been an integral part of India, the President’s Rule under Articles 352, 353 and 354 of the Constitution should have been enforced instead as the same would have been within the strict bounds of constitutionality. He also emphasized that though civil society and student movements against this Act gained momentum after the rape and death of Thangjam Manorama in the custody of the Assam Rifles in 2004, and the AFSPA was lifted from seven assembly segments in Greater Imphal under the Okram Ibobi-led Congress government; its larger provisions have remained in force regardless of it being against the interests of the public. He also noted the different protests undertaken by the people against AFSPA, including the “mothers’ nude protest” in front of Kangla western gate, Iron Sharmila’s hunger strike and the self-immolation of Pebam Chittaranjan. He stressed upon the importance of “redirecting the movement in a democratic manner” and elect representatives able to do so, so that they are able to effectively prevail upon the Centre to “reform, rectify and modify the colonial-era Act.” The lack of ideological unity in the movement against AFSPA in his opinion, has is also another reason why the Manipuris have been unsuccessful in the Act being repealed. Citizens of India may rightfully engage in peaceful democratic agitation, but the ideals, objectives and method of the movement need to be agreed upon by all. At the same event, Mani also recommended that the Centre withdraw the ‘disturbed area’ status from the state on the grounds of it having justified innumerable violations of human rights in a communiqué to the Chief Secretary, Special Secretary (Home) and the DGP. This came in the aftermath of the PIL filed by Th Suresh, Chairman of Forensic Study and Placement in June 2020, who had approached the Manipur Human Rights Commission seeking assistance in his complaint after the State had failed to provide any appropriate response even after repeated reminders. In the Commission’s opinion, the removal ‘disturbed area’ status would help control the alleged impunity with which the armed forces uses the AFSPA to “politically oppress the people of Manipur”, and bring the Manipur question closer to an effective political solution. These discussions came to fore after the decision taken by the Manipur government in December 2020 to extend the ‘disturbed area’ status in the entire state except Imphal Municipal Areas for year, so as to allow the legitimate use of armed forces in aid of civil power and to quell the violence of insurgent and extremist groups active in the state.
These discussions were occurring in an environment already rife with tension. On 12th August 2021, the Corcom – the apex organization comprised of six major insurgent groups – along with the United People’s Revolutionary Front of Manipur promulgated two separate press releases calling for a total shutdown on 15th August, so that the official functions for Independence Day are disrupted. According to the press release, essential services like press, social and religious functions would stand exempted. For local police, these calls for boycott have been circulated by almost all other underground insurgent groups across the Northeast (except those currently in peace-talks with the government), and along and paramilitary forces, they have intensified cordon and search operations, patrolling and random-frisking in trouble-prone areas. Though no insurgents were apprehended nor any weapons or explosives discovered, the very fact that the apex insurgent body is able to overtly call for a boycott and shutdown illustrates their deep legitimacy in the eyes of the public, or their capability for enforcing widespread compliance at the very least.
Meanwhile, in December 2020, at the inauguration and foundation-laying ceremony at Hapta Kangjeibung in Angom Colony, Imphal, the Union Home Minister Amit Shah declared that the BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi “has given a new identity to the region which is now experiencing a new thrust in development.” He stated that though Manipur was previously rampant with insurgencies, bandhs and blockades, after the “biggest gift” of the Inner Line Permit by the Prime Minister to the people of Manipur, most militant organizations have either agreed to join the mainstream or are in the process of doing so. He specified that the erstwhile Congress-allied state government had failed to stop Manipur’s myriad issues over several years and emphasized that under Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, Manipur is moving toward growth and development.
As recent events make it evident, the history of insurgency in Manipur is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. The will of the common people do not often align with that of the government, even though there are conflicts within the movement and insurgency as well. The purpose of this article is to make sense of these complexities through a historical overview of insurgency in Manipur. It will first describe the Manipuris as a multi-ethnic group of tribal and non-tribal populations, to understand the ethnic hue to the conflict. Secondly, it will analyze the precipitation of alienation and insurgency that the people inhabiting the state have felt, during the British colonial rule and after India won its independence. It will also underline the various efforts at peace and negotiation undertaken by the Indian government. Third, it will delineate the main factors that cause and further exacerbate the already-violent insurgency in the state. Finally, it will attempt to suggest a way ahead, toward durable peace and security.
Manipuris as an Ethnic Group
Though scholars have found it difficult to determine the precise origins of the Manipuris as a people, in general they are considered to have descended from the Kuki-Chin group of the Tibetan-Mongoloid branch. For some historians, Manipuri culture seems to be a synthesis of the Aryan, Mongolian and the indigenous Meiti cultural linkages (the Meitei or Moitoi language is thought to be more than 3400 years old). In the days of the ancient Kongloipak kingdom, the people referred to themselves only as Meiteis and the word – ‘Manipuri’ – became a part of the dialect after 1891 once the region was subjected to British colonial rule. The Meiteis are a group of seven clans tracing their lineages to 33 AD, and consider themselves to be descendents of Thanja Limba Pakongba (6 AD – 34 AD), according to the Manipuri Puiroithun Khunthukpa written in the 3rd century. However, because this would locate the origins of the Manipuris to more than 1873 years ago and that period differs from the period in which traces of Manipuri language have been discovered, historians hesitate to definitively agree upon the exact ethnic descent of the Manipuris. According to some historians, they descended from the Aryan-Kirat group of people, who were at one point, the sole residents in the region. Others like Sir James Johnstone (1896) noted that the Manipuris descended from the Indo-Chinese lineages and underwent an admixture with Aryan cultures early on in their history. For Thomas Callan Hodson (1908), the “Meithis”, the Nagas and the Kukis have a common ancestor with three sons who became the progenitors of these tribes. For Capt. Robert Boileau Pemberton (1979), the admixture with Hindu cultures came very late into Manipuri ethnic origins, as he considers them to be descendants of the Tartar dynasty who migrated from north-western China during the sanguinary conflicts for supremacy between the Chinese and Tartar dynasties in the 13th and 14th centuries. The word Meitei is according to some historians a disambiguation of the word Theis (a corruption of the word Theos meaning ‘heaven’ and some believe, ancient name for China) and the word Meis meaning people. However, other historians disagree because there does seem to be proof of the Meiteis inhabiting now-Manipur since long before the 13th and 14th centuries. For them, it seems plausible that the Meiteis descended from the Mitani group of the Aryans, which has also found reiteration in the Puiroithun Khunthukpa that depicts that in the 1st century, the Mitanis found shelter in the hilly areas of the Manipuri region after a disastrous flood and chose Puiroithun, the chief of the Khabanganba group as their king after he defeated Pakhongba, the chief of Ningthowja group. In general, the argument that the Manipuris descended from the Kuki-Chin group of the Tibet-Brahma branch of the Mongoloid race persists over all others as historians notice that their physical characteristics explain their belonging to the Mongoloid races that migrated to India centuries ago. However, historians today do acknowledge that there is a significant diversity in the features and traditions of the Manipuris that could have occurred through genetic intermingling with other groups throughout the region.
The hill districts of the state are inhabited mainly by Nagas and Kukis, who used to have autonomous status in the kingdom of Manipur but were categorized and differentiated by the British. In the valley districts, other than the Meitei majority, there also live a small Muslim population called the Pangals. The Nagas comprise several sub-tribes including the Aimol, Angami, Chiru, Inpu, Chothe, Kabui, Kacha Naga, Kom, Koirao, Kharam, Lamang, Mao, Moyong, Pouimai, Tangkhul, among others. The Kukis also include sub-tribes such as Gante, Hmar, Lushai, Zou, Vaiphei, Thadou, Simte, Paite and Ralte. Just as the Meiteis assimilated their tribal characteristics into Hinduism and Vaishnavite traditions, the Nagas and Kukis too assimilated and merged into bigger tribes due to ethnic conflicts between the Nagas and Kukis. The minor tribes and sub-tribes encountered a problem of unrecognized identity that gradually festered into demands for self-determination. The Nagas in Manipur seek to join the conception of the Greater Nagalim for political and social security, and because they believe they will have more participation in government and administrative affairs if they do so. On the other hand, the Kuki-Chin-Zomi groups have also demanded a separate state of their own – Kukiland, a demand which has not been recognized as legitimate by the Meiteis, the Nagas or the Indian government.
Legacy of British Rule
The Kingdom of Manipur or the Kingdom of Kangleipak, was established by King Loiyumba (1074 – 1121 AD), who consolidated his rule by incorporating the principalities in the neighbouring hills and enacting a written code of laws for his subjects. After decades of expansion including into the neighbouring Kabaw Valley, King Pamheiba adopted Hinduism in 1714, changed his name to Garib Niwaj and renamed the kingdom into Manipur. After his death, the Meitei King Jai Singh (Ching-Thang-Khomba) sought the help of the fledgling British administration to counter the Burmese invasion – which eventually coalesced into the invasion of Manipur along with Cachar and Assam at the onset of the Anglo-Burma War. For the Manipuris therefore, the consciousness that they were an “independent kingdom” is pervasive even today. They found it difficult to accept the assimilation-integration policies of the Indian government, because in their historical imaginations, their people had memories and histories that long predated the Indian State – even though the Meiteis, the Nagas and the Kukis all inhabited different histories. In truth, however, Manipur ceased to be an “independent kingdom” in 1891 when after dynastic conflicts between Kulachandra Singh and Tikendrajit Singh, the British sent the violent ‘Manipur Expedition’ to recognise the former as Raja. In this ‘Battle of Khongham” (which is commemorated every year on 23rd April), the public hangings of Thangal General and Tikendrajit Singh earned the ire of the people. As the British were attacked by the resident tribes, they sent several punitive expeditions to punish and pacify the kingdom, which was also briefly annexed into British India following the ‘doctrine on lapse’. Though power was restored nominally to the new King (5 year-old Meidingngu Churachand), these dynastic disturbances flung the hills of Manipur into conflict and unrest between the Nagas and the Kukis. Even though the British administration accepted the region as a British protectorate and considered the independence of the Manipuri Kingdom as a casualty in its expansion to secure its eastern frontiers, because Manipur was not formally annexed into British India (as with Assam in 1826), the fiction of independence continued to be preserved. This was even as, for all intents and purposes, Manipur was another administrative and political property of the colonial government, best outlined by the presence of a British Political Agent who would administer the affairs of the state as Raja Churachand attained adulthood.
When the British brought the hill tribes under a common administrative system, they also separated them from the princely administrative system of the Hindu Meiteis. This ambiguity between full integration and relative autonomy for the Meiteis and the Nagas also led to the Naga movement for separation, which the British utilized Kuki forces to quell. For the tribal populations, the advent of Christian missionaries and western education brought forth great transformations into the socio-political life of a people who previously had separate and isolated social, economic, political and cultural existences. This rise in consciousness of identity also led to the formation of several associations like the Naga Hill District Council (which later became the proscribed NNC) and to independent India inheriting tribal population who were deeply aware of their autonomy. The British ignored the development of Manipur, and built no railway lines or electrical apparatus. As the area continued to be isolated from the mainland, a gap of relative deprivation also developed between the Meiteis who occupied the fertile valleys and possessed numerical superiority and the Nagas and Kuki tribes occupying 90% of the hills. As the latter two demanded political autonomy or separate statehood for their groups, the Meiteis found themselves on the side of the Indian State that, after Independence, promised to protect their territorial sovereignty.
Parts of Manipur were also briefly occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army between March 1944 and July 1944, and its capital was shelled. The last King was Maharaja Bodhchandra Singh, who eventually acceded to independent India with the lapse of the paramountcy of the British Crown. When the British left therefore, they left behind a territory that was isolated from the mainland, severely underdeveloped and rife with tensions of divided identities and ethnicities – amidst one another and against the new Indian State.
Issues after Independence
Though Manipur briefly became “independent” of the control of the Governor of Assam on 15th August 1947 and reverted to the status of political autonomy that existed pre-1891, the Maharaja had already acceded to India on 11th August and consented to relinquish control over matters of defence, external affairs and communication to the Government of India conditional on the maintenance of autonomy and recognition to the Manipur State Constitution Act (1947) by the latter. This did not happen, and the government did not recognize the state constitution. The Maharaja was eventually coerced on 21st September 1949 to assent to a Merger Agreement with the Union of India (coming into effect on 15th October 1949), where Manipur would be merged into the Union as a Part C State (later, Union Territory) governed by a Chief Commissioner and leading to the abolition of the state legislative assembly. Rishang Keisheng’s movement for statehood and autonomy was rebuffed several times on the grounds that Manipur was too politically unstable and economically backward to survive as a state, until it finally attained full statehood in 1972. This act of coercion on part of the Indian government – that caused the Merger of the territory into India under duress and without the consent of the people – has resulted in over years of insurgency and unrest among ethnic groups over differing visions of the future. Indeed, between 2009 and 2018, the insurgency in Manipur has resulted in the deaths of more than 1000 people. This process of ‘Integration of Indian States’ continue to define the belligerent ideology, politics and insurgency of both the Meiteis and the Nagas (prominently articulated by AZ Phizo). Another bone of contention that the public holds against the Indian government is the ceding of the Kabaw Valley – which was historically viewed as integral to Manipur – to Myanmar as a ‘gift’ by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1953 in order to cement good relations. The territory of the Kabaw Valley had been leased to Myanmar in 1834, but the unrest that accompanied Nehru’s move may be explained by the anxieties over territorial integrity felt by the public – especially those in the outlying districts of Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong, Ukhrul and Churachandpur. Indeed, this matter of territorial integrity also animates Meitei-Naga conflicts as was evidenced by the uprising on 18th June 2001 protesting the extension of NSCN (I-M)’s ceasefire agreement to Manipur and the insurgency that has accompanied the Nagas’ demands for Greater Nagalim.
The delay in the attainment of statehood and the ‘forced merger’ led to an increase in the resentment felt by the public, and resulted in the emergence of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) on 24th November 1964. Other outfits such as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) were also established through the late 1970s and early 1980s – all demanding a separate and independent Manipur. As the hilly areas became wrought with the conflicts surrounding Greater Nagalim and the clashes between the NSCN (I-M) and the NSCN (K), the Kuki tribal groups also unleashed a program of insurgency in 1990s against Naga dominance and utilized the Kuki National Assembly (KNA – established in 1947), the Kuki National Army and the Kuki National Organization (KNO) to engage in the insurgency in the region. The UNLF, PLA, PREPAK, KYKL and the KCP have targeted not state police but mostly central and paramilitary forces in violent attacks and established an efficient intelligence and surveillance network with sophisticated firepower in several areas of the state, leading to a deterioration of civil governance and peace. The rebels also targeted VIPs, including then-Chief Minister OI Singh, on 23rd November 2007 and vandalized the residences of several MLAs.
On 8th August 2001, the United Naga Council (UNC) separated from the Manipur government as a protest against the violence perpetrated by the Meiteis and the extension of the NSCN (I-M) ceasefire “without territorial limit.” The UNC is the apex Naga representative body in Manipur, and this decision sent shockwaves through both the Naga and Meitei communities as the UNC promulgated the resolution accepted in the Nagaland Legislative Assembly and asked all government officials (including District Magistrates) in Senapati, Ukhrul, Tamenglong and Chandel to cede all issues of administration and governance to the UNC. The integrity of Manipur became severely difficult to maintain as the Nagas refused to pay taxes to the government and compelled all educational institutions to withdraw their affiliation from the state board.
The government of India devised several policies – both hard and soft – effectively counter the insurgency in the state. They viewed the insurgency as a problem of law and order, and after the establishment of the PLA in 1978 declared the valley a ‘disturbed area’ in 1980. In 2000, Governor Ved Marwah outlined the politico-constitutional strategy of the government regarding the Manipur question to include a “commitment to a peaceful resolution of conflicts by following an open door policy of dialogue with insurgents” and a “liberalized policy of rehabilitation of surrendered insurgents.” For years however, there was very little dialogue between the insurgent outfits and the state or central government, even after the ceasefire with the NSCN (I-M). The establishment (and perpetuation) of the AFSPA continues to allow the army sweeping powers to search, arrest and exterminate with impunity and remains a blustering flashpoint representative of central cruelty in the insurgency and in the public’s imagination. On 26th November 2000, following Marwah’s statement, the UNLF conditionally agreed to talks if the Indian government agreed to seriously consider the issue of sovereignty, demilitarise the region and appoint a third country as amicus curie. The Indian government found these conditions unacceptable and instead, Chief Minister Radhabinod Koijam presented the offer of a unilateral month-long ceasefire from 1st March 2001 to 17 insurgent outfits in the state, and Marwah proposed the institution of a contact group to communicate with the extremist organizations. For the insurgents, this was unacceptable as well, because it did not in their mind indicate the seriousness of the government to actually listen to their demands. As the insurgents continued their activities, civil society organizations such as the Meira Paibis, the Nupi Movement and the Manipur Chanura Leishem Marup (MACHA LEIMA) played significant roles in the containment of conflict in the region – peacefully protesting against human rights and civil liberties violations by the AFSPA, taking action against substance and alcohol abuse, demonstrating for peace and stability – especially after the death of alleged PLA cadre Manorama in 2004. On 7th October 2005, the Ministry of Defence released a press notification stating that eight Kuki and one Zomi group had agreed to an informal ceasefire with the government – the first instance of any insurgent outfit engaging in a soft approach with regard to government negotiations. Though ‘Cessation of operations’ agreements were concluded with these surrendered groups from 1st August 2001, it did not prominently effect the conditions of peace and stability in Manipur as the UNLF, PLA, PREPAK and the KYKL were still resistant to negotiations. The government signed a Suspension of Operations (SoO) Agreement with the Kuki rebels on 22nd August 2008 and several talks were held in March 2010 between the Union Home Secretary GK Pillai and the Kuki National Front (KNF). The UNLF in September 2006, yet again offered the government with a four-point formula under which they would be willing to enter into a plebiscite for the resolution of conflict in the state. They demanded that the same be organized under the auspices of the United Nations, focused on obtaining the public’s opinion about the “core issue of Manipur’s independence”, with the deployment of a UN Peacekeeping Force (UNPKF) to ensure the process is free and fair, and agreed to surrender the UNLF’s arms to UNPKF on the condition that they supervise the handing over of political power depending on the results of the plebiscite. Unsurprisingly, the Indian government rejected this proposal for a host of reasons, most important of which is that the problem of insurgency in Manipur is an internal one and as such under Article 2(7) of the United Nations Charter, is under the “domestic jurisdiction of the State.” India was aware that allowing the UN to intervene would cause a dangerous ambiguity of the type in Kashmir, which would allow there to be established precedent of the Indian government’s lack of conviction that Manipur is a part of its territory. On both sides therefore, the parties refused to entertain reasonable solutions to the conflict and instead relied on the force of the army and police, and the insurgent cadres respectively to manage a conflict which would have ideally required a politico-constitutional solution.
In November 2020, the Modi invited Manipur Chief Minister Singh to discuss various issues before the ceasefire agreement was reached between the Government of India, the NSCN (I-M) and the Naga National Political Groups. Though negotiations with Manipur’s insurgent groups are still evasive, the fact that the government has involved all stakeholders including Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur, did reassure the Meiteis that the Naga accord would in no way allow for Greater Nagalim or compromise the territorial integrity of the state. Still, however, the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI) – which is the apex body of seven civil society organisations – demanded that the process of negotiation be transparent and clearly disclosed to the public so the government cannot “say different things to the Nagas, Meiteis and Kukis.” If the Indian government is able to maintain an environment of trust during these negotiations, scholars are seriously hopeful that a solution to the Manipur insurgency may not be too unachievable.
Factors Exacerbating Insurgency
For most scholars, the most important and recent explanation for the instability in Manipur are the defunct Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) that are bodies of self-governance that became operational in Manipur in 1973 as per the Manipur (Hill Area) Autonomous District Council Act 0f 1971 passed by the state government. Since 1989 however, these ADCs have been rendered virtually obsolete as there have been agitations across various districts against the elections to the ADCs, demanding that they be replaced by district councils under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution which would grant them more autonomy to exercise legislative and judicial powers according to tribal customary laws. The Centre has not yet agreed to this demand, and with the ADCs non-functional, Manipur remained without any statutory grassroots self-governance mechanism for decades. In 2008, the government brought an amendment to the 1971 Act that transferred some traditional powers of the village chief to the elected ADC leaders – a development that the All Naga Students Association, Manipur (ANSAM) and the United Naga Council (UNC) strongly objected to and demanded it be scrapped immediately. In response, the government contended that the election process was “hard-won” and thus needed to be protected from local protests, but promised that they would rectify the Act after the ADC elections had been completed. The ANSAM then launched an economic blockade on 11th April 2010. Consistently therefore, the government and the insurgents have firmly disagreed on the legitimacy and the future of the ADCs, which are organizations on central vintage.
On 29th April 2010, the Centre informed the Manipur Government by a crash wireless message that Thuingaleng Muivah, the general secretary of the NSCN (I-M) would be visiting his home-village in Sombal, Manipur on 3rd May and would be addressing two public rallies in Ukhrul and Senapati on 8th May and 10th May respectively. The government found it suspicious that Muivah was visiting at a juncture in Manipur which was rampant with tension (given the ongoing economic blockade) when in the past, he had stayed at the NSCN (I-M) headquarters in Hebron, near Dimapur in Nagaland. Thus, the Manipur State Cabinet blocked Muivah’s entry into the state on 30th April 2010 and imposed Sec. 144 (CrPC) in the Senapati district and increased the presence of security forces. This unleashed unrest across the state, and on 6th May 2010, a number of locals stormed a temporary barrack at the Mao gate (through which Muivah was supposed to enter), leading to security forces firing, causing the death of three locals and fifty others injured. In protest, seven Naga MLAs resigned from their duties, and the NSCN (I-M) indefinitely extended their blockade leading to hundreds of trucks carrying medicines and essential commodities being stranded on state borders, especially NH-39. This issue has plagued the Manipur issue since then, even though the government finally managed to persuade Muivah to leave Viswema village on the Manipur-Nagaland border where he had been camping in protest and the blockade was lifted on 18th June 2010.
Though Muivah’s entry was blocked by the government, the NSCN (I-M) took it to signal aggression from the Meiteis against the Nagas. The animosity between the Nagas and the Meiteis have a long and turbulent history, especially because the Meiteis comprise the majority in the area, and for years have been relatively indifferent to the ADC issue, even though they seem to have been in favour of the Greater Nagalim – merging territories in Nagaland, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar – proposal of Muivah. Though the issues of insurgency in the region yet again acquired an ethnic hue, there were no Meitei forces stationed at the Mao gate on that day and neither the operations overall commander or the second-in-command were Meiteis. Though the government maintained then (and continues to now) that the ADC amendments were made with the Meitei valley communities in mind; that is not true. All issues in Manipur are discussed in the Hill Area Committee (HAC) formed by 20 hill MLAs of the Manipur Assembly. The ADC on the other hand, provides no representation to the Meiteis. Indeed, though the insurgency has several internal causes for continuing to fester, the government’s unclear stance on responsiveness and transparency to the voice of the local public does continue to complicate the issue further. In general, the authorities seem to be encouraging the hill-valley binaries that are based on the differing conceptions of the political community of the State and the preceding imaginary community of the nation. For some scholars, the issue of insurgency in Manipur and the continuous ethnic conflicts between the Nagas and the Meiteis are based on that State-nation dichotomy as both communities believe that the other represent the paraphernalia of the State – centralised bureaucracy, definite functional hierarchy and specialization, economic administration – over the lived existence of tribal consciousness and imaginings of a nation that has preceded the former. Though issues of these “non-State” spaces do not figure prominently in many scholarly writings, it does not mean that they did not exist or were not conquered into becoming parts of other kingdoms. These intermingled histories also complicate the ethnic fervour of the insurgency. The basic premise of the hostility of the Nagas toward the Meiteis despite their linguistic and ethnic closeness is that the latter converted to Hinduism in the early 19th century and imposed the caste system which treated the Nagas as outsiders – a wound that has continued to foment a crisis. This is in spite of the fact that Pamheiba, one of the most respected Manipuri kings who waged successful wars against Myanmar (Burma or Ava) during 1725 and 1749 was himself a Naga who converted to Hinduism. He also completely annihilated the Meitei traditions, banning the original Meitei religion Sanamahi and the Meitei script Puya, and burning traditional Meitei religious texts in a bonfire in 1726. He also replaced the Meitei script with the Bengali script, which continues to this day. For communities as enmeshed in issues of tradition and land ownership as the Nagas and the Meiteis, the resistance to ADC is primarily on the grounds that it would compromise tribal lands, hand the ownership over to the State, reducing the individual land-owners to tenants leasing the small plots of land they inhabit – which the State can reacquire at any time through legal norms in favour of public good. In the conflict between the Manipur integrity and Naga integration opposition, the conceptions of land and traditional ownership of the Meiteis who have accepted the territorial boundaries of the State and the Naga who have not are in discord. These issues become archetypical in the Koubru Mountain, Thanhjing, Laimaton and Nongmaijing as Nagas, Meiteis, Kukis and Nepalis each have differing conceptions of historical legacy in these areas. Thus, though the Nagas and the Meiteis share a more intertwined history than most remember, perceived and actual injustices serve to darken their relations and thus vitiate the insurgency further.
There are twelve insurgent outfits currently operating in Manipur, “with as many as 12650 cadres of different insurgent outfits with 8830 weapons actively operating in the state”, according to a report by the Ministry of Home Affairs. With such high rates of insurgency and low rates of surrenders, investments meant for industrial development in the state continue to be diverted to counter unrest and unemployment. As companies balk at investing in a region where instability is so deeply pervasive, unemployment among educated youths continues to fester, leading them to join the active insurgent outfits that promise to bring them justice against the State. This vicious cycle both precipitates growing insurgency in terms of burgeoning cadre strength, and disallows any possibility for the situation to be bettered through development and progress.
The militant outfits also regularly engage in extortion, even from places of worship, educational institutes, health centres and commercial establishments, leading to their closure in several places across the state. The Naga insurgents, especially operating in the hill districts of Manipur, dominate the NH-39 and NH-53 and impose illegal “taxes” on the National Highways and strict penalties for not paying it. Indeed, these outfits have established 26 “permanent tax collection points” along the highways, thus impeding Manipur’s connectivity to Assam and the rest of India. As the insurgents continue to isolate the state from the mainland and establish parallel regimes of economic exploitation, the problem of insurgency becomes even more acute. The insurgents also kidnap children and train them into child soldiers – an issue that is of special concern to the government.
There are also contrary narratives that place the onus for fomenting insurgency on the controversy-ridden AFSPA that had been imposed on the state on 8th September 1980, and continues to be in place today. Moreover, the unprecedented civic uprising against the Act and the impunity it grants to the armed forces continues to foment instability, and provides the insurgents with more fodder against the government.
What is the Way Forward?
For most scholars, given the divided nature of the conflict in Manipur – between the Nagas, Kukis and Meiteis, each demanding separate visions of the collective future – the only way in which a peaceful solution will be possible is if the public understand that the real issue lies in the corruption and mismanagement within the local authorities; which in turn provides a vacuum in which insurgent groups operate. If civil society movements for peace find ways to unify their narratives and objectives, the government will be able to consolidate more workable solutions for stability, and for the development of tourism, industry, education and employment. Some scholars have also recommended that the controversial AFSPA and its alleged misuse in the state be also subject to the oversight of the Supreme Court.
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