Congress scion Rahul Gandhi’s runaway allegations and absurd remarks are barely doing any good to the Manipur debate. His “murder of Bharatmata” remark revived the shameful memory of the airstrike on Mizoram, in 1966.
Following this, he came out with an even more misguided idea to solve the Kuki-Meitei ethnic strife in Manipur. “Indian army can stop this nonsense in two days” he said, in complete oblivion to the history of deadly clashes in the state.
The Indian army has rich experience in counter-insurgency operations in the Northeast. However, they find their hands tied during ethnic clashes involving the wider society. Use of lethal force is avoided as it might give oxygen to militancy in a charged-up situation.
That explains why the Narendra Modi government is moving with caution in Manipur. The army is busy maintaining distance between the two communities. This will be followed up by an effort to bring them on the table. But that will take time.
Arms loot a concern
Northeast India has some 220 ethnic groups with numerous sub-groups.
Considering the vast presence of the Kuki-Mizo-Chin clan across the region, there was a theoretical possibility of the spread of the fire within the kinship.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Notwithstanding remarks from Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, who is trying to allegedly capitalize on the crisis to improve his electoral prospects.
The non-partisan approach taken by Nagas on this issue has been particularly helpful. Naga militant groups have been walking the peace talk for 25 years and signed an accord in 2015. They don’t want to destabilise the process.
There is, however, a serious concern about Manipur’s failure to stop the loot of weapons.
The beginning was made on 3 May, when trouble broke out in the Kuki-dominated hilly areas of Churachandpur and Moreh.
As the pictures of violence spread through social media, all hell broke loose in the Meitei-dominated Imphal valley. A mob looted the police armoury - allegedly in collusion with the clan-dominated administration - to level strengths with Kukis.
At the peak of the insurgency, Manipur had nearly 45 extremist groups. More than half of them belonged to Kukis. As India stepped up pressure against militancy, the Meitei groups fled to Myanmar, but the Kukis entered into ceasefire agreements and retained weapons.
As the flashpoint emerged in May 2023, Meiteis felt they were behind in firepower. Nearly 4,000 sophisticated weapons were looted. Only one-fourth of them were recovered.
Since then, arms loot became a practice in Manipur. Over the last three months, both sides launched multiple attempts to loot arms from police. Unlike on 3 May, there were organised ambushes now.
In the latest incident in August, some 500 men looted a huge cache of arms - including self-loading rifles, light machine guns, mortars and grenades - from the 2nd India Reserve Battalion (IRB) headquarters in Meitei-dominated Bishnupur.
Reserve battalions are part of the state police and exist in every northeastern state. The military-age youth and surrendered ultras are accommodated in these battalions, as part of the economic rehabilitation plan.
Opportunity for militants
Leaving the suspicion of collusion apart, such military-grade weapons are not for use of the untrained. And, that brings into picture the revival of militant groups who are using this opportunity to regroup.
Sources say the once-dormant Kuki outlaws are now taking center stage in ethnic clashes.
On the other hand, in a press statement issued last week, an apex body of seven Meitei insurgent outfits, gave a call to boycott the Independence Day celebration and tried to ignite public sympathy to their call for sovereign Manipur.
The secessionist call may not be successful. But the involvement of trained militants may make the return of peace difficult.
Gun-running and drugs are important for financing outlaw activities. So those two may rise.
Deadly weapons are now available in abundance in Manipur, and may soon find their way to other parts of the region.
Manipur borders the Golden Crescent. Drug smuggling rackets operated by Chinese Shew Kokko gangs in Myanmar, had traditionally been a major source of earnings to the ultras, of all ethnicity, in the state.
With the military Junta in Myanmar now going all out against poppy cultivation to stop the access of funds to the local militias, the Shew Kokko gangs are looking at Manipur in a big way.
Kukis evicted from Myanmar are playing a lead role in making Manipur hills a poppy cultivation hotspot. This is a primary reason behind the resistance to the anti-forest encroachment drives by the N Biren Singh government.
The ethnic clash has stopped the anti-encroachment drive. It means poppy cultivation may now grow at a greater speed and so will the drug smuggling cartel. Together they may restore the ecosystem of insurgency.
Sealing Myanmar border
Border management is critical to the peace process in Manipur. Union home minister Amit Shah recently appraised that India had experimentally fenced 10 kilometres of the 1600 km international border.
It is important to fence the rest to prevent the movement of contraband, militants and refugees. However, the difficult terrain and the local custom that allows visa-free movement for a stipulated distance will make it an uphill task.
Meanwhile, the government should step up vigil in Manipur to prevent the flow of drugs and arms to other states. More importantly, it must take every step to stop looting of arms.
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