UNDERSTANDING THE SECURITY PERSPECTIVE OF THE MANIPUR ETHNIC STRIFE
Restive Manipur has witnessed the unprecedented clashes between Meitei and Kuki-Chin- Zo communities for more than three months now with no sign of respite. Notwithstanding the government and civil bodies’ call for peace and sanity, the scale of violence has not gone down.
The string of clashes unfolded in the state since May 3 has killed more than 180 people, wounded over 200 and reduced hundreds of villages and numerous government and private properties into ashes, besides forcing over 50,000 people to take refuge in relief camps spread over in the valley and hill districts.
Dreadful modes of killing people - during sleep, execution style, beheading, roasting alive etc. and different forms of crimes against women, including parading naked of women in broad daylight ,are the worst ever happenings during the unceasing feud, prompting the whole nation and the world to hurl strong condemnations against the shocking incidents.
What gives a big threat to the security apparatus is the looting of 4000 arms and huge number of bullets and ammunition like bombs by unruly mobs from different police armouries and units on and off since the violence broke out despite the police having recovered some weapons.
Sharing his thoughts on the perspective of the chain of events of looting arms and their genesis, Lt General (retd) Laiphrakpam Nishikanta Singh, fondly called as Lt. Gen LN Singh speaks to Waari Singbul in an exclusive interview .
Lt. Gen Singh is the third person from North-East to have attained the second highest rank of Lieutenant General in the Indian Army. The rescue mission in Afghanistan after the Indian Medical Mission was attacked in February 2010 was one among many daring missions he led. He also headed the Intelligence Corps of the Indian Army for 5 years before retiring in 2018 after 40 years of serving.
Waari Singbul: As a security intelligence veteran, how do you see the looting of weapons and ammunition from the police armouries?
Lt. Gen Singh: The first looting of arms and ammunition started in Churachandpur when miscreants looted a gun shop and the police station and snatched weapons from security personnel there. As a reaction to it, there were lootings in the valley too. But what needs to be analyzed here is that the Kuki have been fighting for over 90 days now. The Assam Rifles said that the cadres of the SoO group along with their arms are in the camps. If that is the case, how are the Kuki militants who are every day, in and out, firing on the Meitei villages? How are they sustaining themselves? Keep in mind they are using sophisticated weapons lethods, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, 2-inch mortars etc. The question is how are they sustaining themselves for such a long time? It has been more than 90 days. Even the Kargil war was less than 90 days and it was very difficult for the Indian Army to sustain it. This is one of the significant aspects of this trouble in Manipur.
Comparatively, the other side does not really have any weapons so to say. By no means I’m condoning the looting of the Police armories in the valley. But I feel the public was compelled by the situation. With the Kuki militants firing on them every single day, I guess the public ran berserk and decided to arm themselves by hook or crook.
From my perspective, the fighting may be clubbed in phases. Phase-1 is from May 3 to May 10-11, characterized by low intensity gun fights. Sometimes the intensity is much more and sometimes much less. Phase-2 is when coordinated attacks started on Imphal valley from all directions from May 27-28. This phase is distinct by high intensity fighting going on for so many days. So, unless there is a move to disarm both sides, the fighting is likely to continue.
Waari Singbul: Sir, if we scan the media reports on the looting of weapons and ammunition from the police armories, there is a large amount of disbelief with a big question of How can a police station be looted as if it was unbelievable.
Lt. Gen Singh: Looting of arms from police stations is not something that has happened only in Manipur. It has occurred in many places. Long time ago, when I was a young Major of the Indian Army, there were 2 terrorists arrested by Purulia police. They were unarmed. These unarmed terrorists looted the weapon from the police station and shot eleven policemen dead. So, looting of weapons does happen especially when there is desperation. And when you say police station, it is not a hundred people guarding a police station. A Police Station at the best has got 25-30 people, of which 5-10 people are out on duty. So, the strength of the police station at a given time may be 10-15 people only. Imagine, a mob of 2,000-3,000 throng into the police station, it would be very difficult even for the 2-3 sentries to open fire on the crowd because it has got its own legal, psychological and many implications. That is how the weapons were looted.
Waari Singbul: Many who are closely observing the Manipur ethnic strife that erupted on May 3 2023 are critical of the efficiency of the Manipur Police force in tackling the situation. In fact, many are of the opinion that because of the Manipur police inapt handling of the law & order, the strife has spiraled out of control. Where do you think lies the fault with police in law-and-order issues?
Lt. Gen Singh: I must confess that what started on 3rd of May was not a simple law and order situation. It was a massive communal rioting. If you remember the communal rioting in Delhi in 1984 and other places, initially the police were not able to tackle them. In the case of Manipur, the police had to encounter two groups of people. One group was sophisticatedly armed with a good supply of ammunition. They had weapons which could take on the police and the other group had the crowd.
So, the police were simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of the violence. Now, as a reaction, the central government brought from May 4th onwards a large number of paramilitary forces by air and as on today, according to a very rough estimate the total number of security forces currently stationed in the State stands at around 50 to 60 thousand.
Now if we’re going to blame the police for their inefficiency, we must also take into consideration that these 50-60 thousand central security forces who have been in the State for more than 90 days now, they also have not been able to contain the situation.
Yes, I fully agree that if it was nipped at the bud, things could have been controlled. But the question is, in the last 90 days, have we really made progress on containing the situation? I really do not know. I think it continues hitherto forth as it was before. The firing continues every single day. There is not a single day without one of the Meitei villages being fired upon by the militants from the foothills. Unfortunately, if what couldn’t be contained by such a massive central force including the Assam Rifles, BSF, CRPF and Army, expecting the Manipur Police to contain it on their own is something that may not be fair to the State Police. I’m of the opinion that soon the security force will apply their minds and they will be able to contain the situation.
Waari Singbul: Assam Rifles and Manipur police commandos are key forces operating in Manipur for decades. This time there are allegations and distrust against both these potent forces. How far is that harming the overall security scenario?
Lt. Gen Singh: Trust deficit does exist. Remember, when the trouble began, the Kuki made a presentation to the ministry of defense for posting out 23 Meitei officers who are posted here. That is the level of trust deficit by the Kukis. It is not only the Manipur Police that they distrust. They even distrust the Assam Rifles and the Indian Army wherever there is a Meitei as they perceive it would be harming their cause. This is one aspect. You would be surprised to know that the same list has gone to the UN also. If you look at the submission the Kukis have made to the UN, this is one of the appendices.
Now whatever are the public allegations, the concerned authorities, i.e., the MHA, DG Assam Rifles, even Manipur Government must try to investigate and assure the public to gain their confidence. If what is being alleged isn’t correct, they must come out with the facts of the case and make necessary clarifications and say, ‘this is a false allegation.’ On the other hand, if the allegation is found to be true then the authorities must rectify it and fix responsibilities. The defaulters can be either sidestepped or some sort of penalty imposed so that the act is not repeated. These measures will go a long way in addressing the trust deficit in the security forces.
As on today, the Meitei don’t trust the Assam Rifles and the Kukis don’t trust the State forces. Remember, Meiteis started to distrust the Assam Rifles sometime during the 3rd week after trouble erupted. Not initially. Precisely after the Kukis launched the phase -2 of the operation. Before that there was no mistrust. In fact, the Meitei were grateful to the Assam Rifles for rescuing nearly 40-50 thousand citizens of Manipur who were caught on the wrong side of the area when trouble started. Credit must be given to Assam Rifles for doing such humanitarian job. But the trust deficit developed when the coordinated attacks were launched by the Kukis as phase-2 of the operation on Imphal valley on the night of May 27-28. Since then, this trust deficit exists even now. I’m sure that the MHA, DG Assam Rifles, the Indian Army authorities and Manipur Government will take adequate actions to mitigate this trust deficit by having their own internal mechanism to look into the issue.
Waari Singbul: Despite presence of central forces, army violence happens, as an expert what are the reasons of failure to contain violence
Lt. Gen Singh: A force does what is directed on them. They do not do it on their own. Unfortunately, in spite of such a large number of forces on the ground, in this case, the united command which is existing, requires a major revamp. When you say, united command, all the forces are supposed to be integrated. The word to be used is not Manipur Rifles, the Indian Army, the Assam Rifles, CRPF, BSF etc. Instead, a single term, that could be just ‘security forces’ is supposed to be used. The press is supposed to be requested to use the term ‘security forces’ so that people cannot distinguish between the Assam Rifles, the Manipur Rifles, Manipur Police, the Indian Army, the BSF or CRFF or whatever there may be. This is foremost.
In the current case, the united command which is supposed to integrate everyone has not. To use an analogy, it is like putting 5 eggs in a basket and that is supposed to integrate everyone. This is not a united command. You have to break each egg and stir them well so that they become a whole. This has not really happened. For example, the Manipur Rifles going to Moreh for deployment to contain the situation in the border town where all shops and houses belonging to the Meiteis were burnt down. Manipur Rifles have been held up in Tengoupal with Kuki Chin ZO women blocking the Asian highway leading to Moreh. No other force is present in the additional deployment meant for Moreh. So, is that a united command? This decision of redeploying Manipur Rifles in Moreh should have been taken by the united command and they should have ensured it. So far, the deployment has failed. It is not the failure of the Manipur Police or the Manipur Rifles. It is the failure of the united command because the command and control lie with united command. Hence the security agencies need to rethink the structure of the united command so as to how it can be improved. How far the security agencies are integrated is still a question.
Singh was the first creditable person to flag off the possible involvement of Myanmar border-based Chin insurgents in Manipur’s ethnic strife when he tweeted that some "300 terrorists" including "lungi-clad ones" from Myanmar have entered Manipur amid the ethnic violence between the Meiteis and the Chin-Kuki people on May 30 this year.
The retired General also flagged off that Manipur ethnic strife is spiralling into lawlessness when he tweeted that the state is now "stateless", a day after the house of Union Minister RK Ranjan Singh was set on fire by miscreants. His tweet read: "I'm just an ordinary Indian from Manipur living a retired life. The state is now 'stateless'. Life and property can be destroyed anytime by anyone just like in Libya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria, etc. It appears Manipur has been left to stew in its own juice. Is anyone listening?"
LT. GEN L N SINGH
RETIRED INDIAN ARMY