This is not my original work. This is shared from the site of OPEN Magazine. This article was presented in OPEN in 2009. I remembered it today and hence, I share.
Welcome to one of the most heavily militarised states of India. With 627 policemen for every 100,000 people, Manipur holds the unenviable record of the country’s highest police to citizen ratio. Add to the police strength another 55,000 or so Army and paramilitary personnel, and you have one security man for every 35-odd civilians. Ironically, there is no let-up in insurgency-related violence that has ravaged the state for over three decades.
For seven weeks now, all education institutions in Manipur have remained closed as a mark of protest over the killing of two persons (a surrendered militant and pregnant woman) in a fake encounter on 23 July. Civil society and rights organisations have been demanding the resignation of Chief Minister Ibobi Singh for his failure to prevent such fake encounters, which have been on the rise in the north-eastern state.
Kidnappings, extortions and killings by militant groups, coupled with extra-judicial detentions, torture and killings by security forces, have turned Manipur into a lawless state. Officially, last year 483 people died in militancy-related violence. Independent estimates, however, peg the toll at over 600 since many deaths and disappearances go unreported. The year also saw at least five major bomb blasts that claimed over 50 lives. The number of abductions for ransom crossed 150, according to independent estimates.
Endemic corruption, spiralling unemployment, a stagnant economy, political instability (since statehood in 1972 the state has seen 19 chief ministers and President’s Rule imposed seven times) and New Delhi’s myopic approach have driven this once prosperous and independent kingdom close to becoming a ‘failed’ state.
A small state of 22,327 sq. km, Manipur has close to two dozen militant groups waging a bloody battle against security forces that, armed with the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers (AFSP) Act, frequently target innocent civilians.
Here, everyone, including top bureaucrats and police officers, pay taxes to militants. And most of the politicians have some nexus or the other with insurgent groups.
Non-governmental organisations estimate that nearly 80 per cent of the funds allocated for developmental works get siphoned, and a substantial portion of that goes to fund militancy. Roads are pathetic even in the state capital that resembles a shantytown. All ten public sector undertakings (PSUs) are sick or being wound up, and the state government itself admits that small handicrafts and handloom units are the only industries worth the name.
Frequent bandhs and economic blockades mean there is no academic calendar here. Public water supply system is a mere trickle, and there is no sewage disposal network in the state. The public healthcare system is in shambles. And crime is rampant. “We all suffer from a sense of insecurity. Civil liberties remain suspended. The brain drain has been disastrous. Manipur is a huge mess. Manipuris are caught between the militants who extort money from everyone and security forces who arrest, torture and even kill helpless people for succumbing to militants’ demands,” says RK Anand, Manipur People’s Party (MPP) legislator.
But Manipur wasn’t always like this. It was a prosperous kingdom with a rich history and culture dating back to 33 AD. The state’s royal chronicle, or Cheitharol Kumpaba, lists Nongda Lairen Pakhangba as the first king who ruled from 33 to 121 AD, followed by 73 other rulers until 1890 when the British defeated Maharaja Kulachandra and appointed a political agent to rule the state while letting the Maharaja and his successors remain titular heads.
When the British left in 1947, the administration of the state was handed over to the king, Maharaja Bodhachandra, who initiated the move for a constitutional monarchy. Manipur was declared a sovereign country on 28 August 1947 and a constitution was drafted. In June the following year, elections were held under the Manipur Constitution Act, 1947. At the first session of the Assembly on 18 October 1948, a council of ministers was formed with the Maharaja’s younger brother, Kumar Priyobrata, as the chief minister. Maharaja Bodhachandra had devolved all his powers to the council of ministers in accordance with the 1947 Constitutional Act.
In September 1949, Maharaja Bodhachandra was invited by the Governor of Assam to Shillong, and asked to sign a document declaring the merger of Manipur with India. On refusal, he was put under house arrest; his plea that he had no authority to sign the document was ignored. His request to be allowed to return to Manipur and consult the Council of Ministers was also turned down. “He succumbed to the unbearable pressure and signed the so-called ‘merger agreement’ on 21 September 1949, and Manipur became part of India from October 15 that year. This grave injustice, the way our Maharaja was insulted and forced to sign on the dotted line, and the virtual annexation of Manipur by India, is what ultimately led to the birth of insurgency in 1964. We haven’t forgotten the way we were humiliated, and haven’t forgiven India for what it did in 1949,” says Khaidem Mani, a senior lawyer and chronicler of Manipur’s history.
But it wasn’t just the forced merger that rankles Manipuri’s. After becoming part of the Indian Union, Manipur’s status was downgraded from that of a sovereign country to a ‘Part C’ dominion to be ruled by a chief commissioner (a bureaucrat), and that too, without an Assembly or council of ministers. “No other princely state that became part of the Indian Union was downgraded to ‘Part C’ status. In 1975, when Sikkim merged with India, it was granted full statehood. Manipur became a Union Territory in November
1956, but the 30-member elected council only had an advisory role to play, with real powers resting with the Chief Commissioner. A mass movement for statehood gained momentum in 1953, but Delhi did not pay heed,” says Dr L Chandramani Singh, former deputy chief minister and MPP president.
“In 1963, New Delhi granted statehood to the Nagas in a futile gesture to placate Naga leader Phizo, who had started an insurgency. Naturally, Manipuri’s felt that taking up arms was the best way to achieve their demands. 1964 saw the first spark of insurgency in the state. Manipur was conferred full statehood in January 1972, but by then it was too late. Decades of criminal neglect, insult and humiliation suffered by Manipur had set it well on the road to militancy. If New Delhi had an iota of love, sympathy and consideration for the people of Manipur, our state would not have been in such a mess,” he adds.
New Delhi’s crackdown on insurgents has only complicated an already messy situation. The imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act has, concede even ruling Congress leaders in the state, alienated the people further. “In 1980, there were only three militant groups in the state. Now, there are over 20. And despite the induction of so many Army and paramilitary personnel, and raising of armed police battalions and police commando units, the militants have increased their areas of influence and strength. No honest effort has been made to negotiate a ceasefire with the militants,” says a senior cabinet minister who does not want to be named for obvious reasons.
Caught in the crossfire, a desperate people have been appealing for the government—both the state and the Union—to initiate dialogues with insurgent groups. In fact, despite strong opposition from New Delhi, the state’s first elected MPP Government offered a general amnesty to militants who surrendered in 1973. “From 1973 to October 1979, there was no insurgency in Manipur. In 1973, soon after the militants responded to the MPP government’s offer, the government was dissolved by New Delhi and President’s Rule imposed. In elections held the next year, the MPP won and formed the government, which was again toppled by Indira Gandhi after six months. The Congress engineered defections and formed the government. These games played by New Delhi fuelled more resentment, and by November 1979, the militants had regrouped and gone underground. From the following year, killings started and continue till today,” says Chandramani Singh.
Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh admits that deep-rooted distrust of the Government of India exists. “Some actions and policies in the past were wrong. But we’re trying to turn a new leaf and want to negotiate peace with the insurgents. I am always ready to talk to them and have offered a blanket appeal to them to come for talks. But they’ll have to respond first,” he says.
Some accuse the CM of insincerity. “The government has to initiate confidence-building measures and respect the status of the militant outfits. No preconditions should be set for the dialogue, and it is imperative for the Government of India to understand and appreciate Manipur’s history, the genesis of the armed conflict here, and make sincere amends and gestures for the wrongs heaped upon the people of Manipur. This would create the right ground and atmosphere for a meaningful dialogue,” says Mani.
Most Manipuris demand the immediate withdrawal of the AFSP Act. Even some major militant groups have offered to lay down arms to a ‘neutral party’ if the AFSP Act and central security forces are withdrawn from the state. “All Manipuris want the withdrawal of the AFSP Act, so there is no reason why New Delhi should continue to subvert the will of the people. It makes sense to withdraw the central security forces as even the Army says it should not be engaged in internal security duties. The state police can replace the Army and Assam Rifles,” says Chandramani.
But the security establishment isn’t impressed. “Insurgency poses an extraordinary challenge that needs an extraordinary response and special powers for us to operate effectively. We need the AFSP Act and if we’re withdrawn from Manipur, the law and order situation will collapse immediately and militants will gain control of the state,” a top commander at the Army’s Eastern Command headquarters in Kolkata told Open.
The CM too is dismissive of the insurgents’ offer: “They’re not serious and just want to buy time to regroup and recuperate, now that they’re on the run. We cannot accept preconditions from them. They’ll have to give up arms and agree to talk within the framework of the Indian Constitution.” It’s a phrase he tends to use frequently, almost habitually. As the face-off goes on, the crisis in Manipur assumes an increasing socio-political complexity.
And for the common man, life is what happens between extortion and the next gun battle.