A year ago, Manipur elected N Biren Singh and the BJP with a clear majority, the first time the saffron party had won an outright majority in the state. A year into his tenure, taking stock of the situation during the recent February budget session, Chief Minister N. Biren Singh stated in the house that law and order have improved and that tourism is making its way into the state.
Various tourism sites are being identified, he said, and development is underway. A lot has happened over the years, such as the annual Sangai festival and the recent G20 summit. The next Femina Miss India finale will be hosted in the state, which has generated a lot of interest for visitors.
According to a survey by the Ministry of Tourism, Manipur stands at the 21st position in terms of visits by tourists (foreigners) in India. This may not seem like much, but the state was ranked 34 in 2019. This is a sign of a remarkable improvement.
As far as violence and insurgent-related activities are concerned, they have considerably decreased. This has been the case for more than a decade now.
Over the years, several rebel groups have sought peace through negotiation and dialogue. Quite a good number are arrested, while many of them surrendered and have come forward to join mainstream society.
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In 2022, 69 militants surrendered before the state government. In January alone this year, 43 militants gave up their arms and came forward.
The Manipur police’s report in 2021 to the State Human Rights Commission by the Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) stated that “non-involvement and non-participation of armed forces of the Union in the counter-insurgency operation, absence of exchange of fire between the armed forces and insurgents, and non-existence of disturbed or dangerous conditions during the January to September period are the evidence of no aggravated activities found in Manipur.”
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, the overall insurgent-related incidents in Manipur went from a high of 922 in 2008 to 163 in 2022. The number of incidents of killing, in particular, declined from 309 in 2008 to seven in 2022.
Given the improved situation, in early 2022, the Ministry of Home Affairs denotified the status of disturbed areas from 15 police stations in six districts of Manipur, thus removing the implementation of AFSPA from the said jurisdictions. This is in addition to the Imphal municipal areas that were withdrawn back in 2004.
In the state election campaign in 2022, Shah also promised to bring insurgent groups, particularly the Kuki-Zomi groups, who are in the process of dialogue with the government, to a logical conclusion. The promise to come to a conclusion has also been promulgated by Shah’s predecessor, Rajnath Singh during his visit for the 2017 election campaign in the state.
War on drugs will be long: But will it be bloody?
The Kuki-Zomi umbrella groups, the United People’s Front (UPF) and the Kuki National Organization (KNO), signed a suspension of operations popularly known as an SOO agreement, with the government in August 2008. There are 23 rebel groups under this agreement.
Since then, the agreement has been extended annually. After much pressure, the political dialogue process was initiated only in 2016. Even though reportedly there has been some progress in the dialogue, the political talks and dialogue seem to be going at an extremely slow pace. It also does not appear to be going through a smooth patch as well.
Over the years, many cadres have been reportedly accused of indulging in violence, now and then. Moreover, in recent years, they have been accused of indulging in illegal activities as well, particularly in poppy cultivation.
Last year, the state chief minister reportedly stated that some Kuki militants under the SoO were involved in poppy cultivation and were collecting ‘tax’ from poppy cultivators. The cadres involved were reportedly residing in designated camps set up by the government in different Kuki-dominated areas of the Hill Districts of Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal, and Chandel.
The state government is pursuing a full-scale war against drugs. Vast areas of poppy cultivation have been destroyed or burned down, several illegal businesses and associated activities have been confiscated, and arrests are being made.
In a rather sudden turn of events, Biren Singh-led state cabinet announced on March 11 its decision to withdraw the suspension of operations with two rebel groups under the umbrella of the KNO (Kuki National Organization) and the UPF (United People’s Front) There leadership and cadres are reportedly accused of involvement in the drug and the business of poppy cultivation.
A press note issued by the DIPR stated that the Cabinet reviewed the law and order situation because of the rally held in Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, and Tengnoupal districts on March 10. It further noted that after detailed deliberation, the cabinet decided to withdraw from the ongoing tripartite talks with the two rebel groups. The two groups are the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA) and the Kuki National Army (KNA).
The decision to withdraw was taken in the aftermath of a public rally against the eviction drive in tribal hill areas under the auspices of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF).
The state cabinet accused the rebel groups, the ZRA and the KNA in particular, of instigating and being involved in organising, taking the lead role in protesting against and resisting the eviction drive.
Prohibitory orders under CrPc Section 144 were clamped in the said districts even as the protesters defied and came out in large numbers demanding the withdrawal of the eviction notices. Show-cause notice was also given to district administration and police for allowing the public rally to take off and causing a security lapse.
CM Biren Singh had stated that the protest march was under the influence of the insurgent groups, particularly the said two groups that are under suspension of operations.
The KNO in a press statement stated that the withdrawal contradicts the very essence of the SoO agreement. Rather than involvement, the KNO stated that the organisation have been initiating actions to eradicate poppy cultivation.
Meanwhile, organisers of the March 10 protest rally, the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF), have refuted the allegation, stating that no militants or any militant faction were neither involved nor intimated in/ for the public rally. The rally was organised by representatives of all tribes inhabiting the district(s) to demand to nullify the notification of the reserved forest, wildlife sanctuaries, and wetland, which they claimed was done without following due process. That the reserved forests, sanctuaries, and wetland areas are wrongly identified and designated. The rally demanded the cancellation of the show-cause notices issued to the villagers.
Manipur’s war on drugs generated moral support from the masses. The problem of drugs and their associated problems has been witnessed and experienced by people for decades. Every right-thinking citizen wants an end to the drug problem in the state.
But the war on drugs does not seem to be an easy affair. Any war is expensive, and casualties are bound to happen.
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It may be mentioned that the revocation of disturbed areas comprised urban valley areas and did not cover tribal hill areas. Therefore, a sense of alienation and discrimination was felt by the tribal inhabitants. The All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur (ATSUM) stated that the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from the state should not be “exclusive but inclusive”.
That the withdrawal of 15 police stations in only valley districts left the hill people in the lurch and demonstrates the parochial attitude of the present government towards the hill people of Manipur.
The fear is that the law-and-order situation, which has been slowly limping back to normal, can retreat and take a back seat anytime. The Biren Singh-led BJP state government needs to slowly, steadily, and carefully walk over the fragile situation in a state like Manipur, a state where even the most minor issues can lead to violent outcomes.
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