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Indian Army now stands between the state and rioters. Nearly 100 people have been killed and more than 300 injured in Manipur violence. For 4000+ cases of recorded arson, nearly 3800 FIRs have been registered. More than 4,000 weapons and 5 lakh rounds of ammunition have been looted.

The crisis in Manipur calls for a long-term strategy that reassures communities of their physical, social, cultural, and economic security. A tragedy is unfolding before our eyes in the “jewelled land” of Manipur. Violent mobs have turned on their neighbours, forcing people of the Meitei and Kuki communities to flee their homes, internally displacing more than 50,000 persons. This grim scene harks back to the 1990s when the Naga-Kuki conflict uprooted 350 Kuki villages. The scars of the 1990s are yet to heal and the current violence will only deepen the existing fault lines.

There are many immediate riggers for the ongoing clashes — land rights, a poppy drive, illegal immigration, the Manipur High Court directive on Scheduled Tribe status for the Meitei community, etc. These are all significant issues warranting attention, but unless the fundamental character of the ongoing ethnic conflicts is understood, finding optimal solutions will remain elusive.

Vesna Pesic, a professor at the University of Belgrade, said, “Ethnic conflict is caused by the fear of the future, lived through the past.” Collective fears of an ethnic group about their future, based on past memories, incite mobilisation and violence. This is the situation that is playing out in Manipur. The majority community, the Meitei, is deeply concerned about the future integrity of the state, with both the Nagas and the Kukis clamouring for separate administrative/territorial arrangements. Hemmed into 10 percent of the land, the Meities have suffered the maximum when the tribal communities have blockaded the two highways leading to Imphal.

The Naga community in Manipur shows greater solidarity with their tribal members in Nagaland and is fearful about ‘what a future settlement of the Naga problem would bring. In a state that is politically dominated by the Meiteis, they worry whether they are destined to remain fringe political players. The Kuki, the smallest ethnic group, are sandwiched geographically between the Nagas and the Meiteis and have reason to fear both communities. ‘The emergence of the Kuki militant groups resulted from the need to protect the community against armed Naga and Meitei groups, although they also often engaged in internecine violence.

Addressing these fears requires adopting a long-term strategy that reassures communities of their physical, social, cultural, and economic security. Regrettably, on the ground, the emphasis has been on short-term conflict management practices. Such practices are meant to control the immediate level of violence but, unless complemented by further action for conflict resolution, could exacerbate the situation.

The Kuki militant groups have been in a Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with the government since 2008, but in the last 15 years, there has been no serious attempt at their rehabilitation. Instead, there are claims that the SoO groups, who continue to remain in camps, have been utilised by government agencies to act against other militant organisations in Manipur. There are also reports that these groups continue with fundraising and extortion.

There is a similar situation with the Naga militant groups. An agreement was signed between the Indian government and the NSCN(IM) in 2015 but has seen little progress as both sides had misread the complexities of the problem, particularly in Manipur, which also has a sizeable Naga population. Meanwhile, the NSCN (IM) continues to run camps where armed cadres carry weapons openly. The Meitei underground groups, primarily located in Myanmar, are outside any agreement with the government, but it’s known that a majority of their funds also come through extortion.

This focus on managing conflict through an indulgent approach against militant groups led to their empowerment as they portrayed themselves as protectors of their respective communities. State authority weakened and the local population routinely took to the streets to enforce their demands. In 2010, national highways in Manipur were blocked for 68 days, in 2011 for 121 days, and in 2016-17 for 139 days. The loss of confidence in the state has now led to people taking the law into their own hands by forming armed vigilante groups.

What, then, is the way forward? The immediate need is to control the violence. It may take some time, but the security forces will ultimately prevail through their coercive power and when people see that the destruction being caused will eventually hurt them. But whenever calm returns, the state must not pat itself on the back for managing the situation but revitalise efforts towards long-term conflict resolution. The state must reestablish its authority and become the leading arbitrator in resolving differences between ethnic groups. This will require a credible political leadership perceived as neutral by all communities.

Politicians cannot ignore their individual identities but should avoid acting like ethnic activists and stoking polarisation. The leadership must also be conscious that statements that appear to target minority communities increase fear and could provide incentives for violence.

An honest attempt must be made to find answers to identity — social, economic, aspirational —and resource-sharing issues troubling different communities. In the sharply divided atmosphere in the state, the centre will have to take the lead in assuaging the local communities. The failure of the peace committee formed in the state indicates that reconciliation could work better through extremal intervention by New Delhi.

The all-party meeting held on 24th June is a positive step. It should be taken forward in an endeavour to get a bipartisan political approach to resolving the Manipur crisis.

The numerous armed groups under ceasefire and SoO constantly challenge the state authority. A serious effort should be made to revive the Naga Peace Accord, shut down the NSCN (IM) and SoO camps in Manipur and rehabilitate the cadre for their reintegration into society.

Finally, there should be a concerted push to improve the management of the Indo-Myanmar border. This porous border permits the free movement of refugees and Surgents who have their camps in Myanmar.

We have been decrying the poor infrastructure along the border for decades but have not done enough to improve it.

Resolving the ethnic conflict in Manipur represents a formidable challenge, potentially requiring years to find solutions acceptable to all communities. In devising strategies, the present crisis should serve as a grim reminder of the consequences of| adopting short-term approaches.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

Image Courtesy: The Hindu

Article Courtesy: Indian Express (Published on 29 Jun 2023)

By Lieutenant General Deependra Singh Hooda

Lieutenant General Deependra Singh Hooda, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM & Bar, ADC (Retd, Indian Army) was commissioned into the 4th Battalion of the 4th Gorkha Rifles on 15 Dec 1976. He is an alumni of Command and Staff College in Canada and was selected as the first Chief Logistics Officer for the newly raised United Nations Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea. From 2012 to 2016, he was stationed in Jammu and Kashmir, first as a Corps commander and then as the Army Commander of the Northern Command. In this assignment, he handled numerous strategic challenges along the borders both with Pakistan and China. He planned and supervised the successful “surgical strikes” in Pakistan in September 2016. After his retirement, Gen Hooda has commented and written extensively on geopolitical, strategic, and national security issues.