Nestled in the north-eastern frontier of India, the state of Manipur has a unique geopolitical experience. Blessed with a diverse range of flora, fauna and topography, Manipur also harbours a multitude of ethnic communities. However, hostile relations amongst the ethnic communities such as Nagas, Kukis, Meiteis and Pangans rooted in the societal history coupled with strategic geographical positioning and decades of political neglect in the post-independence experience, have adversely impacted on the state. Arguably, since 1964, Manipur has been the victim of an insurgency fuelled by outfits divided on ethnic lines and sustained with the support of local and international benefactors. The insurgency has been responsible for violence that has resulted in thousands of deaths over the years, cross-border smuggling of arms, extortions and political black-mailing, eventually compromising national security.
The active presence of military and reorientation in the approach of central and state government has assisted in reducing the intensity of the conflict in the recent past. Nevertheless, Manipur is far from the success story of Mizoram or Tripura. Due to geopolitical realities of the region, the classified Peace Accord signed with Nagas in 2015 had an indirect contribution in reducing the intensity of insurgency in Manipur. In this context, it is imperative to evaluate the current status quo of the situation in Manipur. Further, to simultaneously prepare the ground for sustainable peace, it is equally important to calibrate existing and potential peace-building measures. This article is an attempt to analyse the state of insurgency in Manipur, while specifically focusing on the factors that need to be acknowledged and incorporated with suitable indigenous modifications for a sustainable peace-building strategy.
Ethnic Fabric of the State
The ancestral heritage of Manipur goes back to Vedic times. Amongst other ancient texts, Manipur also finds a mention in Hindu scriptures. In the Mahabharata, the Adi Parva mentions warrior prince, Arjun to be married to Chitrangada, the daughter of Manipuri king, Chitravahana. AshwamedhaParva also elaborates on king Babhruvahana, the son of Arjun and Chitrangada as the successor to the throne of Manipur. Writings from the times of king Bhagyachandra mention tales of the Manipuri community embracing Vaishnavism while also enjoying the liberty to practice their indigenous culture. Many such folklores exist within the region validating the presence of Vedic culture and indigenous tribal practices. Chronicled in Puwaries, the ancient and medieval history of Manipur is engrained in PoreitonKhunthokpa, CheitharolKumbaba, NingthouKangbalon, PanthoibiKongkul, NingthourolLambuba, etc.
Manipur has been the homeland to a large number of tribes spread across sixteen districts. Of these, thirty-four tribes in Manipur are recognised as Scheduled Tribes under the Indian Constitution. In 1981, the state government of Manipur regrouped these tribes into four communities, namely, (a) the Naga group, (b) the Chin-Kuki-Mizo group, (c) the intermediary group and (d) the non-local tribes. However, attributing to several factors, including political motivations, these tribes have been reorganised. Thus, the major communities in Manipur, also relevant for analysing the conflict in recent times are (a) Nagas, comprising of nearly 3.50 lakh, (b) Kukis, comprising of nearly 2.90 lakh, (c) Meiteis, comprising of nearly 13.50 lakh and (d) Pangans, comprising of 1.60 lakh of the total population as in 2001.Meiteis and Pangans majorly reside in the valley districts, whereas the Nagas and Kukis reside in the hill districts.
Summarising the Conflict
Before officially integrating with the independent union of India on October 21, 1949, the kingdom of Manipur was a British protectorate after having lost the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891. The erstwhile kingdom of Manipur was governed under a well-defined form of governance based on constitutional monarchy. The written constitution was called ‘LoyumbaShilyen’ and was enforced since 1110 CE. The administrative structure followed in the kingdom resembled that of a modern parliament, where two representatives from each of the thirty-two divisions were selected by the monarch, called ‘PhamdouHumphumari’, along with ten regional chiefs called ‘NingthouPongba Tara’, assisted the king in administration.
After a long lineage of rulers and losing the Anglo-Manipur war, multiple factors forced the British to hand over the sovereignty of Manipur to Maharaja Budhachandra Singh on August 28, 1947. After nearly two years of administration with elections and legislative assembly in place, Maharaja officially signed the Merger Agreement with India on September 21, 1949. Without giving due regard to the existing socio-political and governance matrix of the state, Manipur was made a ‘Part – C’ state, almost a present-day equivalent to a Union Territory. In 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru ceded Kabaw Valley, a disputed border territory to erstwhile Burma, without consulting the Manipuri people or the royal family. Cumulatively regarding these episodes as an insult to the proud historical and cultural identity of Manipur, demand for statehood surged. Succumbing to the demands, the erstwhile central government granted statehood to Manipur in 1972, nine years after granting statehood to Nagaland, another insurgency-impacted state neighbouring Manipur. This relative delay along with the ‘Part – C state’ categorisation added fuel to the existing anger and discontent amongst the people in Manipur.
In the events leading to pressurising the erstwhile central government, formation of several separatist groups from 1964 onwards plays a significant role. With outfits such as United National Liberation Front (UNLF),People’s Liberation Army of Manipur(PLA), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), etc. the demands ranged from statehood to nationhood. Several outfits aimed at achieving independence from India and forming a separate country of Manipur through armed struggle. Formation of multiple outfits and increased armed militancy forced the government in 1980 to declare the entire state as ‘disturbed area’ and provisions of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958 were imposed. In addition to the militancy in Manipur, the 1990s witnessed a surge in the Naga nationalism movement. As a considerable population of Manipur comprises of Naga tribes, the movement gained sympathy amongst these tribes. This led to the formation of distinct groups of Nagas and Kukis. While the Naga outfits aimed at segregating the territory of Manipur comprising of Naga inhabitants and merging it with the greater demand for Nagalim, the Kuki outfits aiming at protecting their interests consolidated themselves into guerrilla groups. Manipur witnessed intense ethnic violence in the 1990s between different ethnic armed militias.
In recent times, an ambush of the convoy of Indian Army in Manipur by National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang(NSCN-K), a Naga militant outfit led India to conduct ‘cross-border raids’, inflicting significant casualties to the NSCN-K in 2015. Two months later, the present government led by Prime Minister Modi signed a Peace Accord withSocialist Council of Nagaland-IsakMuivah(NSCM-IM), another Naga Militant outfit, bringing considerable stability to the Manipuri valley and the region at large. In 2008, a ‘Suspension of Operation’ agreement was signed between the central government, state government and two Kuki militant outfits, KNO and UPF. This ceasefire was further extended by six months in August 2019.
Concerns over Combating the Insurgency
2018-19 has witnessed a decline in the number of incidents from 167 in 2017 to 127 in 2018. However, the 127 incidents in Manipur constituted 50% of the total number of incidents in the North-eastern region. There was a tremendous decline in the total number of civilian deaths due to insurgency, from 23 in 2017 to 8 in 2018. Further, the operations resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 militants, neutralisation of 10 militants and recovery of nearly 100 weapons. The Meitei insurgency alone accounted for 57% of the total insurgency in Manipur. Although, the intensity of armed violence attributed to militant outfits has seen a relative decline in recent times, ethnic tensions remain prevalent and AFSPA continues to be imposed on the state.
The decades of neglecting the indigenous cultural identity and the geo-strategic positioning of the north-eastern quadrant of India has made it a breeding ground for militant activities. Over the years, there has been some success in neutralising a few insurgency movements in the region. It becomes imperative to analyse the factors that make the case of Manipur different from the details of these success stories, while also understanding the rationale that makes fostering peace difficult in Manipur.
Tripura became a victim of the first wave of insurgency in the 1970s when fragments of tribal Tripuris pitched an armed militancy against the immigrant Bengalis, demanding a separate state of Tipraland amongst other things. Similar to other insurgencies in the region, the insurgency in Tripura had logistical and monetary support facilitated through porous trans-border corridors with the neighbouring countries. A comprehensive strategy was developed and implemented over the years to combat this menace. This multi-pronged approach focused on gaining area-domination were conducted majorly by paramilitary and state police forces including the tribal Tripuris. The meticulous planning of counter-insurgency operations was supplemented with psychological interventions aimed at confidence-building and providing a healing touch. Measures such as highlighting the hypocritical and corrupt behaviour of insurgency leaders, special recruitments in the affected regions, incentivising rehabilitation packages with monetary benefits and civil skill training, etc. were undertaken. These initiatives were backed with immediate attention to development and governance in the areas where domination was successful by the security forces.
Another ethnically driven insurgency in the region was seen in Mizoram. The sense of alienation by the Assamese government reignited the ethnic solidarity within the Mizo community living within the erstwhile state of Assam. The Mizo Union demanded a separate state for Mizos within the Indian Territory, while the violent insurgents from Mizo National Front were firm on their demand for a separate independent Christian country of Mizoram. Similar to the case of Tripura, the insurgents here also enjoyed trans-border support from the neighbouring country. The negotiations led by Mizo Union with the central government resulted in the formation of Mizoram as a Union Territory. The Mizo Accord of 1986 brought an end to the use of violence and secessionist demands by Mizo National Front and Mizoram was made a state within India, instead of a Union Territory. Despite being the only incident in the history of independent India where the government ordered airstrikes against its people in 1966, the state of affairs in Mizoram have been largely peaceful for nearly three decades. The successful negotiations in not only ending the insurgency but also sustaining peace are credited to several factors including lucrative surrendering policies, lack of ‘spoilers’, forming and advocating a ‘pan-Mizo identity’.
In Tripura, there was almost no insurgency-related violence in 2018, while very few incidents of violence took place in Mizoram. Another ethnic demand of autonomy within Mizoram that survived after the surrender of Mizo National Front by the Hmar community further weakened with the surrender of 114 cadets. By and large, it can be safely concluded that both the states are free from the havoc of insurgency-related violence. While in cases of both, Tripura and Mizoram, the ethnicity within the insurgent groups was homogenous, the case of Manipur is significantly different. In Tripura, the insurgent groups comprised Tripuritribals. In Mizoram, although there were groups other than the Mizos such as Hmars, the most powerful insurgent group in terms of material and knowledge capabilities including international networking were those of Mizos. Manipur, on the other hand, has accommodated multiple ethnic groups, with most of them possessing strong material and knowledge capabilities such as Meiteis, Nagas, Kukis, etc.
Furthermore, while there might have been differences in demands for power-sharing ranging from a separate state to an independent country, there were little disagreements on the territorial extent of the possible new entity. On the contrary, in Manipur different ethnic groups differ in their territorial demands. The Nagas aim at fracturing the contours of Manipur and integrating the Naga inhabited areas with other areas and forming the Nagalim. Similarly, the Kukis, Meities and other groups are protecting their respective ethnic identities and interests. Thus, the Manipuri bowl has far too many different groups with different demands, while being strong and powerful in their own right.
The Naga Peace Accord and other ceasefire arrangements with other ethnic insurgent groups have temporarily made the state of insurgency-related violence stale meat in Manipur. However, a permanent solution is yet to be achieved. The central government, if forced to accommodate the Naga insurgents with leniency, the issue of transitional justice may be missed completely or given a token mention in the final peace deal. This may infuriate the Kuki insurgents, who owed their raison d’être at some point to the violent deeds of Nagas. Apart from transitional justice, the issue of territorial demands is also pressing. While a lot is dependent on the details that make their way to the final peace settlement with Nagas, the government needs to proceed in a multi-pronged approach to prepare the state of Manipur for sustainable peace irrespective of the arrangements reached in the final peace agreement. The success stories of Tripura and Mizoram obviously cannot be used in the case of Manipur as the operating environment is different, but the lessons learnt could be used to facilitate a comprehensive and sustainable peace-building,
Peace-building in Manipur
Unlike the popular misconception about peace-building being a post-insurgency or post-conflict concept, it is being acknowledged as a means to end a conflict-like situation. Thus, peace-building measures are identified as tools to end a conflict that do not end with the conflict. Their application continues with required modifications after the armed conflict has ended to sustain peace in the society. Such measures help in preparing the society for a post-conflict life, while also nudging them into cooperating by giving up their popular or public support to the insurgents. Once the insurgent groups lose public legitimacy, gaining area-domination becomes relatively easier for the security forces.
Widely considered to be an academic endeavour with no policy relevance, categorisation of the conflict is one of the more important steps after acknowledging the existence of a disturbing situation. Understanding and addressing the root cause of any conflict is the most popular rhetoric. However, generally, it is seen that this addressing is missed in the policy designs. Categorisation of the conflict assists in prioritising aims and means to achieve the same. The Manipuri insurgency in its full-blown proportion commenced with the state’s neglect in respecting the strong and self-efficient form of governance written boldly in the Manipuri history. This was coupled with years of neglect leading to economic deterioration. Thus, the most obvious conclusion would be to boost economic development and ensure accountable and transparent governance to bring sustainable peace in the valley. An important element missed in this conclusion is the Constructivists approach to analysing a situation. In the case of Manipur, it is the concept of ‘identity’. The insurgency, in its earliest form was a response to the insecurity about the Manipuri identity and ethos. Over the years, this fight to preserve the identity has been fractured to imbibe different ethnic overtones. Thus, the conflict in Manipur is an ethnic identity conflict. Any form of developmental projects, economic and governance measures, peace-building policies will fail in the state if it does not involve the ethnic identity considerations. It may be argued that leaders of insurgent groups are corrupt sell-outs working only to retain parallel power and extort the government and thus, ethnic considerations may be dismissed from the policy designs. However, these leaders have gained public legitimacy by igniting ethnic superiority and solidarity in the masses. To gain back their trust and encourage them to adopt the mainstream peaceful way of living, peace-building policies should address the ethnic interests to provide psychological healing to the masses as seen in Tripura.
Once the relevance of identities is given its due regard in the conflict analysis, the next important consideration is to analyse the existing power-sharing designs and calibrate the need to redesign them. The term ‘power-sharing’ in the present context, is not restricted to include recruitment for political posts in different regions of Manipur, but also educational and other seats. The political power-sharing designs may be inspired from the consociationalism, centralism or other such designs depending on the ground Manipuri realities. Ethnicity-based accommodative educational and recruitment policies, not just limited to handful ethnicity but embracing the larger population must be sought for. It is equally important to give due regards to the language, culture and other attributes within the different ethnic tribal community. Nevertheless, drawing from the experiences in Mizoram, a conscious effort should be made to integrate the different ethnic communities to believe in ‘a pan-Manipuri identity,’ while also respecting their individual ethnic preferences.
Collective memory is an important political tool for peace-building. How does a community recall its history has a significant impact not only in sustaining peace but also on fostering peace, especially in the multi-ethnic conflict-like matrix? In Manipur, for instance, how the prevailing ethnic tensions and history are taught will shape the minds of an entire generation. Undue weight to one community’s narrative will create discontent in the minds of the other communities making them more susceptible to hate and violence-inciting insurgent leaders. The state needs to devise a strategy that while celebrating the rich tapestry of cultural history, also acknowledges an unbiased account of their sufferings and hardships in a manner that does not fuel resentment in the masses.
It is not to argue that the peace-building design should be focused only on the narrow consideration of ethnic issues. The land is considered as a capital and a major portion of the insurgency is to deal with consolidating or monopolising power over the land. Thus, factors of socio-economic development and governance as aids to peace-building cannot be neglected. It is important to ensure that essential civic amenities such as healthcare, drinking water, medical aid, educational and vocational centres, etc. are delivered to the last person in the supply chain. It is equally important to ensure that the services and benefits are tangibly delivered and the quality is controlled through strong and committed governance and workforce. Amongst the larger scheme of peace-building policy, it is imperative to approach Manipur with a multi-pronged strategy taking the different subtleties into account, while delivering on both physical and psychological ends.
A thorough unbiased understanding of the conflict grounded in realities and a pre-designed intensive comprehensive peace-building strategy are two important, if not the most important pre-requisites for achieving sustainable peace. Instead of only responding to the events, it is imperative to design a multifaceted strategy which incorporates the current situations as well as a foresight for potential issues in the future. Political tensions with violent past is not a conducive environment for growth, development and more importantly national unity. However, in a multi-cultural setup, clashes are an obvious product of human nature. Thus, it is imperative to give due respect to their history, culture and show sensitivity towards their needs, while creating a conducive environment to express discontent civilly. Further, it is important to involve the local tribal ethnic communities as stakeholders in policymaking. The tribal ethnic way of living has largely been secluded. What may mean development to the broad corridors of urban civilisation, maybe an intrusion to the insurgency-infested tribal communities. An organic indigenous approach towards peace-building should be adopted in addressing the root cause and complexities of the conflict. An interesting area of further research with consequences in Manipur security and the area at large would be to devise an organic indigenous approach to deal with transitional justice in the Naga peace settlement.
*SoumyaChaturvedi is a Senior Research Fellow at Indian Foundation. A lawyer by education, she has studied International Relations from Jindal School of International Affairs and Asia-Pacific Security from University of Birmingham, UK. Her research interests include foreign policy, conflicts and terrorism studies.
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Nagalim or Greater Nagaland is the demand of Naga tribes for a separate state as it is alleged to be the rightful homeland of Naga tribes. It comprises of all the Naga inhabited area of Nagaland including portions of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and some parts of Myanmar. More information available at “Nagalim (Greater Nagaland)”, Institute for Conflict Management South Asian Terrorism Portal, available at https://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/states/nagaland/backgrounder/Nagalim.htm.
 Press Trust of India, “Myanmar operation: 70 commandos finish the task in 40 minutes”, The Hindu, June 10, 2015. Available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/myanmar-operation-70-commandos-finish-task-in-40-minutes/article7302348.ece.
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As defined by the United Nations, Transitional justice is the “..full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation.” See, United Nations, “Guidance Note of the Secretary-General United Nations Approach to Transitional Justice”, available at https://www.un.org/ruleoflaw/files/TJ_Guidance_Note_March_2010FINAL.pdf.
 Marc Howard Ross, “Chapter 7: The Politics of Memory and Peacebuilding” in R.C. Ginty eds. (2013) Routledge Handbook of Peacebuilding (Routledge: London).