By Chitra Ahanthem
The process leading to SoO and MOUs or the requirements specified for armed groups to be a part of the ‘peace talks’ in Manipur are not made clear while there is no specification on what happens in case ground rules are flouted. In a Kuki designated camp located in Churachandpur district, this author saw the presence of child soldiers thereby throwing up the issue of whether numbers are the sole criteria for armed groups to be recognized as one that can enter into the ‘peace process’. In another camp in the interiors of Imphal East district, there were two very cramped rooms meant to house 40 cadres each when it was clear that not more than 10-12 cadres could fit into them. A separate room with double locks was meant to house the arms and ammunition of the armed group but the few cadres at the designated camp carried the most sophisticated assault riffles. With a paltry sum of Rs 4000 made out for every cadre made out that armed groups say is supposed to cover the monthly food rations and other essential items, there is a growing incidence of cadres who have taken part on the ‘laying down of arms’ which incidentally the media has been asked not to term as ‘surrender programs’ taking to extortion. If there is any criteria at all for insurgent groups to enter into ‘peace talks’ with the state and central governments are in place, that information is out of public domain. Apart from the Kuki armed groups, the valley based Meitei armed groups have not entered into peace talks with the Government as a unified party but rather as factions with cadres of the same group operating actively.
In another incident that mirrors the lack of transparency and any seriousness on the part of the Government to regulate how former insurgents are being paid their stipends, newspapers in the state reported that Lallumba, the President of the KCP (MC) Lallumba group decamped from the 7th MR Khabeishoi camp on June 9 along with a huge amount of Rs 1,92,68, 800 meant for a one time rehabilitation package from the government. The amount including monthly allowance of eight months, bank deposits of 114 cadres and 10 politburo members of the outfit which had signed a tripartite peace talk with the central and the state governments on August 6, 2010 at the 1st Manipur Rifles Banquet Hall.
Even as the remaining cadres submitted ‘complaints’ to the state Principal Secretary Home with copies being submitted to the Joint Secretary Home, IGAR (S), GOC 57th Mountain Division, IGP (CRPF) and DIG, there has been no word from the concerned over the fate of the cadres in the camp or in term of the whereabouts of the former leader of the group. There have been numerous incidents when residents in the areas around the AR camps where cadres of various underground groups are kept after entering into SoO and MOU have demanded that the cadres be shifted out of their areas. Such calls have come up on the basis of the cadres ‘disturbing the peace’ with their involvement in cases of harassment of people in the area, physical intimidation and extortion. To cite an example here: when it came into the public domain that cadres of the KYKL (MDF) who were earlier lodged with the 20th Assam Rifles camp at Chandel Headquarter would be shifted to the Khongjom area of Thoubal district, locals of Khongjom and surrounding villages in Thoubal district including from Sapam, Chingtham, Samram, Langthabal, Langathel, Tekcham took to the streets protesting the move. This came about even as the people of Chandel head quarter district were protesting against the said cadres of the group being stationed at the district. The modalities of the ongoing ‘peace’ processes in the state clearly shows that what are being undertaken are only superficial events centered ‘signing ceremonies’ that are dressed up under the term ‘home coming ceremonies’ with no real meaning or value in the lives of the common man or any perceptible step towards limiting the level of violence arising out of the conflict situation. Rather, the ambiguity of the terms of the various peace initiatives taken up by the state and central government with the armed groups on one hand and the fact that major valley based armed groups are yet to bite the peace bait shows that such initiatives do not look to be bringing about any tangible change to the theatre of conflict in the state. The political gains if any of the ongoing ‘peace process’ in Manipur with various armed groups of the hills and the valley are yet to emerge but already the fissures arising out of the overlapping demands by the Kukis, Nagas in terms of carving out territorial areas with the Meiteis insisting on their territorial integrity has changed the tone of various civil society groups on community lines. On October 10, 2012, when the Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, hinted that a ‘solution’ to the ‘Naga issue’ was likely before March 2013, when Assembly polls in Nagaland were due, the Kukis opposed the talks, threatening to renew their demand for statehood, even as the Meiteis vehemently rejected the talks, claiming that settlement proposals would disturb the ‘unity of Manipur or its territorial integrity’. Further, on November 2, 2012, the Kuki National Organization (KNO), an umbrella organization of 16 Kuki militant groups, threatened to resume armed struggle and to ‘secede from Manipur’ if the Centre did not begin talks with them.
On the other hand, the United Committee Manipur (UCM), an apex body of the Meiteis, on October 18, 2012, categorically stated that it would demand ‘pre-merger status’ of Manipur if the ongoing political dialogue between NSCN-IM and GoI disturbed the unity or territorial integrity of Manipur in any way. On October 26, 2012, the United Naga Council (UNC), the main apex body of the Nagas, asserted that a peaceful parting of the Nagas in Manipur and the Meiteis as good neighbours, was the only way to avert a catastrophic situation that would arise out of the prolonged `forced union of the two`.
Overtures and responses:
Apart from the major Naga groups and the Kuki armed groups, none of the major Meitei insurgent groups have come forth to the peace table with ritual appeals being made by the Government on occasions such as Republic day and Independence Day observations and the groups dismissing the offer.
In September 2006, during a session of the Manipur Assembly, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh made a clarification on the floor of the Assembly that in the sixteen years that the state government had introduced a surrender policy for insurgents, only 377 underground activists from nineteen different organizations had actually bitten the bait, an average of twenty persons per organization in the said sixteen years or a little over one person in a year, per organization. Earlier, while responding to the then Manipur Governor S.S. Sidhu`s appeal to militant groups to come to the negotiation table, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) `chairman`, Sana Yaima (now in NIA custody), in a press statement in Imphal on January 31, 2005, came up with a four-point proposal to “end the conflict satisfactorily once and for all.” The proposals mooted were:
1. To hold a plebiscite under the aegis of the United Nations aegis so that the people of Manipur can exercise their democratic right to decide on the core issue of the conflict – the restoration of Manipur’s sovereignty and independence.
2. To deploy a UN Peace Keeping Force in Manipur to ensure free and fair conduct of the Plebiscite.
3. UNLF to deposit all its arms to the UN Peace Keeping Force and India to withdraw all its regular and para military forces from Manipur before a deadline prior to the Plebiscite date to be decided by the UN. Also, the UN Peace Keeping Force to call upon all other armed opposition groups in Manipur to follow suit.
4. The UN to hand over political power in accordance with the result of the Plebiscite.
The state government rejected the proposals and that was the end of the peace offer. Similarly, when the Manipur Chief Minister, Okram Ibobi Singh reached out to the PLA to shun violence and come forward for peace talks in 2012, the PLA President, Irengbam Chaoren rejected the offer and instead appealed to all armed groups in the Northeast to join in a united fight against the Indian state.
(A longer and referenced version of this text is being included in the eighth annual report of Armed Conflicts in South Asia collated and undertaken by the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi)