Stabilizing Manipur

Sub Title : Pragmatic recommendations to usher in lasting peace in the border state where needless violence continues unabated

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2023

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)

Page No. : 14

Category : Geostrategy

: August 2, 2023

Ethnic violence has plunged the state of Manipur into a state of civil war as the two largest groups, the Meitei and the Kuki, battle over land and influence. Meitei, Kuki and Naga militias have for decades fought one another over conflicting homeland demands and religious differences, and all sides have clashed with the Indian Army and Paramilitary forces. The conflict this time is rooted in ethnicity and not religion. There is pressure on land use from a growing population and increasing unemployment. Illegal migration from Myanmar has heightened tensions. And then there is poppy cultivation and drug trade. Notwithstanding the causes, the flare up continues unabated. In this feature Gen Hasnain quotes from global examples and personal experience and suggests measures for ushering in normalcy and long term peace and progress.

Any analysis on the prevailing crisis in Manipur tends to get painted in political colour, such is the sensitivity of the times. The sentiments involved with ethnic violence in any democratic set up will invariably get such labels. However, some of us who have dealt with violence have to rise above and risk such analyses to offer options to the political leadership. Not many understand the psyche of such violence. This one is not religious in nature, and is well understood by the majority of those who take interest in the affairs of the state. It is perhaps one of the rare occasions in India that deep rooted differences and the competition for space and power have led to such confrontation which is showing no signs of abating. An aspect of foreign interest is suspected too and some covert means of that appears to be present. There is, of course, a legacy aspect drawn from historical antipathy which exists.

It should be reasonably clear to observers and analysts that we have had several spurts of communal violence in India based upon historic differences between faiths and triggered by contingencies and one-off situations. They present a ‘law and order’ problem to security managers and stakeholders. They also get handled as such and get restored to status quo in a short while, with some peace meetings and police action; of course, they may emerge again and many times out of personality-based or political interests.  What is happening in Manipur is far from a ‘law and order problem’; it is a purely ‘public order’ issue. Entire communities have been evicted, endangered and ensconced as internally displaced people. The external hand helps us to classify it as such, as does the nefarious role of drug syndicates. All this makes it an even more intense problem especially since it ultimately affects a state such as Manipur which is a crucial one to provide connectivity to South East Asia as a major part of our ‘Look East and Act East Policy’. It brings this into the geopolitical and the strategic realm thus making it a national security issue. Being ‘public order’ oriented it is my assumption that it cannot be addressed directly with an intent to resolve the basic issues which drive the internal conflict. The process will have to undergo a stabilization phase which must first be sought before getting the stakeholders to even consider resolution.

It is not my intent to explain the backdrop to the ethnic conflict which is well known and available for research in several publications. I wish to draw parallels and it starts with the most brutal of historical conflicts – the Hutu-Tutsi divide in Central Africa with its manifestation as the internal conflict in Rwanda. The tribal divide went back many years.  The bloody history of the Hutu and Tutsi conflict stained the 20th century, from the 1972 slaughter of about 120,000 Hutus by the Tutsi army in Burundi to the 1994 Rwanda genocide where, in just 100 days Hutu militias targeted Tutsis and about 800,000 people were killed. They speak the same language and ideologically follow the same faiths. It’s the ethnic difference which drives conflict, a question of social and economic space. The problem got exacerbated by colonialism to a great extent. The Hutus by and large disliked the Tutsis out of envy for their better looks, better education and better jobs they enjoyed under the colonists. Being in a large majority the Hutus could afford to exercise more control but it’s that very control which led to the Tutsis forming their army – the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), which one day revolted under the leadership of Paul Kagame (Rwanda’s current President). A civil war ensued in which peace was brokered and a UN Peacekeeping Force deployed. However,  the Hutus decided to use the strategy of genocide to overcome the Tutsi challenge. 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were macheted to death in the most gruesome manner, causing heartburn for a lifetime among survivors. The Tutsi Army (RPA) under Paul Kagame entered from Uganda and swung through Rwanda militarily defeating the majority Hutus and establishing a Tutsi government in Kigali. The United Nations floundered in its peacekeeping efforts.

My one year in Rwanda was marked by many efforts but not at helping the UN at reconciliation of the warring factions; efforts at reconciliation were useless and pointless under the circumstances. I was in command of a UN sector in which the intent was to restore sanity and stability through military domination, good administration and welfare.  The sentiment of hatred, after the terrible genocidal violence, was simply too severe and there was only the sentiment of retribution in the air. At the civil prison of the Gitarama prefecture 4000 Hutu prisoners were incarcerated in the space of 400. We had to make sure they could survive; left to the Tutsi guards they wouldn’t. This was the story all over Rwanda. To assuage the sentiments of the Tutsis the UN organized reburial ceremonies. I remember attending many of them where we got moderate Hutus to also attend along with Tutsi government officials and prominent leaders. The idea was to overcome the grief by giving dignity to the dead through individual graves after exhumation from mass graves. The Tutsis were angry, very angry. They despised the UN and its mission (UNAMIR) for its inability to halt the killings and withdrawing at the crucial time when the genocide was on. We from the UN had to re-establish our credibility as help givers and peacekeepers. Our patrols identified areas to which the UN’s different agencies could bring resources for relief and rehabilitation. No one even dreamed of resolving the Hutu-Tutsi divide which was a historic legacy of Africa’s tribal conflicts and not restricted to Rwanda alone. The problem is officially unresolved even thirty years later and it could always spark again given leadership, resources and the cause which exists on both sides. What has been achieved is stability through better development. Rwanda has complete political stability. It has diluted inequality, reduced poverty substantially and is achieving a growth rate of 11 percent. All this has hugely contributed to reducing violence and controlling anger on the street which existed aplenty.

Manipur is not Rwanda; it’s a part of India which has the fifth largest economy of the world and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to eventually make it the third largest. The doctrine of approach to stabilizing Manipur has also to be economic with a sufficiently large dose of security presence to enable an early bounce back which can then be handled with the idea of resolution with open ended timelines. The idea of  the security forces being ‘peace builders’ is also something workable. Without guarantees of demonstrable peace this will go nowhere and the only element which provides physical security for peace is the Army (and Assam Rifles) backed by PMF and CAPF.

Another example from which lessons need to be learnt and applied on the basis of existing circumstances, is Northern Ireland. Sectarian strife had paralyzed that region of the UK leading to more than 3600 dead over several years. The promise of peace and economic development for all under a democratic regime enabled the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The British Army took a step back to hold only the periphery of the problem, ready to step in when needed. Economic development grew exponentially but the problem has yet to be finally resolved as a permanent settlement.  An article in dated 17 Apr 2023 authored by Jill Lawless states – “Tensions remain between the two main communities, with fortified ‘peace walls’ separating some nationalist and unionist neighbourhoods. But a growing number of people identify as neither unionist or nationalist, and support is growing for the non-sectarian Alliance party. Northern Ireland’s short-term governance and long-term future are both unresolved”. Yet peace prevails and will undoubtedly facilitate final resolution.

The concept  of peace building and security stabilization needs a little elaboration. In the concept all contemplated actions are of near equal significance and flow from each other. Simultaneity is thus the principle of application.

The Aim of the entire mission – “To rebuild Manipur society on the basis of security, trust and socio-economic development; mainstream the state to rest of India on the basis of political, social and psychological reconciliation.”

The following actions are necessary: –

             In securing the region we never hesitated about the quantum of forces deployed in J&K. The entire Rashtriya Rifles (RR) originally raised for Punjab was hurriedly deployed in J&K. Similarly, Manipur is strategically important enough to justify large deployment of Army (including Assam Rifles) backed by the BSF/CRPF.

             Border Sealing with Myanmar to be reinforced to prevent infiltration.

             The concept of Assembly Areas followed by the UN to attract armed cadres for surrender of weapons should be tried out. A huge quantity of sophisticated arms is circulating after the looting of some armouries. These must be accounted for and intelligence sources should be activated in all North East states for the potential of the move of this arsenal outside Manipur.  Incentives for the surrender could be considered.

             From a leadership and political angle for the stabilization stage the best option is a Government of Unity (very difficult proposition), or President’s Rule backed by an effective senior Army veteran/experienced politician as Governor, with knowledge of the internal conflict and sufficient advisers including some prominent local citizens.

             Focus on Civil Administration, especially Education and Health domains. The employment of specialist counsellors from psycho-social domains is strongly recommended.

             Incentives for private education institutes in collaboration with local citizens should be mooted. Emphasis should be on skill development involving hospitality industry, aviation services, tourism etc.

             Strident efforts at control of drugs through the use of drones, sensors, intelligence resources and effective liaison with the Myanmar government. Incentives against sowing of the poppy plantations will also be helpful.

             With many militant groups ceasefire/seizure of operations (SOO) has broken down. This must be reviewed and renegotiated on a fast track.

             Low interest loans and grants should be available for those who have lost homes or incurred damages. The same applies to businesses.

             Food subsidy for two years must be considered. In the event of any transport bandhs in Nagaland preventing flow of resources to the state, a strategic airlift facility must be available. Its single employment will forever foreclose the scope of the road bandhs in Nagaland.

             An all of government approach will need to be applied by all departments incorporating the principles of corporate social responsibility (CSR). A leaf could be taken from Operation Sadbhavana run so successfully by the Indian Army in all insurgency prone areas. In fact the Operation Sadbhavna budget should be substantially increased. It guarantees the last Rupee being spent for the purpose it is meant for.

A system of Peace Committees, well briefed at Delhi and fully aware of  local culture and sensitivities will need to be set up for constant interaction with the citizens of Manipur which must include all segments of society. With experience the composition of these committees should be reviewed. Some prominent local citizens from both sides of the divide must form a part of the Peace Committees. The meetings must cover all districts and must not be limited to Imphal Valley alone. Committees recommended are those composed of concerned citizens of India, senior veterans of the Armed Forces, Intelligence and Police, prominent women citizens, educationists, industrialists, think tank owners and bankers. An odd respected sportsman and some representatives from the entertainment industry would enrich the composition.

How the above representatives are grouped is a matter of consultation but each such committee should have a hierarchy to give direction and focus while it continues its consultations with the citizens of Manipur. One of the intents of the committees must be the convincing of the environment in general about the need for early completion of the road infrastructure to Myanmar and Thailand, to enable trade and tourism through the road routes.

The most visible part of success is usually economic. The incentives from the Central Government for success achieved should be motivating. Blowback in other North Eastern states should be kept in mind because that may upset the carefully laid out strategy.

The above is a one-man strategy without consultation and is based upon experience and some minor research. The bottom line remains the fact that  the work being initiated must look purely for stabilization and not seek solutions at this stage.

Hopefully we will succeed as a nation and Manipur will thrive as a state.