Manipur: Reverse the economy of conflict

As much as Manipur must be calmed and developed for its own sake, it must also be calmed and developed for the sake of India


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government must prepare that ground whether or not his BJP wins assembly elections in Manipur, whether or not it manages to unseat Congress’s chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, an adept of the economy of conflict. Photo: HT
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government must prepare that ground whether or not his BJP wins assembly elections in Manipur, whether or not it manages to unseat Congress’s chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, an adept of the economy of conflict. Photo: HT

Perhaps India’s current government was too focused on celebrating electoral victory in May 2014 to pay attention to peace and reconciliation in north-east India in general, and Manipur in particular. But it still matters to the people, who are citizens—and voters, who will elect the next government in Manipur over 4 and 8 March. So I shall state it now as I did three years ago in this column, and in various forums since:

It is foolish to look at greater geopolitical and geo-economic gains in South-East Asia or along southwestern China without swift, meaningful, compassionate and sustainable decisions in north-east India’s gateway states, especially Manipur.

The first: AFSPA, The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958, which gives untrammelled power to the armed forces to police and interdict citizens in the name of curbing rebellion, has for decades bred nothing but popular resentment, and must be repealed.

Some, like the current chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, R.N. Ravi—also the government’s interlocutor for peace talks with National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest Naga rebel group—have for long questioned AFSPA. Protracted use of the army for policing anti-insurgency operations and AFSPA in an area with steadily declining conflict—and when central paramilitaries and state police can instead be used—has, as Ravi remarkably wrote before his current assignments, “toxic implications for the restoration of durable peace”.

All of Manipur, except the municipal limits of capital Imphal, (and all of Nagaland) is technically under AFSPA, as these have been tagged as “disturbed areas”. Repealing of AFSPA here has repeatedly been resisted by the top brass of the armed forces and even state-level politicians—it is an often buried fact that a state government must first acquiesce before AFSPA can be applied. For them, AFSPA wraps in an expedient cloak outsourced security, political survival, impunity by osmosis for state police personnel; and becomes the milch cow of counter-insurgency budgets.

The economy of conflict has remained more seductive than the economy of peace. This must be reversed.

Tripura has shown the way by jettisoning AFSPA, opting for active, positive negotiation with rebels, and governance and development alongside firm policing. It hasn’t adversely affected the security environment—proving yet again that AFSPA is the band-aid for short-term, myopic, obdurate and cynical politics.

A complete repealing of AFSPA in Manipur will be a humane gesture. Even its rolling back to areas by the border with Myanmar, along which rebel movement and trafficking in narcotics and weapons takes place, will go a long way in soothing peoples’ traumas, earning their trust and belief in inclusion. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government must prepare that ground whether or not his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins assembly elections in Manipur, whether or not it manages to unseat Congress’s three-term chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, an adept of the economy of conflict. More will need to be done. As much as Manipur must be calmed and developed for its own sake, it must also be calmed and developed for the sake of India.

The Naga peace process, which is intertwined with Manipur on account of vast contiguous Naga homelands in the north of that state, must be extended to include all Naga rebel groups, including the NSCN’s Khaplang faction—a former favourite of India’s security establishment that broke a ceasefire in early 2015—not principally NSCN (I-M) as it is now. If they are not brought back on board, there will be no Naga peace deal.

Meanwhile, the game to stall NSCN (I-M) in its pocket boroughs of Manipur long enough for BJP to win Manipur has gone awry, as the rebel group has for some months now decided to play by its own book, controlling by proxy that state’s apex Naga tribal council to effect a blockade of lifeline highways through Naga territory since last November, choking the economy and movement of people. Ibobi’s stand against such pressure has strengthened anti-Naga sentiments and his incumbency among the majority Meitei community, and other communities wary of Nagas in general and I-M in particular.

NSCN (I-M)’s aggression has earned the irritation of Ravi, and certainly the irritation of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval who, as one insider told me is “really irritated with I-M ”.

So it goes: irritation is an old script for these parts. After all, Manipur has remained irritated since 1949, when it formally joined India, and quickly discovered that India’s talk of mutual respect, peace and prosperity was only talk.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.

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