Price of Negligence

Faulty government policies and insensitive judiciary has turned Manipur into a ticking time bomb

Lt Gen. HJS Sachdev (retd)Lt Gen. HJS Sachdev (retd)

The Manipur tragedy has taken centre stage both nationally and internationally for the last three months for all the wrong reasons. Deaths, destruction, displacement, depravity and a deep divide between communities, you name it and it is in the script. That this would happen to a state like Manipur was unthinkable a few months back. The scale and ferocity of violence left everybody, the governments, security forces, society and the nation dumb-founded and numb. They are still grappling to understand the cause and find solutions while the perpetrators had Manipur on its knees.

Even after three months of public debate and views of experts expressed on electronic and print media, there is no sight of a solution. So, what went wrong, why did it happen and what needs to be done to restore in peace and tranquillity in Manipur? The violence continues unabated with ghastly stories coming out on a regular basis. The instability has the potential to not only undo the ‘India Story’ but blow up into a security nightmare. The solution perhaps lies in the honest answer to the question–is it a law and order problem or a national security challenge?

There has been enough written on the history and genesis of the problem dating to the kings and Britishers. But I will restrict myself to the current problem.



February 2023: The state government orders survey of select hill areas (Churachandpur, Tengnoupal and Kangpopki districts) to identify illegal occupation of forest land and cultivation of poppy. These districts happen to be Kuki-Zo dominated around the Valley.

10 March 2023: The state government unilaterally decides to abrogate the suspension of operations (SOO) agreement with select militant groups belonging to the Kuki-Zo community, thus paving way for action against them by state forces.

25 March 2023: The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is removed from select areas of Manipur (read the Valley). The army and the Assam Rifles normally do not engage in active operations unless protection is provided under the AFSPA. This act led to tacit protection of Valley-based militant groups (Meiteis) from the army and the Assam Rifles.

19 April 2023: The acting chief justice of the Manipur high court, Justice M.V. Muralidaran, in a single bench, passed an order giving the state government four weeks to forward recommendations to the Centre for inclusion of the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes list. The hill tribes took umbrage to the move and protests commenced in their regions.

3-5 May 2023: On May 3, one such rally organised by the All-Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) in Churachandpur turned violent and the mayhem ensued. Reports of killings, burning of houses and places of worship led to large scale displacement of both communities. If that was not enough, 4,000 weapons were looted from the armouries of the police while the personnel stood as mute spectators.

May 5 onwards: The violence has claimed the lives of more than 160 persons with more than 450 injured in the clashes and left more than 50,000 homeless. The army/ Assam Rifles’ efforts to restore normalcy were blocked because of active intervention and participation by the people, especially women’s group such as the Meira Paibis (Meiteis) and the inaction/ connivance of the local police.

It is baffling that apart from a visit by the home minister, who tried to calm the nerves, there has been a conspicuous silence and inaction. About 1,100 looted weapons have been returned leaving around 3,000 still unaccounted for. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement on the horrendous video of women being paraded naked is a too little, too late. It is also incident-specific, leaving the larger canvas blank.

Social media is a powerful tool in the hands of every citizen. The internet was banned to prevent news and fake news from fanning the fire. But the visuals remain on mobile phones and if not immediately, they will surface as and when the ban is lifted. Nothing can remain hidden for long. This has the potential to reignite and prolong the mistrust and hatred amongst the communities.

Price of Negligence 

Social Fault-lines

Manipur has long history of inter community differences. The unchecked influx of illegal migrants from Myanmar has only accentuated these underlying fault-lines in the form of a demographic change. The Meiteis who were earlier more than 60 per cent of the population of Manipur have now been reduced to just above 50 per cent. It can be attributed to illegal migrants entering across a porous border and permitted under the Free Movement Regime (FMR). The Meiteis, settled in the Valley, are being throttled of their legitimate equitable right to opportunities (land and jobs) to prosper and progress. The ST status to the Kukis is in effect ‘a one-way street’. The demand for similar ST status to Meiteis is only to rectify the anomaly based on the principle of equity. However, any change in the status of communities is fraught with danger. The answer perhaps lies in mitigating the demographic change.


Security Challenge

Manipur is a border state, and ‘peace and tranquillity’ is of utmost importance for the well-being of its people as well as national security. China, our main adversary, is always on the lookout for opportunities to cause trouble in the northeast and Myanmar is an enabler for such activities. Militant organisations with bases across the international border have a free run under the FMR. In fact, the FMR is more lenient in India than in Myanmar.

It is also not about Meiteis and Kukis only. Other tribal communities such as the Nagas are watching the events closely. Any decision that goes against the Kukis will affect other tribes as well. The current situation has already gone beyond the confines of Manipur. A Mizo organisation has warned Meiteis to leave their state. It is a warning signal to the authorities that if the situation does not improve, it could spread beyond Manipur’s boundaries and mark the beginning of the next insurgency in the northeast.

Three thousand arms and approximately 5 lakh rounds of ammunition have found their way into the hands of militants. The same number of small arms is held by a brigade of the army. The numbers are staggering. Even a small quantity can keep the state boiling and security forces on the run, resulting in colossal loss of precious lives. That the state has a border with Myanmar must ring alarm bells in the security establishment at the highest levels.

The current dispensation, both in the state and at the centre, would like to see the current violence as a mere law and order problem. This view is perhaps guided by the fact that not all of Manipur is burning. Painting it as a law and order problem also puts the blame on the state government, absolving the centre of any responsibility. In spite of repeated appeals from all within Manipur for centre to intervene, there is little to show on ground except sending more forces to function under a unified command of a police officer. It is likely that in the coming months, the dispensation at the centre will be more involved in states and central elections than in Manipur. Any law and order situation at the current scale needs to viewed from a national security perspective. When the enemy is at the gates it is better to douse the fire immediately.

The run-up to the crisis started in February and there were enough indications of the worst. Yet all the agencies either failed to anticipate the fierce and swift backlash that unfolded before the nation in just 48 hours, or alternatively, everybody knew and either kept quiet or were told to keep quiet. In either case there is a need to pin responsibility and hold persons accountable.

Removal of AFSPA: The removal of the AFSPA has been a longstanding demand of Manipur, especially Meiteis since the infamous incident of Th Manorama in 2004. The peaceful situation prevailing in the state for the last 10 years was perhaps the right time to send the right signals to the people. But the lifting of the AFSPA from the Valley gives reasons to suspect a motive to reduce the effectiveness of the army/ Assam Rifles. Was this an intended objective?

Abrogation of SOO: It is beyond understanding that an agreement between the Centre and the militant groups is abrogated unilaterally by the state government. That too with select groups belonging to the Kuki-Zo only? The intent behind the move needs answers.

Army/ Assam Rifles: The army and the Assam Rifles have been doing yeoman service in Manipur since time immemorial and form the invisible arm that is maintaining peace and tranquillity in the state fraught with fractures. The fact that nearly 50 per cent of the units of the army in the northeast and the Assam Rifles are stationed in Manipur is proof of it being a powder keg which has the potential of blowing up anytime. The reduction of force levels was a fatal mistake leading to a tardy response in the initial stages of the violence. Yet the role played by both the forces without the AFSPA in some areas, has been praiseworthy. Without their presence the violence would have resulted in monumental loss of life and destruction, yet they have been criticised by the people (Meiteis) for their allegedly biased approach and the demand for the removal of the Assam Rifles from Manipur is being voiced at all levels and forums. But the demand is motivated. The Assam Rifles, led by army officers, is under the operational command of the army and therefore outside the control of the state government. Their upright and impartial approach towards quelling the violence has raised hackles in the establishment. This has led to the demand to replace the Assam Rifles with the CRPF, officered by the IPS, under direct control of the state government.

Role of Meira Paibis: The women’s group, suspected to be a front for Meitei militant groups, first came to limelight in 2004 through their actions and campaign against the Assam Rifles. The limitations of security forces in taking aggressive action against women is being exploited to get away with murder. Continuing from there, they have been at the forefront of the Meiteis faceoff with the Kukis and with the Assam Rifles/ army. Their open support to Meitei militant groups by helping in their escape or by blocking Assam Rifles operations is in violation of operating procedures of the security forces. Being a volatile border state, the red lines are on the verge of being crossed and needs a response through suitable rules of engagement.


Police Effectiveness

The looting of weapons from their armouries is the most shameful for any security organisation and the Manipur Police has not acquitted itself creditably. Appeals for the return of the weapons (albeit voluntarily) has once again exposed the soft approach of the state.

Cases of public shaming, rape and murder are tumbling out of the closet after three months. The police inaction on the FIRs lodged by the victims either because the accused belonged to a particular community or sheer apathy, speaks volumes about their effectiveness. When analysed with other acts of commission/ omission like giving information to assist certain groups or simply being onlookers while mobs go on the rampage, the Manipur Police cannot be a serious stakeholder in restoring peace and trust in the beleaguered society.

Meitei women protesting in New Delhi on June 19
Meitei women protesting in New Delhi on June 19

Political Strategem?

Has the current situation been brought about as a result of politics by the governments at the state and centre? The immediate trigger was the grant of Scheduled Tribe status to the Meiteis. It has been a demand for the last 10 years. No state government has taken a decision on it. So, was the high court used as a front to overcome the likely political backlash from the Kukis? There are precedents before wherein the legitimacy of political decisions has been taken from the courts and projected to the populace as justification. Ram Temple, abrogation of Article 370, Rafale and the ensuing battle for the Gyanvapi mosque are some such examples. The actions taken by the state government preceding the court’s decision leave much for doubt. Rajniti or raj dharam?

The Chief Justice of India has declared the order passed by the acting chief justice of Manipur as against constitutional bench judgments. So, who is responsible for the violence and large scale death and destruction caused by the high court order? It is a moot point that a high court judge faces no repercussions for passing an unconstitutional order while an army officer is hauled up by the courts for an action taken in good faith but resulting in the death of a civilian. Is there no accountability of the judiciary?


National security: One of the foremost responsibilities of the government is to ensure that the people are secure from all threats, be it external, internal, food, energy etc. There cannot be any compromise that endangers the lives and livelihood of its people.

The current crisis is the direct result of the neglect of government towards appreciating and acting on the likely threats to national security. The porous borders supported officially through FMR have over the years allowed unchecked illegal migration from Myanmar and smuggling of drugs. The demographic change over the decades has deepened the fissures in the fragile ecosystem of Manipur. Politics has only added fuel to the fire for vested interests.

Manipur is a sensitive border state, and peace and tranquillity is of utmost importance to ward off external threats from China and Myanmar. If Manipur is on fire, then the situation will be exploited by our neighbours to threaten our national integrity. The challenge has to be dealt with in a bipartisan manner leaving aside all other issues. National security comes first.

Absence of fencing and FMR: Family, emotional and sentimental connect between our people with their brethren across the border has prevented the Indian government from taking a pragmatic and necessary decision regarding fencing and sealing of borders and allowing FMR, putting national security at peril. Recently, 80 km of fencing was approved (against the Manipur border of 400 km) and it is at a survey/ tender stage. It is not enough to make a difference but nonetheless it is a step in the right direction.

SOO: Suspension of operations is the first step in addressing the problem and not the final solution. The agreement between the government and militant organisations in 2009 did not move forward thereafter. Brushing aside problems of serious nature under the carpet after initial success is asking for trouble at a later date.

Army/Assam Rifles: The military is aware of the complexities that exist in this critical border state and should have been better prepared for the violence. The Chief of Defence Staff, General Anil Chauhan himself, in a press conference, admitted that a few units of the army and the Assam Rifles were withdrawn from the state as the situation had been peaceful for quite some time. This has proved to be a costly mistake. The same number of troops, if not more, have been brought back to the state. But at what cost? By the time the troops were re-inducted and deployed, the damage, both in terms of physical and psychological, had been done.

Without this impartial and unbiased force, Manipur would have witnessed violence at a much larger scale. Vested interests would like to see it go or their powers curtailed by removing the AFSPA. The conduct and effectiveness of the Manipur Police is under a cloud. The question is who else?

Role of Women Soldiers: The active participation of women’s groups (Meira Paibis) has rendered the classic strategy of countering mobs and violent/ anti national behaviour invalid. Any action against the women has the potential to make national/ international headlines resulting in a hesitant response by the security forces or law enforcement agencies (mainly men). It has happened before in Manipur, J&K and Delhi. The rules of engagement need change and the employment of women soldiers needs to be taken up aggressively.

Politics: It is a travesty that in India even on issues of national security our politicians are divided. Is it because of their lack of understanding of security issues or is it because vested interests prevent them from taking a bipartisan approach. Probably the latter.

Judiciary: Judges have a huge responsibility on their shoulders while adjudicating over sensitive matters and if due diligence is not exercised, it can lead to disastrous consequences. No decision by the state government on the demand for ST status for the last 10 years was also a decision!


Way Forward

In a border state like Manipur, the law and order situation cannot be treated at a par with other areas. Any instability in the state will directly affect the nation. It has to be handled differently. Short term measures like SOO are not the answer but are enablers for a final solution. Successive governments have always treated the northeast with indifference, as an irritant perhaps. Temporary measures or signing of accords bringing about truce between warring groups are seen as a victory. The genuine demands of security forces are often ignored based on petty reasons. The National Security Advisor and the CDS have a task at hand to brief the government on the ground realities and the costs involved in a volatile future. Desperate situations demand desperate solutions irrespective of the political costs.

A statement from the Prime Minister would have calmed the nerves of all communities. But that opportunity has long gone. The government needs to impose President’s rule and form a unified command under a senior army officer. Politics must be set aside, and an all-party delegation should visit the state. The AFSPA should be restored and the FMR suspended till a considered decision is taken on the subject. The Manipur border must be fenced on a war footing, involving army engineers if necessary.

In the medium term, army units must be inducted and deployed in the interiors, pushing Assam Rifles units to the border. A fence without surveillance and checks is of no use. A survey of illegal migrants must be undertaken. The free movement regime should be allowed through proper check points only up to three kms and for a period of one day.

Meanwhile, the state government must categorically say that there is no immediate proposal to recommend inclusion of Meiteis into ST category. It must also undertake measures to collect the looted weapons on a priority. The SOO should be restored. It should form peace committees with prominent citizens (no politicians) from both sides and senior military veterans. Rehabilitation of displaced persons from both communities must commence and all cases of heinous crimes must be pursued without prejudice.

Prominent citizens of Manipur need to come forward and play an active role in dousing the fire. They need to organise peace marches and meetings within their community at the village and block levels. Intervention in sensitive policy issues by the judiciary is best avoidable. Its time accountability within judiciary is instituted. In the present case, the Supreme Court should take cognisance of the monumental mistake by the acting chief justice of the high court, putting lives and property of the people at stake and national security on the edge.

The army’s presence in the interiors of Manipur must be enhanced on a priority. It should also undertake confidence building measures (CBMs). The army should also assist in the construction of the fence along the borders. It has the experience of J&K, which should be put to good use. It can also assist in the construction of temporary posts of the Assam Rifles along the border.

The Assam Rifles should provide protection to fence constructing parties. Additional units must be raised after obtaining approval from the MHA. There is also a need to organise women soldiers into women companies (columns) led by women army officers.



Peace and tranquillity in sensitive border states is essential to ward off any threat to the territorial integrity of the nation. That Manipur, with all its fault-lines, is a ticking bomb ready to explode has been demonstrated by the recent unfortunate events. Physical losses can be made up in time, but the psychological divide, if allowed to linger, can give a handle to the nation’s detractors to exploit. A life-threatening situation demands drastic measures. Time is at a premium. The government and the security forces have a task on their hands.

(The writer is a former DG, Assam Rifles)



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