Manipur: Amid ethnic strife, Assam Rifles faces battle of sorts
The Centre’s unprecedented formula of dividing Manipur into virtually two administrative zones to restore peace in the state seems to have opened a new front.
The state police and the central forces on more than one occasion in the recent past had a face off as they tried to “defend” the respective geographical zone assigned to them for maintenance of law and order.
At a high-level security meeting at the residence of Union Home minister Amit Shah on June 25, it was decided that the Centre would take care of the law-and-order situation in the Kuki-dominated hill areas. Chief Minister Biren Singh, who took a charter flight to attend the meeting, was asked to look after the valley where Meiteis are a majority.
Accused of bias
As per the arrangement, securing lives and properties in the hills is largely the responsibility of the Assam Rifles, the country’s oldest paramilitary force that operates in the state under the command of army’s 3 corps based at Dimapur in Nagaland. The maintenance of law and order in the valley has been entrusted to the Manipur state police.
The segregation has further reinforced the perception in the valley that the Assam Rifles (AR) are there only to protect the interest of the Kukis, observed officials involved in peace-keeping operations in the state.
“Because of the misconception, we are facing hostile crowds and at times even state police,” said an AR officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He was referring to the spate of recent showdowns between the two law-enforcing agencies. “We are accused of being biased even for preventing violations of buffer zones. As per the existing guidelines, the primary task of the central forces is the strict implementation of the buffer zones,” said the officer.
After suspected Kuki militants killed three Meitei civilians at Kwakta Lamkhai in Bishnupur district, the AR blocked the Kwakta Gothol road on Saturday (August 5) morning by placing armoured vehicles fearing breach of buffer zones in the area. Heated altercation broke out when a Manipur police team wanted the Assam Rifles to move the vehicles.
Face off between forces
In a video of the incident put out by local media, a Manipur policeman is seen confronting a soldier of Ninth AR for allegedly not allowing the police to do their job. The policeman was accusing the paramilitary force of helping Kuki militants, according to an Ukhrul Times report.
The police claimed they were in the pursuit of Kuki militants involved in recent violence and killings in the area. The AR got involved in a similar confrontation with the police in June when it placed an armoured vehicle in front of the main gate of the Sugnu police station.
On August 3, around 40 Meitei women protestors were injured in a scuffle with the AR and the Rapid Action Force. The security forces fired tear gas shells and smoke bombs at the protestors who were trying to march to Torbung Bangla, where Kuki groups had planned a mass burial programme. The security forces had blocked the Tiddim road to prevent Meitei protestors from moving towards Torbung.
In protest against the alleged Assam Rifles’ atrocities on protestors and “biased approach” of the central force, Meera Paibi, a collective of Meitei women, staged protests in various parts of the valley on Monday (August 7). Accusing the paramilitary force of being biased, Meera Paibis demanded withdrawal of AR from the violence-hit areas.
BJP leaders flag issue
Even many BJP leaders have raised questions over the neutrality of the AR. “Among the central forces deployed in Manipur to control the prevailing crisis, the Assam Rifles are directly or indirectly supporting/helping one particular community,” BJP state vice president Ch Chidananda Singh said in a statement on Monday night.
He said the bias in implementing the laws of the land is creating resentment among the Meitei people. As a result of the “discrimination against the Meitei community” people would lose faith in the central government, the BJP leader added. Singh said he has already apprised Prime Minister Narendra Modi through a letter about the “one-sided” role of the AR, and requested review of its actions.
Following the killings of three persons in Kwakta Lamkhai, BJP MLA Rajkumar Imo Singh, who is also the son-in-law of Chief Minister Biren Singh, questioned as to how the militants could come down from the hills to another district to carry out the brutal act despite the presence of the paramilitary forces.
“There are people behind the militants who want to create trouble. Who is supplying arms and ammunition to them (militants)? The central government must answer these questions,” he was quoted as saying by the regional media.
Due to the outcry, an AR unit has been replaced by the CRPF at a crucial checkpoint along a Bishnupur-Churachandpur road connecting valley with the hills.
Saviour for Kukis
Kukis, on the other hand, see the AR as their saviour. They are against any deployment of state police in their areas. Kuki-Zo women last week staged a protest over a plan to withdraw the AR from Kangpokpi. The protest ended only after the plan was rolled back.
Protestors chanted, “Assam Rifles Don’t Leave Us”, “Assam Rifles We Need You”. They accused the state police of openly supporting the majority community in the ongoing conflict.
Committee on Tribal Unity (CoTU) general secretary Lamminlun Singsit said the chief minister should not interfere in the law-and-order situations in the hill districts as the Union home minister has directed him to look after only the valley.