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Insurgency and the Creation of a Separate ‘Christian’ Identity

January 22, 2022 Authored by: Dr. Ankita Dutta

The fire of insurgency has, for long, engulfed this strategic region for the last half a century or more, making it one of South Asia’s most politically unstable and disturbed regions. It needs to be understood as a part of the anarchy that enveloped this region after India’s Independence in 1947, the spread of Christianity and the decline of Sanatan belief systems, all blessed by China-funded Maoism. This humungous problem can by no means be attributed to a dearth of security personnel or resources, especially taking into consideration the presence of the Army and paramilitary forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The beginning of insurgency here saw the subsequent rise of secessionist movements for autonomy, sponsored terrorism, and ethnic clashes fuelled by the fight over resources.

The continuous inflow of illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh has compounded the problem further. It is as if the successive Governments at the Centre in the post-Independence era had let the region remain internally unstable, thereby manufacturing a fake narrative of a ‘cultural chasm’ between its people and those of the rest of India which, in turn, gradually created a psychological distance between the people of the same country. But, the popular academic discourse that we have been fed is that North-East India has been facing the onslaught of “ethnicities-based armed conflicts” beginning in the years following Independence. It is true that the region is home to more than 70 major population groups and sub-groups, speaking approximately 400 different languages and dialects, and no other part of India or even South Asia has been subjected to such a prolonged violent struggle as the North-East.

The traditional faith-systems and the values and beliefs associated with the same have strong roots in the cultural psyche of a community of people. The sudden introduction of a foreign religion, insensitive to these values and belief systems, acts like a disturbance on this psyche by diluting the cultural sense of their belongingness and identity. The need to assert their identities in a new social and cultural set-up now becomes all the more prominent. The influence of the Church in the hill states of North-East India gradually came to be associated in due course of time in terms with an identity that is largely politicised, i.e. a Christian identity which is not only inherently divisive but also considers itself superior to all other identities.

We all know what happened with the Buddhist Chakmas and the Hindu Reangs (collectively known as the Bru community) of Mizoram with the spread of Christianity in the Lushai Hills (present-day Mizoram) in the post-Independence era and the rise of secessionist movements soon after. They became refugees in their own homeland, the only reason being that they resisted conversions and refused to change their faith.

A Brief History of Insurgency in Manipur

Insurgency in Manipur cannot be discussed without taking into account the population composition of the border districts of the state such as Churachandpur and their strategic geo-political significance from the point of view of India’s national security. Located in the south-western corner of Manipur at a distance of about 122 km from Imphal and spread over an area of 4,570 square kilometres, Churachandpur or Lamka (as the locals call it), means ‘roads that meet at a mouth’. While it shares its northern and eastern boundaries with six of Manipur’s districts (Imphal East, Tamenglong, Senapati, Bishnupur, Thoubal, and Chandel), in the west and the south, it shares its borders with Assam, Mizoram, and Myanmar.

The hilly terrain of Churachandpur is surrounded by thick and dense jungles along the village of Sehken near the unfenced and heavily wooded border with Myanmar. The population of Churachandpur is spread across the largely Christian Kuki, Chin, and Mizo groups, with a sizeable Meitei and a marginal Tangkhul Naga population. Why has the Manipur Valley where a majority of the Hindu Meitei population resides, been relatively free from inter-community clashes and internal violence compared to the hills? The rapid spread of Christianity in the hills of Manipur was subsequently followed by bitter community conflicts and hostilities between the Kukis and the Nagas that have been occurring in several hill districts of the state since the beginning of the 1990s.

In 1997, clashes broke out between the Kukis and the Zomis, resulting in an undocumented number of fatalities and large-scale internal displacement of population. As the years passed by, several militant groups, each claiming to represent specific groups and communities, and more often than not, multiple outfits claiming to represent the same community (e.g. there are about nine different groups claiming to represent the Kukis), cropped up in the state. Significantly, almost all of them have a viable presence in the Christian-dominated hill districts, especially in Churachandpur. Even a few valley-based outfits, such as the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), have secure bases in Churachandpur.

In this context, the fact that the geography and patterns of population settlement in the district have had its own share of contribution in facilitating the militant groups over the years cannot be ignored. Apart from a handful of tiny townships like Henglep, Thanlon, Tipaimukh, and the district headquarters at Churachandpur, the population of Churachandpur is located over many scattered villages, often separated by hills, rivers, rivulets, streams, bamboo groves and thickets, each afflicted by serious problems of transportation and communication. E.g. many interior villages in the district can only be reached after a journey involving a 3-4 days trek from the district headquarters.

A shocking incident brought the district to the national limelight in the year 2006 after the rape and molestation of at least 25 women belonging to the Hmar community, by cadres of Valley-based militant groups, the UNLF and the KCP, who have continuously exploited the schism between the valley and the hills to their utmost advantage. But, the hill-based militant outfits are also responsible for a substantial share of militancy-related excesses, and as mentioned above, many of these groups operate from Churachandpur, each claiming to represent the rights and interests of particular communities.

It was way back in September, 2005 that nine Kuki groups had signed a ‘Cessation of Hostility Agreement’ with the Union Government. That has, however, done very little to lessen the spate of violence in the district. Intimidation of common civilians, extortion, and quotidian violence by the insurgent groups has been widespread in different areas across the district.

In the insurgency-infested areas of Manipur, defence personnel move only after a Road Opening Party (ROP) gives the go-ahead for a convoy to move ahead. However, in the incident of November 13, the ROP missed out on the potential threat for reasons that are yet to be uncovered. Terror attacks such as these in places like Churachandpur bordering Myanmar have many dimensions as explained in the very beginning of this article. Sehken village where this heinous incident took place is situated at a distance of 115 km south of the state capital Imphal under Behiang police station in the Singhat sub-division. This area borders Mizoram and has had a long and close inter-relationship in terms of trade relations and social and community ties with Myanmar.

Behiang is a mountainous border village with a population of nearly 1000 people. It is situated at a distance of barely 10 km from the strategically sensitive international border that Manipur shares with Myanmar. In fact, Manipur happens to be Myanmar’s immediate Indian neighbour. The people of Behiang had actively participated in the struggle for freedom against the British colonial rule. Geographically speaking, not only are villages like Behiang located in mountainous areas, but also several mountain ranges have to be crossed to reach there. It was in December 2017 that the Chief Minister of Manipur N. Biren Singh had declared Behiang village as the gateway for a new route for trade with Myanmar. The location of the village along the interior region of the India-Myanmar border is strategically important as it can serve as the second corridor to South-East Asia next to Moreh in line with India’s Act East Policy.

In the month of June 2019, a police station (the first in the village) was inaugurated by CM N. Biren Singh at Behiang village with the objective of keeping a strict vigilance on drug trafficking activities and the entry of illegal migrants. It was set up chiefly with the objective of addressing the security needs of the people of Manipur residing in far-flung and interior areas like Behiang. The CM had laid the foundation for the construction of the police station at Behiang during his maiden visit to the village in December 2017. He also launched a Smart Hospital Management System/Technology for Behiang.

In villages like Behiang in Manipur, the grievances of the villagers are addressed by holding a Meeyamgi Numit (People’s Day) on the 15th of every month as a forum for the general public to address their complaints and concerns and also submit their suggestions.

It is a quite well-known fact that a majority of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cadres operate from Mandalay in Myanmar and Ruili in China, which is situated at the borders of Myanmar. The role of China, both overt and covert, in supporting the insurgent groups of North-East India, can no longer be downplayed. From the supply of money to weapons, China’s role as a proxy in supporting the armed insurgent groups has often come up several times in the past during high-profile investigations into cases of weapons and arms seizures. Facilitated by the Chinese military, these groups have been using the routes from Myanmar and Bangladesh to smuggle drugs so as to earn easy money for their survival. The inter-linkages between and among the different insurgent outfits based in Manipur and Nagaland is also not to be overlooked.

E.g. PREPAK (People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak), a Manipur-based insurgent outfit that is largely confined to the Manipur valley and claiming itself to be the “most genuine revolutionary groups” in Manipur, was earlier reported to have received weapons and training in exchange for hard cash from the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) of Myanmar. It also has deep linkages with the separatist organisation National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM), besides the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF). Two days after the brutal episode of November 13, soldiers of the Assam Rifles shot dead three militants of the NSCN (Khaplang) at Khogla village in Wakka Circle of Arunachal Pradesh’s Longding district. Incidentally, this particular village is located in a remote area along India’s international boundary with Myanmar.     

The Myanmar Factor

The situation in Myanmar after the coup that took place in February 2021, could also be factor behind the rise of insurgent activities in Manipur since the past few months. The military junta in Myanmar has been battling a coalition of rebels of the Chin National Army (CAN) and civilian resistance fighters who formed what is known as the Chinland Defence Force (CDF). In September 2021, this anti-military coalition had killed 12 Myanmar Government soldiers, which led to the escalation of violence in the areas along the border with India in the North-East. The prevailing situation in Myanmar could also have forced the insurgent groups of this region like the PLA, MNPF, and many others to shift bases and operate from mobile bases close to border states like Manipur and Mizoram.

There are several vulnerable portions of the India-Myanmar border in Manipur that have been facilitating the entry of insurgents and other anti-national elements into the state time and again. The non-existence of all-weather roads connecting the border villages of Manipur is a critical factor adversely impacting them on many fronts, especially in the area of education. In border villages like Molcham and Behiang situated in Chandel and Churachandpur districts respectively and its neighbouring areas, there are many cases of households having not returned after fleeing in order to avoid the crossfire between insurgents and the state security forces, and sometimes even among antagonistic insurgent groups.

Many kutcha houses in these villages can be seen to be lying in dilapidated conditions mainly due to the absence of owners and non-maintenance. Several houses have a space dug up below, which is meant for hiding in case of any eventuality. These are relatively poorer households, bereft of both health and education.

From the perspective of national security, it has now become all the more important to complete the process of fencing along this strategically located international border. Although the Assam Rifles has been deployed along the India-Myanmar border, what we need to accept is that it is humanly not possible for the personnel of the force to guard every inch of the border because of the extremely inhospitable nature of the terrain. India shares more than 1600 kilometres of international border with Myanmar, including around 400 kilometres in Manipur. Although it might not be possible to fence the entire border immediately, but at least the vulnerable portions must be fenced for the time being. The Government of India has already sanctioned fencing of 40 kilometres of the international border in Manipur and work in 10 kilometres is already underway.

It is in this context that India’s Myanmar policy assumes significant geo-political and strategic importance, especially taking into account China’s eyes over Myanmar and its secret plans to convert it somehow into one of its satellite states. Myanmar is the only South-East Asian country that shares a land border with North-East India, stretching some 1,624 km. Hence, it is geopolitically important to India since it stands right at the centre of the India-Southeast Asia geography. In fact, Myanmar is the only country that sits at the intersection of India’s “Neighbourhood First” Policy and as well as its “Act East” policy. Without doubt, therefore, Myanmar is the key player to the pursuance of India’s regional diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region. India is obviously conscious of its ties with Myanmar and there have even been joint military exercises between the two nations.

But why has New Delhi not been able to push Myanmar’s military junta to adopt a consistent policy against rebel groups in the North-East operating out of its territory? Myanmar’s flip-flop in acting against the Manipuri and Naga insurgents including drug warlords is among the several reasons why insurgency continues to thrive in the Manipur-Nagaland region. Could it be that Myanmar does not want to annoy China? It is well known that Chinese entities, through outfits in Myanmar like the United Wa State Army, a rebel force, sell a huge quantity of weapons and ammunitions to the insurgent outfits of North-East India. Elections in Manipur have almost always been held under the shadow of the gun. Will it be any different this time around? That’s the question which everyone would like to ask.

Way Forward for India

It is to be noted here that since the past five years, militant outfits in Manipur have almost become redundant with zero terror attacks being reported, but right before the state legislative assembly elections, their desperation to make their presence felt among the common citizens becomes all too prominent. It’s time again that the Government intensifies its counter-insurgency operations against militant outfits of all colours. Although at present, most of the active ultra groups are engaged in talks with the Government, a few of them still continue to be active. These are the same groups which are known to indulge in extortion drives and kidnapping for ransom, thereby bringing a negative light to the region’s law and order situation.

In the recent times, it has been reported that the outfits have stepped up their extortion drives to fatten their coffers, because of the fact that cash-rich companies like Oil India Ltd. often end up paying huge ransom amounts in order to secure the release of their employees. These actions on the part of the militant organisations have only helped in bringing disrepute to the region as a hostile, unsafe place to work and settle down. The Government is pursuing a peace process with a number of separatist outfits but this engagement has fallen short of yielding the desired results. It is because one faction or the other of those engaged in dialogue with the Government continues to wage a battle, often targeting innocent civilians in the process.

The Government therefore needs to act firmly on such acts of violence perpetrated by these underground factions even while it offers the olive branch to the outfits with the objective of bringing them to the negotiating table. While a policy of zero-tolerance against those indulging in violence is a must, but better coordination with neighbouring countries like Myanmar must be another imperative for successful counter-insurgency offensives since these outfits continue to operate from their bases in these countries. In this context, it is very important that both the Centre and the states work in tandem towards facilitating lasting peace and development in the region through an early resolution of the vexed issues.

References:

  1. Hodson, T.C. (1908). The Meitheis. Re-Print Edition of 2015. Low Price Publications, Delhi.
  2. Sanajaoba, Naorem. (1988). Manipur: Past and Present (The Heritage and Ordeals of a Civilization). Volume-I; History, Polity & Law. Mittal Publications, New Delhi.
  3. Project Report on ‘Problems of Border Areas in North-East India: Implications for the Thirteenth Finance Commission’ Sponsored by The Thirteenth Finance Commission, Government of India, New Delhi. Department of Economics, Dibrugarh University, 2009.

(A sincere note of thanks to Jaideep da for enlightening me on several important aspects of this issue, especially with respect to Churachandpur. Thanks to Dr. Diana and Dr. Babeena for always offering their helping hand in collecting materials for my research. I would also like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the library staff of Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development for assisting me with various books and documents on the North-East).


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