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The South Asian Insider

Manipur is on the Edge: Here's How It can be Stabilised

By: Lt Gen Balbir Singh Sandhu (Retd)
Manipur has been in a state of utter turmoil for the past many weeks. Alienation of the citizens of the Northeast (NE) stems from their belief that the "Northeast region is treated like a forgotten land of India". During the last few years there has been an effort to connect India's Northeast within and with the rest of the country both physically and emotionally which is probably yet to bear fruit as is evident from the recent violence in Manipur.
Historically, most states of NE align with the political dispensation at the Centre so that there is easy flow of central funds, large part of which end up in the pockets of those responsible for executing development projects and a substantial portion goes to the militant groups through extortion. Thus, the vicious cycle of violence, lack of development/governance due to rampant corruption continues in the NE - and Manipur is no exception. It would be difficult for India's 'Act East Policy' to succeed when there is turmoil and lawlessness in a state which connects India to Southeast Asia, the target region of the 'Act East Policy'.
Manipur was an independent state until the last decade of the 19th century when it was subjugated by the British. On 11 August 1947, Maharaja Budhachandra signed an instrument of Accession, joining the Indian Union and ultimately the merger agreement on 21 September 1949. There were dissenting voices which probably would have been felt in many other states when they joined the Indian Union on the eve of Independence.
Being a border state located in the neighbourhood of an unstable Myanmar and proximity of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) these dissenting voices received assistance to become militant groups, which received arms from China funded by the drug money flowing from the Golden Triangle of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. These fundamental realities which made availability of arms and drugs like grocery items is what made it attractive for the youth to join militant ranks. Increasing number of militant groups in Manipur further testifies the above point. While the exact number is not available in the public domain, the count is certainly in dozens which is a big number for a small state like Manipur covering an area of about 22,000 sq km and housing a population of 28,55,074 as per 2011 Census which makes just 0.21 percent of India's population.
It has been within the capacity of the state governments over the years to normalise the situation with the assistance of military and central forces. Unfortunately, the state governments support the Army and the central forces when the situation goes out of control, but give tacit approval to the militants and are indifferent towards the central security forces as and when the situation comes reasonably under control.
An impression exists for independent observers that some elements in the leadership and the administration would not want permanent peace and development in the state. It is an established fact that insurgency in Manipur and some other parts of NE India is an industry which suits too many stakeholders except the common citizen. It suits the insurgents because they can extort money from the businesses and even government employees; it also suits the administration because they are no longer held accountable for improper utilisation of development funds under the garb of prevailing security situation, thus, the vicious cycle of violence, lack of development and corruption continues.
Ethnic and religious differences have existed and continue to exist which cannot be wished away, but the unfortunate part is that political parties have over the years exploited these fault lines instead of trying to bridge the differences by creating economic opportunities leading to job creation and better quality of life for the common man/woman. Having served in the area for a substantial period, one finds it difficult to believe that the insurgency situation in the state could not have been normalised even 75 years after Independence.
Manipur comprises a beautiful valley interspersed with lakes and surrounded by low hills which results in salubrious weather throughout the year. It has a rich history, culture and traditional handicraft industry and the Capital Imphal is well connected with an airport which makes it an ideal tourist destination. Citizens of Manipur constitute one of the best human resources of India which is confirmed by the fact that they contribute a large number of sportspersons to our national teams ranging from disciplines such as boxing, weightlifting and many others.
Despite its beauty and conducive weather, what deters the tourist from visiting Manipur is the volatile security situation in the state where even the state government may not be able to assure the tourists of their safety. It may not be out of place to state that the writ of the government does not run in the state which was exemplified by the intensity and prolonged duration of the recent violence despite the best efforts by the state machinery.
Recent violence and communal clashes are the expression of pent-up feelings of various groups resulting from incompetence and indifferent attitude of the state's political leadership and the administration for decades. Manipur and for that matter the entire NE are governed by the political leadership that generally maintains alternate bases in metros like Delhi and the civil servants who operate from Delhi which reduces their stakes in the state. Most of them travel by air and resultantly, have limited knowledge of ground realities.
To bring long-term normalcy in the state, first, the state must be put under President's rule like J&K to restore law and order and commence sincere development work to wean away the youth from joining militant ranks. Bring tourism on the agenda and achieve it. Second, simultaneous effort to reduce availability of arms and ammunition by strict anti-militancy measures and establishing rule of law. Violators must be made to pay a heavy price. Third, drugs and narco-terrorism needs to be dealt with iron hand so that another generation of youth is not sacrificed to drugs. Fourth, a separate cadre of civil servants must be created of those officers who have served in the area and have in-depth knowledge of the people and terrain. Sporting talent of the state must be encouraged and harnessed and Manipur must be made Centre of Excellence for sports in India.