Ironically, recent actions will be playing into the hands of China which has a lien on many insurgent groups in Myanmar, including Meitei and Kuki-Naga groups, which it would use to destabilize northeast India.
Two people were killed, five injured and one went missing in fresh incidents of ethnic violence between Meitei and Kuki-Zo in Koutruk village situated in the Imphal West district of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, according to news reports. The death toll is expected to go up. Such incidents have become routine in troubled Manipur since the outbreak of violence on May 3, 2023.
However, the scenes in Imphal on January 24 were unprecedented with the raw and open display by the Arambai Tenggol (dart-wielding cavalry in Manipuri language), which is viewed as a radical Meitei group (https://twitter.com/haokip_alice/status/1750090779497013743?t=oNSfPxqCbT9y8emZETQcxQ&s=19). Notably, the Arambai Tenggol administered oaths to 37 legislators and two MPs at Kangla Fort "to protect the integrity of Manipur". Former chief minister O Ibobi Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs Rajkumar Ranjan Singh and Rajya Sabha MP Leishemba Sanajaoba can be seen in the video in the inset link.
Interestingly, Korounganba Khuman, the Arambai Tenggol kingpin, seen being felicitated and garlanded in the video (https://twitter.com/haokip_alice/status/1750090779497013743?t=oNSfPxqCbT9y8emZETQcxQ&s=19) is a former Personal Security Officer (PSO) of present Chief Minister Biren Singh. The Arambai Tenggol demands include abrogation of the 2008 SoO (Suspension of Operations) pact with Kuki-Zo; removing Assam Rifles (AR) from Manipur; and delisting Kuki-Zo from the Schedule Tribes list.
There is no doubt that the whole show was state-sponsored. Under the Biren Singh regime some 4,000 arms and over 50,000 rounds of ammunition were looted from the India Reserve Battalion and Manipur Police armouries in May 2023, which according to ground sources were “distributed” to Meitei radicals. Only a small portion of these arms have been recovered.
Tribals of Manipur have been demanding that the Indian Army should be tasked to recover these arms. But these weapons are in the Imphal Valley where the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) has been conveniently removed, rendering the Army and Assam Rifles ineffective.
Growth of radicalisation
In June last year, Manipur MLA Thaounaojam Shyamkumar Singh, heading a 100-strong mob, mostly women, forced an Indian Army column to hand over 12 armed Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) terrorists who are Meitei and Myanmar-based. These terrorists were possibly invited by the Manipur administration to help ethnically cleanse the Kuki-Zo who are Christians.
In December 2023, New Delhi brokered a peace agreement with UNLF, which the central committee of UNLF has said is only with a breakaway group, not with UNLF, and the agreement is only for “talks” which is not a ‘peace agreement’. These militants were supposed to have surrendered their arms but some of them were subsequently reported killed while attacking Kuki-Zo villages.
The Biren Singh government has been sending armed Meitei radicals to attack the Kuki-Zo. The Arambai Tenggol will only add to the muscle power. At the same time, Biren Singh is worried about Meitei casualties and has publicly gone on record to warn the central forces, saying, “You are not here to observe but to protect” (https://twitter.com/Bharatvidya1/status/1749987290322227664?s=20). The Assam Rifles is deployed in the tribal areas and Biren Singh perhaps feels they are hindering his operations against the Kuki-Zo.
The campaign to throw out the Assam Rifles has been engineered by the state since May last year. This will likely gain momentum with Biren Singh’s private Meitei radical army grown to sizable numbers; armed radicals with the so-called looted weapons, joined by Myanmar-based KYKL terrorists, a breakaway group of the UNLF and now the Arambai Tenggol.
The radical Arambai Tenggol has grown to an incredible 50,000 strong from just 7,000 in March 2023 (https://theprint.in/india/recruitment-spikes-across-insurgent-outfits-in-manipur-more-than-when-insurgency-was-at-its-peak/1945527/). Other Meitei radical groups have also grown in numbers and so have the Kuki-Zo groups, though the Kuki are in much smaller numbers.
Border fencing with Myanmar
The Manipur administration’s operations against the Kuki-Zo are also linked to two other aspects: first, to take full control of the cross-border narcotics trade, which according to the Editors Guild of India has an annual turnover of Rs 50,000 crore compared to the annual state budget of about Rs 30,000 crore; second, a deal signed by the state government with a corporate, advance for which has been reportedly taken, to develop palm tree plantation in 6,000 hectares of land, some of which is inhabited by the Kuki-Zo.
Interestingly, only 5.6 km of the 390 km of the Manipur-Myanmar border has been sealed till now, but New Delhi is reportedly planning to give the contract for fencing the entire 1,624 km India-Myanmar border to the same corporate that is to develop palm tree plantation on 6,000 hectares land in Manipur. In what time frame this fencing would be completed and how it would be manned remains ambiguous, especially since India's border with Myanmar is not even fully demarcated.
It is possible that CM Biren Singh plans to “overwhelm” the Kukis and Nagas in Manipur using his 50-60,000 strong-armed Meitei radicals. This may lead to much bloodshed in the coming months, details of which would get leaked no matter how much control over the media is exercised. Ironically, recent actions will be playing into the hands of China which has a lien on many insurgent groups in Myanmar, including Meitei and Kuki-Naga groups, which it would use to destabilize northeast India.
(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal).