On September 15, the people of Ukhrul in Manipur rose in unison against what they called "forceful occupation" of nine villages of the Tangkhul community in the district by the Assam Rifles. It was organised by the civil society organisations of the Tangkhul community. Business establishments, vehicular traffic and public movements came to a grinding halt amidst the mass rally.
The CSOs also submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi through Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, appealing him to immediately withdraw the forceful occupation of nine Tangkhul villages by the Assam Rifles in addition to withdrawal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Power Act 1958 (AFSPA) from all the hill areas and districts of Manipur.
Once the hotbed of Naga insurgency movement, Ukhrul district has been relatively peaceful for quite some time now.
The village of Somdal is the birthplace of NSCN-IM leader Thuingaleng Muivah and the district is home of many top leaders in the IM hierarchy. Yet, the group’s activities moved elsewhere in the other hill districts of the state and outside the state coupled with the ongoing peace-talks Ukhrul became an epitome of peace with few law and order problems except for some stray incidents of face-offs between Assam the Rifles and NSCN-IM cadres operating in the district.
And then, Thursday happened. With peace returning to the state, military deployment had largely come down not only in the state but in the entire Northeast.
Former Army Chief General MM Naravane had last year said that the Army is planning to gradually reduce the number of troops deployed for internal security duties in the Northeast. He had openly admitted that the law and order situation has greatly improved in states, including Manipur.
The Union government had earlier removed AFSPA entirely from Meghalaya and partially from Arunachal Pradesh. In March, 2018, the MHA ordered removal of AFSPA from Meghalaya completely and from eight police station areas bordering Assam in Arunachal Pradesh. A year later, this was further reduced to just four police stations.
Arunachal currently has three districts with AFSPA apart from these four police stations. In the case of Manipur, AFSPA had been lifted from only 15 police stations, including the six within the Greater Imphal area and it was withdrawn in the previous Congress regime. In the latest order, nine more police stations, including Sekmai, Lamsang, Bishnupur, Patsoi, Lamlai, Irilbung, Thoubal, Kakching and Jiribam all in the valley districts have been excluded from AFSPA operations.
In Assam, AFSPA was withdrawn from 23 districts while in Manipur and Nagaland it was withdrawn from 15 police stations each. To the Indian establishment, it was a big move given the objections from the defence lobby against its removal.
However, it was not enough for the people of the region who had suffered under the shadow of the Act. The Act remains in force in all the hill districts irrespective of whether it adjoins the international boundary.
We agree that it is a big step forward for the Narendra Modi-led government from the security perspective and a promise before elections partially fulfilled. But, we must say such partial removal is discriminatory in a sense and one has to analyse the internal dynamics of the states while formulating policies and taking decisions.
The recent decision of removing the Act from the valley region while leaving out the hill districts does not augur well for both the government and community relations also. And the BJP government here has to go an extra mile in explaining the Central government decision.
There is every possibility of the hill based CSOs asking as to how the state government had not been able to convince the Central government with regard to removal of the Act from the hill areas. There is also merit in favour of the hill areas also.
There is an ongoing ceasefire with the NSCN-IM and Suspension of Operation (SoO) with the Kuki militant groups. Although insurgency activities had reduced to a great extent in the valley areas, there is still no feasible signs of starting a peace process with the valley-based insurgent organisations except with some fringe groups.