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EXPLAINED: How Manipur Faced a Deadly Ambush & Who Are Behind Killing of Assam Rifles Personnel

The Army vehicle that was ambushed by militants at Sehkan village in Churachandpur district in Manipur. (Image: News18)

The Army vehicle that was ambushed by militants at Sehkan village in Churachandpur district in Manipur. (Image: News18)

Incidents involving insurgents are seen as having come down in Northeast. Then what fuelled the attack on the Assam Rifles convoy in a Manipur border district?

One of the deadliest attacks carried out in the Northeast in years claimed seven lives, including those of the wife and child of the acting Commanding Officer of an Assam Rifles battalion, in a district that lies on the Indo-Myanmar border. While incidents involving insurgents are reported to have seen a marked decline in the Northeast, Manipur remains a hotbed of operations by multiple groups. Here’s what you need to know about the insurgency in Manipur and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), the two groups that have taken responsibility for the attack.

Isn’t Insurgency On The Decline In The Northeastern States?

India’s Northeast — comprising the eight states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura — display remarkable ethnic and cultural diversity with the region said to be home to “more than 200 ethnic groups, which have distinct languages, dialects and socio-cultural identities".

But “incomplete racial assimilation" and demographic changes in the British and post-Independence period gave rise to tensions that led to the growth of insurgent and separatist movements, a parliamentary report says, noting that conflicts in the region are broadly of three types — based either on demands for a separate and sovereign nation, the assertion of ethnic identities vis-a-vis less dominant tribes and politically and culturally dominant tribal groups, or the pursuit of sub-regional aspirations against the state governments and autonomous councils.

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However, the Centre says that, in recent years, “the security scenario has improved due to the concerted efforts of the central government and various security forces". Where groups have not joined talks, actions by security forces have served to greatly whittle down the strength and influence of the myriad insurgent groups in the region.

The Union Homes Ministry (MHA) told Parliament last year that the security situation in the Northeast had “improved substantially since 2014". It said that compared with 2013, there was a 70 per cent reduction in insurgency incidents, 80 per cent drop in civilian deaths and a 78 per cent decline in security forces casualties in 2019 while more than 1,800 insurgents had surrendered between 2014 and 2019.

However, Manipur stood out in assessments of insurgency in the Northeast and the 2018 Parliamentary report on the security situation in the region had noted how the state, despite experiencing a decline in such occurrences, “accounted for a staggering 54 per cent of the total number of violent incidents in the entire Northeastern region during 2017".

What Is The Status Of Insurgency In Manipur?

Reports say that before the November 13 strike against the Assam Rifles convoy in Churachandpur district, the last major attack on security personnel in the Northeast had come in another area of the state, which too is close to the Indo-Myanmar border when 18 jawans of the 6th Dogra Regiment were killed in Chandel district.

The 2018 report says that Meitei, Naga, Kuki, Zomi, Hmar and Muslim underground outfits are active in “insurgency-ridden" Manipur. Conflicts arose primarily over socio-economic and political issues with “ethnicity being a catalyst for mobilisation of different groups". The Nagas — some Naga ethnic outfits demand the inclusion of parts of Manipur under a Greater Nagalim homeland — and Kukis are in conflict with each other while the two ethnic groups are also in conflict with the Meiteis, who are the dominant group in the state.

“Major causes of ethnic conflicts in Manipur are territorial conflicts, control over the land resources, border trade, preservation of identity, unemployment and underdevelopment, invoking of AFSPA and the alleged extra-judicial killings by the security forces," the report says.

MHA had told Parliament in 2017 that there were about 35 Hill and Valley-based Meitei, Naga and Kuki underground outfits operating in Manipur. Of these, a total of 23 groups operating under two umbrella bodies — United Progressive Front (UPF) and Kuki National Organisation (KNO) — have observed a Suspension of Operation agreement since August 2008. These agreements with KNO and UPF are valid till February 2022. As of August 2021, the MHA lists eight insurgent groups as being active in Manipur: People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its political wing the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and its armed wing the Manipur People’s Army (MPA), Peoples’ Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), Kanglei Yaol Kanba Lup (KYKL), Coordination Committee (Cor-Com), Alliance for Socialist Unity Kangleipak (ASUK), and Manipur People’s Liberation Front (MPLF).

While political dialogue with these Kuki groups was taken up in June 2016, reports note that the insurgency situation continues to fester in Manipur with no talks at achieving overarching peace with all insurgent groups having materialised since the first groups took up arms. The 2018 Parliamentary report says that except for the Imphal Municipal Area, all of Manipur is designated as a “disturbed area" under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which remains another key aspect of the resentment driving the activity of local insurgencies.

As for the Churachandpur ambush, reports said that the Assam Rifles acting Commanding Officer was likely targeted as a warning against moves to develop a second trading post in the area at the border with Myanmar. Insurgent groups fear that increased commercial activity in the area would jeopardise their access to Myanmar, which they use as a safe haven and a base of operations.

Who Are The PLA And MNPF?

The roots of insurgency in Manipur dates back to the 1960s when the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) emerged “due to resentment within a section of Meitei society against the

merger of Manipur state with the Union of India". However, several other insurgent groups came to be formed later to demand an independent Manipur.

The Parliamentary report notes that if the Meitei insurgency began with the formation of UNLF, the “birth of the People’s Liberation Army radicalised the Meiteis further".

According to the Indian Army, PLA was formed by N Bisheswar in 1969 after he split from the UNLF to pursue the two-fold objective of liberating the northeastern region “through a carefully planned revolutionary uprising and to use this as a base for ‘liberating’ the rest of India". Bisheswar is said to have founded his outfit on the principles of Marxism- Leninism and Mao’s thoughts and also appealed to the Naga and Mizo outfits to join hands with PLA. The PLA’s political wing, Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) was set up in 1979.

Little is known about the other group — Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) — that owned up to the attack although an unverified post on Facebook says that it was born out of the merger of two Naga underground outfits operating in Manipur — the Manipur Naga Revolutionary Front (MNRF) and United Naga People’s Council (UNPC). The post said that the armed wing of MNPF is known as the Manipur Naga People’s Army.

Naga tribes in Manipur are concentrated mainly in the Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Senapati and Chandel districts while Kuki-affiliated tribes, too, are present in large numbers in Churachandpur, Senapati and Chandel districts.

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first published:November 14, 2021, 12:46 IST