The persistent dependence on the central forces has remained a bane for the state police forces in the Northeast.
There may or may not have been a deal over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Jammu & Kashmir. The controversial Act, as a result, may or may not be diluted in the coming months. However, hundreds of kilometres away, in Manipur, situation is ripe to initiate a gradual downgrading of the Army deployment and let the state police take over the counter-insurgency (COIN) responsibilities.
On 18 February 1980, Lallan Prasad Singh, Governor of Manipur, in his address to the state legislative assembly, referred to the “seriously disturbed conditions in the valley” and the “serious of violent activities such as murders, including the killing of security personnel, armed robberies, looting of shops, banks and Government funds, and snatching of arms” by the extremist groups. In September that year, the entire state was declared as “Disturbed Area” and the Army called in to assist the civil administration in COIN measures.
For the next two and half decades, the Army remained the lead COIN force in the state, conducting offensive operations, cordon and search exercises, pain staking COIN duties and even road opening duties. So much was the dependence on the Army that even while the civil society organisations raised the banners that read “Indian Army-Go back” the ruling regime found it difficult to imagine a Manipur without the army’s presence. Backroom conversations reveal that some of the most virulent anti-AFSPA politicians and community leaders continued to demand for the deployment of the army as a guarantee of their safety.
The possible disastrous impact of pulling out the army from an active conflict theatre was narrated to me by a senior army official who had a prolonged stint in the state. During Operation Parakram (2001-02), the entire 3 Corps, headquartered at Dimapur, that looks after the states of Tripura, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, and the hilly area of lower Assam, was moved to the western border. The 57 Mountain Division, a constituent of the 3 corps, was deployed in Jammu & Kashmir. As per the decisions taken at the highest level, 19 battalions of the Assam Rifles in Manipur remained posted at their original positions, mostly along the Indo-Myanmar border and the responsibility of carrying out the COIN duties in Manipur was given to eight battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and three battalions of the Border Security Force (BSF). This was perhaps for the first time since the army was deployed in the state in 1980, that the para-military forces and the police had become the lead COIN force in Manipur.
By the time Operation Parakram ended, troops were withdrawn from the border, and the 3 corps returned to its original position towards the end of 2012, Manipur’s condition had degenerated to such an extent, the officer told me, that the entire state had to be ‘retaken’. The virtual absence of operations had reduced the state to becoming a militant den. “The unwritten understanding between the militants and the paramilitary was to ignore each other in the rare circumstances that they came face to face”, the officer told me. “The militants raised their own flag in the proximity of para-military camps on the Republic and Independence Days”.
The available data, however, points at no such “abject surrender to militants”- type situation. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, in 2002, the year of the Army’s absence in Manipur, 268 militancy related incidents were reported from the state in which 60 civilians, 54 security forces and 125 militants were killed. In comparison, in 2001, 70 civilians, 25 security forces and 161 militants were killed. On 1 January 2003, the Manipur police released data detailing its own achievements “with the assistance of Central forces”. In 2002, it claimed, 80 militants were killed and 898 were arrested. In addition, 126 weapons of various make, 53 hand grenades, 29 walkie-talkie sets and a large number of ammunition were recovered from the militants.
In fact, Manipur’s degeneration into complete chaos started in 2004, coinciding with the valley based agitation against the AFSPA following the killing of the suspect People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cadre Manorama Devi by the Assam Rifles personnel and the withdrawal of the AFSPA from the Imphal municipal areas by the state government. The year registered 258 killings, of which 52 percent were militants. In the subsequent year, 410 killings were reported. While militants accounted for 49 percent of the dead, killings of civilians and security force personnel had increased by 80 and 31 percent respectively. In the subsequent years violence escalated further. Between 2006 and 2009, 1021 militants and 465 civilians were killed in the state. Indeed, Manipur’s slide to chaos took place while the Army was deployed in significant strength and was dominating the COIN operations.
Since 2010, the security situation in Manipur has been a narrative of declining militant capacities. Aided by Bangladesh which handed over Sanayaima, arguably the top most insurgent leader of the state to India in 2010, and a large number of arrests of senior militants in Manipur as well as other cities of the country in the successive years, militancy related fatalities have plummeted to a manageable annual average of 84 deaths between 2010 and 2014. In three of the last four years, the annual fatalities have remained below 100, an internationally accepted threshold level to define a low intensity conflict. Only 46 security force personnel have lost their lives in last five years indicating a clear advantage to the men in uniform vis-a-vis the militants on the run. In 2014, hill based miniscule Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF), with barely 10 killings to its credit, has replaced the more prominent valley based outfits as the most lethal outfit in the state. Much like other states of the region, smaller outfits with cadre strengths in the range of 20 to 50 cadres dominate the violence profile in the state. And yet, the Army continues to remain deployed in significant strength Manipur, where conditions for a purely police-led COIN approach has prevailed for nearly a half a decade.
Regular watchers of the COIN operations in the northeast would concur that the persistent dependence on the central forces has remained a bane for the state police forces. Availability of the central forces on demand has allowed the state governments to continue neglecting police modernisation projects. Manipur is no exception. Reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) have repeatedly underlined the level of corruption, mismanagement, diversion of funds, and lack of leadership that has kept the 18000 strong police force in the state at a level of perpetual incapacity. Given that insurgency can only be successfully dealt with by the police, as the experience from neighbouring Tripura tells us, there is no better time to gradually shift the COIN responsibilities away from the Army to the state police. Gradual, and not abrupt withdrawal of the army would provide the state police the necessary preparatory time for a successful transition.
There can be two reasons why the Army should continue in its present strength in Manipur. One, there is a sound assessment that the state in future could return to its dreadful past. And second, conflict in Manipur can only be managed and never be solved. None of these are true.