Yesterday, a military convoy was ambushed by militants in the Chandel district of Manipur killing about 20 and injuring 17 soldiers. The soldiers from 6 Dogra Regiment were on their daily patrol when they were attacked by insurgents with what the police are referring to as powerful Improvised Explosive Device (IED). The incident has led to one of the worst casualties in the army in recent years.
Recently, there have been debates surrounding the role of AFSPA and the possible repealing of it. Only last week, Tripura withdrew AFSPA from the state. The act has been a bone of contention for years in the region. The attack by the militants on Thursday means that AFSPA will remain in the state, causing a setback to the process of its withdrawal.
The newly formed United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW) has claimed responsibility for the attack. The UNLFW has been understood to be a collection of various insurgent groups under one umbrella outfit – the United Liberation Front of Asom, National Socialist Council of Nagaland, Kamatpur Liberation Organisation (Khaplang) and National Democratic Front of Boroland. The UNLFW have also claimed responsibility for the attack on Assam Rifles jawans in Mon district of Nagaland on May 3rd. The UNLFW is suspected to be based in Myanmar, Chandel being very close to the Indo-Myanmar border.
Manipur has dozens of guerilla outfits and militant groups. They have been opposing the government and especially the AFSPA for decades. Going back to 1949, when Manipur was incorporated within the Indian state, not everyone in the state was pleased. The problem of insurgency finds its roots in various factors, from demanding a separate state to complete independence.
The state was declared as a “disturbed area” in 1980 when the Indian government imposed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The contentious act confers certain special power to the armed forces which include arrest, search, seize and even shoot to kill which the locals have alleged has been grossly exploited by some army men in the past few decades. The locals feel threatened under such a law that goes unchecked as they see it as a serious threat to the spirit of freedom. Allegations have been made in the past that some security personnel have even violated the basic human rights of people. Caught in the strife between the insurgent outfits and the Indian Army, it is the ordinary people of Manipur who have to suffer. Although the locals agree that the problem of insurgency needs to be curtailed, they have resisted the AFSPA on the grounds that it only fosters a climate of violence and not peace. Manipuris have been demanding the repeal of AFSPA for years now; Irom Sharmila is the biggest example of this resistance.
The center has announced that it has no intentions of entering into peace talks with the militant outfits in the northeast. The government has been compelled to seal the Indo-Myanmar border in order to trace the militants. The army has been ordered to launch counter-terror operations in order to eliminate the problem of insurgency. Prime Minister Modi condemned the attack by calling it “mindless”. A similar sentiment was expressed across the political spectrum with political leaders offering their condolences to the families of the jawans who were killed.
The Khaplang walked out of a 14 year old ceasefire with the government of India earlier this year, which raised serious questions over the government’s strategy. The government did not give the issue enough attention at the time. The walking out of the ceasefire led to the formation of the UNLFW which in turn has been responsible for the rise in violence in the area.
Manipur has been experiencing insurgency for decades now. AFSPA, which was imposed in the state to counter insurgency, has only produced hostile conditions. The matter has now extended to a human rights issue, as AFSPA is seen as counterproductive in ensuring peace in the state. India’s policies for counteracting insurgency needs to be re-evaluated after half a century of struggle. What Manipur needs is not a law that violates the rights of the people but a reassessment of strategies that is well attuned with the ground realities.