Manipur: A divided state pits one force against the other

The Assam Rifles has been targeted by the Manipur state police and the Meitei community for protecting the Kukis, while the state police is itself seen to be working in cahoots with the majority Meitei community.
Indian Reserve Battallion and Manipur Rifles personnel in Imphal West village
Indian Reserve Battallion and Manipur Rifles personnel in Imphal West village
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As normalcy continues to evade Manipur, the state is witnessing instances of open hostility between two forces — the Manipur police under the state Home Department and the Assam Rifles (AR), a paramilitary force administratively under the Union Ministry of Home Affairs but operationally under the Indian Army. At the root of the hostility are allegations of favouritism levelled against both — the Manipur police, which is seen to have proximity to the state’s Meitei population and the Assam Rifles, which is accused by the Meiteis of siding with the Kukis. Several instances of open conflict between the two forces have been reported in the past months.

On June 2, the Manipur police lodged two First Information Reports (FIR) against the Assam Rifles at the Sugnu police station. A video that surfaced from Sugnu on June 2 showed the officers of the Manipur Rifles, the armed wing of the state police, shouting at Assam Rifles personnel, and a police officer was seen trying to snatch the gun of an Assam Rifles officer. On August 5, the Phougakchow Ikhai police filed a suo motu case against the AR, charging them with obstructing the movement of the police when three Meitei men were killed by armed Kuki men in Kwakta, a village dominated by Meitei Pangals, a valley-based Muslim community. In the recent past, a few videos of heated confrontation between the Manipur police and the Assam Rifles have emerged, with the state police seen accusing the Assam Rifles of helping armed (Kuki) militants escape. The Meitei groups often label Kuki volunteers as narco-militants, and when AR prevents violent attacks on Kuki villages, it faces such allegations.

In the two weeks that TNM reported from Manipur, we travelled across villages in the hills and the valley and spoke to representatives of all communities, as well as members of the security forces. TNM found out that while sections of some forces have affiliations to particular communities, it is not possible to make sweeping generalisations about them. As a senior police officer from Imphal said, “It's all divided here. Every sector is divided and everyone is forced to take sides.”

Do Meiteis benefit from the Manipur police?

The Manipur Rifles, the armed wing of the Manipur Police, and the state’s special armed force India Reserve Battalion (IRB) has often been accused of siding with the Meiteis. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has instructed that the state police cannot conduct any operations in Kuki areas unless accompanied by central forces. They are not allowed to cross the buffer zones manned by central armed police forces. A significant charge against the police is that it handed over arms to the Meiteis. According to the Manipur police, around 5,000 weapons and six lakh rounds of ammunition were looted from ransacked police stations and armouries, 90% of them in the valley. The Kuki community has alleged that the weapons were not looted but were handed over to the Meitei frontline fighters by the police themselves.

Most police personnel serving in the Meitei-dominated valley districts of Manipur are Meiteis. When the conflict escalated, Kuki police personnel were told to join duty in the hills. Sam Haokip, a Kuki human rights activist, said, “The Kuki personnel in Manipur Rifles, the IRB, and the police shifted to the hills. It's just the Meiteis in the four districts in the valley. They are highly biased, and we have zero faith in them.”

The bias became evident when TNM tried to enter the Khopibung region in Kangpokpi district. Sundar, a Manipur Rifles commando, aggressively told TNM that there were militants from Myanmar in the region, a charge made to paint the Kukis as outsiders and that they would shoot people who entered the villages.

On a visit to the bunkers of frontline Meitei volunteers in a small village near Phayeng in Imphal West, TNM spotted troops of the IRB and Manipur Rifles in the village. One of the officers told TNM that militants were present on the other side. When asked if the said militants were Kuki volunteers like the Meitei volunteers in this village, they replied in the negative and insisted that they were militants. The Meitei volunteers in the village justified the presence of IRB and Manipur Rifles, saying, “They are the ones who protect us. They help us when the firing begins. Kukis have sophisticated weapons with them, so we need the help of our police forces.”

The IRB, a reserve force for which the state government conducts recruitment, has also been facing allegations regarding its constitution. Allegations from various quarters state that the IRB consists of several former militants who surrendered and joined the state security force. These alleged former militants are said to help the Meitei community access weapons.

A senior police officer who admitted to TNM that everyone, including the forces, had taken sides in the ongoing conflict, said, “The ultimate aim is to bring peace, and we are striving towards that.”

What is the Assam Rifles?

The Assam Rifles is one of the six central armed police forces (CAPFs) under the administrative control of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). More than 60,000 personnel work in the Assam Rifles, which has 46 battalions led by army officers at all levels and comes entirely under the army’s operational control. Seen as an extension of the army in the northeastern states, it is responsible for border security, counter-insurgency, and maintaining law and order. The Assam Rifles’ primary duty of guarding the Indo-Myanmar border has led to close interactions with the hill tribes in Manipur. The mistrust of the Assam Rifles in the Meitei majority valley stems from these ties and their role in fighting the “nationalist” insurgency in Manipur.

While reporting in the hills of Manipur, interactions with the Kuki community made it evident that it maintains good relations with Assam Rifles because the force has camped there for several decades to control militants. Most of the Assam Rifles camps are in the hills and are now tasked to prevent violent attacks from the valley on Kuki villages. Their role in preventing the violence has brought them in direct conflict with the majority Meitei community, and the Manipur state government, increasingly seen to be acting on behalf of the Meiteis.

A few weeks ago, a video of Kuki Zo women falling at the feet of Assam Rifles officers, pleading with them not to leave their village surfaced on social media. The incident occurred in the first week of August in Kangpokpi district, where a group of women gathered and shouted slogans asking Assam Rifles not to leave their territory. The women alleged that they had no faith in Manipur police. “Our duty is to provide security, and we did that. One group has faith in us, and another group has doubts. I think it is normal in a conflict zone,” the officer said.

Assam Rifles personnel at Churachandpur

Is the Assam Rifles siding with the Kukis?

Sunitharani, a BJP worker from Imphal, alleged, “Assam Rifles help them hide militants and easily procure weapons through underground sources. They guard the Indo-Myanmar border and have been mute spectators to illegal immigrants. The regiment also has close connections with Kuki women.”

It's a narrative one hears often in Meitei areas. A senior government doctor from Imphal told TNM, “The people in the valley hate Assam Rifles as much as they hate Kukis. The force was always with them. All have seen videos of Assam Rifles personnel relaxing with Kuki militants,” he said. Similar opinions against Assam Rifles were heard from Meira Paibis, relief camp inmates, Meitei volunteers, and even the ordinary people from the Meitei community.

Such is the narrative that 40 legislators from the Manipur Assembly, nearly all of them Meiteis, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 10, asking him to withdraw Assam Rifles from the state and replace them with “trustworthy central forces.” In retaliation, 10 Kuki MLAs wrote to the Prime Minister, asking him not to withdraw the paramilitary force from their territory.

Sushant Singh, ex-Army official and veteran journalist said, "Firstly, the Assam Rifles and the Army are protecting Kukis from being attacked by a majoritarian community, who are being supported by the state. Secondly, they are not aggressively acting against the Meitei mobs that continue to operate in the valley.”

Several Kuki volunteers who spoke to TNM dismissed the allegation that they receive favours from the Assam Rifles. During a visit to the buffer zone in the Saikul sub-division of Kangpokpi district, several demolished Kuki bunkers were easily spotted. Frank, a Kuki volunteer, said that almost 50 of their bunkers were destroyed by Assam Rifles. “Have you seen any destroyed Meitei bunkers by the forces there? Assam Rifles personnel would make frequent checks here and destroy all our bunkers. Still, they are accused of favouring us,” he said.

The Assam Rifles continue to face hostility from the Manipur police and the Meitei community. At the Moirang check post between Bishnupur and Kangavi districts of Manipur – manned by the Assam Rifles until the last week of July – the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) has been deployed along with the Manipur police for surveillance. The Assam Rifles were replaced by CRPF after a massive protest by Meira Paibis, the vigilante group of Meitei women, who alleged that the Assam Rifles were biased in favour of the Kuki community. Currently, the Assam Rifles cannot pass through the Bishnupur area, as they will be stopped on the roads by Meira Paibis.

‘How can a regiment favour a community,’ Assam Rifles rebuts charges

Officers of the Assam Rifles denied being biased against any particular community. An Assam Rifles officer deployed in Kuki zones told TNM, “Desperate attempts are being made to question the integrity of Assam Rifles. We are not biased against any particular community. Our duty here is to protect people and bring peace. Divisions won't affect central forces,” the officer said. When asked about the FIRs against the force, the officer said, “We always try to maintain good relations with state forces. In many border villages, we still share boundaries with state forces. But some unfortunate incidents like these are part of certain conspiracies.” He added, “This is probably the first time we are being forced to prove our integrity.”

Another Assam Rifles personnel told TNM, “To favour a particular group, we should get a common order from the top. Only then will everyone in the regiment do so. Or else, how can a regiment favour a community? We don't have any such orders. We demolish bunkers as it's illegal, and forces are here to take care of buffer zones. Also, is there any idea how many Meitei families we have rescued from hills and transported to Imphal?” he asked.

The Assam Rifles offered a clarification on August 8 on the altercation with the Manipur Rifles and their replacement by the CRPF in Moirang. Their statement said, “Two instances have emerged over the past 24 hours aimed at maligning Assam Rifles. While in the first case, the Assam Rifles Battalion has acted strictly in accordance with the mandate of the Unified Headquarters of Strict Enforcement of Buffer Zone guidelines towards the aim of preventing violence between the two communities, the second case of Assam Rifles being moved out of an area is not even related to them. An Infantry Battalion of the Army is deployed in the area (ever since the crisis erupted in May) from where the narrative of Assam Rifles being moved out has been made.”

The situation led to a visit by the eastern army commander, Lt Gen RP Kalita, who met the state Chief Minister N Biren Singh. DG Assam Rifles, Lt Gen PC Nair also met the CM, but no details were released of both meetings. The top army leadership in Delhi and the Defence Ministry have maintained an intriguing silence on the vexed issue. A force which describes itself as the “penultimate interventionist force of the central government in internal security situation, under the control of army; when the situation goes beyond the control of central paramilitary operations,” finds itself caught in an unsavoury situation beyond its control.

Photos by Bhuvan Malik

Manipur Dispatches: Our reporters Prajwal Bhat, Haritha John and Bhuvan Malik are in Manipur to provide you with exclusive, in-depth ground reports that delve into the heart of the matter. If you believe that human rights violations in a distant land should be a topic of conversation in this part of India, support our intrepid truth-seeking mission. Contribute here.

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