Debating India


Mismanaged Crisis

Pradib Phanjoubam

Thursday 30 September 2004, by PHANJOUBAM*Pradib

So now finally the home minister has come out with another half-hearted statement today, but he still has little to offer to the aggrieved protestors, nor indeed, does his ministry seem to have a coherent policy.

Visiting Manipur on September 5, nearly two months after the current wave of public unrest in the state following the killing of Thangjam Manorama by personnel of the Assam Rifles on July 11, home minister Shivraj Patil, had little to offer to the aggrieved protestors, nor indeed, was any coherent solution to promote the restoration of peace and order in the state apparent during his interactions there.

Throughout his visit, which included a much publicized and utterly failed round of negotiations with the Apunba Lup, the umbrella body heading the protests, the minister reflected little understanding of the ground situation. The innocuous statement on September 5, at the end of his visit, summed up his manifestly modest ’achievements’ during the tour: "The visit to Manipur was helpful, enlightening and encouraging to understand the issues."

Patil, it appears, is simply wishing that the problem will go away with the passage of time. Earlier, the July 20 visit of his junior colleague, minister of state Sriprakash Jaiswal, had also proven a failed venture, as the minister remained non-committal on the withdrawal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, and offered little else by way of ’resolution’.

It appears, in fact, that the central political leadership’s approach to the situation has been uniformly unproductive, not because they have refused to concede to the protestors’ demands, but rather because they have failed miserably to articulate any alternate plans of action that could help diffuse the situation.

The whirlwind that has been sweeping the valley areas of Manipur for the past two months was always seen as coming by close observers of the turmoil in the state, at least over the five months prior to the outbreak of the latest ’troubles’. An apparent shift in the army’s counter insurgency strategy reportedly resulted in the elimination of 18 militant suspects after they were arrested.

The last among these included Jamkholet Khongsai, a Kuki village pastor from Saijang village, found buried on July 10 after being taken away by personnel of the 28 Assam Rifles on July 8, and Thangjam Manorama, whisked away by personnel of the 17 Assam Rifles on July 11, and found shot under controversial circumstance a few hours later. Of all the 18, only in the case of Manorama were formal procedures of issuing arrest and seizure memos observed, and at least two cases, that of K. Tejkumar and P. Sanajit, involved mistaken identities.

Ironically, Tejkumar was an Army aspirant. The rest of the victims were, almost without exception, either surrendered or ’retired’ underground cadres, with possibly some links still alive with their former organizations as a result of the compulsions of their backgrounds.

It may be difficult for people in the metropolii to understand this, but such affiliations are known to everybody in a traditional society with very strong grassroots civil society bodies, as represented by the Meira Paibis and local youth clubs. Because of these bodies, every locality, except perhaps in the commercial core of Imphal, would have an unwritten database of the background of everybody in that locality.

So when any youth makes an unexplained disappearance, everybody in the locality soon knows why, how and where he or she has gone. Whether they join any particular underground organization, or whether they belong to the lumpenised groups in the ’trouble maker’ category or were the ’idealistic type’, holding promise even in mainstream pursuits. This is also why, when known active underground cadres are killed, people have been known to join the mourning, but seldom have these resulted in anger of the kind currently being witnessed.

It was inevitable that the blatant and systematic fashion in which society’s ’prodigal sons and daughters’ were being picked up and eliminated, would evoke a backlash. The killing of Manorama, also a retired cadre of the PLA, a virgin till shortly before the time of her violent death, according to the post mortem report, was the last straw that snapped the public’s patience.

A more sympathetic understanding of this mass psychology would certainly have saved lives. A paranoid establishment has generally inclined to the view that people are ’partial’ to the insurgents, and that is the ’cause’ of the present agitation, but this is far from the case. While protests against the state attract maximum coverage, the truth is, the insurgents’ atrocities have also resulted in demonstrations of public outrage in the past.

The protests over the killing of the Satya Book House proprietor because of a failure to meet extortion demands, or of cloth retailer Manoj Sethi, or the Lilong bus bomb blast, or the mistaken gunning down of ten passengers of a Tata Sumo near Jiribam, all by insurgents, are testimony to the people’s anger against lawless violence. Unfortunately, since there is a multiplicity of such insurgent groups in the state, and no mechanism exists to address such outrage, public protests are more in the nature of punching the air.

Given the circumstance, the official interpretation of the agitation for the repeal of the AFSPA, following the Manorama killing, as being entirely ’sponsored’ by underground organizations, is simplistic, though expected. Past records testify to this attitude, and any complex issue defying easy official comprehension or handling has always been treated in this way. Not long ago, the convenient cover was the unseen ’foreign hand’. Today, it is ’underground instigation’.

Underground organizations are obviously eager to take advantage of the situation and to instigate trouble, but the claim that this was the sole cause of the passions that have recently erupted amounts to gross distortion and a total failure of understanding of popular sentiments. All kinds of vested interests - including the political opposition in the state - have naturally sought to exploit the situation to the extent possible, but the circumstances are not of their creation. The danger is, a wrong diagnosis appears to be leading to persistently wrong prescriptions.

The theory that the entire episode is an orchestrated, stage-managed street show, entirely undermines the integrity of the civil population in the state. Every mass protest is, in some measure, ’organised’, but this is not the same as it being ’stage managed’. Public apprehensions and indignation have been very real, and it has been the failure of leadership at every level - both within the military and political establishment - that has allowed the situation to snowball to its current and disturbing dimensions.

Simple official initiatives at the early stages could have contained public passions. Excesses and aberrant action by members of security forces when handled correctly even at the local level, have seldom led to the kind of disorders noticed in Manipur over the past months. It is useful, in this context, to recall the recent case in the Kokrajhar district of Assam, where a tribal woman was raped by two soldiers on June 30 this year. Immediate action by the army, a quick court martial and a sentence of 10 years imprisonment for the two accused soldiers by August 13 - far more swift and well in excess of anything that could conceivably have resulted in India’s ailing criminal courts - ensured that justice was both done and seen to be done.

Earlier, in 1998, the rape of a Bodo woman, in the Nalbari district, also in Assam, by two soldiers, threatened to bring public anger to a boil, but immediate action by the Corps Commander, the District Police Chief and the administration, in the form of a personal apology to the girl and her family, along with assurances of that the culprits would be dealt with severely, helped diffuse the situation. The two soldiers were subsequently found guilty on charges of assault and rape, and were sentenced to 12 years in prison.

By contrast, the response, both of the military and political leadership in the present case, has been tardy, ambivalent and unconscionable. A flurry of contradictory statements and of actions that fall into the ’too little too late’ category - including the belated and fruitless visit by the home minister Shivraj Patil last week - have kept the state on a boil for two months.

Principled action can still help restore the situation, but the centre appears to have decided that the ’problem will take time to solve’. As Patil expressed it rather abstractedly, "All dialogues are useful. We will solve the problem but all of it may not be solved in one go... But we can go ahead in the right direction".

It is useful to remember, however, that time is not always a healer; situations most often worsen in neglect.


Pradip Phanjoubam is Editor, Imphal Free Press. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

in "Outlook India", Friday, September 16, 2004.

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