The Manipur Police has filed an FIR against the Assam Rifles, which alleges that the latter's personnel blocked the former's vehicles and prevented them from conducting "search operations in an arms act case in search of Kuki militants."
The news was shocking because the state has been engulfed in violence for more than three months, and from the start we have been seeing clashes not only between two ethnic communities but between the different security forces which should have been working together to stop the violence.
However, for those living in Manipur, the news did not produce either surprise or shock. It just seemed like a natural culmination of all the resentment and anger against Assam Rifles.
It is also a testimony to the devastating effects of identity politics.
The Meitei intellectuals have been claiming that the main cause of the violence in Manipur is the insurgency situation.
However, the Chief Of Defence Staff General Anil Chauhan has categorically said that the insurgency had nothing to do with the violence in Manipur. He has said that it is primarily a clash between two ethnic groups, and therefore a law-and-order problem that should be dealt with by the police.
However, the situation in Manipur is much more complicated than that.
Meiteis' Long History of Resentment Towards Assam Rifles
The Assam Rifles is the oldest paramilitary force in India and is the leading counter-insurgency force in the Northeast.
It was first called the Cachar Levy by the British in 1935. Since then, the Assam Rifles have undergone a number of name changes — the Assam Frontier Police (1883), the Assam Military Police (1891), and Eastern Bengal and Assam Military Police (1913), before finally becoming the Assam Rifles in 1917.
It was this force that occupied Kangla Fort in Imphal, the capital of Manipur.
In 1892, the British forces swept down Manipur and defeated the state's forces. The Union Jack was hoisted inside the Kangla on 27 April that year. This day is commemorated by the Meiteis as the Dark Day.
Kangla is the most important historical and spiritual site for the Meitei culture and civilization. There were as many as 360 sacred places within the fort. And in front of the Uttra, in the ancestral coronation hall, stood two massive Kanglā Shās made of bricks by Chinese prisoners captured during a war. This is a mythical animal that is half lion and half dragon.
After the British left Manipur, the ownership of the land comprising the Kangla Fort area was transferred to the Defense Ministry of the Dominion of India. The Garhwal Rifles of the independent India replaced the British troops, and later, it was replaced by the 4th Assam Rifles.
Ever since then, the Assam Rifles have occupied Kangla. The entire fort area, measuring approximately 236.84 acres, is directly under the Defense Ministry of India, represented on the field by the Assam Rifles, a central paramilitary force.
Alleged Human Rights Violations by Assam Rifles
The Meiteis have been demanding that the Assam Rifles evacuate the fort premises but to no avail. Furthermore, the force has been accused by human rights activists of violations of human rights, including murder and rape.
These violations have allegedly been committed with relative impunity because the force was operating after Manipur was declared “disturbed” under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958. The courts did not give relief to the victims, and the alleged crimes remained unpunished.
The clash between the civil administration and the Assam Rifles has been documented by human rights activists as well the Government. For instance, during a counter-insurgency operation codenamed Operation Bluebird, the Assam Rifles did not allow the Superintendent of Police and the Deputy Commissioner to enter their own jurisdiction.
The situation was so serious that the then Congress Chief Minister, Rishang Keising, felt compelled to write a memorandum to the Union Home Minister in September 1987 complaining that the Assam Rifles were running a parallel administration in the area, and that "the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police were wrongfully confined, humiliated, and prevented from discharging their official duties by the security forces."
Many writ petitions were filed in the high courts and before the Supreme Court challenging AFSPA. And one of the grounds was that under the Act, the Assam Rifles had virtually taken over the civil administration and thus imposed de facto martial law, prohibited by the constitution.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the Act in 1997.
In November 2000, the Assam Rifles shot down 10 civilians at Malom Makha Leikai, near Imphal airport. The victims included a 62-year-old woman and an 18-year-old who had been a recipient of a national bravery award.
It was in protest against this incident and in support of her demand for the repeal of AFSPA that Irom Sharmila started her fast which she broke only in 2016.
Then in 2004, they picked up a woman, and then raped, tortured, and killed her. This act enraged the people, especially the Meitei women.
It was on that occasion that 12 Meira Paibis went in front of Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, and took off their clothes while shouting they are mothers of that woman, and if you should rape us, kill us.
It was soon after that protest that the Assam Rifles finally evacuated the Kangla Fort but the fight for the repeal of AFSPA continued.
Land and Resources, Not Insurgents and Refugees
However, there is a need to study the working of the Assam Rifles, the major force involved in counter-insurgency in the Northeast as well as in protecting the Indo-Myanmar border.
It is the only paramilitary force with a dual control structure. While the administrative control of the force is with the Ministry of Home Affairs, its operational control is with the Indian Army, which is under the Ministry of Defence.
It is the force that is being used to push back the refugees who are coming into Manipur from neighbouring Myanmar. The Home Ministry has said that all refugees are to be treated as “illegal migrants”, a term that the Meiteis are starting to use for the Kuki-Mizo-Zo people.
Meitei extremist groups such as Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun have given a war cry that Manipur is being invaded by the Burmese and even Meitei intellectuals have compared the situation to the seven-year devastation when Burma invaded Manipur.
These extremists claim that Kukis represent the Burmese invaders and they are facilitating the invasion. And when an Assam Rifles force tries to protect Kukis from the attacks, the Meiteis invoke the history to paint the present violence as being an insurgency.
One thing that is clear is that the violence in Manipur is ultimately about land and natural resources, not about insurgents or refugees.
The Manipur police and the Meitei public think that they are fighting to preserve their identity, and for the unity and integrity of Manipur; the Kukis are fighting for a separate administration, and the Nagas and the Mizos have their own imagined homelands.
In the end who will gain from the violence?
In the end, the Kukis, Nagas, and Meiteis will all lose.
Indian security forces have been drawn into a web of deadly identity politics and they will not be able to protect what they have been sworn to protect: the unity and integrity of India.
(Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and award-winning author. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)