Manipur, or for that matter any state in northeast India, hardly gets any national media attention until an act of violence plays out or a major sporting achievement brings in a deluge of love and ‘India is proud of you’ proclamations, while everything else gets swept under the carpet. And because media attention mostly comes from people outside the region with no real understanding or awareness of the area, a lot of media reportage gets blindsided or is totally off-the-track. A similar thing has happened after the deadly ambush of a military convoy of the 46 Assam Rifles in a remote area in Churachandpur, a district that shares a very porous border with Myanmar.
That the attack was carried out by a major armed group, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), along with the lesser-known Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), has triggered a barrage of China-focused angles on the incident. But the fact is that the PLA of Manipur is an entirely different entity from the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China.
The PLA of Manipur was given tactical support and arms training by China’s PLA in the late 1970s, and the former’s flag colour is worked around the latter’s. But the fact is that the presence of Manipur’s armed groups largely depends on the mood and temperament in Myanmar’s border region.
Why Have Armed Groups Moved to Border Areas?
The armed movement in Manipur over the last decade or so is different from the early ‘80s and the ‘90s, when there were large-scale violent clashes between state and non-state forces within the Valley itself. The concentration of armed groups towards the border over the last two decades is a tactical shift. The remoteness of the areas therein facilitates escape, while also limiting casualties to only the armed forces.
Violence is a perpetual reality in Manipur regardless of whether it’s reported by the mainstream media or not. In fact, the very two groups involved in the November 13 ambush, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), along with the United Liberation Front of Asom – Independent (ULFA-I), ambushed a column of the 4 Assam Rifles on July 29 last year at Khongtal village of Chandel District of Manipur, leaving three Assam Rifles personnel dead and five others injured. But three dead Assam Rifles personnel do not get as much national media attention as the recent incident, which caused more casualties, and, tragically, the loss of civilian lives.
Though security forces are tight-lipped about the ambush in Churachandpur, those on the ground believe that security concerns may have been brushed aside.
Col Viplav Tripathi, the commanding officer of 46 Assam Rifles, who was killed in the ambush along with his wife and young son, was posted to this command only this year from his earlier posting in Mizoram, and was said to have got another posting out of Manipur. The Colonel was said to have been overseeing security posts in his area of command, presumably to hand over charge when the time came. That his family was travelling along with his convoy in the remote area has taken many by surprise as the practice is that family members of military personnel stay at base camps due to safety concerns.
Political Risks With the 'China' Angle
While security experts and political analysts are trying to figure out how and why the ambush took place, the public sentiment in Manipur is united on one point – the loss of the lives of the wife and son of Col Viplav Tripathi has been condemned. The armed groups involved in the ambush have been quick to say that they were not aware of the presence of the two civilians, a nod to a long practice of not treading on personal spaces.
A few former military experts serving in the region have been quick to point out that the armed groups would have been aware of civilian presence through constant surveillance, but this is a line that no one on the ground is buying. For one, the area is the territorial turf of a hill-based armed group and the practice is to stay away from each other.
The upcoming Assembly election in Manipur early next year can also be a major factor, as the political leadership in the state will be hard-pressed to ‘buy’ peace.
With the current political climate in the country, wherein Indian wants to ease itself out of a strong offensive to China’s overtures, the China angle in most social media narratives might well lead to another surgical strike on the lines of what happened in 2015 to give a semblance that India is doing something. But if that happens, it’s the BJP leadership in the state that will be on the back foot.
Two Sides of the Conflict
All said and done, the cycle of violence in Manipur brought upon by the armed conflict and the heightened militarisation in the state are best known by people on the ground. All those who talk of retribution and avenging deaths, and who have been quick to talk of the security forces in the state and their sacrifices in the state, would do well to note that the impunity that the Assam Rifles and other central security forces enjoy – thanks to the imposition of the Armed Forces Special Movement – has affected thousands of civilian lives.
There is an ongoing case in the Supreme Court with over 1,500 documented cases of fake encounters involving security forces. One such case was of a 12-year-old boy, a student who was reading a newspaper and was dragged out of his house after his parents were locked, and was beaten up and then shot dead, while his parents begged for his life from a window. Both Col Viplav Tripathi’s son and the 12-year-old deserved to live but have instead become footnotes and statistics. The sad truth though is that many more lives will pass under the shadow of guns in Manipur and elsewhere, and media attention will remain subject to mere news cycles for a long time to come.
(Chitra Ahanthem is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)