Context: The ambush on a convoy of the 46 Assam Rifles (AR) killed five AR personnel in Manipur’s Churachandpur district recently.
- The ambush was carried out jointly by Manipur based separatists group People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF).
- It points to the fragility of the peace fostered by India’s counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies.
- It also indicates the security dilemma in this conflict-prone borderland.
- There is a complex power dynamics that Indian COIN strategies have to navigate.
What is Assam Rifles?
- Assam Rifles is one of the six central armed police forces (CAPFs) under the administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
- The other forces being the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Border Security Force (BSF), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB).
- It is tasked with the maintenance of law and order in the North East along with the Indian Army and also guards the Indo-Myanmar border in the region.
- Dual control
- It is the only paramilitary force with a dual control structure.
- While the administrative control of the force is with the MHA, its operational control is with the Indian Army, which is under the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
- This means that salaries and infrastructure for the force is provided by the MHA, but the deployment, posting, transfer and deputation of the personnel is decided by the Army.
What is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)?
- The group was founded on September 25, 1978, under the leadership of N. Bisheshwar, after having broken away from its parent body, the United National Liberation Front.
- Like the UNLF, and many other splinter groups that would follow, the PLA was fighting for the secession of Manipur from India.
- While the PLA called for Kuki and Naga insurgents to join their ranks, it remains till this day dominated by the Imphal valley-based Meitei Hindu insurgents.
- The PLA has been working out of Myanmar where they continue to have camps, and remain active with no ceasefire agreement with the Indian government.
India’s counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies in Manipur
- The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) noted that after having recorded single-digit insurgency-related deaths in 2019 and 2020, the state “is evidently going through a phase of deepening peace”.
- The Centre has entered into a Ceasefire Agreement with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) or NSCN-IM since 1997.
- The signing of a ‘Framework Agreement’ between the National Socialist Council of Nagalim–Issak and Muivah (NSCN-IM) and the Government of India in August 2015 was one more attempt towards peace.
- The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) is the mother of all insurgent groups that sprang up in the Northeast in the 1950s.
- The key demand of NSCN-IM is a Greater Nagalim (sovereign statehood) which means bringing all Naga-inhabited areas in the Northeast under one administrative umbrella.
- It includes various parts of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Myanmar as well.
- There is a series of suspension of Army operations with the various Kuki-Hmar-Zomi armed groups in place in Manipur since 2008. These have considerably reduced the number of deaths.
- The Army Doctrine was revised from measuring the number of “kills” of armed insurgents to “winning hearts and minds”.
- The COIN measures have laid down the ground rules for ceasefire and regimented the armed groups in “peace camps”.
- The Army sought to reinforce this improved image by engaging in projects that involve imparting skills and vocational training to women, self-help groups and the insurgents in the “peace camps”.
- A complex power-dynamic has been seen as a result of the aggressive attempts by the Union Ministry of Development of the North Eastern Region and the state to promote the Behiang Trade Centre as the major gateway to Southeast Asia.
- This has enhanced the desire of valley-based armed insurgent groups, such as the PLA, as well as hills-based outfits like the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and ZRA, to consolidate their presence in this strategic and lucrative trading centre.
- There is an ill-equipped state police force which seems inadequate to maintain “law and order” as well as regulate cross-border trade and movements.
- Subverting existing tribal land-ownership and control of resources in the hill areas of Manipur: The PLA knows that the land-owning system in the hills is inhospitable to its interests in securing formal ownership rights.
- Using its extortion rackets in Manipur and its control of local tribal businessmen and opium mafias, the PLA has cultivated extensive local conduit networks and consolidated its operational control along the Indo-Myanmar border.
- The regimenting of local tribal armed groups like the ZRA and KNO in “peace camps” has also enabled the outfit to consolidate itself.
- The PLA and UNLF have refused to engage in dialogue with India unless New Delhi accepts plebiscite as a pre-condition.
- This is a serious challenge to India’s COIN strategies to guarantee credible security in the fragile Indo-Myanmar borderland.
- Foreign links: The Manipur People’s Liberation Front and the United National Liberation Front have developed a military nexus with the Tatmadaw (Military) in Myanmar.
- They already operate with impunity across Bangladesh and Myanmar and are likely to secure cross-border safe-havens.
- Modernise intelligence gathering and military/police infrastructure.
- Bringing the PLA and UNLF to the negotiating peace table will help India in the security dilemma and make the power dynamics in the Indo-Myanmar borderland balanced.
- India needs to recalibrate its relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar to effectively deal with outfits such as the PLA and UNLF.
- India should strengthen the military-to-military relations not only to train the Tatmadaw in key areas like counter-terrorism and UN operations, but also should learn from Myanmar's long counter insurgency operations.
- Maximum autonomy may be accorded in ethnic, cultural and developmental realms to autonomous councils for all Naga areas in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and even Assam, through suitable amendment to the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.
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