Blog: In Manipur, To SoO Or Not

A tripartite agreement signed in 2008 between two dozen Kuki-Zo insurgent groups and the Manipur government and the Centre ended on February 29, 2024. On the same day, the Manipur government passed a unanimous resolution in the assembly to scrap - i.e. not to renew - what is known as the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement in the border state marred by ethnic violence between the hill-majority Kuki-Zo tribes and the valley-majority Meiteis. A day later, the Centre said it is yet to decide on continuing the controversial ceasefire deal, news agency Press Trust of India reported.

Under this agreement, the insurgents are to stay at designated camps and their weapons kept in locked storage, to be monitored regularly. Insurgents who are part of the SoO agreement get a stipend of Rs 6,000 every month, meant for their rehabilitation. The agreement is also reviewed every year for extension or termination by a joint monitoring group.

The over two dozen Kuki-Zo insurgent groups come under two umbrella organisations for the purpose of negotiations - the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) led by the Kuki National Army, and the United People's Front (UPF) led by the Zomi Revolutionary Army. The KNO and the UPF representing all the others have signed the SoO agreement.

Why the SoO Agreement

Whether peace brings development, or development brings peace, it does not matter in Manipur; either is fine for a start. With this as the foundation, the SoO agreement was supposed to bring peace in Manipur, especially in the hill areas. The government's spending on counterinsurgency would gradually decrease, which would in turn reduce the feeling of neglect among the local population. One of the biggest causes of insurgency is lack of economic development, which erodes trust in both the state and the central governments.

The camp of an insurgent group that has signed the suspension of operations (SoO) agreement in Manipurs Chongkhawzao

The camp of an insurgent group that has signed the 'suspension of operations' (SoO) agreement in Manipur

Since the early 90s, successive governments have signed agreements with insurgent groups in the northeast region to end violence and bring stability. Though insurgents have been the signatories, the centre of gravity of these agreements have been the common public, the real beneficiaries of peace. Happy people do not take up arms.

For example, the huge success in the Bodo peace talks, and understanding signed with a section of the insurgent group United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has led to Assam's rapid development; some say this northeast state saw growth in all key indicators in just 15 years what it would have otherwise taken 30 years. Another Assam peace deal signed with the Dimasa National Liberation Army in April 2023 brought the curtain down on the Dimasa insurgency.

In neighbouring Manipur too, the Centre and the state signed the SoO agreement with Kuki-Zo insurgent groups, made ground rules, and budgeted for rehabilitation stipend without fixing a deadline to end the agreement for good should the process fail. But the results today in no unclear terms prove that the Manipur SoO agreement achieved quite the opposite of what Assam achieved.

Concerns Over Alleged Ground Rules Violations

Manipur Security Adviser Kuldiep Singh has said attendance at the designated camps of the SoO agreement signatories - or "SoO groups" in short - has not been 100 per cent. The SoO groups and a dozen others including unknown fly-by-night civil society organisations have been allegedly collecting "goonda tax" or "protection money" from truck drivers and transport firms.

The extortion amount is based on the number of wheels the truck has and the value of goods it is carrying. The minimum is allegedly Rs 30,000 per trip, not a small sum for a single truck considering fuel cost, driver salary, and repair and maintenance. It needs to be investigated whether the SoO groups have been quietly 'working' in areas where the authorities have set up their designated camps, nearly 14 in all, in the hills surrounding the valley.

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Another camp of Kuki-Zo insurgent groups that have signed the SoO agreement in Manipur

For the past 15 years, the SoO groups appear to be taking advantage of gaps inherent in the agreement's ground rules as well as the rules of engagement (RoE) followed by the security forces.

"The security forces follow a separate RoE when it comes to dealing with the SoO groups. Unless they are attacked or directly threatened by the SoO groups, the security forces will look the other way," Lieutenant General L Nishikanta Singh (retired), the third person from the northeast to have attained the second-highest rank in the Indian Army, told NDTV.

"Using such 'immunity', the SoO groups continue to build up their strength, get weapons like sniper rifles and rocket launchers," said Lt General Singh, who also headed the army's Intelligence Corps before retiring in 2018, after 40 years of service.

No Visible Results 

There is no visible positive ripple effect such as reduction in violence owing to the SoO agreement. On the contrary, the activism by SoO groups has only increased. Leaders linked to the SoO groups and the umbrella organisations are known to have family members who are active in politics.

Manipur BJP MLA Nemcha Kipgen's husband Semtinthang Kipgen alias Semma T Thangboi Kipgen - also mentioned as Semma Kipgen in her affidavit to the Election Commission - heads the Kuki National Front (P). Kuki People's Alliance MLA Kimneo Hangshing is the wife of David Hangshing, the chairman of the insurgent group Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA).

The crores of rupees spent on trying to rehabilitate the insurgents of the SoO groups are taxpayers' money. Starting April 1, 2018, the monthly stipend of Rs 6,000 for Kuki-Zo insurgents who have signed this agreement were to be paid after linking their Aadhaar biometric details, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) guidelines for reimbursement of security-related expenses. A report by the CAG which was presented to the Manipur assembly on March 1, however, flagged payments made to the insurgents between April 1, 2018 and March 31, 2021 without taking their biometric details in the form of Aadhaar.

"The payments were made to the representatives of the cadres by cheque. There was no record for unique biometric identification number linking of the cadres. Thus, payment of Rs 27.38 crore to the cadres was irregular payment in terms of the guidelines," the CAG report presented in the state assembly said. The CAG report termed as "not acceptable" the reply by the authorities who handle the payments that the insurgents have not given their biometric details.

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Each of the 25-odd Kuki-Zo insurgent groups has their own leader, apart from the leaders of the two representative umbrella organisations that are in talks with the Centre and the state government. These leaders need to be in control of the cadre to ensure they follow the ground rules of the agreement, a source who has direct knowledge of the matter told NDTV on March 1.

"If the stipend goes to the bank accounts of the insurgent cadre directly, then the role of their leaders may diminish as they will no longer be dependent on the few leaders to distribute the stipend," the source said. "And how can we possibly know how exactly the leaders distribute the stipend? The insurgent leaders who control the stipend disbursal can control the cadre."

Despite signing the SoO agreement and dropping a huge amount of money into the pit of hope, the hold of insurgents on the public appears to have increased. These groups have also publicly instigated communities in Manipur to hate each other, when the net result of the SoO agreement should have been development and peace.

To cut a long horror story short, since 2008, when the SoO agreement was formally signed, crores of rupees have been spent on stipends; the public continues to be harassed though extortion and intimidation, and the RoE doesn't easily allow the security forces to detect ground rules violations by the SoO groups.

What Former Chief Minister Said

What is most devastating is the admission by former Manipur Chief Minister and Congress leader Okram Ibobi Singh in the state assembly on March 1 that the Assam Rifles and Kuki-Zo insurgent groups signed an agreement in 2005 - without informing the state government.

"The two signed the agreement without the knowledge of the Manipur government. The police continued to arrest the insurgents, and in 2008 the formal SoO with the state government's participation was signed," Ibobi Singh told the assembly. The state government discovered the existence of the 2005 "ceasefire" agreement when, during police operations against Kuki-Zo insurgents, the state forces were often requested to stand down.

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What differentiates the Kuki-Zo insurgent groups from Naga and Meitei groups is that the Kuki-Zo insurgents only want a "separate administration" carved out of Manipur, and not sovereignty from India, while the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and banned Meitei groups such as the People's Revolutionary Army (PLA) want to break away from India. The Kuki-Zo insurgents have not fought against the army, but the NSCN faction and many Meitei insurgent groups that are not part of any peace talks have attacked Indian security forces.

Ten Kuki-Zo MLAs have also demanded separation from Manipur, so have their civil society groups such as the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) and the Committee on Tribal Unity (CoTU). This single demand has brought the SoO groups, the 10 Kuki-Zo MLAs, and the civil society organisations on the same page.

The SoO agreement, hence, concerns only the state and not the nation since the insurgents are not demanding separation from India, but from Manipur. This gives the state government the first right to review any major decision linked to the SoO groups since the agreement directly affects the state the most.

Which is why the only certainty amid the whole mess in Manipur is that those who think the SoO agreement review and the demand for a "separate administration" will be a breezy affair with the Centre, minus the state, will face disappointment.

(Debanish Achom is Editor, News, at NDTV)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.