Members of the UNLF at a welcome ceremony in Manipur's capital Imphal
The Manipur government today welcomed members of the state's oldest valley-based armed group that has signed a peace deal, and expressed hope that more groups would lay down arms to join the peace process in the strategic border state.
Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh led a ceremony and organised a mass lunch at the grounds of the Kangla Palace - the seat of power of the past Manipur kingdom - in the heart of the state capital Imphal, where every member of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) of the Pambei faction also shook his hand.
"We are looking forward to other valley-based groups to join the peace process so that a solution towards peace can be brought to Manipur. The UNLF is a 60 years old organisation that never agreed to talk, but this time they have reposed faith in Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji, so it's a major achievement," Mr Singh said.
The UNLF had been fighting a guerilla war for a sovereign Manipur as the group - similar to other valley-based banned organisations like the People's Liberation Army (PLA) - considered illegal the merger of the pre-Independence Manipur kingdom with India.
UNLF general secretary Ch Thanil said they are happy to join the peace process and will do everything to ensure lasting stability. "We will talk peacefully and if the amicable solution comes, we will sign the final deal... The present crisis is a very small matter. Actually, some people from outside have been behind this disturbance," Mr Thanil said, referring to the recent ethnic clashes between the hill-majority Kuki tribes and the valley-majority Meiteis.
The descriptor "valley-based" for the UNLF indicates it was an armed group with origins in Imphal valley and other districts not classified as hill areas. Similarly, at least 25 hill-based insurgent groups are already under a tripartite peace deal called the suspension of operations (SoO) agreement.
"I express my sincere gratitude to UNLF, the government of India, and the people of Manipur for their unwavering support throughout this transformative journey. Let this be a moment of renewed hope, where bridges are built, and relationships are strengthened," Mr Singh, the Chief Minister, said in a post on X today.
The Chief Minister has faced criticism over the Manipur violence, and questions on how law and order could not be maintained. The peace deal with the UNLF - the first with any valley-based armed group - is, however, being seen as Mr Singh and the BJP's masterstroke ahead of the 2024 general election since it is for the first time that a valley-based armed group has agreed to lay down arms and join the mainstream.
The UNLF had most of its bases along the dense jungles of Myanmar, just across the border with India. Experts said Manipur has been developing fast for the past 10 years, and with major railway lines coming till the valley areas soon, the state has been gradually shedding its tumultuous, insurgency-ridden past, which all could be big factors behind the weakening of the armed movements against India in the strategically important border state, known as India's only gateway to Southeast Asia.
The UNLF was formed in November 1964 by Khalanlang Kamei as president, Thangkhopao Singsit as vice president and A Somarendro Singh as general secretary. It set up its armed wing the Manipur Peoples' Army (MPA) in February 1990. The UNLF later split into two factions due to internal differences. The anti-talks faction is led by RK Achou Singh alias Koireng.
Over 180 have died and thousands have been internally displaced in Manipur since the ethnic violence started on May 3.