Lieutenant General L Nishikanta Singh (retired) said it's critical to bring peace in Manipur fast
Restive Manipur has seen unprecedented clashes between the Meiteis and Kuki-Chin-Zo tribes for over three months with no sign of respite. Notwithstanding the government and civil bodies' call for peace, the scale of violence has gone down only a little.
The string of clashes that unfolded in the northeast state since May 3 has killed more than 180 people, wounded over 200 and reduced hundreds of villages and numerous government and private properties into ashes, besides forcing over 50,000 people to take refuge in relief camps spread over the valley and hill districts.
Horrific murders - during sleep, execution-style and beheading, and crimes against women, including parading them naked, were the worst-ever incidents during the violence, prompting the whole nation and the world to strongly condemn the shocking incidents.
A big threat to security was the looting of 4,000 arms, ammunition and bombs by mobs from police armouries since the violence broke out, first in the hills and in the valley. The police have recovered some of these weapons.
NDTV spoke to Lieutenant General Laiphrakpam Nishikanta Singh (retired), who has been closely monitoring the Manipur situation. Lt Gen Singh is the third person from the northeast to have attained the second-highest rank in the Indian Army. The rescue mission in Afghanistan, after the Indian medical mission there was attacked in February 2010, was one of the missions he led during his career. He also headed the Intelligence Corps of the Indian Army before retiring in 2018, after 40 years of service.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: As a security intelligence veteran, how do you see the looting of weapons and ammunition from the police armouries?
Lt General Singh: The first looting of arms and ammunition started in Churachandpur when miscreants looted a gun shop and the police station and snatched weapons from security personnel there. As a reaction to it, there were lootings in the valley too. But what needs to be analysed here is that the Kukis have been fighting for over 90 days now. The Assam Rifles said that the cadre of the suspension of operations (SoO) group along with their arms are in the camps. If that is the case, how are the Kuki insurgents firing at Meitei villages almost every day? How are they sustaining themselves? Keep in mind they are using sophisticated weapons like sniper rifles, grenade launchers, two-inch mortars. So, again, the question is how are they sustaining themselves for such a long time? It has been more than 90 days. This is one of the significant aspects of the Manipur crisis.
Comparatively, the other side does not really have any weapons, so to say. By no means I'm condoning the looting of the police armouries in the valley. But I feel the public was compelled by the situation. With the Kuki insurgents firing on them every single day, I guess the public ran berserk and decided to arm themselves by hook or crook.
From my perspective, the fighting may be clubbed into phases. Phase 1 was from May 3 to May 10-11, characterised by low-intensity gunfights. Sometimes, the intensity was more and sometimes, much less. Phase 2 was when coordinated attacks started on Imphal valley from all directions on May 27 and 28. This phase was distinct by the high-intensity fighting that went on for many days. Unless there is a move to disarm both sides, the fighting is likely to continue.
Q: Were the police not prepared to stop the looting of their armouries? How exactly did the looting take place?
Lt General Singh: Looting of arms from police stations is not something that has happened only in Manipur. It has occurred in many places. A long time ago, when I was a young Major in the Indian Army, the Purulia police arrested two terrorists. They were unarmed. But they looted weapons from the police station and shot dead 11 policemen. Looting of weapons does happen, especially when there is desperation. And when you say police station, it is not a hundred people guarding a police station. A police station at best has got 25-30 people, of which 5-10 are out on duty. So the strength of a police station at any given time may be 10-15 people only. Imagine, a mob of 2,000-3,000 coming to a police station; it would be very difficult even for the two-three sentries to open fire on the crowd because such a situation has got its own legal, psychological and other implications. That is how the weapons were looted.
Q: Many have criticised what they called the inefficiency of the Manipur Police in tackling the situation. In fact, many are of the opinion that because of the Manipur Police's poor handling of the law and order situation, the violence spiralled out of control. Where do you think lies the fault with the police in law and order issues?
Lt General Singh: What started on May 3 was not a simple law and order situation. It was a massive communal riot. If you remember the communal riots in Delhi in 1984 and other places, initially the police were not able to tackle them. In the case of Manipur, the police had to encounter two groups of people. One group was sophisticatedly armed with a good supply of ammunition. They had weapons that could take on the police and the other group had the crowds.
The police were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the violence. From May 4 the central government sent numerous paramilitary forces by air. According to a rough estimate, the total number of security forces stationed in the state today is 60,000.
If we are to blame the police for inefficiency, we must take into consideration the 60,000 central security personnel, who have been in the state for over three months, also found it extremely challenging to control the situation.
I agree if the violence was contained in the initial phase, the situation would have been controlled. But the question is, in the past 90 days, have we really made progress on containing the situation? I really do not know. Firing happens every day. There is not a day without a Meitei village being fired upon by insurgents from the foothills. Unfortunately, if such a massive central force including the Assam Rifles, BSF and CRPF couldn't contain the violence fully, expecting the Manipur Police to contain it on their own is something that may not be fair to the state forces. I believe that soon the security forces will be able to contain the situation.
Q: The Assam Rifles and Manipur Police commandos are key forces operating in the state for decades. This time, there were allegations between the two sides and issues of distrust. How far is that harming the security scenario?
Lt General Singh: Trust deficit does exist. Remember, when the trouble began, the Kukis made a presentation to the Defence Ministry for posting out 23 Meitei officers who are posted here. That is the level of trust deficit. It is not only the Manipur Police that they don't trust. They even distrust the Assam Rifles and the Indian Army wherever there is a Meitei officer, as they perceive it would be harming their cause. This is one aspect. You would be surprised to know that the same list has gone to the UN also. If you look at the submission the Kukis have made to the UN, this is one of the appendices.
Whatever be the public allegations, the authorities concerned i.e. the Home Ministry, Assam Rifles and the Manipur government must try to investigate and assure the public to gain their confidence. If what is being alleged isn't correct, they must come out with the facts of the cases and make clarifications. If the allegation is found to be true, then the authorities must rectify it and fix responsibilities. The defaulters can be either sidestepped or some sort of penalty imposed so that the act is not repeated. These measures will go a long way in addressing the trust deficit in the security forces.
As of today, the Meiteis don't trust a section of the Assam Rifles and the Kukis don't trust the state forces. Remember, Meiteis started distrusting the Assam Rifles sometime during the third week, not initially, after trouble erupted. Precisely after the Kukis launched the Phase 2 of the attacks. Before that there was no mistrust. In fact, the Meiteis were grateful to the Assam Rifles for rescuing nearly 40,000 people caught on the wrong side of the area when trouble started. Credit must be given to the Assam Rifles for doing such humanitarian work. But the trust deficit developed when the coordinated attacks were launched by the Kukis on Imphal valley on the night of May 27-28. Since then, this trust deficit exists even now. I'm sure the Home Ministry, Assam Rifles, the Indian Army and the Manipur government will take adequate actions to mitigate this trust deficit by having their own internal mechanism to look into the issue.
Q: Despite the presence of central forces and the army, violence happened. What are the reasons of failure to contain violence?
Lt General Singh: A force does what is directed on them. They do not do it on their own. Unfortunately, in spite of such a large number of forces on the ground, in this case, the united command that exists needs a major revamp. When you say united command, all the forces are supposed to be integrated. The word to be used is not Manipur Rifles, the Indian Army, the Assam Rifles, CRPF, BSF, etc. Instead, a single term that could be just 'security forces' is supposed to be used. The press is supposed to be requested to use the term 'security forces' so that people cannot distinguish between the Assam Rifles, the Manipur Rifles, Manipur Police, the Indian Army, the BSF or CRFF, or whatever there may be. This is foremost.
In the current case, the united command that is supposed to integrate everyone has not done it effectively. To use an analogy, it is like putting five eggs in a basket and that is supposed to integrate everyone. This is not a united command. You have to break each egg and stir them well so that they become a whole. This has not really happened.
For example, the Manipur Rifles going to Moreh for deployment to contain the situation in the border town where all shops and houses belonging to the Meiteis were burnt down. The Manipur Rifles have been held up in Tengnoupal with Kuki-Chin-Zo women blocking the Asian highway leading to Moreh. No other force is present in the additional deployment meant for Moreh. So, is that a united command? This decision of redeploying Manipur Rifles in Moreh should have been taken by the unified command, and they should have ensured it. So far, the deployment has failed. It is not the failure of the Manipur Police or the Manipur Rifles. It is the failure of the united command because the command and control lie with them. The security agencies need to rethink the structure of the united command on how to improve it. How far the security agencies are integrated is still a question.