Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
By and large, North East has been relatively peaceful for the past few years if one compared it to the times when heightened insurgency afflicting many areas there.
There is a direct correlation between peace and progress, the benefits of which are accruing to the man on the street.
But it is a pity that incidents like the abduction and killing of social activist Athuan Abonmei have the potential to adversely affect the overall wellbeing and peacefulness so essential for economic activities. It sure is welcome that the Manipur Human Rights Commission (MHRC) has sought a report on the alleged kidnap and brutal murder of the social activist. But what is disconcerting is the seeming impunity with which heinous crime was carried out, literally from under the nose of the security forces. Athuan Abonmei was kidnapped on September 22 and later his body was found a little distance away in Tamenglong district.
Even more disconcerting is an apparent indifference of the local police acting quickly after learning of the abduction incident. Now, of course, there will be an inquiry whether it was a security lapse and failure of intelligence, but his friends and relatives feel that had the police swung into action without loss of time, the story could have been different.
Naturally the anger, fear, and frustration of people in Manipur burst out onto the streets. But to be fair to the administration investigations began and few arrests have also been made. Still, the questions remain–about an apparent and alleged police indifference to prior requests for action the moment the kidnap was noticed.
Now, the issue becomes more significant as signs of involvement of NSCN (M) in this incident are coming out in the public domain. Media reports say documents and photos relating to the organization were found during a search of the house of the suspects of the alleged murder. What remains to be properly investigated are the apprehensions and fears of the locals that activists of NCSN (M) were active in the now largely peaceful Manipur.
There are suspicions that there were some Naga insurgent group camps in Manipur that are still active and Assam Rifles had taken note of such camps in Ukhru and few other districts. In fact, the Indian Army has had busted few hidden Naga insurgent camps in Manipur in the past. Security forces work closely in synergy with police, intelligence agencies, civil administration, and the local populace to identify such hideouts. As and when such camps come to the notice of the security forces, action is taken.
Stiill locals fear that there could be some bases that the Naga insurgents could be using.
Clearly, the apprehension is that their activities could destroy the peace and law and order situation in Manipur that is witnessing improvement. Though, the kidnap and killing come as a warning that the powers that be must attend to on an urgent basis. For sure, the Government has pressed the right buttons on this score and it remains to be seen as to how quickly the State wipes out the apprehensions of the people.
The Government has rightly handed over the case to the National Investigating Agency (NIA) within no time on September 26 as the State Government suspects that the dastardly act could have been carried out by NSCN (IM) cadres. In fact, Chief Minister N Biren Singh had declared that the case would be handed over to the NIA if it was found that any outfit engaged in a ceasefire agreement with the Central Government was involved in the kidnap and murder of the social activist.
Now, with the case being transferred to the NIA, the Central Government is clearly in the picture. This is particularly significant, in that the intent of the Government is to thwart any tension between the two border States that may arise over the issue.
On its own, Manipur, though is no stranger to violence. It used to witness violence on a greater scale than all the other North Eastern States.
If we take the records of 2018, Manipur recorded 127 violent incidents out of the total 252 in all North Eastern region comprising Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura.
But over the past few years, the number of insurgency incidents and civilian deaths fell, signaling relatively safety and peace as compared to the previous many years. Counter-insurgency operations in 2018 led the State to witness a decline in insurgency-related incidents by 24 percent compared to 167 in 2017, and civilian deaths went down from 23 in 2017 to 8 in 2018. Even in the first three months of 2019, the security situation has improved in the region with a decline in insurgency incidents. But during the same period, data indicated that insurgency incidents increased in Nagaland, where the government is trying to work out a lasting peace in the state. The major insurgent groups operating in Nagaland are the factions of NSCN which came into being in 1980 following the failure of the 1975 Shillong Accord.
While this achievement needs to be lauded, the Government ought to view the kidnap and killing of social activist very seriously and investigate the motive and modus operandi of the culprits. This becomes very important as a hitherto insurgency-ridden state Manipur is affected by activities of a plethora of underground outfits.
Maintaining the law and order, and peace is of utmost importance as it is only now that the state is witnessing a revival of economic activity, that had come to a standstill after the outbreak of Covid-19. Although night curfew remains in force as a precautionary measure, gymnasiums, fitness centres, hotels, and shopping malls have been allowed to open. However, restaurants cannot be opened as yet as also certain restrictions on gathering of large crowds for any purpose continued to be banned.
The situation is much better now and is fast improving. Some isolation centres have been shut down as well, as there are no inmates there, and the number of cases also is falling.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected]
and Twitter handle @kvlakshman