Armed Forces' role in Manipur under scrutiny Legal battle over EGI's fact-finding report

Marc Nongmaithem
Manipur finds itself at the center of a fierce debate concerning the role of the armed forces, as the Editors Guild of India (EGI) faces a legal battle following the release of a fact-finding report. The report, titled "Report of the Fact-Finding Mission on Media's Reportage of the Ethnic Violence in Manipur," has ignited discussions surrounding media coverage during the ethnic violence and has shone a spotlight on the actions of the armed forces in the region.
EGI's report pulls no punches, accusing vernacular media outlets of dis- playing bias during the Manipur ethnic violence. It highlights the internet ban imposed in the State, suggesting that this restriction forced media organizations to rely on the State Government's narrative, which appeared to favor the majority Meitei community. The report calls for a more balanced and impartial approach to reporting and underscores the significant challenges faced by journalists in the region.
However, the release of this report has led to a series of FIRs (First Infor- mation Reports) against EGI's executive members, including President Seema Mustafa and members of the fact-finding team. They face allegations of criminal conspiracy, defamation, and the dissemination of false information, particularly focusing on an erroneous picture caption that EGI later corrected.
The situation escalated when Manipur's Chief Minister, Biren Singh, publicly accused EGI of attempting to sow discord and unrest in the State. In response, EGI expressed grave concerns regarding the freedom of speech and personal liberty of journalists, citing alleged intimidation by the Chief Minister. Subsequently, the matter was brought before the Supreme Court, which granted protection from arrest to all the accused until September 11, 2023.
In a twist that has shocked many, Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal, repre- senting EGI, revealed on September 11 that EGI had not initiated the fact-finding report voluntarily. Instead, they had been invited by the Indian Army in a letter dated July 12, 2023, to conduct the assessment. This revelation has sparked inquiries into the Army's involvement in this matter, raising questions about its intentions.
Chief Justice DY Chandrachud questioned the Army's request for such a report, and Sibal explained that it aimed to provide an "objective assessment of what is happening on the ground." This disclosure has ignited a vigorous debate about the role of the Army in Manipur and the necessity of establishing an impartial fact-finding team to scrutinize their activities and their impact on the region.
Concerns have arisen that a fact-checking team could be manipulated to suppress legitimate criticism of the Army or disseminate propaganda. Therefore, it is crucial that any fact-checking team remains indepen- dent and accountable.
Moreover, this controversy has raised essential questions about the armed forces' role in Manipur and the pressing need for a comprehensive fact-finding team to investigate their involvement in critical issues, such as the illicit cultivation of poppy and cannabis in the region.
The Armed Forces have faced criticism for seemingly turning a blind eye to the rampant illegal cannabis and poppy plantations fueling the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur. This is perplexing given the Army's active role in combating drug trafficking within the State and beyond. However, little or no action has been taken to eradicate these illegal plantations, raising suspicions about whether the Armed Forces' buffer zone inadvertently or intentionally shields them.
In light of these developments, it is imperative to conduct a thorough examination of the armed forces' role in Manipur and to consider the urgent necessity of assembling an impartial fact-finding team to investigate their involvement or lack thereof in addressing critical issues like the illicit cultivation of poppy and cannabis.
Additionally, such an initiative could help alleviate mistrust between the Meitei community and the Assam Rifles, as well as address the lack of cooperation between the army and State forces.
Achieving peace and stability in Manipur hinges on recognizing and resolving the root causes of the ongoing conflict. One pressing issue that directly contributes to the ethnic strife is the widespread cultivation of illegal poppy in the hills of Manipur. This issue must not be overlooked or deliberately disregarded. The critical question remains: Does the Armed Forces' buffer zone inadvertently or intentionally shield these illegal cannabis and poppy plantations, perpetuating the ongoing strife in the State unchecked ?