Manipur on the brink: Arrests threaten fragile ceasefire

Dipak Kurmi
Manipur, a State that has seen its fair share of unrest and conflict, finds itself once again teetering on the edge of instability. As tensions mount, a 48-hour general strike has gripped the region, sparked by the controversial arrest of three top leaders from the Pambei led United National Liberation Front (UNLF).
The events unfolded on the morning of March 13th, when an SUV was stopped near Kwakeithel in Imphal by a joint team comprising members of the Manipur Police Commandos, Assam Rifles, and personnel from the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in civilian attire. The individuals apprehended were no ordinary citizens but rather high-ranking officials of the Pambei led UNLF– Thokchom Shyamjai, the Army Chief, Laimayum Ashok, the Chief of Intelligence, and Salam Ibomcha, another intelligence cadre.
The arrests have sparked widespread outrage and condemnation from various civil society organizations, including the Federation of Civil Societies (FOCS) Manipur, an umbrella organization representing 12 other groups. They have condemned the arrests as a violation of the ceasefire agreement signed between the UNLF and the Indian Government on November 29, 2023, a historic moment hailed by Union Home Minister Amit Shah himself.
The UNLF, formed in 1964, has been engaged in a long-standing struggle against the Indian state, seeking to liberate Manipur. However, the Pambei led UNLF agreed to a ceasefire last year, signaling a potential shift towards peace and reconciliation after decades of conflict. The recent arrests have not only jeopardized this fragile truce but also ignited a firestorm of protests across the valley.
As dusk fell on the day of the arrests, the clanking of electric posts echoed through the streets of Imphal, serving as a rallying call for women to take to the streets. Thousands of women bearing flaming torches gathered, halting vehicles and urging businesses to close their shutters in solidarity with the arrested leaders.
The FOCS and its affiliated groups have demanded the unconditional release of the trio within 24 hours and had called for a 48-hour (curtailed to 24 hours later) general strike across the State. The situation is further complicated by the involvement of the NIA, a powerful Central agency, known for its uncompromising stance on granting bail to those in its custody.
Chief Minister Biren Singh has attempted to distance himself from the arrests, claiming innocence and stating that he is in contact with the Central leadership, urging for the earliest release of the arrested leaders. However, the involvement of Manipur Police officers in the operation raises questions about the State Government’s role in the incident.
The Pambei led UNLF cadres have responded defiantly, brandishing weapons in public and threatening retaliation against the police for their involvement in the arrests.
Observers suggest that the Indian Government’s decision to ink the ceasefire agreement with the Pambei led UNLF was not solely based on their firepower or cadre strength but rather an attempt to encourage other groups to follow suit and return to normal life.
However, the recent arrests have cast a dark shadow over these fragile gains, jeopardizing the prospects for peace in the strife-torn State of Manipur. The NIA’s involvement and the likelihood of prolonged legal battles further complicate the situation, raising fears of escalating tensions and potential retaliatory actions from the Pambei led UNLF (cadres.
As the general strike unfolded, the people of Manipur find themselves caught in the crosshairs of a conflict that has plagued their State for far too long. The successful resolution of this crisis will require not only the unconditional release of the arrested leaders but also a concerted effort by all stakeholders to uphold the spirit of the ceasefire agreement and pave the way for lasting peace and reconciliation.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])