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'Assam Rifles is an excellent time tested force'

Last updated on: August 11, 2023 17:00 IST

'It has been doing yeoman service for the people of the North East.'

IMAGE: Security personnel conduct combing operations in sensitive areas of Manipur. Photograph: ANI Photo

"Maintaining peace in insurgency affected states is the most difficult task. There is always a danger of inter-tribal and inter communal clashes like what is happening in Manipur," says retired Lieutenant General Shakti Gurung, former corps commander in the North East who was responsible for the Kameng sector in Arunachal Pradesh.

The officer with four decades of military experience was also responsible for counter insurgency operations in Lower Assam and the Karbi Anglong jungles. He also served as defence attache in Myanmar.

"The clashes in Manipur must be controlled and talks must begin. A Peace and Reconciliation group comprising of neutral personalities from the North East must be created," the general tells's Archana Masih in an e-mail interview


What are some of the unique and most difficult security challenges that the Indian Army has to deal with in the North East, especially in the border states of Manipur and Nagaland?

Operationally, it is ensure the sanctity of the Line of Actual Control. There are a number of disputed areas along the LAC in the North East due to misinterpretation of its actual alignment.

The McMahon Line signed at Simla in 1913 is not recognised by China. We follow it as the line that runs along the watershed.

The next major challenge is the construction of infrastructure and developing road connectivity in the forward areas. This activity encounters tremendous hurdles due to the prevailing land rules.

Land acquisition is a major exercise because locals do not want to part with land easily, primarily due to the price being offered.

The availability of building material like sand, gravel and rocks is another major issue plaguing construction.

Over the years, the forward areas have seen a sizeable increase in the number of serving and retired officers and jawans in the defence and police services who are aware of government procedures and are quite demanding.

Furthermore, in the North East region, land is either community owned where families enjoy rights according to the allotment made by the village council; or individually owned which is transferable only within the same tribal community.

Maintaining peace in insurgency affected states is the most difficult task. There is always a danger of inter-tribal and inter communal clashes like what is happening in Manipur.

Fortunately, the Indian Army has been withdrawn from the counter insurgency role with the task being taken on by the Assam Rifles and other Central Armed Police Forces.

The Assam Rifles is an excellent time tested force doing yeoman service for the people of the North East. It has 46 battalions that are engaged in border sealing and counter insurgency roles in Manipur and Nagaland.

Compared to a serving army jawan whose average age is 26, an Assam Rifles soldier is roughly 38. The latter also goes to serve up to the age of 60.

The physical and mental stress is thus enormous and beyond compare. To provide some relief, some more battalions need to be raised. This will allow some semblance of a 'peace-field profile' on the lines of the regular army as is also being done by other central police forces.

IMAGE: The Indian Army along with the Assam Rifles, police and Central Armed Police Forces commence Area Domination Operations in the hills and valley area across Manipur. Photograph: ANI Photo

As someone with an understanding of the region, how can the hostilities between the Meiteis and Kukis end and situation brought under control? Is it possible or is the wedge/divide too wide to be repaired?

Talks must begin. To enable this, the clashes must be controlled. A Peace and Reconciliation group comprising of neutral personalities from the North East must be created and involved.

Perhaps the mandate of the North East Council, which is purely aligned towards development, must be enhanced to involve security aspects as well.

Illegal migration must be checked. The state government has recommended 1961 as the base year for identifying its native residents. This was the year Manipur was given statehood. A few lobbies are even demanding 1951 as the pass/permit system to visit the state existed till November 1950.

The decision has to be political. The migration issue can be resolved only if there is political will to face the backlash. The future of those declared non residents will have to be thought of.

In the Assam NRC exercise, more than two million were declared non residents. Buffer zones which the government is planning on creating between the Meiteis and Kukis can only be a short term remedy.

IMAGE: Women protest against the Assam Rifles in Imphal, August 7, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

What dangers does the situation in Manipur pose to the delicate security situation vis a vis the insurgent groups based in Myanmar?

Two groups claimed to be social-cultural organisations of the Meiteis played a crucial role in the clashes. Both groups were very much part of the clashes on behalf of the Meiteis. And so were the Meira Paibis, the women's organisation who according to me are the biggest block to any CI operation.

Around 4,500 to 5,000 weapons were claimed to have been looted from the armouries. Of these close to 2,000 have been returned. The balance can be surmised as having gone to the Meitei insurgent groups -- the PLA, UNLF and PREPAK.

I suspect that these groups too would now be located on our side of the border to indulge in the mayhem. These groups have also been supporting the Myanmar Tatmadaw (the Myanmar army) in its fight against the Peoples Defence Forces created by the anti-coup segment of the population in Chin State and Sagaing Division.

It suits these groups as they are fighting the Kuki Zo people on the Myanmar side of the border as well besides natural protection from the Tatmadaw.

Furthermore, AFSPA has been removed from a number of places in Manipur. This has tied the hands of security forces tremendously. The political leadership may be having their own reasons for this on which I do not wish to comment.

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