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Abject Surrender of the State to Armed Militia in India’s Manipur

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Abject Surrender of the State to Armed Militia in India’s Manipur

Thirty-seven legislators, including India’s junior minister for external affairs, were administered an oath by the chief of the Arambai Tenggol.

Abject Surrender of the State to Armed Militia in India’s Manipur
Credit: Manipur Legislative Assembly

The Northeast Indian state of Manipur, which has been in the grip of a civil war-like situation since May 2023, when violent clashes broke out between the Meitei and Kuki ethnic groups, stood witness to a new low of lawlessness on January 24, when the chief of an armed militia, the Ararmbai Tenggol, administered an “oath” to 37 members of the state legislative assembly and two members of the Indian parliament.

The MPs were R.K. Ranjan Singh, junior minister for external affairs in the Narendra Modi government, who hails from Manipur, and Leishemba Sanajaoba, a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament. Others who participated in the event included ministers in the Manipur state government as well as former Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh.

“I pledge to personally do my part for protecting our community and Sanamahi (religion). I will not betray or let my community and religion down and become a traitor,” goes part of the oath that can be heard in videos circulating online.

The administering of the oath to the legislators happened just a day after a special team from India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) met Arambai Tenggol chief Korounganba Khuman in the state capital Imphal to discuss their demands.

The Arambai Tenggol had called for the meeting with the legislators on January 20, warning that anyone staying away would be considered an enemy of the people. When media reports indicated that some legislators were considering resigning rather than participating in the oath-taking, Khumam issued a statement, saying that anyone who wished to resign could do so only after attending the January 24 event.

A government official claimed that the MHA team had tried to persuade Khuman to cancel or postpone Tuesday’s event but he did not budge. The Diplomat could not independently verify this claim.

During the event on January 24, the lawmakers were made to sign a six-point pledge. This will be sent to the Union government as a resolution for immediate action.

“If the centre does not listen to our concerns, we will take the movement to protect Manipur to the people,” reads a part of the pledge. Khuman has given the lawmakers 15 days to get some results.

The lawmakers are from different political parties but they all belong to the Hindu Meitei ethnic group, who form the majority in the state.

However, the Arambai Tenggol considers Meiteis to be followers of the Sanamahi religion and claims that they are indigenous people.

The Meiteis live in the valley, while the Naga and Kuki-Chin tribes live mostly in the surrounding hills. It is with the predominantly Christian Kuki-Chin group that the Meiteis have engaged in a bloody turf war over the past nine months in this Myanmar-bordering state.

The Kuki share ties with ethnic kin living in Myanmar. It is alleged that Kuki armed groups are collaborating with groups in Myanmar. Infiltration from Myanmar has been one of the triggers of the current conflict.

Only recently, the Union government imposed Article 355 of the Indian Constitution on Manipur. This allows the Union government, when faced with external aggression and internal disturbance, to assume control of a state’s law and order enforcement without dismissing the state government.

But an armed group administering oath to every single lawmaker from the majority community has possibly surpassed everything that has happened over the past nine months.

Videos showing the lawmakers standing in a single line repeating every word of the oath went viral on social media and shocked people. Many felt it reflected the total collapse, surrender and subordination of the administration.

After the oath-taking ceremony, Khuman addressed a large public gathering a little distance from the historic Kangla Fort. He said that he wanted to show the people through the event “that the people are above ministers and MLAs.”

Chief Minister N. Biren Singh was not present at the oath-taking event, but he too signed the resolution, Khuman informed the public. The Arambai Tenggol has made the signatures public.

On January 25, Khuman also clarified in a Facebook post why the chief minister did not turn up at the event. “He didn’t come because we didn’t invite him. The chief minister’s presence would have allowed the opposition to allege that the [Arambai Tenggol] had captured the government through a coup,” he said, adding that “since there are some protocols, his absence is not an issue.”

Khuman said that he faced many personal threats for trying to organize the event but he did it without fear for the sake of their land and society.

Khuman has displayed extreme insolence as well. When the junior foreign minister shared on Facebook a photo of himself sweeping a temple premises in northern India’s Uttarakhand ahead of the Ram Temple inauguration in Ayodhya, Khuman shared the post adding the comment, “Come early on 24th and sweep at Kangla, please!”

On Monday night, the administration had initially deployed a large number of security personnel in the Kangla Fort area with the intention of preventing the entry of Arambai Tenggol members there. However, on Tuesday morning, the security cover was withdrawn and carloads of armed Arambai Tenggol members arrived at the venue.

Khuman, who moves around with tight security provided by his heavily armed Arambai Tenggol members, entered Kangla Fort in a vehicle with a police sticker on it, a journalist who was present outside the fort told The Diplomat.

During the event, three lawmakers who reportedly refused to take the oath were beaten up. Though none of them — or any of the lawmakers present — made any public comment, the Congress, India’s main opposition party, raised the matter.

In a post on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter), Jairam Ramesh, Congress parliamentarian and general secretary in charge of communications, said the party “strongly condemns the brutal physical assault” on the party’s Manipur state unit chief K. Meghachandra, “in a meeting of all-party MLAs/ MPs/ Ministers, under full security protection of state and central forces, at Kangla in Imphal yesterday.”

Ramesh criticized Prime Minister Modi for continuing with “his eloquent silence on the enormous tragedy that has overtaken Manipur.”

The pledge that the lawmakers were made to sign includes the demand for abrogation of the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with Kuki militants, a citizenship screening exercise in Manipur asking for pre-1951 documents to prove citizenship, fencing of the India-Myanmar border, and removal of Kukis from the Scheduled Tribe list.

Another demand is the deportation of Myanmar’s Kuki-Chin refugees, who are currently in Manipur’s neighboring Mizoram state. The Kuki-Chin tribe from the majority in Mizoram and Myanmar’s Kuki-Chin refugees have received a rather sensitive welcome there.