Guns and Gandhigiri

20 Apr 2011

A revolution is sweeping through Manipur — the central security forces are countering insurgency by building roads, holding regular medical camps in far-flung hills and supplying artificial limbs for hundreds of victims of land mines. The strategy is paying off, says Prasun Chaudhuri

Joakhim Mate is deep in meditation. In jungle fatigues, he sits with 75 others, inhaling deeply in a sunlit hall at Pallel, about 70 kilometres south-east of Imphal, the capital of Manipur.

The venue is the barracks of the Assam Rifles (AR), a central paramilitary force administered by officers of the Indian army. And Mate, 25, is a former militant.

“This is the second batch of surrendered insurgents undergoing a rehabilitation programme,” says Brigadier Sanjay Kumar Bhanot, the commanding officer of the battalion in Pallel.

A different kind of a revolution is sweeping through parts of Manipur. The army and paramilitary forces — for long years battling local men with guns — are reaching out to those who want to give up the fight. Over 127 militants who surrendered last year have been rehabilitated through an intensive spiritual and vocational training programme conducted by the Art of Living Foundation, the Bangalore-based spiritual organisation.“Eighty of them even bagged plum jobs across India,” says Major General C.A. Krishnan, who spearheads the project.

The strategy has its share of critics, some of whom believe that the army shouldn’t get into the “politics” of peace. “The solution to the Manipur problem is political, and to some extent socio-economic. It has to come from the political establishment or civil society — not the army or security forces,” says Dhanabir Laishram, an activist and the author of North-East in Benthic Zone.

The armed forces, however, are convinced that is the road to peace. For a while, they have been sending out feelers to insurgents’ families, promising then handsome rehabilitation packages if they gave up the gun. The message seems to be working; intelligence reports suggest more insurgents are to surrender in the next few months.

The meditation camps are just one of the several projects the forces have unfurled for the people in what is being described as a concerted bid to “win the hearts and minds of the people” while countering insurgency. Among the schemes in place are regular medical camps in far-flung hills, water supply in arid zones, artificial limbs for hundreds of victims of land mines and bridges in remote areas. Football grounds have come up and schools reopened in villages.

Welcome to a new form Gandhigiri, a term for peaceful campaigns made popular by the Hindi film Lage Raho Munnaibhai. The strategy, called “Operation Good Samaritan” or Military Civic Action (MCA) by the AR, has soldiers reaching out to the people through social endeavours. “It is a counter-terrorist operation with a human face. You can’t fight militants if common people mistrust the forces or the government,” says Lieutenant General Rameshwar Ray, director general, AR.

The army’s efforts may not have taken off had it not been for the growing local disenchantment with the rebels. Over the years, Ray holds, many militant groups have been indulging in criminal activities. “Most of the 30-odd underground groups have been running extortion and kidnapping rackets through hapless and unemployed youths trapped in the vicious circle of insurgency,” adds Colonel Devjeet Banerjee, head of intelligence, AR.

The first job of the security forces was to make people aware of the ground reality and help them stand up against extortion. A poster campaign was launched, with the slogan: “Nobody provides me with medicine and care, why should I pay any illegal tax to anyone?” Beneath that, it said: “If you feel aggrieved you must report to us.”

Emotional appeals aptly titled Ema Gi Tengtha (a mother’s plea) were targeted at the terrorist and his family highlighting what the AR saw as “false promises” made by rebel leaders. The idea behind this was to isolate the leadership and build the people’s faith in the government.

The AR is gung ho about its activities but some are sceptical. “These projects are meant more for an image makeover of the army in Manipur following the huge public outcry about the use of the Armed Forces Special Power Act in the state,” says Wangkhem Vivekraj, a politician and former MLA.

The image makeover seems to have worked in some parts, though it’s too early to say how successful the strategy has been. Sajik Tampak village in Sajik Valley in southern Manipur is a case in point. “This village was a rebel stronghold even five years ago,” says Colonel Ravinder Kumar, commanding officer of the 8th battalion of the Assam Rifles, entrusted with protecting the valley. The insurgents declared it a “liberated zone”, using it as a training centre for armed groups.

The valley is now a model of peace and development. The AR barracks were actually the insurgent camps till the ultras were flushed out and sent across the border to Myanmar five years ago. Now, the battalion has, among other things, opened a primary health sub-centre and a government high school, organised jobs for the young, and brought electricity to the villages with solar power.

David Khammang, chief of the Haika village, says one of the biggest problems in the area was the cultivation of poppy, an easy source of money for militants exporting opium to Myanmar. “The colonel and his jawans slashed and burnt poppy worth crores of rupees and called scientists from Imphal’s Central Agricultural University to educate us on growing highly productive seeds of cash crops such as ginger and fruits,” Khammang says.

The local MLA from Chandel too admires the effort. “They opened up avenues for us to reach out to people through development schemes,” says Thangkholun Haokip. “You can measure the prosperity by the increasing number of private vehicles in a region treated as the back of beyond even a few years ago.”

The army, always known for its infrastructure-building capacities, has built roads and bridges across the region — projects that are not always easy for civic authorities to execute. The Challou Bridge on the river Chammu Turrel, 140km from Imphal, for instance, now connects six villages with the district town Ukhrul. “The MCA has been extremely helpful in bridging the gap with people in the remote hills, vulnerable to insurgent activities,” says Bijoi Koijam, deputy chairman, Manipur State Planning Board.

Before the bridge came up, people were often stranded during the monsoons and sometimes had to cut across into Myanmar for their basic needs, says A.S. Shanrei, headman of Challou village.

Now, with improved connectivity, governance is easier. “We can implement central schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Border Area Development Programme more efficiently,” stresses N. Ashok Kumar, deputy commissioner, Ukhrul.

But roads and bridges are just one side of the story. The main challenge, Krishnan points out, is to prevent the young from veering towards militancy. To deal with that, the MCA is now focusing on the very young. Children of Ukhrul orphanages were sent to Delhi on an educational tour to watch the Republic Day parade and visit historic monuments. Children from Chandel went to Delhi for the Commonwealth Games.

Krishnan says engaging the young in sports is also helping to keep their mind off militancy, for Manipuris are particularly fond of sports. Not surprisingly, a playground carved out of the hills in Tingkhai Khunou village in Bishnupur district in north Manipur has been attracting the youth in an area still inhabited by terrorist groups seeking to recruit young men. “We organise sport meets and train the talented youth so that they remain engaged in constructive activities,” says Colonel Amardeep Singh, AR commanding officer in the area.

Critics believe that a spate of developments — including the rape and murder of Manorama Devi in 2004 and the subsequent protest of women who stripped to express their anger against the army — has forced the army to take these steps. “The army and security forces have mellowed a lot after the public outcry,” says Babloo Loitongbom, executive director, Human Rights Alert. But instead of the army, he adds, the police are now carrying on the attacks against the Manipuris. Further, he points out, the forces are taking over civic governance. “This is not a healthy trend for democracy,” he adds.

Krishnan disagrees, holding that people in remote areas are looking at the forces for governance. “All our projects are collaborative ventures — involving administrators, elected representatives and the people themselves. We are just the facilitators.”

The army seems to have realised that to fight insurgency, it needs the support of the locals. “Unless citizens are on your side you can’t eliminate insurgency,” says Ray. “After all, you can’t kill your own people to win a war against terror.”