Assam Rifles secures threatened supply route to Manipur’s hill districts

Tribal districts forced to fall back on neighbouring Mizoram for supply of essentials; Kuki groups block highway to Meitei areas in valley; bulk of stolen police weapons with Meiteis, sources say

June 20, 2023 10:32 pm | Updated June 21, 2023 09:10 am IST - NEW DELHI

Locals stay alert after fresh violence in Manipur’s Kanto Sabal, in Imphal West on June 20, 2023.

Locals stay alert after fresh violence in Manipur’s Kanto Sabal, in Imphal West on June 20, 2023. | Photo Credit: ANI

The Assam Rifles has moved additional troops to secure a bridge on a national highway in south Manipur that is the only route for essential supplies to the tribal district of Churachandpur district in the violence-hit State. A source said that additional columns were moved after security forces picked up chatter from Valley-based Meitei insurgent groups who were planning to damage the bridge at Sinzawl on NH102 B, which connects Manipur with neighbouring Mizoram.

With highway blockades and the armed cadres of insurgent groups -- both Kuki and Meitei -- threatening free movement, the transport of essential supplies to various communities across the State has been endangered. On the one hand, Churachandpur, a Kuki-dominated area in the south of the State, has been getting essential supplies by road from Mizoram as protestors have blocked access from the northern Imphal Valley regions of the State; that is the road from Mizoram now being threatened by Meitei insurgents. On the other hand, Kuki groups in the north have blocked the main supply route to the Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley, forcing a fallback on an alternative route. In the southeast, the border areas of Chandel and Tengnoupal, primarily Kuki and Naga-dominated districts, are now dependent on Myanmar for the supply of essentials as they are blocked from the rest of Manipur.

Supplies from Mizoram

On Tuesday, Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga tweeted that 2,388.50 quintals of rice have been sent to “Zo ethnic tribes in troubled Manipur areas and internally displaced persons residing in Mizoram by Govt. Of Mizoram, including other relief supplies.” A total of 11,785 internally displaced people from Manipur have taken shelter in Mizoram since the eruption of ethnic strife in Manipur, Mr. Zoramthanga said. 

Also read: Manipur, a rude reminder of northeast tensions

More than 100 people have been killed and more than 50,000 people from both Kuki and Meitei communities have been displaced since ethnic violence erupted on May 3.

Since National Highway 2 or NH 2 has been blocked by Kuki groups in the north, the supplies to Meitei-dominated areas in the Imphal Valley are being maintained through NH 37. In April, before the crisis erupted, an average of 390 vehicles travelled on NH2 every day, according to an officer in the security establishment. Over the past 14 days, the average daily movement on NH37 has spiked to 483 vehicles, indicating that the alternate route is now operational.

Stolen weapons

More than 4,000 weapons and lakhs of ammunition have been snatched from police armouries in two phases since May 3. A little over a thousand weapons have been recovered or returned to police armouries so far. According to officials, around the bulk of stolen weapons are with Meitei cadres and the remaining are with the Kuki groups. 

Also read: Kukis | Fight for land and identity 

A senior government official said that many of the snatched weapons are believed to be in the possession of banned Meitei insurgent groups who have entered from Myanmar; the movement of 60 to 70 such groups have been recorded in the Valley since May 3.

In 2018, the Union Home Ministry had extended the ban on eight Meitei extremist outfits for advocating the secession of Manipur from India. The Ministry said in a notification that the outfits were “maintaining camps in neighbouring countries for the purpose of sanctuaries, training and clandestine procurement of arms and ammunition.”

The banned groups included the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) and the United National Liberation Front (UNLF). According to a fresh assessment by security agencies, before the ethnic violence started in Manipur, the PLA and UNLF had four camps at Myothit, Thongren and Thanan in Myanmar, with a combined strength of 150 to 160 cadres.

All the 24 Kuki insurgent groups are in a suspension of operations (SoO) pact with the Centre and Manipur government to negotiate a peace deal.

“The cadres [of both Meitei and Kuki groups] have now been armed with stolen weapons and are attacking civilians,” said the official.

Armed insurgents

On June 19, four suspected cadres of the UNLF were apprehended at Lilong in Thoubal, the army said. A 51 mm mortar, said to have been stolen from a police armoury was found on them. “Acting on intelligence inputs, Mobile Vehicle Check Post was established near Police Station Lilong on night 19 June. Four suspected cadres in two separate vehicles were apprehended with One 51 mm Mortar & handed over to Police,” the army said in a tweet.

A defence source said that soon after the four suspects were apprehended and handed over to the police, they picked up chatter where two groups were discussing the arrests. “One of the callers is saying that he has been alerted that a combing operation is planned in the area on Tuesday and they should delay their operation,” the source said.

The source added that a large crowd had gathered outside the police station after the suspects were handed over to police on Tuesday morning. “The crowd was demanding their release. All four who were booked under various sections of Arms Act were out on bail within hours,” said the source.

The source added, “Incidents of firing pattern in the past few weeks reveals that firing undertaken by people not unfamiliar with weapons. On Monday, an army soldier was injured in Imphal West in precision attack.”

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