Army officers say Army faces challenges in Manipur without AFSPA

Armed Forces Special Powers Act lifted in many areas in the State; troops have been sensitised ‘not to take any action’ to alienate citizens even if this means falling back in the face of protests

July 09, 2023 09:18 pm | Updated July 10, 2023 11:02 am IST - NEW DELHI

Alert position: Personnel of the Assam Rifles inside a bunker at Phaileng village of Manipur’s Senapati district on July 7. 

Alert position: Personnel of the Assam Rifles inside a bunker at Phaileng village of Manipur’s Senapati district on July 7.  | Photo Credit: PTI

Operating without legal cover provided by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is a major limitation for security forces operating in Manipur in the current situation, Army sources say. They also stated that there has been no instance of attempts to snatch weapons from Army troops, even as a large number of weapons have been looted from other security forces.

“The challenges being faced by the Army and Assam Rifles (AR) get compounded by the fact that the tasks being undertaken in this complex, volatile and charged up atmosphere are bereft of legal protection and cover of AFSPA. However, challenges notwithstanding, prompt and proactive actions by the Army have saved many lives in the State with zero collaterals so far,” one source said talking of the challenges on the ground in Manipur, a view echoed by several others.

“There is now a very thin line between a commendation and court martial,” an officer posted on the ground said on the situation.

In March this year, the Central government had removed AFSPA from one district of Assam, and within the limits of four police stations (Wangoi, Leimakhong, Nambol and Moirang) in Manipur. This took the number of police-station limits without AFSPA to 19 spanning seven districts of Manipur. Home Minister Amit Shah had said on March 25 that the Centre had decided to “reduce the Disturbed Areas” under the AFSPA in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur due to the “significant improvement in the security situation in Northeast India.”

Elaborating further, the source said that troops have been sensitised “not to take any action” to alienate the citizens of the country - even if this means “going back in face of civil protests, proving the Army’s professional conduct.” “Despite challenges galore, the Army has exercised maximum self-restraint which was evident during recent incidents wherein large groups of women activists blocked the armed forces thereby delaying and obstructing conduct of operations,” the source added.

Buffer zones have been created between the areas of Meiteis and Kukis with area domination patrols being conducted though there have been continuing instances of violence, in some cases with movement of security forces blocked. For this, static posts have been established and technology is being used in conduct of operations including monitoring by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

Looted weapons a problem

Over 4,000 weapons, including some automatic and high-calibre weapons and ammunition, were looted from police stations while Suspension of Operations (SoO) camps were major activity sites, the first source said noting that this has created a threefold problem.

First, looted weapons - which include Light Machine Guns, AK-47s, INSAS rifles, 7.62mm Self-Loading Rifles, rocket launcher and 51mm mortars - are readily available with the miscreants amid a charged-up atmosphere, the source said referring to subsequent violence which corroborated that. “Secondly, due to this local police is without these weapons. This restricts the employment of police, reducing their morale and bringing down their efficiency,” the source stated adding that as a result of this major responsibility has fallen on the Army and AR. “Hence, credibility of the local police, and by extension governance, has taken a hit.”

Joint combing operations along with the local authorities has since resulted in significant recoveries of these weapons and ammunition but several weapons are yet to surrendered or recovered.

On the number of troops mobilised, sources said Army was the first responder with an initial rapid build-up of 55 columns that were transported by air and road on May 3 and 4, which had gone up to 111 columns by May 6 and 164 columns by end of May. In all, there are over 300 columns of Army, AR and Central Armed Police Forces currently, according to sources. A column consists of 80-100 troops.

The Army’s initiative of this pre-emptive deployment and early response without waiting for formal requisition by the civil administration ensured that there was an agency of the state which attempted to control the arson, violence and clashes from the word go, a third source said adding, “Had this foresight and initiative not been displayed, the situation would have been worse and violence levels could have been much higher.”

On the other challenges, officials noted that security forces are also facing problems in moving replenishments and logistics to the remotest areas. Misinformation is another major challenge in restoring peace.

There is a large-scale disinformation campaign from all the parties in the conflict. Such campaigns from both sides have blamed security forces including the Army of biased actions, one of the sources cited above said. “This, in itself, underscores the neutrality of Army while exposing the motivated narratives. Army has been proactive in dispelling these allegations and many on the ground acknowledge our role,” the first source asserted.

In addition to the internal situation, eight battalions are completely dedicated to border-guarding role along the Indo-Myanmar Border and their strength cannot be diverted for internal security duties, the source said adding, “Even today, 60 to 70 columns dominate the border 24x7.”

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