Ginminlun Zou, headman of Sajik Tampak, sums up the change since 2004 in his village near the Myanmar border in six words — “from noisy shots to silent shots”.
Sajik Tampak, in the Chakpikarong subdivision of Manipur’s Chandel district, is about 90 km south of the State capital Imphal.
Anyone familiar with Manipur’s history of extremism would know “noisy shots” allude to the bursts of bullets from automatic weapons that extremists brandished freely once. “Silent shots” mean the jabs with syringes.
Captain Manvendra Singh Balot is new at the medical unit of the Assam Rifles’ Sajik Tampak battalion. Like his predecessors, he is getting used to being told by locals how his team administers life-saving pills and injections from the very spot where the extremists issued death sentences or executed those who defied them.
The medical unit, on the way to the battalion headquarters which straddle a hillock, is a row of green-painted tin sheds on the periphery of a football field. The unit is about 300 metres from the grimmest reminder of a gory past for the villagers — a stone memorial listing the names of 24 Kuki-Zou tribal men killed by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim in January 1994.
The villagers underwent another nightmarish phase less than a decade later when Valley-Based Insurgent Groups (VBIGs) catering to the aspirations of the non-tribal Meitei people concentrated in the Imphal Valley, declared Sajik Tampak a “liberated zone”.
The VBIGs, mainly the United National Liberation Front, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) and the Kangleipak Communist Party, had captured the area after the security posts in place since the Naga-Kuki clashes of the 1990s were removed in 2003.
An elderly resident of Thingsan, one of several hamlets in the Sajik Tampak area, recalled how the VBIGs often used locals as human shields during encounters with the Armed Forces. “The Assam Rifles medical unit used to be the headquarters of one of the VBIGs from where they issued extortion notices and sentenced people to death,” he said.
Reign of peace
“We have been living peacefully since the Assam Rifles arrived in 2004. It has been the only government agency not only operating in the area but also catering to our basic needs, as we hardly see anyone from the civil administration here,” Kakai Haokip, a community leader said. As a child, he used to “help” the extremists carry AK-47 assault rifles during “patrol duty”.
The Assam Rifles set-up also ensured fast medical relief for the villagers.
“This area is quite remote and isolated, far from the nearest medical facility with poor surface connectivity. We have been providing medical treatment to the locals in case of a medical emergency,” Captain Balot said.
“The cases usually encountered by the unit hospital are snake bite, polytrauma and seasonal illnesses,” he added.
The feeling of security was what prompted Tracy Haokip to set up her school adjacent to the Assam Rifles’ medical unit. That perhaps explains why she chose not to erect a fence between her school and the facility of India’s oldest paramilitary force formed in 1835.
“We keep hearing that the battalions and smaller units would be withdrawn if the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) is lifted from more areas of Manipur. The Act is not desirable, but we want the Government of India to let the Assam Rifles stay here for our sake,” she told The Hindu.
The AFSPA was removed from areas under 15 police stations in six districts of Manipur on April 1. Chandel is not among these districts.
Armed Forces officers say the Sajik Tampak area could relapse into the “liberated zone” phase if it ceases to have a military or paramilitary presence. The strategic location of the place — hilly with dense jungles and poor mobile phone connectivity — is the primary reason.
“There are 50 small villages in the area of responsibility of the Sajik Tampak battalion. The cooperation of the villagers is crucial for the company operation bases (COBs) along the India-Myanmar border in different directions,” an Assam Rifles officer of Colonel rank said.
The farthest of more than half-a-dozen COBs takes a soldier, carrying 20 kg of battle load and at least 22 kg of personal belongings, about three days to reach on foot.
Some of the COBs face the hideouts of the VBIGs in Myanmar across the border. These hideouts include the Senam camp of the PLA about 8 km from the border, and the Kuangkhan camp of a faction of the PREPAK about 10 km from the border.