As the ethnic conflict between the Meitei and Kuki communities continues to roil Manipur, another faultline in the state is growing wider: between the Assam Rifles central paramilitary force and the Manipur police.

While the two security forces have been sparring intermittently since the beginning of the conflict in May, the last week has seen matters take a turn for the worse.

On August 5, the Manipur police went as far as registering a First Information Report against Assam Rifles personnel for allegedly obstructing the police from pursuing suspected Kuki militants.

While the FIR marks an unprecedented escalation of hostilities, the complaint fits into a pattern: the Manipur police, which draws most of its constabulary from the Meitei community, have routinely accused the Assam Rifles of siding with the Kukis in this ethnic conflict.

“It is common knowledge that rather than stopping the Kuki militants from attacking the valley, they have always been siding with them,” said a senior Meitei police official, who was until recently posted as the district police chief in one of the violence-hit districts.

The Assam Rifles have vehemently contested these charges.

The paramilitary force has been “working relentlessly towards saving lives and restoration of peace in Manipur May 3 onwards,” said the latest statement on the matter by the Army, which holds operational command of the Assam Rifles. Administratively, the paramilitary force is controlled by the Union ministry of home affairs.

In the statement, the Army described the allegations of bias as “desperate, repeated and failed attempts to question the role, intent and integrity of the Central Security Forces, especially Assam Rifles”.

Conflict on video

The rift between the Assam Rifles and Manipur police first came into public view in June. A viral video showed personnel from the 37th battalion of the Assam Rifles having a heated altercation with the officials of the Manipur police outside the Sugnu police station in Kakching district. The argument was purportedly the outcome of an Assam Rifles team blocking the entrance to the police station.

The latest round of antagonism between the Assam Rifles and the Manipur police was also caught on camera and the video was widely shared on social media. In the video, shot on August 5 in Bishnupur district’s Kwakta area, personnel from the Manipur police were seen hotly accusing their counterparts from the Assam Rifles of blocking their way using armoured vehicles, in the process helping “suspected Kuki militants” flee.

Earlier that day, five people – three Meiteis and two Kukis – had been killed in the area that straddles the boundary of Meitei-dominated Bishnupur and the Kuki-majority hill district of Churachandpur.

The police report detailing the altercation claims that the Assam Rifles’ personnel had jeopardised their search operation to trace the “suspected Kuki militants” allegedly involved in the killing of the three Meitei men. “Such arrogant act of the personnel of 9th AR gave a chance to the accused Kuki militants to escape freely to a safe zone,” notes the report based on which an FIR was registered.

An escalation

Ever since, the temperature has only increased.

Two days later, on August 7, the Manipur government jumped into the fray. It issued an order for what it called the removal of the Assam Rifles personnel from a border post at a crucial buffer zone between the Meitei and Kuki-dominated areas. The government wanted the force to be replaced with the state police and the Central Reserve Police Force. (The Army in a statement has contested this: the post, according to it, was not manned by the Assam Rifles in the first place.)

Then, on August 9, 40 legislators from strife-torn Manipur petitioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi for three units of the Assam Rifles – the 9th, 22nd, and 37th battalions – to be replaced by other “trustworthy Central forces” and teams of the state police.

“In many cases, these firing incidents have occurred in the presence of Central Security Forces which have failed to react appropriately, or react at all,” the MLAs memorandum alleged.

The memorandum came after another one that the Manipur unit of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had written to the prime minister a day earlier. “Since day one, the Assam Rifles has failed to maintain neutrality so as to restore peace in the state,” read the petition, signed by a party’s state president.

Both of these petitions echoed a widely prevalent sentiment in the Imphal valley: that the Assam Rifles were biased in favour of the Kukis.

A history of distrust

This theory stems from an enduring suspicion shared by the Meities about a political arrangement that the Kuki armed groups have with the Indian state. The Suspension of Operations agreement is a ceasefire arrangement of sorts that the Kuki groups have with the Centre (the Manipur government also used to be part of it, but it withdrew in March).

The arrangement has always been contentious. Critics, not limited to those from the Meitei community, have likened it to a mercenary arrangement. According to them, the agreement was used by the Army to deploy Kuki militants as a counterweight to Meitei and Naga armed groups in the region.

“Because of this history, Meiteis have reason to say that the Kukis and Assam Rifles are hand-in gloves,” said a Delhi-based Meitei academic, requesting anonymity.

There are also allegations that this supposed proximity has led to the Assam Rifles turning a blind eye to the purported drug-running activities in the area by Kuki armed groups. “Massive poppy cultivation in the Kuki-dominated hill areas are managed and controlled by the SoO [Suspension of Operations] militants and everything is happening there under the nose of the Assam Rifles camps,” alleged Khuraijam Athouba, spokesperson of the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity, an umbrella body of Meitei civil society groups.

Athouba also accused the Assam Rifles of ignoring the “influx” from Myanmar. According to Meitei groups, undocumented migrants from across the border have had a role to play in the current crisis.

A hot and cold affair

Yet, while Meitei civil society’s distrust of the Assam Rifles is historical, the Manipur Police and the Assam Rifles have a long history of working together. For instance, two forces have often conducted counterinsurgency operations jointly, particularly against Meitei militant groups in the valley.

Political scientist Sanjib Baruah pointed out that a Supreme Court-appointed commission in 2013 found that many of the “fake encounters” or extrajudicial killings in the state had occurred during those joint operations.

“The Manipur Police Commandos also benefited from doing joint operations because they effectively got the same protection against prosecution that Assam Rifles enjoyed under AFSPA,” said Baruah, referring to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that affords a high degree of legal immunity to security forces in counterinsurgency operations.

Army personnel stand guard as demonstrators protest against mass burial of Kuki-Zomi people killed in Manipur's ethnic violence, in Imphal on August 3, 2023. Photo Credit: AFP
Army personnel stand guard as demonstrators protest against mass burial of Kuki-Zomi people killed in Manipur's ethnic violence, in Imphal on August 3, 2023. Photo Credit: AFP

Counter allegations

The Assam Rifles, for its part, attributed the breakdown of its long-running working relationship with the Manipur police to the latter’s own alleged bias.

Referring to the incident of August 5, the Assam Rifles battalion, the Army said, had “acted strictly in accordance with the mandate of… preventing violence between the two communities”.

Speaking to Scroll, an officer of the Assam Rifles accused the police of “siding with the Meitei mobs”. “That day also, the battalion was stopping civilians and Manipur police commandos from going up the hills,” the officer said. “We were doing our job which is to be the barrier between the hills and the valley.”

What about the often-repeated allegation in the valley that the Assam Rifles had been ineffective in preventing offensives by suspected Kuki militants? After all, the Meitei men who died that day were killed in their homes well within the valley by Kuki militants who had crossed the buffer zone.

The official said the failure did not stem from acting in bad faith. The forested terrain meant people often sneaked through in the dark, the officer said.

“We have in the past pursued Kukis firing with automatics and even apprehended them, but when the local population supports these militants, it is difficult to catch them always,” said the official. “They blend in among the local population, the arms are hidden.”

He added, “We have been requesting the Manipur police to not become part of the mob and get in revenge mode.”

Scroll sent a detailed questionnaire to the Assam Rifles, seeking comment on allegations of the force being involved in drug trafficking and allowing “illegal migration” from Myanmar. No response had been received by the time this article was published.