Manipur’s first Bharatiya Janata Party-led government completes six months in office on Thursday. In the February-March Assembly elections, the BJP won fewer seats than the Congress – which had ruled the state for 15 years – but it managed to cobble together a majority with regional parties.
It chose N Biren Singh, a former footballer, minister in the Congress-led government and editor of the widely read daily Naharolgi Thoudang, as its chief minister. His government must now administer a state that has seen violent conflict for decades and is under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives security personnel sweeping powers to search, arrest and even kill. Making the situation more volatile, tensions have flared between residents of the Manipur hills and the Imphal valley in the past two years, while several militant groups are straining against uneasy truces.
Singh spoke to Scroll.in on some of these subjects.
Your government recently claimed that 68 militants belonging to various valley-based groups have surrendered. You publicly acknowledged Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s role in it. What was his role?
Actually, Ravi Shankar-ji initiated this through one militant who is in jail in Guwahati. After the militant in Guwahati reached out to Ravi Shankar-ji, the Art of Living people went to meet him in jail. Then, Ravi Shankar-ji informed me that some people want to join the mainstream. I said, “most welcome”. Then, with a little bit from the government side, the number [of the surrendered militants] has been increased. I have to give credit to Ravi Shankar-ji for this.
People have expressed doubt over the authenticity of the affair. Only eight arms were recovered from 68 militants. Is there any truth to the contention that most of these 68 people had been overground for quite some time already?
Many people have deserted the camp [in Myanmar, where most valley-based groups are believed to be based]. They were looking for a proper forum to join, and were hiding here and there. Earlier, there was no confidence, no faith in the government even though many people wanted to join the mainstream.
As for weapons, it was not just eight. There were nearly eight to 10 more weapons. One more thing, people have confidence in the present government. People wanted to surrender before also, but there was no faith. I am doing my best. I have appointed a nodal officer, I have sent a medical officer to the camp they are housed in. I am not waiting for the Centre’s money.
You said that Manipur’s surrender policy for militants was a “total failure”, following which you announced a new policy. Apart from increased monetary compensation to the surrendered militants, what is new about the new policy?
The approach – the humanity, a friendly approach... a sense of security and safety. That someone is there to look after them... that is the kind of thing I have created. Earlier, surrendered militants were killed in camps, there was infighting, no one cared, some people went out of the camps and on to the street and would do drugs. No one cared. Yesterday itself, I asked the home secretary to sanction Rs 25,000 for each of the 68 militants without waiting for the Centre.
You have also said that the Suspension of Operation agreements with various hill-based Kuki groups have failed. What have you done to rectify it?
The Central government has appointed an interlocutor for tripartite talks. My new strategy is that I will confine people in the camps and not allow [them] to venture out as talks take place. They will not be free to loot, murder or do whatever they want to do. I even arrested 26 people recently. I have declared missing people as fugitives, those who have committed murders and are now absconding.
In the valley, the Inner Line Permit [an official document required by outsiders to travel to a place declared a “protected area”] demand is flaring up again? How do you plan to deal with it?
Protection of indigenous people is a must. Everyone is doing it, from Nagaland to Assam. But it must not be along communal and religious lines. There are 36 tribes in Manipur; we have to take all of them into account. Earlier, there was some misunderstanding. I don’t want to blame the valley or the hill people. It was the government’s fault. The hill people are totally safe – no one can settle there because of Article 371 C. The valley people want the same, but there was some misunderstanding.
The Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill and two other bills that were passed in 2015 for an Inner Line Permit-like system to be brought in the Imphal valley were sent back by the president, who asked that they be redrafted. Is the government doing that?
We have to. Only yesterday, we were discussing it. There is a committee, but a new government has come so a new committee will have to be formed with representatives from all tribes, including the hill communities. They have to reach a unanimous decision that is not biased.
In May, to quell the protests against the bills, the government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Joint Action Committee Against Anti-Tribal Bills. The memorandum of understanding “acknowledges the demand of creation of a new district” of Lamka, as demanded by the hill tribes. Has there been any new development since then on the new district?
In the MoU [memorandum of understanding], there is no commitment for the creation of any new district. Districts are created for administrative convenience. The government is not ready to create districts along the line of communities. The government is going to review the boundaries of all prevailing districts. If possible, the government can consider.
There have been protests over the state police taking compulsory donations from their cadre to defend colleagues likely to be implicated in the Central Bureau of investigation’s inquiry into alleged fake encounters. You are also the state home minister. What is the government’s stand on this?
That was not done through a departmental process. Only a few individuals participated voluntarily. I have already asked the DG [director general of police] and he told me no such thing is happening with his authority. Since it is not happening with the information of the authority, it is not the responsibility of the department or the government. But if someone is raising money, immediate action will be taken. The government’s stand is very clear. This government stands for human rights and human life. If anyone violates human rights, they will be punished.
Speaking of human rights, what is your government’s stand on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act?
Right now, I have come to know through the media that the Centre has said that it is the prerogative of the state government to remove the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, but till today I have received no official letter from the Centre. Keeping that aside, the removal of the Act is the main demand of the people of Manipur. The government is also considering it. It is primarily meant to maintain law and order. But now the situation has improved. There is no violence, no killing, so I am thinking the government will review the situation. If we find the situation has improved, we will consider it.
Have you set yourself a specific timeline on this? When will you review it?
My government is new – only five months old. We have to assess the situation from many angles. The IB [Intelligence Bureau], the Army, everyone has to be taken into confidence. With threats from neighbouring countries like China still there, it [the Act] cannot be removed easily. But if this situation gets better, we can definitely review it.
Militancy is closely linked with the economic prospects of the state. One of your ministers has said the government wants to go ahead with oil drilling in the state, notwithstanding protests by people against it. Is that the official line of the government?
The minister’s statement was misquoted by the media. But natural resources cannot be kept idle forever. Someday, it has to be extracted. We will hold discussions with the Union government, taking into account what the people of the state and the state government want. We are trying to find a solution. We will discuss with the Union government that there should be a refinery in Manipur itself, then why should we give oil to other states? That way the state will benefit more, and I am sure people will also agree. Before anything, I have also said that the oil pipeline that has been proposed from Assam and Tripura should be extended to Manipur too.
Your government has written to the Union government seeking a review of the Loktak hydroelectricity project. People in Manipur, including some in your government, want it decommissioned. Does your government support the decommissioning of the dam?
The government is looking at the suffering, the damage caused by floods because of this dam and the Ithai barrage. It is leading to siltation in [the Manipur] river. Loktak is going to get extinct like that. If there is no water, there is no lake. How much benefit is the dam providing? And how many people are suffering? We have to compare that and do some kind of review. Manipur needs hardly 200 megawatts of power. We are already getting that from shared projects with other states. The state is now looking at solar power, so there will be no shortage of power. The damage from the Loktak is happening every year. That is why the new government is pursuing the Centre to review the Loktak project.