x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Elections bring villagers a respite from violence

The people of Manipur state in India's remote north-east have spent decades trapped between separatist groups and the military

Nimaichand Salam on his fish farm near the village of Khordak after the army called its counter insurgency operation in the Loktak lake area of Manipur state.
Nimaichand Salam on his fish farm near the village of Khordak after the army called its counter insurgency operation in the Loktak lake area of Manipur state.

KHORDAK, INDIA // Despite spending more than a week in a fetid relief camp, Nimaichand Salam was uneasy about returning home. With some trepidation, he waded through the resplendent, emerald-green paddy field behind his home, examining the damage to his fish farm. Dead fish, some ruptured by bullets, others by mortar shells, lay strewn along a freshwater pond in the middle of the field. A little distance away, he spotted the carcass of a bullet-pocked brow-antlered deer. The sight brought back with unnerving clarity the details of a day earlier this month. "There was a hail of gunfire exchanged by both groups on either side of the field," he said. "There was firing followed by an uneasy lull and then the firing grew louder, more vicious, more unbearable." On April 10, the 57 Mountain Division of the Indian army launched a massive counter insurgency operation called operation "Summer Storm" in villages such as Khordak, clinging on the edge of Loktak, a 550-square-kilometre freshwater lake, the largest in north-east India. The operation was intended to flush out guerrillas of the People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (Prepak), an insurgent group that has been fighting for decades for independence for Manipur, an Indian state bordering Myanmar. The pristine habitat of Loktak is speckled with phumdis, small islands of floating weed, ideal camouflage for Prepak's bunkers and hideouts. Mr Salam and his family were among 2,500 people who fled their homes in surrounding villages as the army bore down using helicopter gunships, unmanned aerial vehicles and by airdropping Indian specialists trained in jungle warfare. Close to 500 soldiers were sent into the villages surrounding Loktak, during which they said they destroyed hideouts, seized weapons and killed about a dozen insurgents. The claims cannot be independently verified because the war zone was out of bounds for journalists until the operation was stalled. The army says there was no collateral damage as all targets were hit only after careful aerial surveys. But local fishermen say they were forced by Indian soldiers to row boats into the river and used as human shields. Many villagers also claimed they were manhandled and beaten for "siding with the insurgents." It was the last straw for the war-weary villagers, who for decades have been squeezed between insurgents and the army. This week, when 13 Indian states went to the polls in the second and largest phase of country's marathon parliamentary elections, the people of Loktak used their vote to push for peace. A few days into Summer Storm, a busload of displaced villagers took a memorandum to the state's chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, threatening a mass boycott of the elections if the military operation was not stalled. Days later, on April 21, and just a day before the polls, the army began to pull out, saying its operation was complete. But there is little doubt this was intended to head off the election boycott. At the end of voting day, around 70 per cent of Loktak's local population lived up to their promise to the chief minister, and had cast their vote. Wearing a magenta coloured ink stain on her left index finger, Yaima, a sinewy woman who goes by one name, emerged from a polling booth in Nongmaikhong village. "My conscience doesn't allow me to vote today," she said,"But I voted only to prove that we are a part of the local population." Manipur has been a tinderbox of violence for more than three decades, with more than two dozen insurgency groups all fighting for various demands from Sharia law to independence. More than 55,000 security forces patrol the area, with a population of about 2.4 million. About 20,000 people have lost their lives just in the last three decades of violence. In a statement issued later by the Prepak leadership, they warned that the counterinsurgency operation would lead to retaliation. Loktak plays a seminal role in the rural economy of this region, given nearly three-quarters of the local population thrive on fishing in the lake. The operation, villagers say, threatened their lives, livelihoods, and the natural biodiversity of the region. Even after the operation is over, they are reluctant to venture into the lake, fearing remnants of shells left behind. Manibabu Salam and his wife Ibenpishak had abandoned their mud-and-clay home and fled to safety as soon as the firing started. When there was a lull, they returned to feed their animals only to find their house was occupied by a dozen gun-toting army soldiers, who said they did not speak the local language. They were too frightened to confront the soldiers, protected by a draconian legislation called the Armed Forces Special Protection Act, which essentially grants soldiers unrestricted and unaccounted power to carry out their operations. Human rights groups accuse the army of violating the international norms of non-conventional war approved by the United Nations, the Indian Army started attacking from different directions using heavy artilleries. Villagers are also visibly nervous about living amid insurgents, who often demand food and sometimes extort money. "Life is like shifting sand for people living in an area of protracted conflict," said Babloo Loitongbam, the executive director of Human Rights Alert, a human rights watchdog. "In a region where conflict has simmered for an entire generation, people find a way to negotiate with both sides for their safety." "We'd prefer Prepak went away from here," said Sanjoy Salam, 30, and unemployed. "If the Prepak goes, the army will go and we can live in peace." Mr Salam said he cast his vote on April 22 because he did not want to attract the army's wrath. "I was afraid of being caught by an army soldier without an ink stain on my index finger," he said. "They might harass me for not voting even after the operation." Despite claims that Prepak's camps have been dismantled, soldiers warned villagers not to venture out after dark as remnants of insurgent groups might still be around, possibly laying mines around the area. As a pallid dusk descended over the region, Yaima scurried home after voting, taking the soldier's warning to heart. "This time, elections came to our rescue. Who will save us next time?" achopra@thenational.ae