Marginalized by the Centre, politics in the Northeast follows its own rhythm. The protracted anti-New Delhi disposition among most people of the Northeast might have, consciously or inadvertently, aided the region's separatists in their cause. But matters could change: the people of the region have now begun thinking about the ambience that constant conflict creates.
The killing of Menaka Devi, a Meira Paibi (literally, 'torchbearer' - a women's movement in Manipur) activist, has thus stirred up a hornet's nest. Manipur has more than 20 active insurgent outfits that are fighting the Centre for a range of demands - from self-rule to sovereignty. Although there is little popular support for violence, there is popular support for the demands of these groups. But insurgent groups could find themselves in a face-off with those very people whose secessionist sentiment they took for granted.
And Takhellambam Menaka Devi's murder by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), a local militant outfit, may well be the turning point. The first Meira Paibi activist from the dominant Meitei community, Menaka Devi, who belonged to Wangoo in Bishenpur district, was charged by the outfit with spying for the security forces engaged in counterinsurgency in the state.
She was kidnapped by four armed men from her residence at Wangoo on the night of June 27; villagers recovered her body the next day. Mother of two children, Menaka was the secretary of the Wangoo Meira Paibi, a women's organisation that campaigns against social evils, including drug abuse and alcohol consumption. Meira Paibi women also campaign against army excesses in the state.
PLA leaders tried to justify their act by declaring that Menaka Devi "was responsible for the killing and arrest of many party cadres" during counterinsurgency operations by Assam Rifles. A local leader of the underground outfit told a group of reporters at an undisclosed location that the group took responsibility for Menaka Devi's 'punishment'. The point here is that the outfit owned up responsibility only after several Meira Paibi groups protested against her killing and set a deadline for armed insurgent groups in Manipur to make an official announcement on the murder.
Podasana Leima, Information and Publicity Secretary, Ching-Tam United Women's Association (a Manipuri pressure group), called the incident "a crime not only against women, but humanity". Condemnation also came in from the Leingang and Mangjing Women's Society, another prominent women's NGO.
Significantly, women's groups have also demanded that the government investigate the incident and bring the culprits to book - not only is it a firm stance against the insurgents, it is also an affirmation of faith in the government. Says Arunapyari Salam, an Imphal-based entrepreneur: "We are fed up with the violence. When youth in other parts of the country are taking advantage of various government schemes, our boys and girls are busy dealing with the trauma of conflict."
However, there was a lukewarm response to Menaka's murder in the state capital, Imphal. Most civil society groups in Imphal were divided in protesting the incident. "There are still people who believe the PLA's version of things. They think Menaka Devi misused her social influence for personal gain," comments an Imphal-based journalist on condition of anonymity.
While women in Manipur enjoy a traditional liberty, they have had to watch out for - as recent events show - more than 30 underground outfits with agendas of their own. This, in spite of the fact that they have, in effect, been shielding insurgents. Meira Paibis have taken to the streets many a time to demonstrate against the all-powerful Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Even as they protest against the actions of security personnel, they create a slipway for insurgents to get through arrest or detention. Compounding the problem is the undeniable fact that most Meiteis harbor an anti-New Delhi sentiment, if in varying degrees. So, when Meiteis like Menaka Devi become victims of an insurgent 'hit', the anger among people is all the more palpable.
As all insurgents worldwide see it, fear is the key. In neighboring Assam, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has been using this tactic to implant fear in the minds of the people. It started with the killing of Kamala Saikia, a teacher and journalist, in 1991; ULFA later called him a spy for the security forces. In fact, the trigger was Saikia's having written extremely critical articles on ULFA's 'misdeeds'. In 1997, ULFA kidnapped a renowned social worker, Sanjoy Ghose, and killed him. They then issued a press statement that Ghose was a RAW (Research and Analysis Wing, the government's intelligence agency) agent. Then, in mid-1998, ULFA insurgents kidnapped, raped and killed Rashmi Bora, a young artiste from Nagaon in Assam. They charged her with being an informer for the security forces. There have been strong protests and growing resentment over these killings in the state.
In Manipur as well, there is strong evidence of popular resentment against insurgents. More than 25 civil society groups came together to protest an insurgent attack on an ISKCON temple. On Janmashtami, August 16, 2005, six people were killed and over 50 were wounded in that attack. This led to a peace rally and meeting in Imphal a week later, after which a memorandum was submitted to state Chief Minister Ibobi Singh.
'Shoot first, justify later' is an old insurgent tactic in the region. And for many, this has become the real face of the insurgency. Assam has been confronted by such incidents for years, but Manipur's experience is of more recent vintage. That doesn't make the impact any the less horrific.