In the morning of March 22, 2013, a trooper of the Assam Rifles (AR) was killed while another was injured in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast triggered along the road side at Leirongthel Lamkhai under Yairipok Police Station in the Thoubal District of Manipur.
A week earlier on March 15, one AR trooper was killed and another three personnel were injured when two powerful IEDs exploded simultaneously near Kundong Leirembi under Moreh Police Station in Chandel District.
Another IED attack on February 26 in Churachandpur District killed one Army trooper and a mine detector dog, and left three persons injured. The IED had been planted on the roadside at a place located between Khiang Zang and Tollen villages.
In all the three attacks, the Revolutionary Peoples´ Front (RPF - the political wing of Peoples´ Liberation Army - PLA) claimed responsibility, claiming these were the handiwork of the ´Special Warfare Group´ of its armed wing, PLA.
Other incidents carried out by PLA against the Central Security Forces (SFs) in 2013 include:
February 22, 2013: An encounter took place between PLA cadres and AR troops near Saibom village under Tengnoupal Police Station in Chandel District. However, there was no report of any casualty on either side.
February 15, 2013: PLA militants attacked AR personnel by exploding a powerful IED near the main road along the Uripok Kangchup Road, also known as Salam Pandol, at Heibongpokpi under the Lamsang Police Station in Imphal West District. No AR personnel sustained injuries as the IED exploded after the AR transport had passed. Claiming responsibility, the PLA declared in a Press Release that it would not tire in its struggle to expel non-Manipuri soldiers from Manipur.
While the SFs appeared to have established their dominance in operation against the PLA in the past, incipient indications of a reversal of this trend have appeared in the early part of 2013. The PLA´s ´successes´ commenced in September 2012, after a lull of two and a half years.
On September 9, 2012, a powerful bomb planted by PLA cadres at Kangshoibi Thong along the Moirang-Kumbi Road in Bishnupur District exploded, killing one AR trooper and injuring another 10. The last incident in which an AR trooper had been killed by the outfit prior to the September 2012 incident, was on March 8, 2010. Through 2011, the SFs had killed five PLA cadres in four incidents, while no SFs were killed by the outfit during the year.
The PLA, meanwhile, has been avoiding any direct confrontation with local (Manipur State) Forces. However, in an ´unintentional´ attack on September 12, 2009, four personnel of the 6th India Reserve Battalion (IRB) - a State Paramilitary Force - were killed and another four were wounded, in an ambush carried out by the PLA at Ngakha Hill in Imphal East District. The RPF however clarified that the ambush was intended to target a Central SF team, which was expected there, and not personnel of the 6th IRB. The outfit clarified that its principle of not targeting State Forces had not changed. Since its inception in 1978, the PLA, whose revolutionary agenda is an ´independent socialist state´ of Manipur, has been waging a low-level guerrilla war against the Indian military establishment, targeting the Indian Army, Central paramilitary forces as well as Manipur´s State Police. However, in a policy shift in the late 1990s, the PLA declared a unilateral decision not to target the Manipur Police or other State Forces.
In September 1978, a few Manipuri youths led by N. Bisheshwar Singh had travelled to China through Myanmar, been indoctrinated into Chinese communism, and had returned to form the PLA, a name directly borrowed from the Chinese Army. This narrative has more recently been supplemented by the recorded confession of a PLA militant ´sergeant´ Ronny alias Robindo alias Roger, who was arrested by the Manipur Police and the Army in August 2009, and claimed to have close relations with its (PLA´s) ´president´, Irengbam Chaoren. In his confession, he stated, "China´s PLA remains in contact with Manipur´s PLA. 16 platoons of militants have come back to India after getting trained in China. The training of PLA militants also goes on continuously in Burma (Myanmar). There are many temporary camps in Manipur as well, such as Soibolkuki and Singhat. We train with big guns."
The links between militant groups in India´s Northeast, and China, came to the fore yet again in February 2011, when Indian security agencies came to know about a meeting between leaders of various Northeastern insurgencies and officials of the Government of China, in April, 2010. Sources in the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) disclosed that leaders of formations including the United Nation Liberation Front (UNLF) and PLA of Manipur; the ´chairman´ of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), S. S. Khaplang; and the ´commander in chief´ of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Paresh Baruah, were among others who attended the meeting held in Ruili in Yunan Province, China.
On its ´independence demand day´ on February 25, 2013, Irengbam Chaoren declared, "Our enemies which we must overcome, are the vast multitude of the Indian military and the highly sectarian policies and strategies of the Indian political leaders". To defeat the ´colonial forces´, Chaoren asserted, there was no ´pragmatic option´ other than an armed liberation movement. Earlier, on its 34th ´foundation day´ on September 25, 2012, Chaoren had also stated that no negotiated agreement under the Indian Constitution could settle the ´sovereignty issues´ of the region. In a message, he asked all groups involved in the present peace process to return and once again join the struggle against ´colonial rule´.
In March 2010, while describing all those who entered Manipur after 1949 (when the erstwhile princely state was ´forcibly´ merged with the Indian Union) as "non-Manipuris", the PLA had also asked them to leave the State. In May 2010, rather interestingly, it also urged the ´non-local working class´ in Manipur to join the Communist Party of India - Maoist (CPI-Maoist).
The PLA is a member of the Manipur People´s Liberation Front (MPLF), an umbrella organization of three Valley-based outfits, also including UNLF and the People´s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK). Chaoren is also the ´convenor´ of CorCom [a Coordination Committee of seven - now six, after the United People´s Party of Kangleipak (UPPK) was expelled - Valley based militant Groups] which was formed in 2011 to bring unity among revolutionary groups in order to free Manipur from India´s ´colonial regime´.
The Army had crushed the PLA in the 1980s, with the death of some of its top leaders in combat, including its ´president´ Thoudam Kunjabehari in 1982, and the arrest of others, such as its founder N. Bisheshwar Singh, arrested in 1981. Three decades later, the PLA has not only regrouped but has emerged as a key player in training and supplying weapons to the CPI-Maoist, creating a complex threat to the tentative stability of India´s troubled northeast.
It was in October 2008 that some of the top echelons of the CPI-Maoist met PLA leaders in Myanmar and signed a Joint Declaration for unified actions for waging war against India. The meeting was presided over by Irengbam Chaoren. In July 2010, the PLA emphasized the necessity of creating an effective nexus with the CPI-Maoist, and various insurgent groups of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and the Northeast, unveiling their vision of establishing a joint militant group, to be evolved as ´United Front´. Intelligence Bureau (IB) reports had also revealed that China had been encouraging the Maoists and militant groups from J&K and the Northeast region to unite to form a single war-fighting machine against the Indian State.
The National Investigation Agency´s (NIA) 2011 investigation of the PLA-Maoist link established that, around June 2006, the PLA leadership met top CPI-Maoist leaders, with several other meetings between the two during the years 2006 to 2008, resulting in the establishment of a PLA office in Kolkata (West Bengal) towards the end of 2006. The Kolkata office started coordinating the activities of these outfits for the procurement of arms, ammunition and communication devices. However, in a setback to these operations, on April 2, 2012, NIA arrested a PLA ´captain´, identified as Arnold Singh aka Beckon, the key man running the Kolkata office, from Siliguri in West Bengal. Arnold Singh was also a member of PLA´s ´external affairs´ wing and was the leader of a four-member team that had provided arms training to CPI-Maoist cadres in the Saranda Forest in Jharkhand between September 11 and November 20, 2010.
Other significant arrests that hobbled the growing nexus between the two outfits through 2012, included:
June 3, 2012: The ´chief coordinator´ for the Maoists in Assam, Pallab Borbora alias Profull, was arrested by the NIA from Golaghat District in connection with its probe into the nexus between the Naxals (Maoists) and PLA. Borbora allegedly played a vital role in establishing contact with the PLA in 2006, and opened talks for providing training and supply of arms and explosives.
May 28, 2012: Asem Ibotombi Singh alias Angou, ´secretary´ of PLA´s ´external affairs wing´ was arrested from Gopalpur in the Maoist afflicted Ganjam District of Odisha.
April 21, 2012: Ajay Chanda alias Indranil Chanda alias Raj, in charge of expanding the Maoist base in Assam, was arrested in Kolkata. An official source said Chanda had connections with senior PLA leaders and was instrumental in the transshipment of arms from PLA hideouts in Manipur to the Maoist strongholds in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha.
According to a December 18, 2012, report, a supplementary charge sheet filed by the NIA in the CPI-Maoist-PLA nexus case against the two arrested Maoist leaders and PLA´s Angou revealed that the CPI-Maoist had been procuring Chinese arms and communication equipment from PLA via Myanmar, and routing these to Kolkata (West Bengal) through Guwahati (Assam) between 2006 and 2011.
The major setback to the PLA, which first exposed its nexus with the Maoists, occurred on October 1, 2011, when two of its top leaders, identified as N. Dilip Singh aka Wangba, a ´lieutenant´ in the PLA, and his associate Arun Kumar, who worked in the outfit´s ´external affairs wing´, were arrested from a hotel at Paharganj in New Delhi. The two had been instrumental in the PLA´s training of Maoist cadres in the jungles of Odisha and Jharkhand in 2009 and 2010. Arun was also reportedly running a travel and tour office in Pune (Maharashtra) since 2008, and was trying to set up a safe hideout for Maoists. Their interrogation also revealed that the PLA leader, Irengbam Chaoren, was hiding in China.
In a significant development, a meeting of the heads of the Police Forces of the States of India´s Northeast, convened by the MHA, which concluded in Gangtok (Sikkim) on February 20, 2013, decided to launch coordinated efforts to check the Maoist rebels from establishing their roots in the region. The meeting observed that, though regional militant groups had weakened through 2011 and 2012, the level of violence had gone up, raising serious concerns.
Another problem remains the funding of the PLA by Pakistan´s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In 2011, officials had claimed that ISI was funding the group for supplying arms and ammunition to the Maoists, and a "Strategic United Front" was being created to carry out attacks in India, particularly on SFs in the Naxal-affected areas. An official source claimed, "ISI and PLA are in touch and supplying Maoists with arms. They are supposedly using China as the alternative route." Much earlier in October 2007, Intelligence agencies had reportedly confirmed a nexus between the PLA and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), as part of a wider ISI plot to create trouble across India. The nexus was revealed by a LeT militant identified as Mohammed Sadeeq, from Manipur, who had initially worked for the PLA, during sustained interrogation by Police from Dudu in the Udhampur District of J&K. This was independently confirmed by the two PLA leaders arrested in October 2011, who disclosed that PLA was planning to liaise with terrorist outfits based in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), including LeT and with separatist groups of J&K and the Northeast.
The PLA´s activities in neighboring countries are another source of concern. A November 2012 report suggested that PLA was still operating from seven camps in Bangladesh, out of the 51 surviving camps of nine Northeast militant groups. The PLA along with other regional outfits, also had a ´unified camp´ in Myanmar.
Another report, on November 6, 2012, indicated that the PLA/RPF enjoyed considerable political patronage, and this had forced inhibited security agencies from acting effectively against it. Bangladesh´s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and the ISI had both kept an eye on this group to further their agenda on Indian soil. According to sources in the NIA, the outfit earlier received financial support from both the ISI and the DGFI, and such support still continued from the ISI. An NIA official was reported to state, "We need to break the political links of the group and block their finances. We also have to look into the diplomatic issues involved in this case. The job will require at least a year since we need to first draw out a map of their operations and then get cracking on the case."
The PLA has registered significant ´successes´ against Central SFs in early 2013. With its hardening stance and efforts to create a unity of extremist formations within the region and beyond, particularly the growing nexus with the CPI-Maoist, as well as its linkages abroad, the PLA constitutes a major potential threat to the security and stability of Manipur and the wider Northeastern region. The security scenario in Manipur had been registering gradual improvements, but the abrupt deterioration in 2012, with fatalities rising to 110, from 65 in 2011, particularly after the formation of CorCom of which PLA is an active member, are a warning sign against any proclivities to complacence that may afflict the state´s responses.
(The writer Veronica Khangchian is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)