When IRATE villagers from Heirok, Manipur, demanded guns to protect themselves from the ‘UG’ — as the armed groups of Manipur are collectively referred to — they had little idea of what they were in for. frustrated by persistent extortion demands, the last straw came when PREPAK cadres killed three youth and blinded one girl in March. The villagers’ demand was trumpeted around as another instance of a spontaneous ‘local resistance group’, as the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh is called in Home Ministry parlance, asking to be armed.
The truth, however, is far more complicated. In Heirok alone, 46 people have been killed in the last 30 years, 30 by the UG and 16 by the security forces, including four fake encounters by the army. When I met the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of Heirok, it turned out that they had asked for licensed guns so that they could patrol the entrances to their village from both security forces and UG. Instead, the police recruited them as SPOs at Rs 3,000 per month. The JAC got worried — village defence was one thing — being deployed for counter-insurgency outside Heirok, as the police planned, quite another. The villagers of Chajing, who had also asked for arms, were also wary.
The alacrity with which the police responded to these demands, however, is in contrast to their indifference to a similar demand by the villagers of Moirang. In May, a man had been picked up from his home and his body was found three days later. The police claimed it was an encounter. When we asked a member of the Moirang JAC how guns would have helped, she responded: “The demand for guns was just an angry reaction. We know it won’t happen. But we wanted to show the double-standards of the government.” Local attitudes towards encounters are qualitatively different from attitudes towards extra-judicial killings. In the former, people are philosophical even if a loved one dies; but when innocents are targeted, there is outrage.
If the villagers are ambivalent about guns, they are equally ambivalent about the UG. After the March incident, while the houses of some PREPAK supporters at Heirok were burnt, the JAC also placed demands before the UG, such as developing a code of conduct, unification of factions and welfare activities. The idea was to teach them a lesson on the villagers’ own terms. But time and space for local decision-making is not something securitymen are willing to afford the villagers. Even as members of the Heirok and Chajing JACs were visiting Chhattisgarh to assess the implications of becoming SPOs, the police stepped up its recruitment drive in Heirok. If enough people could be shortlisted, the lure of jobs would over-ride any cautionary tales the JAC might bring back with them.
The UG now has threatened to cut off all access to Heirok as revenge for taking up arms against them. The army has assured protection — something they should have been doing all this time, so that the demand for arms for self-protection would never have arisen. In a state where children have come together to throw away their toy guns, it is a pity that the securitymen is bent on arming civilians, and fomenting a new civil war.
The author is Professor of sociology at Delhi School of Economics