The atrocious daylight kidnapping and murder of social activist, Athuan Abonmai, 54, an outspoken champion of peaceful co-existence of all communities in Manipur and an unsparing critic of the insurgent group NSCN(IM) is yet another reminder how fragile the current semblance of peace in the state is. We do hope things do not escalate for the worse, but there will be few at this moment who have not felt the subterranean rage across community lines which can easily explode into a raging inferno given even a little spark. The picture is also one of complete lawlessness. That the kidnapping happened amidst enhanced security presence at the Tamenglong Pologround in view of the visit by the chief minister, N. Biren, only adds to this bewildering sense that nobody can be confident anymore of the State’s capacity to protect its citizens, especially in the outlying hill districts. The impunity with which militants operate in the hills also is reminiscent of the mayhem in Ukhrul district headquarters during a visit by Biren’s predecessor, O. Ibobi, in yet another volatile and surcharged election year in 2016, a time also marked as always by dangerous sectarian electoral campaigns from some quarters.
Under the circumstance, it is imaginable people in the hills by and large would have to make compromises with those who can do them harm at will, therefore the false impression of a complete and unfaltering public support for these insurgent groups. However, silencing dissent is a two-edged sword. It obviously harms those who are thus silenced, but the greater harm in the long run has always been for those who do the silencing. As has been the case with all authoritarian regimes, eventually nobody gets to trust their claims of public support for nobody can be sure if the support come from free will or intimidation. The assassinated man has been a strong voice of dissent that challenged authoritarianism and sectarianism. Indeed, one of the constant refrains in his speeches, now surfacing on public space, was precisely this lawless atmosphere of unrestrained intimidation in the hills. He held nothing back to say even elections in the hills are not really elections but selections by the militants, and that few or nobody can win without the blessing of the latter. It is also evident from the fact of his hitting out against the NSCN(IM) on several public forums that he did not enter into any truce with militants, and this, if we go by his contention, is likely the reason for his losses in his two contests for a seat in the Manipur Assembly so far. But here was a man who would not resign to any perceived unfair defeat and continued to be what he always was and probably was preparing for another bout at the hustings early next year. Given this background, the state government should have known better that this leader was deserving of special security cover. This being so, all the numerous allegations now that the failure is also of state intelligence, and therefore of all the well-paid IPS and MPS officers given the charge, are sound.
The government has in the meantime in a knee-jerk response, so far suspended from service 16 police personnel on duty at the spot in Tamenglong where the kidnap happened in broad daylight and under their very noses. The Manipur Police HQ has also instituted a three-member departmental probe into the incident. Moreover, extra forces have been rushed to Tamenglong for what seems like the possibility of an operation against the assailants. The public, especially the Zelianrongs have called for retributive justice. They have even threatened that since the kidnap happened in full view of several police and para-military personnel, in the event of a failure to deliver justice in the case, they would conclude the government was complicit in the crime. The Congress party has also demanded stronger action, including a high-level judicial probe independent of the government.
The likelihood that the murdered leader may have made more enemies than apparent are now evident from the many public statements he made earlier, in particular in the latest cluttered series of appearances on local TV channels in the wake of the much publicised allegations from certain quarters of deliberate and systematic policy discrimination against the hills. To augment this charge, there was also a proposal for an amendment to the Hill Area Committee, probably also in the hope of reaping electoral dividends by whipping up public sentiment in the hills. I happened to know Athuan from a few of these TV discussions we both were by coincidence part of. He was for instance sceptical of the intent of the controversial Hill Area Committee Bill 2021, not for the same extra-Constitutional reasons and means some civil society organisations in the valley did not want it tabled, but because of the possible procedural lapses in the introduction process, as well as elements within the draft Bill which are likely to be infructuous and ultra vires. The HAC as envisaged by Article 371-C is meant as a legislative device only but the new Bill proposes to give it a measure of executive power as well to oversee developmental works in the hills and this may be an overreach from the vantage of Article 371-C, a view I also share with Athuan and have written about earlier. He was also of the view the Bill was rushed and was not backed by wider and deeper public consultations among stakeholders.
Athuan also doubted very much the other charge which was floated at about the same time to bolster the deemed urgency of the HAC Bill 2021 – that of the hills receiving just a little over 2 percent of all developmental funds of the state on the average. Troubled by this claim of extreme funding disparity, I had also got hold of and studied the Assembly’s “Demands for Grants” for the current year and discovered that most of the government expenditures did go from centralised departmental accounts in Imphal, and were entered under the “Valley” category of expenditure, but the money actually went to both the valley and hills. For instance, almost all salary bills are classified under “Valley” category but we know for certain government employees who receive these salaries are both in hills and valley, and even in public institutions located in hills or valley, the employees are from both hills and valley. This is other than in the exceptional few such as the ADC and Panchayat institutions which are exclusive to either hill or valley. Yet, such a frenzied storm was worked up over this badly misinformed claim by all kinds of vested interests.
I got to confirm this actual picture of fund allocation by comparing Assembly documents, but Athuan, whose vision is far from jaundiced by sectarian considerations, sensed this by intuition and said so during a TV discussion. He would undoubtedly have angered many among the sectarian cabal but as we are discovering now after his death, he won far more admirers and friends than enemies. Maybe this long list of interest groups he displeased just happened to be dovetailing each other by coincidence and not design, but even if none in these groups were sinister enough to instigate the crime Athuan suffered, each would have added to the residue of bile against him prompting those who have little or no moral restraints on the crimes they commit, to do what they did. In other words, the noisy cabal may not be liable for any cognizable punishable offence under the law, but they must know deep down in their conscience, they too would have to bear the moral stain for the loss of life of somebody who had great promise to become a fearless and tall leader of the future. Somebody who believed in building bridges of human relationship where there were none or strengthen them wherever they showed signs of weakness, and not wrecking even those that already exist.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author