Manipur: Insurgency Upturn




There is a pattern to the activities of the remnants of insurgency movements in India’s northeast. Violent attacks are interspersed with lengthy hiatus of absence of violence. Insurgents groups may be weak, but remain potent, by periodically drawing their sustenance from state complacency, and also from external assistance. The ambush in Manipur on 13 November 2021 could have been a culmination of such factors.       


For past several years, insurgency in Manipur has been given up as mostly defunct. Absence of violence has been interpreted as an absence in insurgent capacity to orchestrate violence. Low cadre strength of outfits was considered to be redundancy of insurgencies. And improving fatalities numbers were cited frequently as examples of prevalence of peace. This continued until 13 November, when a tragic, yet meticulously planned ambush put a halt to such narratives.           

The Ambush

(The site of ambush in Churachandpur district, Manipur, on 13 November 2021)

The 13 November ambush in Manipur’s Churachandpur district claimed the lives of five security force personnel including the Commanding Officer (CO) of the 46 Assam Rifles (AR). The CO’s wife and their son who were travelling with him too were killed. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the lesser known Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), in a joint press statement on their Facebook Page. Among the multiple photographs they released was a group photo of rifle-wielding cadres who took part in the ambush, and another of an injured AR personnel.  

Notwithstanding the PLA and the MPLF’s claim that they did not have any idea about the presence of the CO’s wife and child in the targeted convoy, there is little doubt that the attack was planned well. The attacking team was aware of the route and timing of the convoy’s movement, had planted multiple IEDs on exact locations, and followed up the explosions with incessant firing from vantage positions. The security personnel, mostly comprising a small Quick Reaction Team, did not have much chance against such an attack.  

Precise planning or Intel failure

While precise planning was one aspect of the ambush, the absolute lack of intelligence among the AR of the movement of a large number of insurgents from Myanmar to the attack site was another. During past conversations, army officials in the region have told me that having women on board has always been an additional source of safety for the convoys. The refrain, ‘northeastern insurgents do not attack convoys with women’ is often heard in the insurgency-affected states of the region. In this instance, however, it is most likely that the CO of AR was simply unware of the impending risk when he undertook his return to Churachandpur from a forward post in Behinag on the Indo-Myanmar border, with his family. His onward journey, a day earlier, was eventless. Whether such a sense of safety was rooted in what the official circles believe are ‘insurgencies in their death bed’ is a matter of investigation. 

Chinese Role

Post-ambush analyses have pointed at the possible role of China in the re-emboldening of the insurgencies of Manipur. Beijing has indeed been trying to re-ferment terror in the region in the past years. This effort may have reached a peak in view of the ongoing standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Assistance may have started flowing in just not by way of weapons and ammunition, training, but also in terms of strategy inputs, details of which may never be known, unless some of the direct recipients of such assistance are arrested and interrogated.

However, what is disturbing is that Indian concerns in this regard, which have been raised few times with the Chinese in past years, haven’t really started being factored into the preparedness of the security forces the region. The government and the AR continue to consider the insurgencies of the region as mostly weak and incapacitated. Ambushes of the 13 November variety are bound to shake them out of such complacency.      

Safety of Myanmar

That neither the PLA, nor the MPLF have any permanent presence in Churachandpur have been claimed by the AR sources. Media reports citing preliminary findings of investigation into the attack pointed that the insurgents who participated in the attack came from Myanmar. Chief Minister of Manipur also asserted that the “armed men” who carried out the attack “infiltrated 4 kilometres into our area from the border with Myanmar”. The post-ambush combing operations by the security force personnel haven’t been able to achieve much. It is apparent that the retreat of the insurgents into Myanmar was swift and eventless, similar to their ingress.   

In this regard, assistance the northeastern insurgents may be receiving in Myanmar must come under examination. In the post-February 2021 coup Myanmar, elements with the Tatmadaw could have realigned themselves with these insurgents with a bid to take on the pro-democracy armed activists. According to a report quoting an anti-Tatmadaw group, the Manipuri insurgent groups “are working together with the regime to fight the PDF [People’s Defense Force]”. In present day chaotic Myanmar, where the Tatmadaw is engaged in a pitched battle with the pro-democracy PDF, the northeastern insurgents would be finding it convenient to solicit and receive Chinese assistance. They would also have bet on the unlikelihood of an immediate joint operation between the Indian Army and Tatmadaw against them.        

Relook at Strategy

All the insurgency affected states of the northeast must learn a lesson from the ambush in Manipur. External assistance, if any, may not be restricted to Manipuri insurgents alone, but would potentially benefit all the major insurgent groups who are still active and have their bases in Myanmar. New Delhi may be inclined to undertake yet another surgical strike into Myanmar. However, as in the past, such military maneuvers do not provide a permanent solution. Hence, there is a need to sit around the drawing board to revisit the strategy against the remnants of the insurgency movements. The official lackadaisical approach towards the stalled peace processes with insurgent groups too needs a rethink. India’s Act East Policy is hinged precariously onto prevalence of peace and stability in the northeast. While odd acts of terror may not be overblown, but the states must guard against complacency and bravado seeping into their policy, as long as factors brewing such insurgencies are present.   

( Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is Director of Mantraya. This analysis has been published as part of Mantraya’s ongoing “Mapping Terror & Insurgent Networks” and “Fragility, Conflict, and Peace Building” projects. All Mantraya publications are peer-reviewed.)