The Central Committee of the United National Liberation Front of Manipur was formed on 24 November 1964, nearly a year after the creation of Nagaland. By this account, it qualifies as one of the oldest insurgent groups in India and possibly in South-east Asia as well. The NSCN (I-M) and NSCN (K) and their clones appeared in only about 1976. The UNLF was the first rebel group to question the concept of the Indian nation state.
It was around 1964 when a young Arambam Samarendra had returned home to Imphal after completing his Master’s at Poona Univer-sity. He took up arms against the establishment for “deceitfully” merging Manipur, with its history of 2,000 years as a princely state, with India and keeping it under a chief commissioner. It was stated that then Maharaja was taken to Shillong, confined there for some days by then Assam governor and forced to sign the Instrument of Accession under duress.
Heading the Central Committee was a Naga, Kalalung Kamei and he belonged to the Kabui (Rongmei) tribe. The vice chairman was Tha-ngkhopao Singsit, a Kuki, one of Manipur’s hill tribes. Samarendra himself was the general secretary. The other members were drawn from the majority Meitei community of the valley — they were Longjam Manimohon, Laishram Kanhai, Nongmeikapam Sanajaoba and Nongmaithem Chittaranjan aka Pahari.
Thus the three major indigenous ethnic groups were well represented in the set-up whose principle objective was to liberate Manipur from India. By 1949 Manipur alre-ady had an elected government based on adult franchise with the titular king as head of the state. The accession was complete on 15 October 1949 and the next day Manipur, a nation state, whose suzerainty once spanned from the Chindwin river in Myanmar to that of the Surma river in Bangladesh, found themselves reduced to a zamindari of a chief commissioner, sent from New Delhi. Perhaps it was to right this historical injustice and insult that the UNLF came into existence.
After some time Oinam Sudhir and a few radical elements left the UNLF and formed the Revolutionary Government of Manipur. They received arms training in the erstwhile East Pakistan. Some of them even fought alongside the Pakistanis against the Indian Army in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war. Oinam and his group surrendered and were given general amnesty by then chief minister RK Dorendra Singh in 1975. Another former member of the UNLF, Nameirapam Bisheswar Singh, who was caught by the Indian Army on the Tripura border while trying to return to Manipur, was interned at the Tripura Jail where he came into contact with Naxalites. In 1976, Bisheswar led a group of 18 other Manipuri youths to Lhasa via Gorakhpur and Mustang in Nepal. They returned in 1978 and launched the People’s Liberation Army. Later two other former UNLF cadres, Achou Toijamba and N Oken left the UNLF and formed the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup. So the UNLF has been serving as the mother of major insurgent groups of Manipur too.
In the 1970s the UNLF got in touch with the NSCN, that was when RK Meghen aka Sanayaima and his then trusted lieutenant Oken led a group of Meitei youths and trekked to the NSCN camp in the Somra region in Myanmar and later went to Kachin state too. The UNLF till then was known as the intellectuals’ party and most schools for children in their base areas were manned by UNLF cadres. And when the NSCN spilt in 1988 it was the UNLF that had saved the life of NSCN (IM) supremo Th Muivah, who is now negotiating with the Centre. Meghen told this correspondent that he had instructed “Kakwa” Lukhoi, then holding a key post in its armed wing, to go and warn Muivah about the imminent attack the Pangmei Nagas under Khaplang were planning against him. Lukhoi later said that Muivah escaped the Pangmeis’ fire by a mere two minutes. Then the UNLF stayed back with the Khaplang group stating that Muivah and Co had run away.
Around 1988-89,Manipur was a failing state where women could get raped and the rapists walked away scot free and where looters and free-booters held sway and the director of health services was involved in purchasing spurious medicines for supply to the public slow thereby poisoning them. Then one by one known, the rapists were killed and the persons involved in making Manipuri pornographic films also were targeted. The director of health services was shot in his office — that was how the UNLF began to make its presence felt.
Then in 1990, its armed wing, the Manipur People’s Army was formally launched and had a baptism by fire when they attacked and killed five CRPF personnel near Lamdan village in the Loktak project area. Soon thereafter people could read the signature tunes of their ambushes.
They struck with almost zero collateral damage. The MPA had over 200 cadres and an entire sub-division of Churachandpur district was th-eir liberated zone. Their last well-publicised execution was in 1997 when they shot dead Okram Lukhoi Singh, a contractor and younger brother of present chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh and Sawaijam Benoy Singh, then chief engineer of the state’s PWD over the collapse of the southern side of the hockey stadium, which was then under construction for the National Games to be held the next year. The raison d’etre being that if the stadium had collapsed during a match then hundreds of innocent people would have died.
I had the opportunity of meeting Meghen when he was the general secretary and SS Khaplang together somewhere along the Thai- Laos border in 1996. And after being with them for a week I can vouch that they lived a very frugal life. I know this because I was asked to hand over $1,000 to Meghen for his upkeep in a foreign country. We discussed at length, and on the question of opening a common front of all insurgent groups operating in the region, Meghen said he was ready to sign a blank paper.
By then he was able to form an alliance of the ULFA, NSCN(K) and the UNLF called the Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front. And also, by then Meghen and Khaplang had shed their combat fatigues and donned suits and made their presence felt in the plush corridors of the United Nations in Geneva. Fraticidal killings soon broke out and following that the Oken group dubbed themselves the UNLF(Oken) for some time. It simmered down after Oken formed the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup. But on 10 June 2010 his cadres gunned down Arambam Samar-endra, who by then had established himself as a poet and playwright of Manipur. Then when a former Manipur governor wrote to the UNLF chief addressing them as “dissatisfied brothers” and invited them to the negotiating table, Meghen charted out his demands for negotiations. He demanded holding of plebiscite under UN supervision and said he would surrender arms to the UN officials and await the result of the plebiscite.
Then in 2010 he was nabbed in Dhaka by the Bangladesh police and handed over to the National Investigation Agency. He later told this correspondent that after his arrest he was taken to a place somewhere in West Bengal and kept in a windowless room for three months in solitary confinement. Later he was taken to Bihar and shown as having been caught on the Indo-Nepal border.
The NIA court has sentenced Meghen and 10 others belonging to his first line of leadership to 10 years in prison and they are now lodged at the Guwahati central jail. But the second line soon took over and now has Khundongbam Pamel as its chairman and Phanjoubam Priyo as its general secretary. In its latest annual statement released on its 52nd Raising Day, it said in plain and clear terms that “Sovereignty of Manipur” cannot be compromised. All said and done it appears theirs’ is a long drawn-out battle.
The writer is the Imphal-based special correspondent of The Statesman.