Saviour Complex

Why the Biren Singh government gives a free hand to Arambai Tenggol

Arambai Tenggol members wave Salai Taret flags, which represent the seven clans that merged together to form the Meitei community, in front of the Ibudhou Pakhangba temple at the Kangla Fort in the Imphal Valley on 30 September 2023. AFP / Getty Images
Arambai Tenggol members wave Salai Taret flags, which represent the seven clans that merged together to form the Meitei community, in front of the Ibudhou Pakhangba temple at the Kangla Fort in the Imphal Valley on 30 September 2023. AFP / Getty Images
15 April, 2024

ON THE AFTERNOON OF 27 FEBRUARY, the Manipur Police received a tip that two Ambassador cars had been stolen in the Imphal Valley. Since 3 May 2023, the force has received intimation of many such crimes—often much graver ones—due to an ethnic conflict that has been raging in the state. The same day, Moirangthem Amit Singh, an additional superintendent for operations, and other officials located the cars and apprehended one individual in connection to the case. But the prompt response had its costs.

Around two hundred “armed miscreants” stormed and vandalised Singh’s residence, the Manipur Police tweeted the following day, after which additional security forces reached the spot. Singh and his escorts were abducted. The police released a statement which said that the attackers also fired bullets to intimidate Singh’s family. It was only after the intervention of the police department that Singh was released.

The statement identified the men as members of Arambai Tenggol, which claims to be a sociocultural organisation working to reinstate Sanamahism as the official religion of Manipur, after it was replaced by Hinduism in the eighteenth century. However, it is actually an armed militia that has been at the forefront of the ongoing ethnic conflict. Arambai Tenggol faces accusations of rampant harassment, extortion and violence, targeting not just the tribal Kuki and Naga communities, Meitei Christians and Meitei Muslims, but also Meitei Hindus who pose any sort of a challenge to them.

The Manipur Police had earlier given cover to the activities of Meitei militants—some of whom are suspected to be members of Arambai Tenggol—as I reported earlier, but now the force was in a standoff with the militia, which has, surprisingly, become dominant in the Imphal Valley. While few of Arambai Tenggol’s crimes are actually reported because of the fear they command, a senior police officer told me, a major reason for Singh’s abduction was that the police had registered some first-information reports against one of its top commanders, Robin Mangang Khwairakpam. Like many other Arambai Tenggol members, Khwairakpam regularly boasts about the militia’s activities and agenda on his Facebook account, which identifies him as a “Member National Executive Committee SCM, BJP HQ New Delhi.”

When I spoke to Arambai Tenggol supporters about the abduction, they claimed that Singh was corrupt. Various members of the militia also circulated similar accusations on social media. But the Manipur Police rubbished such allegations in the statement, requesting the public to cooperate and refrain from “rumour-mongering and circulating fake news.” It noted that the militia had gained “false support” under the garb of protecting the public, even as it committed several crimes and “anti-social” acts. At a press conference on the following day, the police threatened that such circumstances could lead to the re-imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in Imphal.

Such statements were unlikely to make a dent in the massive support that the militia enjoys in the Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley, a fact that was demonstrated the next day. A large number of Meitei groups reportedly staged protests in support of Arambai Tenggol, which, they said, has “defended” Manipur against “Kuki aggression,” even though Singh himself is Meitei. The Apunba Manipur Kanba Ima Lup—an arm of the Meira Paibi, a civil-society organisation formed by Meitei women—blamed the union and state governments for creating enmity between Arambai Tenggol and the state police. Leishemba Sanajaoba, a Bharatiya Janata Party member of the Rajya Sabha and Manipur’s titular king, also posted on his Facebook that the standoff should be resolved at the earliest, without, expectedly, condemning the militia’s activities. (Sanajaoba later deleted the post.)

Meanwhile, the Manipur Police commandos held an “arms down” protest as senior officers allegedly asked them to “restrain themselves” against Arambai Tenggol. “There is no political will to act against them even now,” the senior police officer told me after the abduction. “We are looking the other way because we’ve been told to look the other way. We have no choice.” No arrest seems to have been made in the case yet.

SINCE INDIA’S INDEPENDENCE, Manipur has seen several brands of armed groups and insurgencies that have killed and displaced thousands. The state is inhabited by different ethnicities—Meiteis, who dominate the valley, make up about half the population, and forty percent are Kukis and Nagas, who mostly reside in the hills. In 1980, the union government enforced the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in the state, giving the military sweeping powers, which led to unabated human-rights violations but also demonstrated the Indian state’s intention to control the conflict. An elite state force called the special commandos was created specifically to combat insurgency. Today, no such measures can be seen in the Imphal Valley to resist Arambai Tenggol. The way the organisation—active for barely two years—has established its dominance suggests that the BJP-led union and state governments are not even trying to restrain them or keep the violence in check.

Greeshma Kuthar is an independent lawyer and journalist from Tamil Nadu. Her primary focus is investigating the evolving methods of the far-right, their use of cultural nationalism regionally and attempts to assimilate caste identities into the RSS fold.