The arrest of three United National Liberation Front (UNLF) leaders at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on October 2, 2006 necessitates an evaluation of the external linkages of Meitei militant outfits. Apart from having close connections with their sister outfits in the north-eastern states, major Meitei outfits like the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the UNLF have been attempting to revamp themselves by tying up with foreign outfits and agencies directly or indirectly. In recent years, Manipur has recorded the highest militancy-related fatalities in the North East. For example, out of the 62 security forces' personnel killed in the North East region between January and September 27, 2006, 35 (56.45 per cent) were reported in Manipur alone.
The three UNLF leaders - Jayanta Kumar (Deputy Secretary of the group), Ghanshyan Kumar and Shyam Kumar - were arrested while trying to board a Kathmandu bound Indian Airlines flight. The operation was jointly carried out by the Delhi Police, Intelligence Bureau and the Immigration Department. Police sources speculate about the possibility of their attempt to set up a base in Delhi. However, the three UNLF leaders reportedly stated that they were only using Delhi as a transit point on their way to Kathmandu. The pen-drive and the compact disc confiscated from them contained detailed information on the deployment of army and paramilitary forces in the north-eastern states, information about the party's funding as well as its cadre strength. According to the information provided by the three arrested UNLF leaders, the total strength of the outfit was 2,000. They added that the strength of the second largest group in the state, PLA, was 1,500, including 100 to110 hard-core members.
The arrest of the three UNLF leaders who were going to attend a meeting with the outfit's chief R.K Meghen is an indication of the extent of their network, including attempts to establish linkages with the Maoist guerrillas in Nepal. Nepal's Maoists already have close connections with several Northeast outfits like ULFA and NSCN (IM). The forging of deep linkages between the Meitei outfits and Nepal's Maoists would be quite easy given sociological similarities and the latter's stance against Indian policies. Moreover, Maoists' domination of a significant portion of Nepal's territory means that the country could well emerge as a safe haven for the Meitei rebels. In addition, Nepal is the largest ISI hub in South Asia from where it operates to destabilise India.
It has been reported that the ISI and Bangladesh's Directorate General Field Intelligence (DGFI) have been playing an active role in fostering the militant activities of the UNLF. Like elsewhere in India, the Northeast also has a large number of ISI operatives. Though they are confined to the Tinsikia region of Assam, they have the capability to penetrate all militant-affected areas including Manipur. The bomb blast at a Hindu temple in Imphal on August 16, 2006, which claimed four lives and injured 66 others including two Americans and two French nationals, was an attack aimed at rousing ethnic/communal passions between Meiteis and Nagas who live in the hill districts of Manipur. Surprisingly, none of the outfits in the region claimed responsibility for the attack, with even the prime suspect, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), a Meitei militant outfit, denying its involvement.
Manipur has more than 30 militant groups, five of which are proscribed terrorist outfits; some are active, while a few are not. Most of the active groups use Bangladesh and Myanmar, while at the same time maintaining close ties with some foreign agencies in other Asian countries such as Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand and Nepal. For instance, the UNLF's connection with foreign agencies can be traced back to the 1960s when its then leader Arambamm Samarendra Singh established ties in erstwhile East Pakistan. Later, Nameirakpam Bisheswar Singh's (former PLA chief) visited Lhasa in 1975 to secure Beijing's support. Recently, the Thai connection of Meitei outfits was revealed when Bangkok repatriated four PLA cadres back to India, whom it had arrested in March 1997 with a cache of arms and charged with attempts to smuggle arms and explosives and travelling without proper documents.
Owing to similar anthropological aspects and geographical proximity, it is easy for armed rebels in the north-east to develop kinship with most of the South East Asian nations as well as to seek refuge to propagate their anti-Indian stance. As E Rammohan, former advisor to the governor of Manipur, emphasised at an IDSA seminar (October 11, 2006) the eastern border of India is much more under threat than the western border. Manipur shares a 398 kilometre-long porous border with Myanmar. In fact, the road between Tammu (Myanmar) and Moreh (Manipur) is the gateway to East Asian countries, where illicit arms and drugs smuggling are rampant and where militants are likely to reap benefits by expanding their networks. With the help of secessionist groups in Myanmar like Karen National Union (KNU) and Kachin Independent Army (KIA), Meitei outfits have established training camps along the Indo-Burmese border. They have also done so in Bangladesh under the aegis of the government. They have been covertly or overtly maintaining linkages with Pakistan and Bangladesh through active Muslim militant outfits like the People's United Liberation Front (PULF) and the Islamic National Front (INF). Interestingly, in an incident on November 10, 2006, two PULF hardcore members were arrested from Imphal airport while en route to Guwahati for an important meeting with the outfit's chief. The Assam-based ULFA has been the facilitator for buying arms from Cambodia and Bhutan for Meitei militant organizations.
Illicit arms uncovered in Manipur and other north-eastern states indicate that the weapons have originated from countries like China, US, Russia, Belgium, UK, Czechoslovakia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Thailand, Cambodia and Bangladesh, and that they are being smuggled through routes along the Indo-Burma border as well as via sea through Cox bazaar and Chittagong in Bangladesh. Most of the weapons being used by the outfits in the region are Chinese-made and they are comparatively more sophisticated than those wielded by the Indian army. Weapons such as Lathod M-76 (40mm grenade launcher), AGL, Chinese SAR rifles, AK series of Rifles, M-16 rifle, Machine guns, 60mm mortars, pistols, RPGs, sniper rifles are commonly used. Most of these weapons are bought in South-East Asian black markets. At the same time, Chinese arms manufacturing companies like Norinco are also clandestinely supplying arms to these outfits. Thus, easy availability of arms in the area fuels violence in the region.
Though Manipur is considered to be a tiny state in the large Indian landmass, the sizeable casualty figures for both civilians and security forces inflicted by militancy-related violence there is disproportionately large. Any further expansion in the capabilities of Meitei militants and their networks within and outside the country would pose an even more serious challenge. The Indian security establishment needs to take the threat posed by Meitei militants more seriously and make concerted efforts to staunch the spread of their networks within and outside the country.