Samtal operation and beyond

By BB Sharma

Chandel, the sparsely populated border district of Manipur has been the stronghold of various insurgent outfits. Out of the 3313 sq km of the district, 1000 sq km (one-third) is known as the ‘Liberated Zone’. Sajik Tampak and Khengjoi ridge remained as two hot-beds of insurgency for more than a decade. In 2004, Army had driven out insurgents from Sajik Tampak. Since then Khengjoi ridge became the next target of the security forces and the Khengjoi ridge has been in the news for quite sometime.

Even an exhaustive account of 160 pages entitled ‘Khengjoi Chingsang’ in Manipuri by a well-known local journalist, S. Hemant depicts life and style of underground cadres controlling the area. This attracted me to be a part of the media team, which visited the area to have an eyewitness account of the ongoing ‘Samtal Salient’ Operation of the security forces.

When I received a telephone call from the PRO, Assam Rifles, Col. L.M. Pant for a field visit to Chandel, I readily agreed to be a part of the media team thinking that the trip will fulfill a long-cherished desire to see the Khengjoi Ridge.

After travelling the serpentine road from Chamu Lamkhai near Tengnoupal, the media team reached Moltuk at around 3.30 p.m. on December 4, 2007. But the sky of Moltuk was overcast with thick fog and it looked like dusk well ahead of sunset.

Out of 15 journalist, eight of us stayed back at Moltuk and the remaining seven went ahead 35 kilometres to Joupi for accommodation convenience. Though winter has just set in, it was already much colder in Moltuk. The thick fog covered the beautiful landscape throughout the day with intermittent sunshine for few minutes just to reveal the blue mountains and meandering rivulets.

What I saw during the two-day trip to Chandel district is a matter of deep concern. The villages are extremely small with hardly 10-12 houses having a population of 50-70. As a result, the village economy is confined to only jhuming, which is not self-sustaining. Malnutrition is visible among children and women. There is no school or healthcare facilities. Poor villagers spent their nights without burning even a kerosene lamp, since it is a luxury none can afford. Many villagers trekked two days to buy essential commodities from a place named Bokan in Myanmar. However, they are proud of being born and raised in the area though they experience difficulties and frustration.

An elderly person told the media-men that even before the UGs came to the area, there was no visible administration. The nearest Government office is either at Sugnu or at Tengnoupal which lie at over hundred kilometres of trekking distance. With the coming of underground cadres of various outfits in the area, even the semblance of Government activities has been completely stopped. Even the Deputy Commissioner of the district, the head of district administration was abducted and kept in captivity for days together. To them, Government has no meaning.

When the media team visited the villages, large number of villagers turned up with great curiosity and narrated their woes. They admitted that the underground cadres extended material help in terms of food, medical care but they had to be careful in their movement lest they came across Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). They equally praised Army for the help particularly in clearing the roads which remained blocked due to IEDs and land slides for over two decades. Instantly, came to my mind the famous Hindi proverb: ‘Jis-ki lathi, Us-ki Bheinsh’ (Might is Right).

This is what I saw. But what I have not seen in the area is the much-talked about gun-battle between the security forces and underground cadres. Indeed, for a ringside view of the gunfight I got myself enlisted for the trip. But during the 48 hours of our stay in the area, not even a single stray gunshot was heard. Nonetheless, the trip provided us protection and access to the forward limits of the operation and whatever reported is what I have seen.

The ongoing operation for area domination was launched in the backdrop of several earlier operations, which were very unusual. In January 2003, an attempt by three battalion of BSF to cleanse Sajik Tampak and Joupi, a stretch of thick-forested mountains, which long served as citadel of UNLF, PREPAK and PLA, proved disastrous. The BSF jawans were trapped in thick jungle but later rescued. In April 2004, Army in Sajik Tampak conducted area domination exercise just before the Lok Sabha election. After seven months, Army launched a series of operations to change the equation there. Following this, security forces established their posts at Joupi, Moltuk and Angbreshu and a semblance of rule of law took shape. In December 2006, another major operation was launched in the area of Samtal, Khengjoi, Hollenjang, Bailon and Semol. But the operation was discontinued due to Manipur State Assembly Election, onset of monsoon and shortage of troops. The operation resumed once again on 18th November 2007 and this time it is well strategised.

Back home, Manipur has seen a spate of travelogues by eminent writers back from their foreign trips, which are well-received by the literati here. But I wish the writers could throw more light on the unfrequented areas like international border area of Chandel, which could become literary pieces of worldwide acclaim from this part of world where literary journalism is yet to see the light of the day. While places in Europe and America are much frequently traveled and extensively written about, it is irony of fate that in our own backyard with full of picturesque surroundings and mystic beauty, brimming with stories of human triumph over adversity and negligence, and that even adventurous journalists seldom visit or write about these untold but fabulous stories.

Nevertheless, there is a gulf of difference between what is reported and what is seen. It is often said that “Newspapers are full of truth, half-truth and lie. ‘Truth’ is in sports column; ‘half-truth’ in weather reports; and ‘lie’ in somewhere else”.



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