Dr. Marc Nongmaithem
In a recent turn of events that has ignited a fervent debate on the role of armed forces in Manipur, the Editors Guild of India (EGI) finds itself entangled in a legal battle following the publication of a significant fact-finding report on the situation in the state. Titled “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission on Media’s Reportage of the Ethnic Violence in Manipur,” this report, released on September 2, 2023, brought to light pressing concerns regarding media coverage during the ethnic violence and cast a spotlight on the activities of the armed forces in the region.
EGI’s report did not mince words, accusing vernacular media outlets of displaying biased reporting tendencies during the ethnic violence in Manipur. It drew attention to the internet ban imposed in the state, alleging that this restriction had compelled media organisations to rely on the state government’s narrative, which was perceived as favouring the majority Meitei community. The report underscored the formidable challenges faced by journalists in the region and called for a more balanced and impartial approach to reporting.
However, the release of this report triggered a series of FIRs against EGI’s executive members, including its President Seema Mustafa and members of the fact-finding team, namely Sanjay Kapoor, Seema Guha, and Bharat Bhushan. These FIRs brought allegations of criminal conspiracy, defamation, and the dissemination of false information, with a particular focus on an erroneous picture caption that EGI later rectified.
The situation took an even more alarming turn when Manipur’s Chief Minister, Biren Singh, publicly accused EGI of attempting to sow further discord and unrest in the state. In response, EGI expressed grave concerns regarding the freedom of speech and personal liberty of journalists, citing the alleged intimidation by the chief minister. Subsequently, the matter was brought before the Supreme Court, which granted protection from arrest to all the accused.
In an unexpected twist, Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal, representing EGI, disclosed on September 11 that EGI had not voluntarily initiated the fact-finding report. Instead, they had been invited by the Indian Army in a letter dated July 12, 2023, to conduct the assessment. This revelation has raised eyebrows and sparked inquiries into the Army’s involvement in this matter. Sibal emphasised that EGI should not be held accountable for a report they were requested to prepare by the Army.
Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud questioned the purpose behind the Army’s request for such a report. Sibal explained that the report was intended to provide an “objective assessment of what is happening on the ground.” This disclosure has ignited a vigorous debate about the role of the Army in Manipur and the necessity of establishing a fact-finding team to scrutinise their activities and their impact on the region.
There is a valid concern that a fact-checking team could be manipulated to suppress legitimate criticism of the Army or to disseminate propaganda. Such a team could be seen as an attempt by the Army to control the media. Therefore, it is imperative that any fact-checking team remains independent and accountable.
Furthermore, this controversy has raised vital questions about the role of the armed forces in Manipur and the pressing need for another comprehensive fact-finding team to investigate their activities concerning issues like poppy and cannabis plantations in the region.
Notably, the Army appears to have turned a blind eye to the rampant illegal cannabis and poppy plantations that have been fueling the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur. This is particularly perplexing given that the armed forces have been actively combating drug trafficking within the state and beyond. However, little or no action has been taken to eradicate the illegal cannabis and poppy plantations widespread in the hills of Manipur. While the armed forces are seemingly occupied with maintaining the buffer zone in the name of preserving peace in Manipur, the illicit cannabis and poppy cultivation persists, with the harvest season fast approaching. This glaring omission begs the question of whether the armed forces’ buffer zone is inadvertently protecting these illegal plantations.
In light of these developments, it is imperative that we critically examine the role of the armed forces in Manipur and consider the urgent need for another comprehensive fact-finding team to investigate their involvement or non-involvement in addressing issues such as illicit poppy and cannabis cultivation in the region. Bringing peace and stability in Manipur hinges on a crucial prerequisite: the recognition and resolution of the root causes of the current conflict. One of these pressing issues, which directly contributes to the ongoing ethnic conflict, is the widespread cultivation of illegal cannabis and poppy in Manipur’s hills. The question looms: Is the buffer zone maintained by the armed forces shielding these illegal cannabis and poppy plantations, thereby perpetuating the ongoing strife in the state unabated?