The untimely demise of a number of soldiers alongside civilians in a landslide in Tupul, located in Noney district of Manipur, last week, was largely ignored by the media as it occurred in a remote corner of India. The current toll stands at 42, including 27 soldiers. Twenty are missing, of which 17 are civilians. The unit that lost its men belonged to the 107 Territorial Army (TA) battalion affiliated to 11 Gurkha Rifles, whose troops are also termed as ‘Terriers’. Civilians were mostly contractual railway labour from Assam, while the army personnel were largely Gurkhas belonging to Darjeeling district of West Bengal. The battalion was providing security from militants for the construction of a railway yard at Tupul as part of the under-development railway line from Jiribum to Imphal.
The troops had been deployed in this location only in April this year. Besides the terriers of the 107 TA battalion securing the yard at Tupul, there were other units in the vicinity protecting the National Highway and surrounding hills. They were the first responders. The region, though cleared of militancy, needed the presence of security forces to prevent its re-emergence.
Tupul is located 50 km from Manipur’s capital Imphal. Casualty figures are bound to rise as the period of rescuing anyone alive has run out. The landslide was so powerful that it blocked the flow of the Ijei river, creating a reservoir, which could flood the region in case of a heavy downpour, warning for vacating villages in its vicinity has already been issued.
This vital railway link had been delayed for years on account of militancy and extortion. Militants who dominated the region claimed extortion from the labour while ensuring that work progressed slowly. All road movement along the National Highway was similarly subjected to extortion. On specific request, the army cleared the region of militancy so that development work could progress at a desired pace. The army commenced operations in 2003-04 and secured it by 2008-09. It was then that the 107 TA Battalion was inducted, and railroad construction began in full swing. In the first phase, Lumding-Silchar was completed by 2013-14. Work then commenced towards Imphal. AFSPA has since been lifted in this region.
Such high casualty figures anywhere else in the country would have been headlines on media networks including debates in prime time. An example is an avalanche in Siachen in 2016, which claimed six lives. Distance and remoteness of the location pushed this news into lost corners of newspapers. No news network rushed its teams to cover ongoing rescue operations. The vice president, prime minister and other state and Central government personalities sent condolence messages, which were also largely sidelined by the press.
Resources to aid the rescue process have been rushed from different corners of the region. A coordinated operation is currently underway. Manipur chief minister Biren Singh visited the site and announced an ex-gratia grant of Rs 5 lakh to the next of kin of the deceased. Casualties are high as the landslide occurred in the wee hours of the morning when most residents of the camp were asleep. The site was adjacent to the under-construction railway yard. It would take time before the landslide is cleared and the true extent of casualties known.
Territorial Army battalions have been performing creditably in operations in both the North East and Kashmir. Lance Naik Nazir Ahmed Wani of the 162 TA battalion was awarded the Ashoka Chakra in 2019, though at that time he was serving in the Rashtriya Rifles. The raising of TA battalions in trouble-infested regions has been of major benefit. These units employ locals who are familiar with the terrain and populace. This has proved to be extremely effective in remote islands of Andaman and Nicobar, as well as Jammu and Kashmir and the North East.
The primary role of TA remains to relieve the army in static duties and assist the civil administration in dealing with natural calamities. Their specialist units, including Railway TA, IOC and ONGC, are inducted to maintain essential services in times of strife or when there is a security threat. The TA works silently, providing support where most needed. It has never claimed credit, preferring to fulfil its task without much fanfare.
It was well-known that Tupul and the hills surrounding it are landslide-prone and a single landslide could impact movement for prolonged durations. The railways should have routed construction of the line through a safer way post a ground survey. The fact that it was ignored has set work back by years.
The development of a railway line to Manipur would change the economic dimension of the state and also enhance its integration with the rest of the country. Militant groups in the region have preferred the region be undeveloped to enable them to extort money while compelling residents to falsely accuse the army under every pretext. The army, on the other hand, with other national agencies, including the railways, silently works towards development and integration.
The silent sacrifice of the Terriers and workers at Tupul was an indicator of efforts put in by all agencies towards pushing development to all corners of the nation. They died silently while fulfilling their tasks. Their loss should not go in vain and development of the railway line on a safer axis must commence. This would be the most prudent honour that the government could bestow on those who laid down their lives. The railway line should be inaugurated, not by a political appointee, but by families of those who laid down their lives for national integration, be they those in uniform, labourers or even railway employees.
The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.