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New Delhi’s apathy means there will be more Manipurs

'Things serious even here. Gun shots of varying calibres. Bells calling people to action. Shoot at sight orders. Not clear what’s happening'
Last Updated : 20 May 2023, 21:07 IST
Last Updated : 20 May 2023, 21:07 IST

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“Things serious even here. Gun shots of varying calibres. Bells calling people to action. Shoot at sight orders. Not clear what’s happening.”

“A rumour that Meitei UG are entering from the river side. I am right there.”

“But what can we do? If they penetrate defences if any, we are sitting ducks. They are mainly burning properties to cleanse the area ethnically.”

On the evening of 4 May, such were the messages I was getting from a friend who retired as a senior Union government official and is now settled in Manipur. He eventually managed to exit the state to a safe place, although not via the capital Imphal. But not everyone in the state has been as lucky. The continuing ban on the internet, coupled with the absence of journalists from the mainstream media in the state, has ensured that little information has come out over the past 18 days. As per official figures, 73 people have died in this violence, and more than 54,000 persons had to be evacuated to various camps run by security forces, nearly 1,800 houses burnt down, and more than 1,000 weapons snatched from the security forces.

The violence may have subsided, but the rift between communities has become deeper and wider – almost unbridgeable. Longstanding social biases of otherness against an ethnic group have been weaponised into hatred and enmity. The emotive issue of land ownership and the question of ‘original inhabitants’ of the state versus ‘illegal immigrants’ have been deployed to cruelly justify organised mob violence against a community.

British colonial rule envisaged a distinctive administrative structure for the Manipur hills in 1907. The King had control over the plains in the valley, which was dominated by the Meiteis, while a special funding mechanism for the hill areas and management of the affairs of hill tribes – Kukis and Nagas – was kept under the control of a British political agent. This prepared the grounds for separate district councils, and a Hill Areas Committee under Article 371C was envisaged when Manipur attained statehood in 1972.

Chief Minister Biren Singh has put in place policies and measures with a majoritarian appeal to the Meitei electoral constituency, who control 40 of the 60 seats in the Assembly. He has also used this agenda to neutralise any factional challenge within the state BJP where other leaders have been challenging his leadership. The foremost among them is the extension of the Forest Act to declare considerable areas in the hills as Reserved Forest, Protected Forest, and Wildlife Sanctuary to deny tribals the use of their natural habitats.

Simultaneously, there has been propagation of the belief that Kukis, who share ethnic roots with Mizos in Mizoram and Chins in Myanmar, are ‘foreigners’, ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘encroachers’ in the state. They are depicted as drug-peddlers because many of them are involved in opium poppy cultivation. The Kuki militant groups, who are monitored under the Suspension of Operations agreements with the state and Centre, have been equated with the Kukis in general and held responsible for all violence.

As is true in any complex socio-political landscape, there is an iota of truth to some grievances of the Meiteis. But some of their complaints sound like the grumblings heard in the majoritarian narrative in Assam. Adding to it all is the attempt by some Hindutva supporters to demonise the Church in the state; dozens of churches – 121, as per reports -- have been destroyed. The fate of tribes in Manipur is directly linked to the demand of the Naga movement, which has seen no progress after the foundational agreement between the NSCN(I-M) and the Modi government was announced with much fanfare in 2015.

The situation is precarious and needed to be dealt with great sensitivity, but the actions of the state government did not generate any confidence in the tribal groups. Biren Singh’s statements, both during and after the violence, have tended to absolve the Meiteis and blame the Kukis for the violence. Eyewitness accounts show the state police in poor light, particularly in Imphal. This lack of trust in the state government resulted in 10 Kuki MLAs writing to Union Home Minister Amit Shah to create a separate administrative set-up for the hills. Even the Mizoram CM asked the Centre to intervene to protect the Kukis.

If the state government’s approach was terrible, that of the Union government is inexplicable. Since the violence began in Manipur, no Union minister, let alone the PM, has visited the strife-torn state. Even as Manipur burned, PM Modi continued to campaign at full tilt in Karnataka, not finding the time to even tweet once to mourn the death and devastation in a border state. That Indian citizens were finding it safer to move to strife-torn Myanmar than stay in Manipur ought to shock those angling for the crown of Vishwaguru. It was a ‘Do Not Look East’ policy.

Act East policy, it definitely wasn’t, as evident from the confusion around the imposition of Article 355 in Manipur. An informal announcement from the Home ministry suggested that the Centre had taken control of law and order by posting a security adviser, but it soon backtracked, for that would have exposed the ‘double-engine sarkar’ slogan on which PM Modi was trying to ride in Karnataka.

Manipur is not the first state in the country to witness such organised violence by a majoritarian group against another community, with a dark shadow of State complicity. We have seen this in 2002 in Gujarat. Unlike then, when India and the world took notice, no one now seems to care. If this institutional and public apathy continues, Manipur will not be the last state to be engulfed by manufactured hatred.

(Sushant Singh. From defusing IEDs in Kashmir to teaching at Yale, the former army man has made all the unwise choices in life, including journalism, wonkery and corporate. @SushantSin)

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Published 20 May 2023, 19:48 IST

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