Mob Violence in Manipur: An Aberration or an Erosion of Syncretism?

Cover Image Credits : E-PAO

The brutal mob lynching of six Muslims (locally known as Pangals) in Manipur on March 25, 2016 who went to watch Thabal Chongba (Moonlight Dance) in connection to Yaoshang (Holi) festival, deserves the severest condemnation because of the very nature of the act.Barely a fortnight later, again, on April 7, 2016, three Muslim youths were brutally beaten up at Mayang Imphal Yangbi Garden of Imphal West district. Two of them were died in the lynching and a third has been critically injured. He is currently fighting for his life in ICU.
The state, guardian of our constitutional rights and liberties was absent. Its visible arm the police was complicit in inaction.
Days later, on Tuesday, April 12, there were clashes between two communities in Manipur on Monday in the wake of the bandh called by the Joint Action Committee (JAC)(see document) against the death of two youths who succumbed to their injuries in hospital after being mauled by a mob on April 7.
Are these attacks the result of an insidious communalisation of Manipuri society, as it succumbs to mainstreaming stigmatisation of the Muslim minority or would that be an over-simplistic generalisation?
Are Muslims, then, now not allowed to watch Thabal Chongba (Holi celebrations)? If the answer is affirmative, then why do organisers of such event (forcibly) collect contributions in the form of money from all citizens in markets and residential areas in Manipur, irrespective of religious affiliation? 

The young men were set upon for allegedly trying to steal a vehicle parked at Sagaisabi under Mayang Imphal Police station–the ensuing violence left seven houses gutted and more than 30 injured. The incident is an extremely ugly one and involved predominantly Hindu Meiteis and the Pangals (Manipuri Muslims). These assaults on these young Muslims were not just ordinary crimes. They showcase rising issues of mob incited hate crimes in Manipuri society.
There have been an increasing number of incidents in recent years, where Muslims have been the target of communally incited mob/mob groups, fired up by allegations of ‘stealing vehicles’ from nearby localities by majority Meitei community. The allegations by local Meiteis against Muslims being ‘thieves’ (because they indulge in stealing vehicles) is not new. This allegation has become so much part of a generalised discourse against the whole of the Muslim/Pangal community over the years, that, in general many Meiteis have internalised it. This internalisation has led to the widespread stigmatisation of the whole community to the extent that every Muslim youth is seen as ‘thief’ or ‘drug addict’ which is simply not true.
The police, also consumers and participants of this over-generalised stigmatising discourse, have, to a large extent bought into the narrative. The March 25 public beating also followed rumours of an attempt by the young Muslim boys –who had simply gone to watch Holi celebrations –to ‘steal a bike’!
Let us examine the police version for a moment. Even the local Station House Officer (SHO) who is believed to have briefed his senior officers, refused to lodge an FIR against those Muslim youths who were alleged to have been ‘caught while trying to steal a bike(s).’ Thus, my assessment based on local inputs from the spot is that they were brutally beaten up just because they belong to a marginalised and stigmatised community who ‘dared’ to join the local Thabal Chongba. Thabal Chongba, Holi celebrations in Manipur, are a charming and beautiful occasion, celebrations where local boys and girls find a space to interact and even fall in love.  
Are Muslims, then, now not allowed to watch Thabal Chongba? If the answer is affirmative, then why do organisers of such event (forcibly) collect contributions in the form of money from all citizens in markets and residential areas in Manipur, irrespective of religious affiliation?
Pernicious propaganda unchecked by the state or the law enforcement authorities, has labelled the Muslim community as a ‘community of vehicle thieves and anti-social elements’. Today, Manipur has fallen prey to the discourse of religious intolerance and is now part and parcel of the RSS-led and BJP enforced persistent witch-hunt of the minority Muslim community in mainland India.
[[Communalism Combat had, in 1993 briefly analysed the impact of this during the LK Advani-led rath yatra. That article can be read here.]]
Over 100 Muslims have been killed in the state in the 1993 violence. The riot started on May 2, 1993 when three Meitei youths who belong to an insurgent group called the People’s Republican Army (PRA) were beaten up by some Muslim villagers of Lilong in Thoubal district where they had allegedly gone to purchase illicit arms from an illegal arms dealer. After the incident, some Meiteis spread the rumour of molestation and assault of some Meitei college-students and other Meiteis by Muslims.
The localised scuffle related to the transaction of arms in a small local area fuelled a rumour that ‘Muslims had started attacking Meiteis’. That rumour, as rumours of this kind are want to do, was allowed to spread like wild fire within a few hours in Manipur. The authorities did nothing to step in or to quell its impact.
It eventually led to systematic killings and murders of innocent rickshaw pullers, pedestrians, bus passengers, etc., belonging to the Muslim community, many of whom were returning from their work places, located in Meitei-dominated localities. This was the starting point of the riot which had, at the time, the implicit support of the police and the state.
In the riot, the official figures of deaths were 103 Muslims as against 4 Meiteis. In actuality these figures would have been as high as 500 if the body count had included the bodies of non-Manipuri Muslims who had also been killed in the incidents. The victims were compensated with a meagre twenty-five thousand rupees given to the next of the kin. Of the 343 people arrested none have been convicted so far, for these mass crimes that had marked a first in the history of Manipur.
This clash, in the early 1990s marked a significant break from a fairly harmonious co-existence between the different religious communities within Manipur. A 1980s popular song "Ho Iril Turel' was sung by Laishram Birendrakumar  a Meitei Brahmin, symbolises this co-existence in lyrics and melody.

The song is a paean to the beauty of the Iril River which silently meanders past many different settlements; in one of the stanzas the singer nostalgically recalls the sweet sound of pre-dawn prayer from a distant Masjid floating on the simmering river surface and drifting towards him.
The history of the Pangals (Manipuri Muslims) is interesting. They first came to Manipur as part of an invading army from a feudal lord of East Bengal. The year was 1606 and it was, as is typical of this period, an invasion by invitation, at the behest of a Manipuri prince working with a neighbor to usurp the Manipuri throne.
King Khagemba of Manipur at the time was powerful enough to rebuff the attack; the participating Muslims agreed on a truce without a fight. They earnestly argued their case, saying that they did not come as invaders but were brought by a prince of the kingdom. Eventually, they were pardoned and allowed to settle in the kingdom, given local wives (as the army had come without their women) given Meitei surnames, even properties. Pangals are their descendants. King Khagemba’s decision to pardon was governed by a sharp pragmatism. These Pangals brought in new skills, especially in the areas of agriculture, fishing and horse tending.
The sudden spurt of incidents of brute public violence over the past few months is a matter of serious concern; already large sections of the Muslim community in the state are victims of both discrimination and ghettoisation. [1]
This is not the first time that this kind of structural violence set up by sections of Meitei fanatics has been faced by minority communities in the state. During the recent Inner Line Permit (ILP) movement, some self-appointed Meitei groups had been found, forcibly checking identity of the commuters in the Imphal West district and during this ‘checking’ one Muslim student had been assaulted mercilessly under the pretext of being a Bangladeshi migrant.
Certain extremist elements among the Meiteis have been increasingly marginalising and stigmatising Muslims. During the ILP movement, in September 2015, a Muslim Manipuri student who was travelling to Bangaluru (Bangalore) was killed in Andhra Pradesh before he reached Bangaluru. This killing was after the Bihar Member of Parliament(MP), Pappu Yadav threatened to attack Manipur people travelling on train and the reaction of the ILP movement to regulate migrant workers in Manipur to protect the indigenous population of Manipur. However, this young Manipuri has not been recognised as a victim of the movement. His name was not duly acknowledged by any major newspaper in Imphal; had the student belonged to the Meitei community, the boy would have been named a ‘martyr’ and his name would have found a place among those killed earlier, in the June Uprising of 2001.
In another similar incident, an engineering Muslim student was killed in the Thoubal district of the state, allegedly by some Meitei fanatics in 2014 on the pretext of having a relationship with a Meitei girl. Or take the case of the high-profile broad day-light murder of Professor Md. Islamuddin, a lone Muslim professor and the then Registrar of Manipur University, on May 25, 2009 inside the campus. This incident signalled the culture of intolerance against the minority. It was a deliberate and well-planned murder of a professional academic; whose only fault was that he had rose to the top of the University’s administrative hierarchy through his hard work – an area which had been, until then, dominated by the Meiteis. This was an act of racism wrapped within a core of communal sentiments.
There has been not enough vociferous condemnation of these communally incited incidents by political leaders, civil society group, human rights activists, the intellectual class or student organisations who otherwise express a strong sense of injustice on acts that violate fundamental freedoms, by the Indian state or any other group(s). Imphal-based active civil society organisations have either been silent or, even on occasion, come out in the strong defence of Meiteis who were involved in such attacks.
One such organisation calling itself the Meitei Youth Front South East Asia (MYFSEA), recently actually propagated (falsely), in the Manipuri edition of the popular local daily, The Sangai Express falsehoods like ‘all those youths(attacked) were thieves possessing guns who dared to threaten Meiteis’. [[attached is the statement published in The Sangai Express on April 14,2016. The second is a video link of the recording of Meira Paibi Lup against the arrest of the culprits guilty of the crime.]] Comparing the Muslims of Manipur with ‘terrorists’, the organisation blamed the entire Muslim community, for its inability to rein in such anti-social elements. There has been no unequivocal condemnation of such stigmatising so far.
Muslims are facing segregation and being increasingly ghettoised in almost all parts of the state today. There are spoken and unspoken restrictions of where Muslims are allowed or not allowed to buy property, and live.
The politics of intimidation that is practised in and around the Mantripukhri area (a prime residential colony in central Imphal area inhabited by various government officials and rich locals) is a clear example for this. In this instance, the state has directly asked Muslims not to construct any building on land-plots owned by them.

These assaults on these young Muslims were not just ordinary crimes. They showcase rising issues of mob incited hate crimes in Manipuri society. 
Another such instance is an attempt by the state government to acquire eco-sensitive land –that comprises of mainly paddy fields in the foothills, of Shora, to establish a national sports university. The ‘development’ was planned made without consulting the villagers who also include a sizeable population of Maring (tribal) community residing in the foothills adjoining the Shora village and the Shora village, 80 per cent of who’s residents are Muslims. The Shora village is 30 kilometres from Imphal. The acquisition of agricultural and homestead land will cause widespread displacement for the Muslim villagers and the tribal community, left without either homes or land.
The exclusion of Muslims from the wider development process in the state and administrative decisions has been alleviated slightly over the past few years, owing to a reservation policy in the recruitment process of various government posts. Muslim representation in administration has been gradually increased, though it still remains proportionate to the population, low.
There is not a single Muslim shop allotted to women from the community in the famous Ima Keithel or Nupi Keithel (Mothers’ market) in Imphal. If one strolls through the market for 15 minutes, one would realise that around 90 percent of those women (Imas in Manipuri) belong to the Meitei community. Muslims demanded 9 percent of the total allotments in three newly constructed complexes but have got, so far, nothing. Denial of such reasonable demands has only dis-enfranchised Muslims further.
Should or should not the onus of maintaining the strong roots of Manipuri syncretism lie with the Meities and other Manipuris too?

The systemic influence of sections of Meiteis who are more hardened and opinionated on the larger Meitei community seems to have overshadowed the otherwise benign and harmonious attitude of Meiteis which had been responsible for maintaining communal harmony for centuries. More than slightly disturbing has been the silence on the part of the larger moderate sections among the Meiteis who have not spoken out and condemned this violent chain of events that has targeted their brothers and sisters, Manipuri Muslims.
I am sure that many sections of the highly aware and intelligent Meitei community are conscious of these ills that are corroding Manipuri society. Few of the voices that have been raised in protest against the communal frenzy unleashed against the minorities have been silenced by the more strident Meitei leaders who have even justified both recent assault(s) and killings saying that the victims were ‘stealing’.
For example, Naorem Brajakumar, Secretary of the Joint Action Committee (JAC) justified the lynching. Another Meira Paibi Lup (Women torch bearer organisation) of the Mayang Imphal protested against the arrest of the culprits. There is also a video of the same. They threatened to agitate against the government if the police did not release those arrested for the crimes.
Given this marginalisation and ongoing ghettoisation of Manipuri Muslims, victims from the religious minority are just paying the price of the social stigma attached to the Muslim community as a ‘community of vehicle thieves and anti-social elements’.
Such an overwhelmingly biased and resultant double­speak by large sections of the majority, when a violent incident targeting Muslims occurs, has caused deep schisms within Manipur, particularly between the two communities. This is not a healthy sign.
Should or should not the onus of maintaining the strong roots of Manipuri syncretism lie with the Meities and other Manipuris too? To remain silent in the face of such targeted violence and the obvious erosion of traditional harmony would be to consent to a silent, and dangerous rupturing; ruptures that will eventually affect us all.

(The author is a doctoral scholar, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, JNU)

[1] February and April 2016 have seen frequent visits, to Manipur by two Babas close to the Hindutva fold. Baba Ramdev visited the state in February. The same Baba has of late been associated with the Rashtriya Swayasevak Sangh  (RSS) even fantasising of chopping off heads of those who would refuse to utter the slogan “Bharat Mata Ki Jai.” In April it was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar  who was on a peace mission in the state. This Baba had stirred up a huge controversy when his ‘World Culture Festival’ had left the banks of the River Jamuna in Delhi pollution struck.



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