Schisms & divides among communities need resolution, mature peacebuilding need of the hour: Manipur

The inability of the state government to separate state functionaries from indulging in identity-based politics has always been a particular failure of the government and people of Manipur in general. It is also understandable that any move by the Union government will have a bearing on the Nagas who have been a silent observer throughout. If any bipartite or tripartite solution materializes, an impending bloodshed between communities is highly possible in the state.
Image: AP

The violent clashes between the Meiteis and Kukis erupted on a large scale on May 3, 2023 in Manipur. Ever since, no significant steps have been taken up from either the state or the Union government, except for sending several columns of central forces into the state and a near continuous ban on internet services in the name of controlling dissemination of fake-news and maintaining order.

The violence has continued for three months with an official figure of 150 plus casualties, many women getting raped and sexually assaulted, more than thousands injured, over 5000 houses burnt down or destroyed and above 60,000 people displaced and taking shelter in many dilapidated relief camps inside the state and outside.

Fresh news of people resorting to acts of extraordinary brutality, rarest of the rare case of decapitation, rape and the recently surfaced video of a horrendous case of sexual assault on women have proven that the ongoing conflict has crossed all limits of civility and restraint.

The ban on internet services for a prolonged period of time has also disrupted healthcare, education, administration, and every aspect of life of the people in Manipur. It is high time that the violence is stopped and focus on peace building process in the larger interest of all the people living in the state. Rigid stances and iterations of unbridgeable differences only furthers the conflict and it unfortunately induces a further ignition of emotions of frenzied youth to resort to violent practices.

Manipur’s chequered history

Since the beginning of the current mayhem in the state, conflicting narratives and blame game have flooded the media. Many have come up with complaints of historically embedded subjugation, of prejudices and administrative bias among other issues and discussions on socio-political matters. As the violence continues, these contrasting narratives have engulfed public space and media, where academicians, artists and politicians alike are propagating strong and near-unbending opinions. There is scant space it seems for a neutral space, for the reimagination of Manipur as an egalitarian state. This has further induced a confused sense of consciousness amongst the people of the state, providing them fertile ground to foster destructive and counter offensive thoughts.

Manipur has always celebrated a sense of togetherness, the idea of oneness and the culture of sharing collective belongingness despite having a large gap in privilege, convenience and developmental activities between the Hills and the Valley and between the Centre and Periphery in the Valley.

Historically, a lack of enthusiasm to spread a strong political influence or an apathy of the Kingdom to interfere in the polity of the Hills governed by their tribal chiefs can be seen in the discourses available in historical texts. Sanskritisation of the Hindu faith through Shantidas Gosai and under the then King Garib Niwas was another turning point that drove another wedge and engendered difference.

The ‘exotic culture of hierarchical division of people based on purity and pollution’ under caste Hinduism, the newly invented Aryan origin of the Meiteis and the concept of untouchability had divided the society not just amongst the people of the valley, but also between the Hinduised Meiteis and the Hill tribes.

The division between people was further strengthened by the colonial British’s divide-and-rule policies. After the British left and the kingdom got merged into the Indian dominion, the divisions along the line of purity and pollution still stayed and the state’s politics of differentiation and subjugation through the successive majoritarian governments have further widened the gaps. Adding to this, the assertive ethnic politics from almost every quarter had led to build up trust deficit between one another, primarily between the majority Meiteis and other smaller communities in the state.

While the different historical narratives have their own discourses of differences and similarities, notwithstanding the existence of independent governance and polity between the Valley monarchs and Hill people, there has been a long history of coexistence with the Hill and Valley collectively safeguarding the state’s territory from any external forces. There were no accounts of divisive forces acting between the two.

The politics of hate culminating into today’s extreme inter-ethnic violence could, therefore, have significantly different epistemic foundations and underlying objectives which are detrimental to peaceful coexistence and integrity of Manipur. In the act of serving the interest of a particular section of the society, the ordinary people of Manipur have been driven emotionally to fall into a bottomless pit.

It is high time for the people to realize the inauspicious trap fielded by the elites, the powerful and the political class and strive towards establishing a peacefully coexisting Manipur as was in the past, safeguarding our integrity and defying any divisive politics of hate.

Hate Politics and Divisive Stereotyping

Instrumentalisation of collective hate seems to be a post-independence phenomenon in Manipur. In 1947 when an interim council, a provisional government was formed by Maharaja Bodhachandra, the same had cabinet ministers from the Meiteis, Pangals, Nagas and Kuki-Zo communities. This representation was an example of amity, trust, co-operation, and belongingness people of the state maintained during that time.

The polity that resonated after the Manipur State Constitution Act was passed and the first Assembly Election was held in 1948 remained a collective with reasonable representation. But after the merger of Manipur to India in 1949 and by the time Manipur gained statehood in 1972, the manifestation of hatred, assertive and divisive politics had gained momentum.

The divide-and-rule policies have grown manifold with the Union government trying to keep a check on the insurgents and separatist movements, imposing the inhumane AFSPA granting the central forces freedom to kill at will with complete impunity. At the same time, various separatist groups based in the valley have been waging war against the merger of the kingdom into the dominion of India and demanding either a pre-merger status, right to self-determination or independence. On the other hand, Nagas and Kukis have been demanding separate homelands, affecting the existing sovereign boundary of the state at large. The Union government’s institution of selective cease-fire agreements through peace talks and suspension of operations (SoO) with Naga and Kuki insurgents respectively have also become huge concerns for Manipur and other affected states in the North East. It Must be remembered, how the people of Manipur on June 18, 2001 bravely sacrificed their lives in fighting against the Government of India’s attempt to make a deal with the Naga insurgents in the proceeds of their demand for a separate homeland which would affect the territorial integrity of Manipur. This has further heightened and deepened the ethnic consciousness of people of Manipur on the one hand, but has also sharpened the already existing fault-lines between communities in the state.

Different waves including ethnic consolidation, cultural decadence, demographic imbalance, and the perennial inflow of neoliberal waves naturally give vulnerable communities a tinge of insecurity. The manifestation of the impending realities forms a fertile base for assertive politics amongst communities in the state.

In the unfolding battle for scarce resources, the entities in power often resort to hegemonic control mechanisms to maintain their relative strength. This condition renders different sections of the people to espouse conflicting narratives and self-righteous ethnic consciousness to flourish in the state, further deepening the hill-valley divide, as well as between hills and other cohabiting ethnic communities in the valley.

This has resulted into flourishing stereotyping of ethnic minorities with names, often picking identity markers with pun-intended. Explicit glorification of the Meiteis and implicit subjugation of other ethnic minorities have further widened the divide and intensified trust deficit. Unsurprisingly, a surge of ethno-religious consciousness seemed to have engulfed the psyche of the public.

As such, conflicts between Nagas and Kukis grew in the Hills culminating into Naga-Kuki clashes in the 1990s. In the valley, Meities’ hatred towards Pangals culminated into an unprecedented communal riot between the two communities that had erupted on the May 3, 1993. The same had fractured the foundation of peaceful co-existence between the two communities. At the same time, the Nagas’ demand for homeland has put ethnic communities in the state in a despicable situation.

The violence in June 2001 against the agreement between the Union government and the Naga insurgents (NSCN-IM) and subsequent blockades of the National Highways by the Nagas had brought untold miseries to the people of Manipur until Biren Singh government stopped the 130 days long blockade in 2017.

However, no conflict has ever evolved into a violence as gruesome as we are seeing today between the Kukis and the Meiteis.

Current Mayhem

The ongoing violence that started on May 3, 2023 can therefore be seen as an explosion of the latent tensions built up from a long time in the state. Meiteis’ demand for ST status can merely be one incident that can be linked to the violent outbreak. This demand could be dealt with legally within the existing framework of the constitution. The Kukis or Nagas opposing the Meiteis’ move cannot be an exclusive reason for such gruesome violence.

Besides, Meiteis getting ST status has other discussions and debates to follow, but not necessarily for their wants of lands in the hills. Getting ST status cannot ensure ownership of lands in the hills as there are other constitutional provisions that protect the hill tribes from being encroached upon their lands. Besides, the forest lands in the hill will always remain as properties of the state, and not of any individual.

Narratives of illegal Chin-Kuki-Zo immigrants from Myanmar and poppy cultivations in the hills of Manipur too lack the force to ignite a violence of this extent. The issue must be taken care of by the state and its agencies through appropriate channels. Meitei or any communities’ mob cannot solve the issues of illegal immigration and poppy plantation in the state through violence.

Furthermore, the issue of migration is of a larger concern for every ethnic community in the state who has ethnically related people living outside the state and the country, more so in our disturbed neighbours.

The government can only bring out appropriate measures to tackle the issue of illegal migration and refugees and the so-called narco-terrorism through relevant legislation. Common people taking the role of politico-legal institutions of the sovereign state in facing apprehensions caused by illegal immigration and alleged narco-terrorism indicate the failure of the state to maintain order. The public should not be made to clash in any condition whatsoever.

So, it is intriguing and pertinent to question and understand the position of the state at this moment, its accountability and lack of ability in resuming peace and harmony in the state. The inability of the state government to separate state functionaries from indulging in identity-based politics has always been particularly a failure of the government and people of Manipur in general. The collapse is happening at the cost of people’s livelihoods, properties, education of our children and youths, healthcare system, administrative functioning of the state and so on.

Banning the internet services for such a long period of time in the name of restricting spreading of fake-news is, least to mention, only showing the weakness of the system to maintain order. This has in-fact made it pose more intriguing questions.

Meanwhile, despite the ban, rumors and fake news are being spread without any effective control. Furthermore, the silence of the Union government, who is not engaging in any constructive efforts to stop the violence and bring back peace, except for some statements of assurances, is more questionable than what is understandable.

For now, it is quite evident from the discourse of the ongoing conflict that any move by the Union government to give separate administration would invite a strong resistance from the Meitei community. Any such effort will only further the violence and destruction. One can recall how the people of Manipur fought back against the agreement between the Nagas and the Union government in 2001.

It is also understandable that any move by the Union government will have a bearing on the Nagas who have been a silent observer throughout. The Nagas have been demanding for their proposed homeland for decades. After a failed attempt to get a separate homeland, a separate constitution and flag through peace-talks and an agreement known commonly as Framework Agreement (not available in public domain) in 2015, the Nagas spearheaded by NSCN-IM has lost its face after years of struggle.

As such, any grant for a separate administration to the Kukis will loosen the knot that binds the Nagas with the Union government. Hence, a bipartite solution will evidently make ways for a tripartite result which will eventually divide the hills into two and the valley as a single entity. If this materializes, an impending bloodshed between communities is highly possible in the state.

Rather than the governments at the state and the Union prolonging the violence driving the masses crazier, it will be of the best interest for an everlasting peace in the region for the government to look out for alternative measures to resolve the crisis at the earliest.

One such alternative can be to revisit the perspectives of applicability of Schedule Six of the Indian Constitution in the state, while also at the same time taking up appropriate and necessary measures to resolve the issues of illegal immigration. The government at the same time must ensure all possible ways to rehabilitate and resettle the internally displaced people. Besides, appropriate measures to mitigate socio-economic and political disparities among communities coexisting in the state must also be taken up, especially amongst those communities which are socially, economically, and politically backward. This can help the state in curbing ethnic divides in the long run. From the public’s end, the language of peace must be the only tool for the quest of reconciliation and reparative possibilities.

The current violence has been a result of the failures of the state and its agencies. The state, with some of its powerful keepers has been instrumentally using the masses at large for the benefits of certain sections of the society. The government and its intelligence agencies could have very well avoided this mayhem from happening. In the past, we have had instances of ethnic tension between communities getting worsened when the state took sides.

The position of the state and its functionaries in the run up to May 3 needs proper investigation. In the presence of a robust intelligence network, the failure of the state to step in at the right moment to ward off the mayhem is indeed highly questionable. Besides, the Union government’s long silence and not being proactive in resolving the violence appraise apprehensions of certain hidden agendas, probably pointing towards a forceful ‘split’ of the state at the end by imposing President’s rule and military troops to dispose of any possible outrage of the people.

Meanwhile, sections of national and international media are trying to religiously paint the violence as being between Hindus and Christians. Recently, there was also incorrect reporting by some national media, about Manipur Police apprehending a Pangal allegedly a PREPAK-Pro (a valley insurgent group) cadre, associating him as a suspect of the viral-video of two Kuki women parading naked by frenzied Meitei mobs. This has resulted into an uproar in social-media platforms linking the violence with a “Jihadists” angle. It should be noted that the violence is between ethnic communities and not between any religious groups in Manipur.

The media fraternity must correctly report the situations without any partiality. The violence has affected not only the two warring communities, but also every community in the state. Partial and biased reporting and dissemination of fake-news related to the violence targeting a particular community amount to worsening and not resolving the mayhem. At a time when the governments are failing to take up appropriate steps to completely stop the violence, the media fraternity and the people together are required to undertake conscious and impartial efforts to help one another to put an end to this mayhem for the sake of peaceful coexistence and integrity of the state.

The governments- both the state and the Union and the intellectuals alike are also needed to consciously take up efforts to have a common resolution to this violence by building bridges for communication and dialogues between the warring communities, rather than taking sides by propagating different narratives possibly intensifying the hatred. The time calls for everyone’s conscious and impartial efforts to end the violence and the losses that it incurs.

Road Ahead

The division between hill and valley has today grown into strong forces of differing political consciousness, which is alarming for the peace and integrity of the state. For long, the collective consciousness of the minorities had remained slumbered, while the majoritarian politics characterized by glorification of a monochromic trait of historical narrative has been representing the face of Manipur’s collective imagination. This induces to produce material and subjective dichotomies amongst communities. Reimagination of the notion of “we” can come from undoing the elements of hatred and prejudice and making ways for an egalitarian and an organic society where the sense of belongingness is collective and shared.

The people of Manipur need to take conscious efforts and precautions to prevent any anticipated destruction in the state from becoming reality. In the light of the current development, it seems imperative for the Chief Minister N. Biren Singh to step-down owning moral responsibility for the chaos. This might help in bringing communities of different opinions together, to give peace a chance, and pave a way for another leadership to initiate dialogue between the warring communities. Necessary measures must be taken on priority basis to disband and disarm the masses, as well as by suspending SoO with those breaking the ground-rules.

An independent fact-finding committee and a peace committee, must be constituted to fix accountability of the violence. All instigators and perpetrators must be booked through speedy trials. Activities of individuals, Civil Society Organisations and other groups dispensing hatred between communities must be strictly observed in accordance with the law of the land. Manipur needs to rise from the shambles!

(The views expressed in this article are personal; Md Shafikul Haque is a Research Scholar, SIS, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Pusham Azad Babu Research Scholar, CSSS, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)



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