Manipur has been known for more than just the existence of numerous insurgent groups. It is also known for the bravery of its people, especially its women, against the injustices of the state. Who doesn’t remember the one of its kind protest, in 2004, in front of Assam Rifles headquarters when 2-3 dozen naked women protested with the banner ‘Indian Army Rape Us’ after the abduction and murder of a young lady Manorama, or the 16 years long lonely battle that Irom Sharmila fought from the hospital with a rubber feeding tube inserted in her nose as she fasted against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act? More recently, Manipur’s fame has been extended to sports, with the female athletes such as Mary Kom and Mirabai Chanu bringing laurels to the country, in fields not normally considered the domain for women. The mothers’ organisation Meira Paibi would keep a vigil all night to ensure that the Army did not pick up their youth in the name of insurgents. The term ‘brave’ aptly characterises the people of Manipur. While historically there have been conflicts between the majority Meitei community, largely living in the valley, and the Kuki and Naga, both tribal communities who live in hills, these have never resulted in large scale or long term violence. What is happening in Manipur now is rare. Meiteis have long been identified as a Hindu community. Although there is a small percentage of Muslim ‘Pangal’ Meiteis, there has been a definite Sanskritisation of their culture in history. If there is one community in the entire Northeast outside of Assam which would most easily amalgamate with the mainland Indian culture it is the Meiteis. The aspiration of this community to seek a Scheduled Tribe status seems to be driven more by the material considerations. Numerically smaller Kukis and Nagas felt threatened by this demand as this would have allowed Meiteis to buy lands in hills. This has provoked the conflagration. Kuki and Naga are mostly Christians as is the most tribal population in Northeast. However, historical conflicts in the region have largely followed ethnic lines rather than religious divisions. Kidnappings and killings are a common feature of these conflicts. But attacks on Churches is something new. There appears to be a sinister design to give the non-tribal tribal conflict the color of a Hindu – Christian clash. The principal suspect is the Bhartiya Janata Party, whose ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh has always targeted Christian missionaries for being involved in religious conversions. The BJP and RSS have immensely benefited electorally from creating a Hindu – Muslim divide elsewhere in the country. The BJP, in power in Manipur, used to claim that religious riots don’t happen in its rule. How is it that with their government in power the riots have gone on for almost two months now? There is an apprehension that the BJP stands to gain from these clashes as ultimately, it would have placed the Meiteis solidly on its side for a long time to come.
There is another reason for the failure of law and order in Manipur, which BJP’s own legislators have admitted. The state has been under Armed Forces Special Powers Act. This draconian Act gave immunity to Army to carry out the most egregious human rights violations. The police were marginalised. The weakened police apparatus suffers from this historical baggage and is unable to take on the miscreants in the current conflict. For the same reason, the government seems to be paralysed. In states where AFSPA has been in force the democratically elected governments were never sovereign. The Chief Ministers and State Assemblies of Jammu and Kashmir, Meghalaya, Nagaland in the past have asked for the repeal of AFSPA but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The security forces have been partisan. They have massacred people on some occasions, like on 4 December 2021 in Mon, Nagaland, and on others have stood by and watched as other groups have indulged in bloodbath, for example against the alleged foreigners in Assam.
Complaints of security forces playing a partisan role in Manipur this time too have surfaced. How do we expect the State government, always dependent on the Union government, and a weakened and partisan security force to counter the onslaught of militants? The price for interference by various Indian governments in the governance structures of NE will have to be paid unfortunately with the lives of citizens living here. The situation is so bad that people don’t identify with elected governments, which are seen merely as stooges of the Indian government.
There needs to be a serious thought on how to rectify the situation in Manipur and in general in NE. Strengthening the democratic polity in the region is crucial and the key to this is active public participation. The people must feel that it is their own government. This will necessarily mean less role for the Union government. The same applies to J&K.
In addition, there needs to be application of balm on deepened ethnic schisms resulting from the ruling BJP’s sectarian and narrow approach. Its handling of the situation has been most inept. It is an irony that this so-called nationalist party which supposedly works to strengthen the nation, has created deep seated animosities between communities everywhere, thereby weakening the social fabric of society. This is reflected in the demand for a separate homeland for Kuki-Zomis in the current strife in Manipur. The demand for a Sixth Schedule status for this tribal community will have to be acceded to, sooner or later. Otherwise, this festering wound would rankle for a long time to come. For the time being BJP has been successful in converting a people known for valiantly fighting injustice to now fighting among themselves – a classic case of divide and rule.