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Patricia Mukhim | What will happen in N-E if Manipur civil war spreads?

DECCAN CHRONICLE | Patricia Mukhim

Published on: July 11, 2023 | Updated on: July 11, 2023

Unidentified miscreants torch two houses belonging to a particular community to retaliate the killing of nine civilians by Kuki militants, in Manipur. (PTI File Photo)

The civil war in Manipur has lasted nearly 70 days. US ambassador to India Eric Garcetti has offered to help defuse the crisis as Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintains a studied silence. The levels of cruelty inflicted by the warring Meiteis and Kuki-Zos on one another beggars description. David Theik, 31, a Kuki youth guarding his village, was not just beheaded but his head was stuck on a pole and his body severed to pieces. Such cruelty also suggests that the hatred between the two communities runs deep and is beyond repair. Each group has taken a hardened stance and believes its people are victims. This victimhood mentality has pushed the warring factions to retaliate and vow revenge against one another in what seems a fight to the finish.

The Meiteis believe they are wronged by a system which deprives them of their rights as Manipur’s indigenous people. They are defined as non-tribals as they adopted Vaishnavism, a form of Hinduism that came from Bengal. The British had already executed their carefully crafted "divide and rule" policy after they entered the Northeast after the 1826 Treaty of Yandaboo. They demarcated the hills as the ancestral homes of the Kuki-Zo tribes and the Imphal Valley, just a tenth of Manipur’s land area, as the natural habitat of Meiteis. That this absurd arrangement, including colonial laws like the Eastern Bengal Frontier Regulation Act 1873, now called Inner Line Permit, should be allowed to continue after 1947, when India became independent, reveals the lack of thinking of Indian rulers who took over from the British.

The Meiteis, roughly 53 per cent of Manipur’s population, feel a deep sense of injustice as they are unable to buy land and settle in the hills, while the Kuki-Zo and Nagas, who virtually own the hills, can also settle in the Imphal Valley. That this would blow up into full-scale warfare was inevitable. Remember that both Meiteis and Kuki-Zo people have their share of armed militia, who have been agitating over perceived and real injustices. To that add the Naga militants — the NSCN(I-M) — whose turf is the Ukhrul region, also in the Manipur hills. While the NSCN(I-M) has been in talks with the Government of India since 1997, and Kuki outfits too are on a Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement, the fact remains that these are weaponised societies. In the valley there are at least three dozen militant outfits demanding sovereignty, but essentially counter-checking the hill-based militants. That a turf war would break out sooner or later was predictable.

The problem today is that all militants are heavily armed and are being let loose by their communities on the plea that they are defending their villages and people. Lt. Gen. K. Himalay Singh (Retd), a Meitei and the first person from the Northeast to reach three-star rank in the Army, said recently: "Where society is weaponised, there will be violence. The current violence is based on aspirations and fears of one group that faces an uncertain future." Obviously, he was alluding to the Meiteis’ fear of their land being overrun by "illegal immigrants" from Myanmar. A narrative was created that the Kuki-Zo are growing poppy and that trade in cocaine was growing phenomenally, destroying young lives. According to Babloo Loithangbam of Human Rights Alert, Manipur’s drug trade is in the range of `50,000 crores annually, much above Manipur’s state budget. Obviously, this isn’t unknown to the Manipur government, and the drugs trade isn’t entirely run by the Kuki-Zo people; a number of drug lords are also well-heeled Meitei elite.

The immediate spark was the Meitei demand for Scheduled Tribe status, which the Kuki-Zo people felt was an infringement into their rights and would deprive them of jobs and educational opportunities as Meiteis are already a majority and benefit as all development in Manipur is valley-centric. All institutions of governance and learning are in Imphal while the hills remained undeveloped.

Another problem is Article 371-C, which envisages governance autonomy for the hills, but has never been implemented properly. What may have worked better for the tribes is the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, as implemented in the Bodoland Territorial Council, which has substantial Central funding for institutions of learning and other development infrastructure that could prevent the out-migration of Kuki-Zo people in large numbers in search of employment.

Violence is embedded in inequalities. Political scientist Neera Chandhoke says the moral evaluation of any political violence should be determined by two facts — whether it is used to counter the State’s larger violence or to overcome the bigger injustices, structured inequalities and constant neglect of popular aspirations. The Manipur violence is a legacy left behind by the British, which the Indian State never had the time or inclination to resolve as the region itself was seen as conflict ridden. The Naga insurgency had started with India’s Independence. There may have been a fear that tinkering with the governance norms left by the British could trigger fresh conflicts in areas beyond Nagaland. Even today, India is yet to comprehend its northeastern periphery and the angst of people in this region, which shares just one per cent of its borders with India and 99 per cent with foreign countries.

The Manipur conflict has now crossed its borders, with Mizoram bearing the brunt of hosting over 20,000 displaced Kuki-Zo people, who are bound by kinship ties. The Kuki-Zo have dug in their heels to not settle for anything less than separate self-governance, severed from Manipur. If this is granted to the Kuki-Zo, it will have its repercussions in Tripura where the Tipra Motha, a party representing the aspirations of tribals that is demanding self-governance and an empowered Sixth Schedule with rights over tribal lands. Manipur’s Nagas too won’t acquiesce to the Kuki-Zo demand as their living spaces are a continuum, with no definite borders. But what’s worrying is the demonstration by Meitei and Kuki-Zo militia that they can freely use arms. This may be replicated by other armed groups like Assam’s Bodos, who want a separate state, and the Garos in Meghalaya. The militia in these states are not totally disarmed. A small spark could push the tribal groups to take to arms.

There are over 40,000 security forces in Manipur now, but they haven’t been able to contain the violence. What happens if a similar conflict erupts in other states where militancy lurks below the surface. Is the Indian State ready to accede to demands to redraw state boundaries?

Is anyone even thinking of these possibilities?


The writer is a prominent social activist and the editor of The Shillong Times