Manipur will never be the same again

By Albert Thyrniang

The images and footages emanating from Manipur are shocking to say the least. The scenes of thousands of charred vehicles, the flames and smoke in the skies from homes set ablaze, the looting, the destroyed churches, the vandalised war memorial reveal the extent of the mayhem. The most appalling are that video clips of people being beaten mercilessly (even to death) by rival mobs. The sense of humanity vanished. The emotion for ethnicity took over. Even though those who escaped the violence evacuees recount their horrors the quantum of violence may never be comprehended. The scale of destruction is immeasurable. That barbaric acts should take place in the 21st century is unimaginable. The seriousness of the situation was so grave that the Centre had to commission the central forces under Article 355, one short of 356, namely President’s rule. The latest counts of deaths are more than 160 (may rise rapidly), thousands have turned refugees in their own state in cramped relief camps with minimum privacy and hundreds are injured in hospitals. An unprecedented human crisis!

While Manipur boiled and burned the Prime Minister was totally unperturbed. He was too obsessed with the elections in Karnataka to be concerned with the communal clashes that engulfed the state. He instead invoked ‘The Kerala Story’, a mere movie that depicts terror conspiracies to accuse the Congress of playing vote bank politics. ‘The Gujarat Story’ should also be made to set the record straight. The stoic silence is not hard to read. The BJP is ruling Manipur. To even say that any form of violence is unacceptable might be seen as a criticism of the state government. But the actual reason could be more sinister. It is fair to say that the minority is more at the receiving end in the Manipur riots. The majority should not be offended so that the vote bank could be kept intact or even improved. The non-tribal community in that state constitutes 57.2% per cent of the population and command 40 seats in the state Assembly. It is feared the unrests are being used to strengthen the vote bank of a particular communal party.

One of the baffling scenes is the burning of churches in the Meitei dominated areas. The issue has nothing to do with religion. Then why the large scale vandalism of as many as 25 churches? In some videos we hear that the destruction of churches was not done by the Meiteis. Then who did it? The alleged conspiracy of the involvement of Christians themselves to damage the reputation of the Meitei community is totally baseless. The damage to the places of worship has hurt the Christians the most and has cast a shadow on the majority community in Manipur. Some BJP cohorts in ‘mainland’ India, have also made the wildest of allegations that the whole episode was a Christian conspiracy.  BJP’s tag of being anti-Christians is enhanced.

Only the Metropolitan Archbishop of Bangalore, Peter Machado has condemned the targeting of churches and persecution of Christians in Manipur. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) expressed concern at the situation pointing to the counter mobilisation by some Meitei groups against the Kuki demonstration mentioning also the burning down of the Kuki war memorial. Some bishops in the North East have asked for prayers for peace in the troubled state. But none of the otherwise noisy Kerala bishops has uttered a word because they have been hobnobbing with the BJP, politically in recent times.

The whys and wherefores of the chain of events including the horrifying violence has been elucidated in the print and electronic media. The breakdown on the genesis of the turmoil are easily available across platforms. What triggered the sad events was the recommendation of the Manipur High Court directing the state government to consider granting ST status to the Meitei community within a time frame. There were also other flash points like the evictions of tribals from ‘forest lands’, the crack-down on poppy cultivation of the tribes in the hills, the pulling down of ‘illegally’ constructed churches, the alleged racial profiling of tribals, among others. But the tipping point was the High Court’s verdict.

The judgement is quite strange. Though the Meiteis have largely abandoned their traditional religion, Sanamahi and converted to Hinduism is argued to against their demand for tribal status it could be argued that tribals who have embraced Christianity still enjoy tribal status. Yet, the confusion is the following. Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) exist for the Meitei community. Before deciding on whether Meiteis are a tribe or not the SC and OBC conundrum should be cleared first. What will happen to the SC and OBC arrangements if the Meiteis fulfil the tribal criteria? Will the constitutional SC and OBC structure be done away with? There is also the strong argument that since the Meiteis are already an advanced and progressive group, why are they still nurture this long pending ‘climb down’ demand for ST status?

The crux of the complex issue is land. The unstated reason for the ST demand is the scarce commodity. Land is even scarcer for the Meiteis in Manipur. They occupy only 10% of the total land (mainly the Imphal valley or the plain areas of the state) though they make up nearly 60 % of the population. They can’t buy land in the 90% areas (hills) that are owned by the multiple tribes who together comprise 40% of the population. In addition to this, tribals can also purchase and own land in the 10% general area. The tribals have the geographical advantage. Land pressure on the Meiteis is seen as the motivating factor for the ST demand.

Tribal groups, on the other hand, feel endangered. Their very existence is threatened if the Meiteis indeed wear the tribal cards. They will be able to buy land in the tribal areas pushing the tribals, including the Kukis, out.  Moreover job and business opportunities, reservations in educational institutions and many other privileges will be significantly reduced for the tribals in favour of the Meiteis who are already much more developed in every sphere of life besides enjoying the demographic advantage. However, the Meities counter that they could soon be outnumbered by the ‘illegal immigrants’ (Kukis) from Myanmar. Hence the call for an NRC and the ST status demand!

The problem of migration lies with the porous international border in the North Eastern states and the instability in the neighbouring countries. We can’t blame people for coming in to India. The international demarcations are unclear. The international border has divided ethnic groups, clans and even familites into two or three countries. The Mizos of Mizoram, the Kukis of Manipur and the Chins in Myanmar are essentially the same people. When the Myanmar junta cracked down in the Chin region people escaped to Mizoram. The state provided shelter defying the directive of the central government to deport them back. Some must have fled as fugitives to Manipur. Along with Rohingias the Kukis were also displaced by the Myanmar government. Prior to the existence of the modern nations and states people of different tribes could settle anywhere. Even today movements across international boundaries are quite routine. Additionally, we know that we all originated from Tibet or Cambodia or Myanmar or China. Some reached this part of the world before others. That’s the only difference. Those who come in now do out of compulsion.

The violence in the North Eastern state was not out of the blue. It was looming large for a long time. What was the government doing? Where was the intelligence wing of the police? Why the affected party did not challenge the court’s order at a higher bench or in the Supreme Court? The solidary march of 60,000 people was bound to create trouble. The Government should have apprehended this. So why was not enough precaution taken? Post the stone pelting by the protesters and the violent counter reactions from the Meitei groups why did the police take sides? The state government has a lot to answer for. It is almost squarely responsible for the havoc.

The Biren Singh government has convened peace meetings. Christian forums have shown the way by visiting camps of non-tribals and providing them with essential reliefs. Normalcy may return in a while but the wounds of this violence will take a long time to heal and the scars will never be erased. Manipur will never be the same again.

Meghalaya is facing a similar impasse on the reservation policy and the roster system between the two major tribes in the state. If not carefully handled a similar scenario may arise here. Both sides of the fences should be heard for the government to wisely deicide on the issue, thereby satisfying both parties. It is a tight rope to walk but nothing like the Manipur incident should ever happen elsewhere in the region.

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