Monday, April 15, 2024

Narratives of hate behind Manipur violence


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By Haoginlen Chongloi

Despite their contribution towards independent India, Kukis are the least understood and most discriminated community in the country. For 70 years they have endured this. Time to acknowledge their sufferings

Manipur is synonymous with ethnic conflict. The last 40 years of its statehood saw some violent conflict between communities but the one witnessed since May 3 has certainly been the most destructive one. It has led to the death of hundreds of civilians and innumerable loss of properties to both sides. The more interesting part is that it is a conflict between Tribal Kukis and the majority Meiteis who are known to have a long shared political history. Since pre-colonial days, Kukis have been with the Meiteis. However, the best of alliance that has shielded Manipur from its long-due disintegration has come to an end. So, how does communities that maintain so much of a shared history engaged in an open violence is a matter of concern. In an interview with Karan Thapar at TheWire.In, Meitei legislator Nishikant Sapam disclosed that the whole issue of the conflict is based on ‘land’[1]. He argues that everyone should be allowed to settle in the Hills which otherwise is reserved for Schedule Tribes. This in fact is the reason behind Meitei community demand for ST status. In the process, Kukis became the victim of majoritarian oppression.

Prelude to conflict

Since the past few years, Kukis has been targeted and presented as the reason behind all failures the state could ever witnessed, as Nazi Germany does to the Jews before the Second World. Name calling such as ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘foreigners’ are occasionally used to discredit Kukis indigeneity to the land they settle. This is further accentuated with N Biren Singh taking the position of state chief minister in 2017. While complaints are registered at police stations and its cyber crime branch, no concrete measures are taken up to deter any slanderous or libellous attacks on the Kukis.

Instead of taking serious issues over the matter, N Biren Singh on several occasions has involved himself in leading the bandwagon. Nevertheless, the allegations that Kukis are illegal immigrants are largely presumptuous and not back by credible evidence. In fact, Kukis were very much part of India’s freedom struggle.  Of the total of 193 freedom fighters of Manipur, there are 159 Kukis listed in the INA Museum at Moirang, Manipur[2]. In Bande Mataram: Freedom Fighters of Manipur published by Congress Party in 1986, there are a total of 79 Kukis out of the total of 112 freedom fighters[3]. After seven decades of India’s independence, they are yet to be recognised and accepted as a citizen deserving special place for their contribution toward a larger national cause.

More recently, the Manipur government has come up with numerous forest polices, declaring vast portion of hill areas as reserved forest and protected forests. As such the department concerned issued notices over the possession of such lands. The forest officials even went to the extent of issues eviction notices to villages which were strongly resisted by the tribal settlers. In doing so, forcible eviction of K Songjang village happened in February. However, tribal legislators such as K Leishiyo and Paolienlal Haokip have argued that the state government policies run contravene to provisions of the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) whereby any laws relating to Hill areas shall be approved by the members of the HAC. BJP legislator Paolienlal Haokip is reported to have questioned forest officials if it followed proper guidelines before declaring any forest as such[4]. Until now, the state government seems to be clueless over the matter. Yet, the attack of Kukis as illegal settlers or encroachers of reserved forests continues.

Even in the fight against drug menace, the Kukis are made to be the scapegoat while it is clearly evident that people involved in the business are not community specific. An official report of Narcotics and Borders Affairs (2017-2022) indicate that there are a total of 2438 arrests: Kuki (824), Meitei (367), Meitei-Pangal (1067) and 180 belonging to other different communities. Singling out a community where it should be collective, indicates malfeasance. The high-profile arrest of a drug-lord by a decorated lady police officer in 2018 and his release thereafter due to CM Biren Singh’s intervention tells its own story. Thounaojam Brinda, the Additional Superintendent of Police, disclosed that she was under pressure to release the drug-lord. Another instance was the arrest of Dr Reza Borhani, an Australian national, with drugs worth crores of rupees in 2019. Was it pure coincidence that CM Biren Singh is said to have granted licence to Borhani for transport of cannabis leaves, seeds and flowers all in the name of a non-existing medical company. However, the narrative of people in power and influence will reign over the poor and petty peddlers.

With all these, the narratives that Kukis are behind the drug business; that they are foreigners or illegal immigrants appears to have done a role in the mobilisation of extremist organisations like Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun in the Imphal Valley.

Total breakdown of order

Now, the month-long violence has left hundreds dead and thousands homeless in Manipur. For the first time, chief minister N Biren Singh held a press conference on May 15, twelve days after the ethnic violence began, and appealed for peace. It is surprising that the state chief minister who also holds the ‘Home’ portfolio took so long to appeal for peace and normalcy. Houses within a kilometre of his bungalow were attacked and torched. The first three days from May 3, Imphal was literally burning, reducing a once beautiful city into a ghost town. Companies of Rapid Action Force (RAF) were airlifted the following day. However, violence continues unabated till the concluding day of the month. What incapacitated the state authority in containing mob violence which happened within five miles radius of Imphal city is questionable. A mob violence of such proportion with a huge security presence would not take more than 48 hours to quell. However, it continues for a month now and there is no end in sight.

While many blamed the state government’s attitude and approach towards the continuing violence, the scarier one is the looting of arms and ammunitions by Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun from various police stations and Manipur Police Training Academy (MPTA) at Pangei. The Indian Express reportedly mentioned that over 1000 assault rifles with over 10,000 rounds are being looted during the first few days of the violence. One interesting and yet alarming case is that there is almost no resistance from security forces manning the stations. All appears to be handed over willingly. After about two weeks, The Sentinel reported that some arms are recovered whereas hundreds are still missing. This has posed a huge security challenge in controlling further violence against the minority Kukis.

Chief minister N Biren Singh called a second press conference on May 28, 13 days after his first. However, this time he no longer called for peace but an ‘all out war against Kuki terrorists.’  Singh blames the Kuki militants squarely for the continuing violence in the state and instructed all security forces to cooperate in the fight against what he called ‘Kuki terrorists’. In the press conference he is said to have shown the pictures of arrested Kuki village volunteers with single barrel licence guns but with the caption ‘with AK 47 and M16’. Earlier, as reported by the Hindustan Times, Singh himself made it clear that weapons of Kuki undergrounds are intact. Till date there is little evidence to suggest the involvement of Kuki militants under Suspension of Operations (SoO). KNO spokesperson Dr Seilen Haokip denies Singh’s accusations of his cadre’s involvement but opines that it might be the militants not under the SoO. Well, when the state police force meant to protect its citizens went to the extent of attacking one in connivance with the other volunteers, what limits Kuki militants not under SoO to carry out retaliatory strikes, is the question of the masses.

If N Biren Singh represents the collective masses, why does he selectively maintain a hostile attitude towards the Kukis? Why is he silent on extremist organisation such as the Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun? Why is he silent on daylight arms loot in Imphal? Why is he silent when there are evidences that the police force led the mobs in torching and killings? His complete apathy towards the sufferings of the Kukis is beyond one’s comprehension. The whole violence appears premeditated and narratives against Kukis seem to act as a catalyst in the mobilisation of violent mobs. This is the reason why the 10 Kuki MLAs, Kuki civil societies and its armed organisations knocked on the doors of the centre for Separate Administration. It is time they have a chief minister who represents them and a police force that protects its citizens.

(The writer teaches Journalism at Royal Global University, Guwahati. He can be reached at: [email protected])


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