Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Structural Violence Fuels Ethnic Clashes in Manipur

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By Michael KC Thanga and Suanmuanlian Tonsing

MAY 3, 2023 – the date would strike a chord in our collective memory as a black-letter day as two communities were pulled apart, neighbours who lived together for years separated, and friends turned into enemies. It has been more than a year since violent clashes erupted sporadically in the state of Manipur. In a fateful turn of events, a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ held in the hill districts of our northeastern state escalated into violent clashes between the Meitei and Zo-Kuki communities. The catalyst? Substantial amount of people in the Meitei community’s fervent demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.
Historically, the three primary ethnic groups—Meiteis, Zo-Kukis, and Nagas—have coexisted, each finding their niche within the state’s diverse geography. The Meiteis predominantly inhabit the valley, the Zo-Kukis the southern hills, and the Nagas the northern hills. However, until last May, these communities had never experienced such absolute and hostile segregation. As we confront the aftermath, a question lingers in hindsight: What simmering tensions lay beneath the surface? This article attempts to probe into the structure of violence as such retrospectively. We felt the need to address such structures that persist in the periphery that accompanies violence.
Violence transcends isolated acts and hints at a more complex and troubling reality. It is a cyclical phenomenon rooted in history and fueled by constant tension. In the context of the Manipur conflict, the persistent anticipation of violence from the opposing group may have played a significant role in the outbreak of unrest. The imminent threat of death was already embedded in the movement of bodies propelled into flight – bodies succumbing to panic, bodies ensnared by the physics of terror, bodies that were forced to actualize that threat.
To quote Townshend, Insecurity can take many forms, but nothing else plays quite so sharply on our sense of vulnerability… we found ourselves in an apparently open-ended and permanent state of emergency.
Terrorism
It might be tempting to reduce the nature of conflict aggression as just another mindless instance of radical terrorism or mere aspirations for getting more power. But that’s an oversimplification. We need to probe further. What are the underlying political, educational, and societal conditions that foster an environment where hate, racism, and bigotry become the prevailing narrative of a society or worldview? How do politicians, with their racially charged and combative rhetoric, contribute to these emerging landscapes of violence? How has violence been normalised overtime against the Other group, which is significantly akin to Gramsci’s model of hegemony, where some aspects of aggression appear natural and normal after the secured consent of the social order?
Structural Violence
Closer examination reveals that a particular structural determination hitherto animates this violence whose nature goes beyond (although not isolated to) a supposedly universal understanding that focuses on specificities of history, topography, population and case studies. This structural determination touches upon the conditions of one’s existence, manufacturing and changing it over time. It signals not only the physical destruction of a particular racial minority (genocide) but also the destruction of their culture. It is an Ethnocide which aims at the destitution of the vision of the Other, a supposed outsider.
A peculiar feature of the Ethnocide model is to deny the Other’s differences simply by reducing them to the identical, preferably fitting the model they propose on the Other’s identity, thereby negating it. The horizon upon which the ethnocidal identification is founded is based upon at least one hypothesis. That is hierarchical: there are superior and inferior cultures, and the yardstick of the majority (of the Meiteis) is that they are superior. This identification is operative in the present conflict in Manipur; thereby, the minorities got spitefully rebranded in slanderous labels as refugees, primitive, nomads, insurgents, terrorists and so on.
The radical play of subtraction and addition of the Other’s identity is part and parcel of the attempted hegemonic inscription upon the Zo-Kuki tribes. One must not overlook the violence that these labels insinuate. For instance, the iteration of the word refugee– refugee signifies being stripped of one’s ‘inalienable’ rights and humanity and is often easily demonized. Moreover, refugees are frequently perceived as a risk to the human rights of local populations rather than being recognized and treated as a vulnerable group seeking to reclaim the rights they have been forcefully deprived of. Labelling is an operation that demonises and negates the Other’s identity–to dehumanise the enemy –to carry out effective executions of killing by minimising the sense of guilt.
It is crucial to acknowledge that acts of violence often occur with the intention of promoting specific lifestyles rather than being driven by a senseless desire for destruction. The individuals involved in such acts frequently perceive themselves as champions of life, striving to maximize their own interpretation of existence. They view themselves as the ‘true humanists’, combating a ‘culture of death’ (in this instance, the Zo-Kuki tribes) in the pursuit of upholding ‘the value of life’. These reflections expose that the wickedness of domination arises not solely from a desire for annihilation and death, as traditionally insinuated, but also from an aspiration to ‘maximize life’.
The Spectacle and
Violence of Victimhood
In today’s world, numerous groups strategically position themselves as the indisputable victims of violence and hardship, aiming to establish their moral rights. In history, the label of a war or genocide victim was once a mark of shame, symbolizing an inability to resist aggression. However, the narrative has dramatically shifted in recent decades. The victim status now commands respect and has even become a subject of competition, leading to debates about who the real victims are and who suffers the most.
Victims are often deemed sacred and are imbued with symbolic significance to endorse further violence and devastation. In other words, the spectacle of a truly unbearable moment is politically exploited to authorize additional violence in the victims’ names, setting up a scenario where a violent reaction becomes unavoidable. The victim identity can yield political advantages, and, more importantly, it can foster a sense of moral superiority and innocence.
It’s crucial to acknowledge that victims and perpetrators do exist, and responsibility and abuse vary in degrees because not all actors bear equal guilt. As Primo Levi reminds us, being a victim does not automatically grant a certificate of innocence. We bear responsibility for our actions and inactions, our wrongs and indifference, and our denials and dismissals, both before and after we become victims.

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