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Manipur must dig deep to rekindle tribal bonds and reimagine the future

Manipur's tragedy will only be resolved when all communities decide to help themselves and stop looking to Delhi for solutions. There is no messiah riding in.

Mumbai, July 2023

Manipuris protest viol;ene in the Noertheast and demand president's rule

Manipuris protesting against the violence in India's Northeast and demanding President's rule to effect social order.

MANIPUR has sunk into a black hole. This beautiful bowl-shaped valley reverberates once again to the drum beats of war, with no end in sight. Over the course of three months, heinous crimes have gone unchecked on a daily basis in Manipur.

It took an explicitly graphic viral video of three young tribal women being paraded naked and subjected to rape, by hoodlums from the majority Meitei community, before outraged Indian public opinion finally found a voice and compelled Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break his silence.

What has brought Manipur and us — the Indian state, the Northeast (NE) region and the rest of India — to this pass? Is there any hope of our collective emergence from this black hole of self-annihilation?

Funds for rehabilitation

The immediate solution is clear and overdue: The imposition of President’s Rule and the restoration of the rule of law by an impartial administrator. It will give Manipur communities a chance to breathe and clear their heads.

Rupa Chinai

Rupa Chinai

As a journalist who has covered riots on the ground, one needs to point out that fake news and exploiting existing divides is very much part of the manual for engineering riots

The BJP-led government of Biren Singh allegedly oversaw a state sponsored programme of ethnic cleansing of the tribes living in the foothills surrounding the Imphal Valley. Going by media reports that have highlighted proposed government policies for the NE region, the alleged explicit purpose was a land grab of constitutionally protected tribal areas by the state, using unemployed, lumpen, radicalised Meitei youth that he nurtured during his two terms in power.

Indian public opinion must also force Modi to release the crores of rupees in the Prime Minister Cares fund, to ensure that every last hill tribal refugee returns home and finds rehabilitation. As for the rest of us, in the NE and elsewhere, our time will come in the 2024 Lok Sabha election, when we must ensure a decisive rejection of anti-minority, divisive, poisonous politics.

Fake news and engineered riots

How this ethnic conflagration on May 3 started is now well reiterated. The question of who hurled the first stone, or how many dead bodies are there on both sides, is an exercise for future investigations. Having been a regular visitor to the NE region and particularly to Manipur since 1980, I have desperately tried to understand how the Meitei society became so radicalised in this past decade. I don’t recall seeing such animosity between Meiteis and Kukis, though there were complaints of neglect by the latter. There have never been incidents of such cruelty unleashed against women.

As a journalist who has covered riots on the ground, one needs to point out that fake news and exploiting existing divides is very much part of the manual for engineering riots. We heard it in Mumbai, Gujarat or Bengaluru — ‘Muslim mobs are coming’. In Imphal, we saw visuals of Meitei women, genuine fear in their eyes, saying ‘Kuki militants are coming’. These tactics have effectively stirred ordinary citizens into fear-crazed lynch mobs that linked minority groups, abetted by the state and police.

Soon after the second phase of violence started in Manipur, the tribal leaders said that between May 29 and June 14, thousands of youth from Arambai Tenggol and Manipur police commandos attacked Kuki villages in the foothills, resulting in a large number of Meiteis suffering gunshot wounds during the battle.

Their numbers are not officially confirmed, but the enormity of what happened became obvious when Meitei women came on the streets crying about Kukis killing their sons and husbands. By then it was clear that the Kuki militants had also joined in the war, under pressure from Kuki communities that had thus far fought a losing self-defence battle with country-made weapons.

These dead or injured Meitei civilians found in these tribal dominated areas were not local to the area. It forced the question as to why, in the first place, were they in these tribal dominated districts that were right in the middle of the conflict? One also makes note of who are amongst the thousands of displaced refugees that fled the security of home and hearth, and which community still retains that space.

Resource-grab in the Northeast?

As one who closely followed events as they unfolded in Manipur, one saw a pattern strikingly similar to that used by the military junta in Myanmar and what it did to capture the lands of the Rohingya. Chinese and Indian business interests along with the military rulers are reportedly acutely interested in these lands.

The resource rich NE states are part of the economic corridor to Southeast Asia and will play a key role in Modi’s promise of a US$5 trillion economy by 2024. The monsoon session of Parliament will likely see enactment of a Bill amending forest laws. This will open up constitutionally protected tribal areas of India for ‘development’ in the name of national security. If passed, the state can swallow small NE states like Manipur, Nagaland and Meghalaya that lie within 100km of the international border.

I find fresh understanding in the writing of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, who wrote: “Fundamental rights to every individual are protected not by law but by the social and moral conscience of society."

Land is a deeply emotive issue for tribal people and when realisation sinks in of what this Bill means for them, unpredictable consequences could follow. The BJP may have calculated upon the usual Indian indifference to what happens in remote peripheries of our country. Now, because of this one viral video all of India’s eyes are on Manipur.

Having effectively got Manipur communities at each other’s throats, official silence implied ‘let them beat each other to the ground while our long-term plans get underway’. Even now, NE communities with their strong constitutional protections have the best chance of holding out, provided they understand who are the final beneficiaries and who are the losers. The hope lies in their ability to come together and develop their own masterplan for development.

Wounds run deep, but...

Unfortunately, Manipur’s wounds now run deep. Revenge killings, attacks on property are ongoing and women will continue to remain prime targets.The expectation that Delhi can bring political solutions that will find acceptance on the ground in Manipur is an illusion. The sooner we understand the true reality and look for answers within and amongst ourselves, the sooner the chances of restoring peace and hope.

The hill tribes of Manipur have long aspired for autonomy in their administration, the freedom to access funds and manage their own affairs. This is a right promised to tribal people in the Constitution of India. The Meitei have repeatedly spoken of their ardent desire for the integrity of Manipur. But if the Bodos and Karbis can have autonomous district councils in Assam under the 6th Schedule of the Constitution (ensuring tribal rights on issues of land, culture and local administration), why can’t the Nagas and Kukis of Manipur have it too?

If the Meiteis were to concede this tribal right, maybe despite all that’s happened, the hill tribes will also understand the Meiteis’ need for space and offer solutions that are right for all.

No external fix or messiah

The conflict in Manipur will not be resolved until all communities decide to help themselves and stop looking to Delhi for solutions. In today’s India there is no messiah. The alternatives to a local approach would mean heavy militarisation, further insecurity and silencing of voices. Communities must urgently talk to each other to find a shared roadmap and reimagine a common future.

If Meitei society wants to pursue the former path it needs to send a strong message to Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun and their handlers. They need to have conversations with the Meira Paibi who have long championed the cause of human rights. In this present violence, all of them have done seemingly irreparable damage to the image of Meitei society and civilisation.

It is such misguided youth, supported by the women, who have been drawn into attacks on tribal villages and perpetuated innumerable crimes against humanity. As Gujarat society is learning to its cost, these monsters who rape and kill also live in our homes and women will bear the brunt of their frustration and violence.

Time and again we have seen a breakdown of social conscience in our societies and unless it somehow gets embedded in our own consciousness, peace and security will remain elusive. Wounds, if not healed, get transferred and the cycle of hate and revenge will pass on to future generations. We have to turn the searchlight inwards and reject the politics of hatred and ‘otherness’.

I find fresh understanding in the writing of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, who wrote: “Fundamental rights to every individual are protected not by law but by the social and moral conscience of society. If social conscience is such that it is prepared to recognise the rights which law chooses to enact, rights will be safe and secure.”

“But if the fundamental rights are opposed by the community, no law, no Parliament, no judiciary can guarantee them in the real sense of the word….there is no method found for punishing the multitude. Law can punish a single solitary recalcitrant criminal. It can never operate against a whole body of people who are determined to defy it. Social conscience — to use the language of Coleridge — that calm incorruptible legislator of the soul without whom all other powers would ‘meet in mere oppugnancy — is the only safeguard of all rights fundamental or non-fundamental.’ ”


This article is reprinted with the auithor's permission from The Federal (23 July, 2023)

Rupa Chinai is an independent Mumbai-based journalist who writes on health and development issues. She is the author of the book ‘Understanding India’s Northeast — A Reporter’s Journal’. With over 30 years as a journalist, she has worked on English-language newspapers and magazines like The Times of India, The Sunday Observer, The Indian Express and Himmat. Her articles have run in various journals including The Hindu, Economic and Political Weekly, Frontline, and Himal South Asia.

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T (9 August, 2023) – Singapore
After reading this article which has a lot of useful background it sounds like the situation was preventable. Who was responsible for letting this happen?
Robin (9 August, 2023) – UK
Having visited the northeast area of India a few times and having done trips on the Brahmaputra River, this seems a sad chapter for a beautiful land. May peace return

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