Manipur requires an urgent healing touch
The violence-hit state needs a genuine attempt at reconciling differences on the ground
May 3 is a day that journalist Hoihnu Hauzel and her family will never forget. That fateful night, an armed group entered a residential colony in Imphal and burned down 30 homes, all belonging to the Kuki-Zomi community. Hoihnu’s elderly parents fled as their home was razed to the ground. That only tribal homes and churches were targeted while Meitei-owned houses in the neighbourhood were untouched — in other parts of the state, the same arson was enacted by mobs on Meitei properties – is glaring evidence of Manipur’s vicious cycle of ethnic violence, which has seen 115 people killed and thousands displaced across both communities over the last two months. What makes Hoihnu’s case even more terrifying is the fact that her house is barely 10 minutes away from the chief minister’s residence.
Targeted violence driven by the weaponisation of fear and hate is not new in India. Delhi in 1984, Mumbai in 1992-93, Gujarat in 2002, and Muzaffarnagar in 2013 – the contemporary list is long and bloody. Add Manipur 2023 to this gory history. The only difference is that while the other instances shook the collective conscience of the nation and provoked outrage, Manipur appears to have almost fallen off the map.
When the first wave of violence struck Manipur in early May after a high court order called for the government to consider granting the Meiteis Scheduled Tribe status, India’s political class was tied up in the heat and dust of a high-stakes Karnataka election. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah were crisscrossing the election-bound state as was the Congress leadership. Shah went to Manipur on May 29, almost four weeks after the fires were first lit. That his visit was followed, after a brief lull, by more violence, including burning of the homes of some elected representatives, suggests that the intervention may have been too little, too late.
Even more pertinent is the role of chief minister (CM) N Biren Singh, who appears not just helpless, but at times openly partisan, in handling the conflict. In a press conference on May 28, Biren Singh branded 40 Kuki militants as “terrorists” and said they were killed by the Army, linking the violence to illegal immigrants from Myanmar and drug money from poppy-growing tribal lands (it also turned out that 40 people had not been killed by the Army). But he didn’t mention the Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun, two Meitei vigilante groups that Kuki civil society organisations have accused of spearheading the targeted attacks on tribal homes in Imphal.
As the history of such violent conflicts has shown, the complicity or incompetence, or both, of the State is often key to the bloodletting. In Manipur, a state police divided along ethnic lines raises serious doubts over its ability to enforce law and order. An official assessment by the state police headquarters in the end of May estimated that at least 500,000 bullets, including mortars, and 3,500 guns were reportedly stolen from armouries and police stations. In any other part of the country, this brazen arms loot would be seen as an act of high treason, one that would result in the censure of the state government, or, at the very least, stringent action against the culprits and a measure of accountability.
So where does the buck stop? Last year, Biren Singh returned to power with a massive majority on the claim that he brought peace to an unsettled land. But having made peace his calling card, can the CM now absolve himself of his failure to protect the lives and livelihoods of the citizens? Why was only a feeble attempt made to disarm the various militias fanning the fires across the state until the Army and paramilitary forces finally moved in to provide some hope and relief?
Just as the state government has much to answer for, so does the Centre. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Manipur model of governance, and indeed, across the Northeast, is premised on the “double-engine” concept, one that builds on a Centre-state patron-client partnership, ensuring effective and stable governance. The violence in Manipur threatens the Centre-state compact and exposes the limits of a political model that seeks power at all costs. Moreover, when the ideological battlelines are posed by some in stark religious terms – as majority Hindu Meiteis versus minority Christian tribals – there is a grave danger of sharpened identity politics being pushed to the point of no return.
What Manipur really needs is a healing touch, where the State fulfils its constitutional mandate and isn’t seen to be aligned to any one side. If first information reports (FIRs) aren’t filed speedily and those responsible for the violence get away scot-free – just last weekend, the Army was forced to release 12 Meitei militants after being encircled by a large women-led mob -- then the sense of injustice will remain a festering wound.
An all-party meeting convened by the home minister in Delhi was a good start, but it may be seen as an empty ritual if not followed up with a genuine attempt at reconciling differences on the ground. In a sense, Manipur is Shah’s biggest security challenge yet: Can he be a bridge-builder? The PM, too, hasn’t said a word in public on the violence. Surely, it’s time for Manipur ki Baat.
Post-script: Biren Singh is a national-level footballer who was a member of a Border Security Force team that won the prestigious Durand Cup in 1981. In football, there is a red card for foul play. Who will show the CM a red card in politics?
Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.