Pradip Phanjoubam | Shared destiny challenge for Kukis, Nagas, Meiteis

The mayhem has claimed over 120 lives and an estimated 45,000 people are now living in community-run relief camps.

Update: 2023-06-20 18:35 GMT
People in large numbers take part in a torchlight vigil in response to the ongoing violence in Manipur, in Bishnupur, Manipur, (PTI)

The opening para from Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming is almost prophetic of what is happening in Manipur today: Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.

Fifty days after a bloody feud between two of its major communities – the Meiteis and the Kukis – broke out, there is still no sign of normalcy in sight. Although no longer widespread, sporadic violence and mayhem at the foothills where villages of the two communities rub shoulders -- once in friendship and now in bitter enmity -- are still reported.

The mayhem has claimed over 120 lives and an estimated 45,000 people are now living in community-run relief camps. For many here, initial respite from the fear of violence gave way to despair in the weeks that have gone by. Now this despair is turning into anger, not just among them, but also the larger public. Dark portents that this anger can turn against the establishment was witnessed on June 15 night in a mob arson of the Imphal residence of minister of state for external affairs R.K. Ranjan. Indeed, the popular impression today is that the state is clueless and the Central government lacks commitment.

In a disturbing development, the two warring sides now see government forces as partisan. The Kukis think that the state police constabulary, including the armed Manipur Rifles, favour the Meiteis, and the latter are convinced that the Central paramilitary forces, and in particular the Assam Rifles, support the Kukis. A completely avoidable ugly confrontation on June 2 between Manipur police commandos and a unit of the 37-Assam Rifles, which almost resulted in a gunfight, has made things worse.

In this incident, a detachment of AR arrived and provocatively blocked off the office of the Sub-Divisional Police Officer, Sugnu, parking two armoured personnel carriers at its gate. When things were poised to get out of hand, the AR team retreated. This sorry incident left in its wake very damaging optics, particularly because this happened just two days after Union home minster Amit Shah’s three-day visit to the state.

As Mr Shah promised, a three-member enquiry committee headed by retired Gauhati high court Chief Justice Ajai Lamba has been formed to establish the causes of the crisis and fix responsibilities.

However, another initiative of setting up a 51-member peace committee headed by state governor Anusuiya Uikey is likely to be a non-starter as many in the list are withdrawing. The allegation is that there are too many of known political affiliations in it.

Kuki members named in the committee have also objected to the inclusion of state chief minister N. Biren Singh, who they claim is anti-Kuki and a mastermind of the present crisis. Mr Biren Singh’s inclusion in this committee, however, indicates that the Centre is not inclined to replace him or impose President’s Rule in the state, quite contrary to the anticipation of many, probably because this is a BJP-ruled state.

The present crisis is also revealing the complex matrix of ethnic relationships in Manipur, particularly between its three major communities -- Nagas, Kukis and Meiteis. It is clear now that the fault lines go beyond ethnic boundaries. Hence, there is also a hill-valley divide, which corresponds roughly with the tribal-non-tribal divide, in which Nagas and Kukis are on one side and the Meiteis on the other.

The hills form 90 per cent of the state’s land mass and are deemed to be exclusive for those recognised as Scheduled Tribes. The remaining 10 per cent valley land, where the non-tribal Meiteis are confined, is open to settlement by any Indian, including hill tribes. A growing section of the Meiteis are now demanding ST status for Meiteis as well, claiming this would level out perceived discrepancies like this.

Both Nagas and Kukis are opposed to this demand, but this has not given the two any closer fraternal ties. In the May 3 rally to oppose the Meitei demand, the Nagas did not cross the red line in their relationship with the Meiteis as did Kukis in Churachandpur district, going on an arson rampage on Meitei settlements after a rumour spread that a Kuki war memorial site had been burnt down by the Meiteis. The state is now in a raging inferno from the fire that spread from that afternoon. Despite “feelers” from Kukis for an alliance to make this a hill versus valley conflict, it is apparent that the Nagas have decided to remain neutral.

But this neutrality is nuanced. On June 9, Manipur’s 10 Naga legislators met the Union home minister for consultations. They assured him that they would help in bringing back normalcy in the state, but also added if any concession were to be made to the Kuki demand for a separate administration, no land which Nagas consider as theirs must be touched.

Since Kuki villages are spread across all the state’s hill districts, and because Nagas consider all hill districts except Churachandpur as their ancestral domain, this assertion obviously will be a wet blanket to dampen the Kuki demand, even in the very unlikely circumstance of the Meiteis agreeing to the proposal. Indeed, in the 1990s, a decision of the United Naga Council to evict Kukis villages who they consider as tenants in their land, resulted in a bloody conflict costing more than 800 lives.

This neutrality is reminiscent of what Herbert B. Swope wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning articles from Germany in 1916 for The World, New York, reproduced in the first volume of Outstanding International Press Reporting, edited by Heinz-Dietrich Fischer de Gruyter. Swope said Germans at the time were bitter about America’s proclaimed neutrality, a year before America too joined the First World War, because they felt the American neutrality with Germans came from the head, while with the Allies, it was determined by the heart.

The Nagas have indicated they are not ready to side with the Kukis in this conflict, but this does not mean they have no differences with the Meiteis. The challenge before Manipur and its people therefore is to work for a consensus on administrative adjustments as and when this communal frenzy subsides. In a state with 34-plus communities, such a consensus on their shared geographical destiny is vital.


The writer is the editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics


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