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Manipur Requires Political Will, Which Seems Missing in Imphal, and in New Delhi

In pursuit of the great power game, individual citizens of Manipur–irrespective of gender, age, religion or ethnicity–have been robbed of their most basic human rights.
Union home minister Amit Shah and Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh during BJP poll campaign in Imphal on April 15, 2024. Photo: X (Twitter)

Thirteen months after the border state of Manipur was rocked by the most vicious religious and ethnic violence seen since Gujarat’s 2002, the Supremo of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, opened his mouth to remind the Prime minister, Narendra Modi, of an absence of governance which could bring about peace in the state.

The chief minister, N. Biren Singh, too has been forced to speak after his security team was attacked. But the Prime minister has not spoken. He has also not visited the state at all in this period of conflict.

In these thirteen months, more than 200 villages have been destroyed, 7,000 or so houses destroyed, 360 churches razed or desecrated, and about 50,000 persons displaced, 42,000 of them Kuki-Zo who fled the Imphal valley in the first month of the most aggravated violence which began on May 3, 2023.

Over 225 people, including eight children, have been killed.  A gang-rape and the parading of the naked woman by the mob, accompanied by security forces, shocked world conscience last May.

Numbers tabulated by the two sides to the conflict vary, but not significantly. More numbers are added to the body count every week. As many as 15 Kuki-Zo men and 32 Meiteis have been missing for a year. An astonishing 4,500 weapons were looted from police armouries, and remain untraced, barring 1,800 surrendered by civilians.

But till recent days, the state was no longer visible in the coverage of the conflict on national TV channels, or in the page one headlines of national newspapers.

Manipur’s voters forced themselves into the news rudely on the June 4, when the general elections results were declared. They routed the BJP candidates in the state’s two constituencies, the ethnic Meitei dominated Imphal Valley, and in outer Manipur, which is home to the state’s two major groups of Scheduled Tribes –the Kuki-Zo-Hmar in the Churachandpur, and the several tribes of Nagas in the rest of the hills surrounding Imphal.

Both seats were won by the Congress. In the inner Manipur constituency seat, Angomcha Bimol Akoijam, a professor of JNU, defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party’s T Basanta Kumar Singh, who is also the state education minister in the BJP-led Biren Singh government. In the Outer Manipur reserved seat, Alfred Kanngam Arthur defeated his rival from the BJP ally Naga People’s Front.

Chief minister Singh had no option but to speak when an advance security detail scouting the route for his scheduled visit to troubled areas outside Imphal, was ambushed on  National Highway 53. Two jawans of the security detail were injured, and rushed to hospital in the state capital.

CM Singh is alleged to patronise the Meitei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol, the main actors in the violence. Arambai Tenggol was established in 2020, under the aegis of the titular king of Manipur and then BJP Member of Parliament Leishemba Sanajaoba. These two groups are other than the several underground militant groups who add to the complexity of the situation.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was among the senior national politicians to visit the state at the peak of the violence. Leaders of the main Opposition parties also visited the state thereafter.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India intervened to kick start relief and rehabilitation work, and criminal investigations in the rape, mass murders and arson– both of which still remain incomplete.

The Editors Guild of India studied the role of the state media in aggravating violence. The Karawan e Mohabbat and Women’s teams led by Annie Raja and Syeda Hamid toured the main affected areas and the refugee camps. They warned of the unfolding human tragedy and the plight of the people in the refugee camps and of those who had fled to the state to nearby and distant cities.

International human rights groups have noted alleged acts of sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, home destruction, forced displacement, torture and ill-treatment. Their experts also pointed to an “inadequate humanitarian response” in the wake of the grave humanitarian situation in Manipur following the latest round of community conflict between the predominantly Hindu Meitei and the predominantly Christian Kuki ethnic communities.

The Centre’s continuing with CM Singh is cited by political observers as one of the main reasons behind the suppurating wounds of Manipur. Apart from his alleged connection with Arambai Tenggol, his mismanagement of the situation in first few days of the violence, including hesitance in using central forces of the Army and the central paramilitary forces, who have far more acceptance among the people than the state armed police, allowed the violence to spread.

The election campaigns have been over, and Modi has been sworn in again as the prime minister in a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition government. With the PMO and the Home ministry unaltered in the third term, the people are yet to see if a roadmap to peace will be forthcoming.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah in his earlier visits to Imphal did no more than announce that the union government fully backs the CM Singh. He has so far had nothing to offer to the many ethnicities whose mutual suspicions and competing demands on resources and development funds underpin the state.

Manipur, like other states in the North east, is totally dependent on resources from the Central government for everyday existence, and  to match the development they see in other states such as Gujarat, or even Bihar.

The 10-year-old Modi regime did not have a coherent development plan for the region, and almost none for Manipur. Their main focus was on successfully ensuring that the BJP and its allies ruled in every state capital. This was the saffron party’s approach till the slap in the face from Manipur this general election.

PM Modi’s lack of political will was earlier most visible in the handling of Nagaland where there was early progress in reaching a “general framework agreement” with Naga underground groups. Years later, there has been almost no movement on the agreement.

Adding to it is the failure of the External Affairs Ministry to speak about the terrible atrocities of the Myanmar army on civilian populations, especially on the tribes of the north and west regions adjoining India. This violence has impacted a large number of people who want to flee to the safety of Indian villages across the border.

Civil society activists feel the central and state governments continue to talks about ending the violence, and bat for reconciliation between the warring ethnic communities as well as normalcy, while taking no visible measures to stop the violent conflict or to heal the festering wounds. This gives an inescapable impression that the political dividends of sharpening the ethnic divide or using the fluid situation in neighboring Myanmar to carve out a greater sphere of influence while promoting a new direction of Hindu consolidation are part of the game.

In pursuit of the great power game, individual citizens of Manipur–irrespective of gender, age, religion or ethnicity–have been robbed of their most basic human rights including the right to life, the right against torture and other cruel, inhumane, degrading forms of treatment and punishment.

The gruesome ethnic violence has festered for 13 months and killed hundreds, maimed thousands and uprooted tens of thousands of indigenous ethnic communities.

People have also noticed that the ‘enforced indifference’ of the armed forces to the increasing cycles of raids and counter raids against the civilian population and competitive exercise on body counts have cast a ghastly spell. The ensuing climate of ethnic hatred accompanied by ghettoization of the warring communities in their areas of dominance have practically snapped all ties of coexistence both social and commercial.

The senior social and development scientist, Dr Walter Fernandes, feels there is no time for the government to wait before acting.

“Let us get involved at the level of the ordinary people and let the powers that be to hear their voice. Let us not get caught in official solutions or theories of peace building but think outside the box. Civil society groups from each family (Naga, Kuki, Meitei) should bring together people from their own families who are open to a dialogue. They should reflect among themselves on possible types of solutions and ways of initiating dialogue with the remaining families. It will take them at least six months to begin to open some windows towards each other.”

That is one programme on the table.

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