Did we just forget Manipur?
As long as Biren Singh is the chief minister, dialogue or reconciliation will remain a pipe dream. How can the Kukis trust a CM who has been patronising the Meitei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol?
In an interview published in The Indian Express recently, chief minister N. Biren Singh reiterated the allegation of an ‘international hand’ behind the violence in Manipur. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) had apparently provided intelligence to support this claim.
The Union home ministry, meanwhile, has asked for reports on some of the Kuki militant groups with which it has been negotiating for a settlement. The line of inquiry is whether they are receiving arms and assistance from Kuki–Zo groups fighting the military junta in Myanmar.
In an even more sinister suggestion, the Kuki groups are being accused of working towards a greater Kuki homeland by merging territories from Myanmar, Bangladesh and India—a suggestion which has hardly any takers among the Kukis in Manipur, at least up until now.
The Kukis are fretting about the slow pace of ‘talks’ in New Delhi and the shroud of secrecy around them. Why can’t a Union territory with an assembly be created for them? Answer there is none.
The gulf between the hills and Imphal is unbridgeable, they point out. The one-hour journey to Imphal is no longer an option. Why else would tribals from the hills undertake the gruelling 16- to 18-hour road trip to Aizawl in Mizoram or go through Nagaland when they need medical care or simply to get to another state?
The exasperation is very real. While the incidence of killings has abated, Manipur is still tense and signs of strife can be seen everywhere. Bunkers demarcate territories beyond which warring groups are forbidden to venture.
For the past five months since the conflict began, Kukis who were employed in Imphal have not been able to return. Students of Manipur University and the Regional Medical Institute are similarly stranded in the hills.
How can Kukis expect justice when even Manipur University cannot be trusted to assess students from the hills fairly? The much-reported case of students from hill colleges being given poor marks—which were later revised upwards by the university following protests—has exacerbated the distrust. Many Kuki students are seeking admission in other states, some as far away as Kerala.
Kukis have also been dismayed at the treatment meted out in Imphal to Babloo Loitongbam, one of Manipur’s best known human rights activists. Loitongbam, a Meitei, had called for restraint and peace from both sides. The response? His home was vandalised and he and his family members were abused and intimidated.
Former policewoman Thounaojam Brinda, who had famously accused chief minister N. Biren Singh of being in league with druglords, was similarly silenced by extremist groups Meitei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol, who came to her doorstep to threaten her.
If even well-meaning Meiteis are not safe in Imphal, what kind of safety can Kukis possibly hope for?
The glaring absence of concern from New Delhi and Prime Minister Modi has added to their despair. Can Kukis be blamed for feeling increasingly estranged from the Centre?
Kuki militant groups who were agreeable to the application of Schedule VI of the Indian Constitution in the hill areas and thereafter to a tribal autonomous council up until May 2023 now say they can no longer settle for anything short of a Union territory and a separate administration, something that Meiteis are unwilling to even consider.
Meiteis residing in the hills have equally distressing experiences to share. However, while they have been able to return to Imphal and lead comparatively normal and secure lives, thousands of Kukis continue to live in relief camps, deprived of healthcare, and entirely dependent on relief materials being sent by compassionate donors from across the country and abroad.
Medical volunteers, doctors and counsellors have been visiting the camps to provide healing and trauma counselling. Hundreds are carrying scars that may never heal—having seen loved ones being brutally killed before their eyes. Does Imphal or New Delhi give a damn? That’s the question increasingly being asked in the other six of the Seven Sisters as well.
The cynical view is that New Delhi couldn’t care less for a region that sends only 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha. Mizoram is headed for assembly polls next month but why would Delhi worry over a state that sends only one MP?
Mizoram has hosted thousands of refugees who have poured in from Myanmar in the wake of the civil war there and has been facing difficulties in running the refugee camps. Has New Delhi extended a helping hand?
The despondency has increased because Kukis now realise that the BJP will not dismiss the chief minister. They see Biren Singh as the villain of the piece, the one who demonised them, who continues to use provocative language against them and who is perceived to be openly partisan.
As long as Biren Singh remains the chief minister, it is evident that dialogue or reconciliation will remain a pipe dream. The symbolic gesture of replacing him with another Meitei leader might have persuaded the Kukis to sit down across the table. But with him ensconced in the chief minister’s chair? No way.
And they believe they have justifiable reasons to be chary. How can they trust a chief minister who has been patronising the Meitei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol, the two radical Meitei groups who were at the forefront of the pogrom in May, they ask.
How do they trust a chief minister who has not taken any action against the Manipur policemen who distributed deadly weapons and ammunition to these two groups, who were permitted to hold arms training camps in Imphal before the violence began.
Referring to the newspaper interview published this week, they wonder why the chief minister was not asked about the role of the two Meitei radical groups. What was the motive behind the creation of these two groups, they want to know. “Why were they given a free hand to carry out the attacks on human rights activists and anyone who speaks against Biren Singh?”
His partisan stand, they maintain, is clear. He has declared the hills a ‘disturbed area’ even though they are more peaceful than Imphal. He has withdrawn the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Imphal, in effect tying the hands of the Indian Army and Assam Rifles, while the AFSPA continues to be operative in the hills, allowing armed forces and even militants in uniform to storm villages and houses with impunity.
Biren Singh’s fresh demand to fence the 398 km border with Myanmar (10 km have already been fenced and 80 km more are being fenced), thereby restricting trade and free movement along the border, is another reason for the Kukis’ fury.
Manipuris from the border areas often travel to border towns in Myanmar for medical care because healthcare in the hills has been grossly neglected and is hopelessly inadequate.
While drug trafficking and drug addiction are both major concerns across the region, it is pointless to blame a community or a group, as a large-scale narcotics trade is carried on with the patronage and complicity of people in government, they claim.
The civil war in Myanmar may have pushed some of their warlords to seek sanctuary in Manipur but the government has the resources to deal with it, if it is really serious.
All signals from the ground suggest that the conflict in Manipur is entering a dangerous phase. With New Delhi and the media preoccupied with Israel, both sides engaged in the conflict might just resort to more violence in order to draw attention to their cause.