Manipur: 65+ days of a stony silence...

The president, the prime minister, the home minister, the chief minister, the entire administration are deaf-mute spectators as the state continues to burn

Violence in Manipur; (right) Tribal Manipuris protest in New Delhi
Violence in Manipur; (right) Tribal Manipuris protest in New Delhi

Shalini Sahay & Kushan Niyogi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silences are arguably more eloquent than his daily prattle. He was quiet on the farm laws for a year. He did not utter a word on the protest by the women wrestlers. He has not spoken for three years on the Chinese incursion in Ladakh.

So should his silence on Manipur over the last two months have come as a surprise to us? As a matter of fact, his silence on Manipur has been shocking. It unnerved a large section of people in Manipur, who were looking to him for a word, a signal, an address and a call for peace.

Surely the prime minister who allegedly stopped the war in Ukraine for a few hours with one phone call, to enable Indian students there to be rescued, could stop the violence in Manipur also with one phone call?

Hope was indeed high when the prime minister brought forward his monthly radio talk show Mann Ki Baat to June 18. Normally the show is broadcast on the last Sunday of the month. But when the PM failed to utter a single word on Manipur, several people in the state broke their radio sets in the streets in frustration. An anguished Ratan Thiyam, feted Manipuri playwright and theatre director, agreed that the prime minister had let the state and its people down.

An air of disbelief and disappointment

A retired colonel in the Indian Army too broke down last week in Imphal, saying, “Kukis are great people; Meiteis are great people; Nagas are also great people. We all in [the] Assam Regiment fought together for our country. But now my state is burning, my people are burning, but Modi is quiet.” Tears of helpless rage streamed down his cheek and he made no attempt to hide or wipe them.

An equally anguished Mizoram chief minister, Zoramthanga, a BJP ally, tweeted on 4 July, “I wish not to see [any more] pictures and video clips of churches being burnt, brutal killings and violence of all kinds, regardless of gender and age… Many lives have been lost… those victims are my kin… my own blood and should we quieten the situation by just being silent?… I wish [and] pray that the central [government] on humanitarian ground[s] lend us an immediate helping hand.”

Without saying it in so many words, he was appealing to the prime minister for help. Mizoram had sought financial assistance of a paltry Rs 10 crore from the central government to take care of the refugees who had poured into the state from both Myanmar and Manipur. But reports suggested that he had not even received an acknowledgment.

The Manipur Tribals’ Forum Delhi on 3 July had led with a similar public appeal to the prime minister. “Sir, after the most barbaric manner in which Meitei terrorists/militia/ mobs tortured a tribal village defence volunteer and put up his severed head on top of a bamboo staff as a trophy yesterday, fresh attacks have been launched against the Kuki– Hmar–Zomi–Mizo Unau tribes… We appeal to you for your direct intervention.” But the stony and stoic silence continued— even after two months of mayhem, after 140 people have lost their lives, 200 villages and 300 churches been burnt, 60,000 people displaced, and with not a single Kuki, Zomi or Chin person reportedly living in Imphal any longer.

The prime minister did not break his silence even when the house of the Union minister of state for external affairs Rajkumar Ranjan Singh was attacked and burnt. He has remained unmoved by the killing of a BSF jawan and when the houses of nine legislators in Imphal were burnt down.

The PM is busy elsewhere

For a prime minister who takes to Twitter like a duck takes to water, the only time he tweeted on the north-east in the last two months was on 26 June—when he conveyed his greetings to the people of Tripura on Kharchi Puja and invoked the blessings of 14 deities.

He did tweet his photograph with the board members of Goldman Sachs (28 June) and he did greet former vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu on his birthday (1 July). He did not forget to tweet and congratulate the Indian squash mixed doubles team, our kabaddi team and javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra. He conveyed his anguish over the 25 deaths in a bus accident in Maharashtra (1 July). But on Manipur, it was nothing but silence. Was it indifference or was it cluelessness on how to proceed?

Displaced Manipuris are being forced to live in refugee camps (Photo: Getty Images)
Displaced Manipuris are being forced to live in refugee camps (Photo: Getty Images)

When the ethnic clashes first began on 3 May, the prime minister was busy with road shows and rallies in poll-bound Karnataka. The day after he returned from his visits to the US and Egypt, he was back in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, addressing the BJP’s booth-level workers and flagging off five Vande Bharat trains.

A testy tweet from actor Prakash Raj read, “A Station Master can do it… We really want to see you in #Manipur, sirji.” That is what people in Manipur were also asking. If the prime minister could rush to Balasore in Odisha within 24 hours of the train crash on 2 June, couldn’t he have come to Manipur for a day?

A cynical explanation for the prime minister’s silence is that driven primarily by elections and electoral considerations, Manipur is too small and electorally too insignificant for him to care. It has just two Lok Sabha seats and one seat in the Rajya Sabha. Manipur is ranked 23rd in terms of population and 25th in terms of area out of India’s 28 states. Imphal valley hosts just above 1 million people, while the entire state has a population of 3.3 million.

This explanation, however, leads to an even more cynical conclusion. How is a superpower like India, with the fourth largest army in the world, unable to contain violence in such a small state? New Delhi takes much satisfaction in containing militancy in Kashmir and declaring how Kashmiris did not even squeak when curfew was imposed, the internet was blocked and the state downgraded to a Union Territory in 2019. The situation in Manipur is in many ways worse than Kashmir ever was. How is it that New Delhi failed to contain this violence in Manipur? Is it possible that it did not even want to contain this violence in the first place?

People see authorities' of connivance?

In what reads like a conspiracy theory, one ‘Major Amit Bansal’, presumably retired and writing in DNA online cited 10 pointers to suggest that the violence in Manipur was an engineered one. The Manipur government, he wrote, initiated a selective drive to evict tribals from their lands, targeting Kukis but sparing Naga villages.

In March this year, the state government unilaterally recommended the withdrawal of the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) from the Imphal valley— but not from the hills. Around the same time, it withdrew the SoO (Suspension of Operations) agreement with three erstwhile Kuki insurgent groups, thus allowing the police to crack down on them.

This despite no violence or violation of the agreement in the last two decades. ‘The role of the state government and the lawyer representing the central government in the high court, when it ordered that scheduled tribe (ST) status be recommended for Meiteis, requires a probe,’ ‘Major Bansal’ writes. Two radical outfits—Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun—sprang up last year, and got busy imparting arms training to Meitei youths in Imphal right under the nose of the police.

That training came in handy when weapons and ammunition were allowed to be taken away, seemingly without any resistance, from the state armoury. No action was taken against the guilty, no fingers pointed and no arrests made. Instead, the ‘miscreants’ were asked to surrender any weapons they may have looted—just pop them into dropboxes, no questions asked. Over the last few weeks, the Meira Paibi or ‘mothers’ have stopped the army and central forces from reaching troubled areas.

The women’s groups also stopped a CBI team from investigating. They forced the army to release 12 insurgents, including some named and sought-after ones, from custody—when has that ever happened in Kashmir?.

And of course they snatched and tore up the resignation letter ostensibly written by the chief minister. Bansal seems to suggest that the women were strategically used as a shield, while ‘militants’ and ‘miscreants’ were allowed a free hand. Is it possible that New Delhi remained ignorant of these developments? The Intelligence Bureau surely would be briefing the Prime Minister’s Office, if not the prime minister personally, every day on the developments in the state.

The agency could not have been oblivious to the smuggling of arms and drugs from Myanmar and the infiltration of both Kuki and Meitei militants from the neighbouring country? Why would New Delhi allow the situation to drift so far out of control? Has Manipur humbled the prime minister and his powerful home minister, making them look ineffective?

Some have opined that their silence—or variously, their complicity—has made the state look weak, with even the Indian Army reduced to issuing appeals for cooperation over social media. With the withdrawal of the AFSPA in Imphal, the army has to requisition a civil magistrate and seek the help of Manipur police to operate in the valley.

Why AFSPA is not back in Imphal, populated by Meiteis?

Why the AFSPA has not yet been restored in Imphal is a question that is hardly being asked. It is no state secret that it is the Union home ministry (MHA) that runs the show in Manipur. The home minister greenlighted the removal of the Kuki DGP (director general of police in the state, brought in a new DGP from outside and appointed a security advisor.

A team of home ministry officials, a joint director in the Intelligence Bureau and the security advisor have been negotiating with the erstwhile Kuki insurgent groups which had signed the SoO agreement.

They succeeded in persuading local groups to lift the blockade on NH-2 and allow essential commodities to reach the state. They also succeeded in persuading the Kukis to free hostages in their custody. But they have failed to stop the violence even in Imphal. It is again the MHA that cleared the arrangement under which the army is in control of the hills, the Manipur police patrol in the Imphal valley and the central paramilitary forces man the buffer zones.

The home minister camped in Manipur for four days, starting 29 May. He constituted a peace committee and promised that he would be back within a fortnight. A month later, he still has not found time to go back to the state, as violence continues.

Who is fishing in troubled waters?

Manipur was always a troubled state, recalls a senior journalist in Guwahati; but the hate is something new, something that she has never encountered before. Chief minister N. Biren Singh, who did not accompany the home minister to the hills and who is blamed by the tribals for the conflict, has spoken of a ‘foreign hand’ that is fishing about in Manipur.

To an irate Kuki individual who asked him on social media why he has not yet resigned, having failed to protect lives and limbs, he snapped and asked whether the questioner was from India or from Myanmar With a host of Indians following up with the same question, the chief minister taunted that they should not ‘bark’ without knowing the full facts. ‘Mainlanders’, he added, would not understand the complexities in the north-east.

The collective failure of the Indian State and the political failure of the BJP, though, have exposed how fragile truly is peace in India’s north-east. Had Manipur been an African country, writes Sushant Singh in The Morning Context, international aid would have poured in to cope with the humanitarian crisis. But having emasculated the voluntary NGOs, aid agencies and church bodies, the Indian State has proved itself unequal to the task so far.

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