Manipur reaches a point of no return?
If the people of Manipur have lost all faith and given up the demand for ‘normalcy’, who can blame them?
The day after the shocking video clip of two disrobed women being groped and dragged about by a mob went viral, the Manipur Tribals’ Forum in New Delhi declared: “We can no longer dream and think of living in a so-called Meitei-centric state of Manipur. Separate administration for Kuki–Hmar–Zomi–Mizo–Unau tribal areas in the form of a Union Territory with legislature or a new state or merger with Mizoram are the only solutions now for lasting peace.”
What was being demanded by a faction for the past two months has now gained enough currency to be spelt out as consensus—literally, the point of no return has been crossed. The complete breakdown of law and order in the state for the past 80 days was no secret, given blood-curdling stills and video footage of mindless violence.
Security forces in Manipur were made to look ineffectual because they could not get past human shields to enforce the law and arrest those that raped and killed in cold blood. The so-called ‘women defenders’ of community pride, the Meira Paibis too ensured that the security forces were reduced to a state of helplessness not often seen before.
What does lack clarity is the number of arms and quantity of ammunition recovered from the militants. It was officially admitted that 4,000 sophisticated firearms and 6 lakh rounds of ammunition had been looted in the first few days of the ‘ethnic clash’ that began on 3 May.
But if accountability were fixed and action taken against the officials and police officers responsible, a conspiracy of silence must have blocked it out. The point of no return has also been reached because refugee camps in the hill areas have been left to fend for themselves with little food, clothing or medicine.
The bulk of the relief material, it is alleged, is being distributed in the refugee camps of Imphal, which are hosting (a smaller number of) Meitei refugees displaced from the hills.
The Mizoram government and civil society organisations have come together to support the refugees, but conditions in the camps are far from ideal. There has been little improvement even after Congress leader Rahul Gandhi visited and called on Manipur’s governor to ‘apprise’ her of what the people in her own state urgently required.
Even as this humanitarian crisis is unfolding, with both Meiteis and Kukis becoming victims, the Manipur police and the government of chief minister N. Biren Singh have been shamelessly partisan. When Meitei assailants killed a Naga woman last week, the Nagas threatened an agitation if the culprits were not arrested within 48 hours. Not only were 10 alleged ‘culprits’ rounded up quickly, the state government announced a grant of Rs 10 lakh on compassionate grounds.
While the attempt was to soothe the Nagas, the Kuki tribes were understandably upset that they did not merit similar consideration. The government was deliberately driving a wedge between the tribes, it was felt (the Nagas had remained neutral in the conflict till now). Unverified accounts also claim that Naga churches were by and large spared, while most of the 400 churches set alight conducted services for Kuki communities.
An article written by Kuki-Zo academic H. Sitlhou opened up a can of worms by claiming that the Meiteis had carefully constructed fake narratives and videos to discredit the Kuki-Zo people and legitimise the relentless attacks on their women.
Certainly, from the manner in which these attacks have been carried out, they seem to have been carefully planned—perhaps over months—before being unleashed on the Kukis who organised a peaceful protest rally on 3 May against the Meitei demand for scheduled tribe (ST) status.
It was one such fake video claiming Meitei women had been sexually violated by Kuki men that led to the attack next day on the Kuki women seen in the viral video. These are tactics applied in wars against a foreign nation so that the aggressor can claim they are fighting a ‘just’ war.
History is being repeated in strange ways, while the government of India chooses to wait and watch even as Meitei and Kuki-Zo peoples engage in a fight to the death, literally.
The over 50,000 (by conservative accounts) lodged in refugee camps in Mizoram and elsewhere see the odd video emerge from the Manipur valley—where it appears a select group does have access to the internet despite the ban—and they wonder whether life can ever be ‘normal’ again. And what might that ‘normal’ look like?
The attack on the Kuki-Zo women paraded naked while their private parts are violated by lumpen elements is not the ‘latest’ incident; rather, it was one of the first. But what it seems to have achieved is to shake the collective conscience of the nation, even forcing the prime minister to break his silence for the first time.
Yet the unforgivably tardy words of shock and condemnation do little to allay suspicion and cynicism. What the state requires is visible, effective action, not mere words and ‘concern’. Indeed, what is happening now in Manipur has been allowed to happen under the watch of governments both at the Centre and the state, believe many.
A cosmetic press note circulated by the Manipur Police of a ‘zero FIR’ filed two weeks after the women were paraded does little to assuage the people’s feeling of having been wronged. Is the intelligence wing of the Manipur Police defunct that they cannot identify the faces in the video? Or has the whole policing system collapsed to become nothing but a tool of the state?
How could armed miscreants from the valley have had a free run for two-and-a-half months when 60,000 uniformed personnel are stationed in Manipur? That the Manipur Police is not a neutral force has been proved repeatedly, becoming mute spectators to violence unleashed by the majority community.
The Kuki women violated in the video were ‘rescued’ from the police— yet the FIR took two weeks to lodge! Clearly ethnic loyalties trump loyalty to the Constitution and the rule of law. There is dismay among Manipuri citizens at the scale and ferocity of the violence, suggesting a carefully planned pogrom.
The mandarins in the nation’s foreign ministry, however, responded to the European Parliament’s resolution censuring the violence with the line that events in Manipur were India’s ‘internal matter’. But what does this mean? Has the government in Delhi decided to allow the warring factions to decide the final victor in a gladiatorial fight with the whole state for their arena?
A conflict that can last for 80 days, with guns blazing and bombs lighting up the skies daily, can only mean one of two things: either the rule of law has collapsed or the violence has been carefully orchestrated with the intent of driving out the tribal communities from the hills. Branding the entire community with a broad brush as ‘illegal migrants’ is a convenient narrative for the government of Manipur.
Sadly, the rest of the 1.4 billion Indians don’t seem to share the pain and grief of the Kuki-Zo people. Is it because they are of a different race and religion? What does this say about India’s concern for the North-East? In the early days of the conflict, serving and retired servicemen were heard lamenting that India’s No. 1 adversary (China) would be watching Manipur with glee, considering that militant outfits in the region have been known to get arms training from that country.
But two-and-a-half months later, ‘India’ seems not overly concerned about the loss of lives or the defiant attitude of the Meiteis in the valley. An FIR was lodged belatedly and only grudgingly against Meitei pop singer Tapta, who in one of his songs called for every Kuki person to be killed. He had defiantly told the media that as he was singing in a war zone, his lyrics were bound to reflect the ‘war’.
Meanwhile, New Delhi’s unwillingness or inability to replace the Manipur chief minister has now prompted even neighbouring states to wonder if this model of vote-bank politics which involves viciously polarising a community may be ‘allowed’ to play out in their neighbourhood as well.
If the greed for the land in the hills—which the Meiteis have been eyeing for decades but are restricted from by their non-tribal status— was the main issue, successive governments could have initiated dialogue to find a solution. Land reforms are a vital part of governance, but it is possible only if there is a rule of law to ensure justice.
Manipur has been largely blacked out by the internet shutdown since early May, of course. In fact, the ban is only partial. The powerful elite have always had access to it. It’s the hoi polloi who suffer the ignominy of not even being able to tell the stories of the unspeakable atrocities that have been visited on them in what is increasingly being described as a civil war.
The barbaric acts of parading naked women, using rape as revenge and the brutal killing of a young village volunteer and hanging his head on a pole were glossed over by a panelist who attributed this to the fact that many communities in the North-East were literal ‘head-hunters’ in the past.
The insensitive statement was a chilling reminder that a medieval past can still creep up on us in the 21st century. All that is required is a provocative narrative, even if it happens to be fake. What we have seen in Manipur is the weaponisation of words to feed a cycle of unending violence. In a few more days, the violence will enter its fourth month, which shows that the aggressors were well prepared. It takes preparation and training to keep the fires raging for so long.
The violence in Manipur is neither sudden nor random. Does that even explain why the Modi government is an apathetic onlooker?
(With inputs from AJ Prabal)