Manipur: What has silence achieved?
Besides the complete geographical and physical divide on ethnic lines, the emotional divide between the communities in Manipur is alarming, says Mercy V. Guite
With the brutal killing and decapitation this week of one of the village volunteers of the tribal group along the Bishnupur-Churachandpur border, the severity of the conflict between the two ethnic groups in Manipur has acquired an even more dire and dangerous edge.
A panellist on a TV discussion is said to have nonchalantly acknowledged that people in the peaceful state of Manipur were once headhunters and do not seem to have forgotten that ancient skill.
While both the communities are known to harbour armed militant groups, significantly, as many as eight organisations with support among the majority Meiteis have been included in the list of terrorist organisations maintained by security agencies, while not a single group representing the minority Zomi-Kuki community is named in the list.
There are of course Kuki militant groups which had signed an agreement to suspend hostilities, surrender their arms and live in designated camps which are subjected to periodic inspections by security agencies.
Manipur has seen its share of violence in the past. Ethnic groups like Nagas, Kukis and Zomi have engaged in bitter clashes over land rights. Meitei terrorist groups too, in the early 2000s, wreaked havoc among tribal communities in the hills, particularly in Churachandpur and Chandel districts, planting landmines and raping civilians. In 1993, large-scale violence had broken out between Meiteis and Manipuri Muslims known as Pangals.
However, what sets the current conflict apart is the involvement and complicity of the government. The chief minister of Manipur N. Biren Singh in a televised address had claimed that 40 ‘armed militants’ were killed during the current conflict.
The state police later went on to say that they had no information on the killings. The chief minister is yet to clarify his statement, the source of information and whether the 40 ‘militants’ who were ostensibly killed might have been civilians.
During the home minister’s visit to the state, violence had continued unabated even as Amit Shah promised peace and formed a peace committee that has been a non-starter. A month has passed but the home minister has made no further attempt to revive or reconstitute the peace committee.
The Indian army had to issue a clarification through its official twitter account that not all men dressed in fatigues (military clothing) are to be taken for army personnel and that intelligence inputs had confirmed that miscreants were misusing the uniform. This was in response to allegations that the army was actively helping Meitei militants to burn down tribal villages.
The current conflict uncannily resembles the holocaust. An organised campaign of marking houses belonging to the Zomi-Kuki tribals in Imphal by so-called ‘officials’ and the organised burning of churches and homes do not, in hindsight, appear to have been coincidental.
Killing of innocent tribal civilians and driving them away to refugee camps also followed a historically familiar pattern. History is repeating itself with the organised might of the state orchestrating the image of one ethnic community as the villain through false propaganda and half-truths.
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What is alarming is that besides the complete geographical and physical divide on ethnic lines, there is a clear emotional divide between the communities. The continuing exchange of a vitriolic diatribe between the intellectuals of both the communities, the incessant blame game and attempts to mark all Kuki tribals as infiltrators and militants are unfortunately making the divide unbridgeable.
The stoic silence of the Prime Minister on Manipur is shocking. The alibi that he and his home minister have been working ‘silently’ for peace is unconvincing as the PM found no time to meet delegations and legislators from the state. The appointment of a security advisor and the deployment of 40,000 security personnel etc. has not been able to stop the violence.
There is no clarity on how many of the 4,000 sophisticated, military-grade firearms and millions of ammunitions ‘distributed’ or ‘looted’ from armouries in Imphal have been surrendered. Nor is there any explanation how the army was forced to release a dozen militants in Imphal.
Despite the deployment of armed forces and central para-military forces, small villages on the border areas of Imphal still inhabited by tribals continue to be attacked and burnt down. Thousands of innocent victims are still stranded in temporary relief camps without adequate food, water and sanitation. The uncertainties about the future, the absence of any attempt to heal their scars and reassurance of any kind have contributed to their trauma.
While the national media and the Meiteis have clubbed all tribals as ‘Kukis’, the hill tribes comprise others such as the Zomi (Paite, Simte, Vaiphei, Zou) and Hmar in Lamka town (commonly known as Churachandpur district). They do not consider themselves as Kukis but are at the receiving end of the hatred being directed at all tribals, said to be militants and infiltrators.
The majoritarian Meitei academics and legislators continue to call for peace even as attacks on tribal people continue unabated. The stance of the state and national media has been partisan as most of the narrative is controlled by information fed by majoritarian opinion and Imphal-based media.
Acrimonious exchanges between academics and members of civil society have not been helpful either. The conflict is admittedly old and complex, with both sides accusing the other of triggering it. The Meiteis have accused the tribals of everything from illegal immigration to drug trade, terrorism and secession, while tribals have accused the Meiteis of launching an ethnic cleansing.
The divide is now so deep and positions on both sides have hardened so much that a solution appears difficult. Tribal groups, who initially wanted a ‘separate administration’ and functional hill councils under the Constitution’s 6th schedule, have now started talking of a union territory with a legislature.
This is clearly not acceptable to the Meiteis who want the integrity of Manipur to remain intact with no bifurcation or reorganisation of territory. Tribals are equally adamant that they need development in the hills and can no longer rely on Imphal to cater to their needs.
The question is, what has the union government’s silence for the past two months achieved? The answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind.
(The author is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)