The Führer fiddles while Manipur burns
Unwillingness, incompetence or connivance? With 50,000 people still in relief camps, what explains the PM’s silence on strife-torn Manipur for nearly 2 months now?
Schools were ordered to reopen this week in strifetorn Manipur, where 50,000 people are still in relief camps. What, however, explains the prime minister’s silence, the refusal to impose President’s Rule and the failure of security forces to maintain law and order?
If there were a yogic posture tailormade for our prime minister, it would have to be maunasana, the not-so-subtle art of saying nothing that he has perfected to a fault. (One cannot help but recall Modi mocking former prime minister Manmohan Singh as ‘Maunmohan’ Singh.)
Known as he is for skirting embarrassing issues and adept at maintaining studied silences on issues he is either clueless about or indifferent to, PM Modi’s deafening silence on Manipur, therefore, should not have come as a surprise. After all, this is the man who broke his maun vrat (vow of silence) on the farmers’ agitation after an entire year.
The PM’s silence on the Chinese aggression in Galwan, oxygen shortages during the second wave of the pandemic, allegations against the Adani Group, the ongoing women wrestlers’ protest against sexual harassment by a powerful BJP MP — the growing list seems to be par for the course.
But nothing can excuse the silence on the situation in Manipur, with more than 130 deaths in a month and a half, over 50,000 Manipuris displaced, over 250 churches and 25 temples burnt; where nearly 40,000 troops are struggling to curb violence in a state that occupies an area equivalent to two-thirds of Jaisalmer and has a population less than that of Lucknow.
When a convoy of 39 army trucks was stuck on the highway for several weeks because of blockades, helicopters had to airdrop food to stranded troops. Both the national highways (NH2 and NH37) that cut through Manipur bore the brunt of the blockades and there was nothing that the security forces could do.
The staggering incompetence of the ‘double engine’ government and gross administrative failures are not only hard to miss, they are impossible to ignore. The Union home minister has officially denied that Article 355 of the Constitution—which allows the Centre to temporarily take over the maintenance of law and order from the state government—has been invoked in Manipur.
In other words, the BJP government headed by N. Biren Singh remains responsible for law and order. But it was the Union home ministry (MHA) which appointed retired CRPF officer Kuldeep Singh as security advisor to the chief minister and set him up as the head of the unified command in the state.
Once again, it was Amit Shah’s ministry that constituted a peace committee headed by the governor, with the chief minister as a member. The committee was a non-starter, with both Meiteis and Kukis boycotting it. When the prime minister therefore brought his radio talk Mann Ki Baat forward to June 18 (instead of the customary last Sunday of every month), expectations in Manipur were high.
By not dispensing a single word on Manipur, once again, he disappointed those listening in. Manipuris expected him to address ‘Manipur ki baat’ and when that did not happen, some of them vented their anger by smashing their radio sets and shouting slogans on the streets. Doesn’t the prime minister care? Isn’t Manipur a part of India?
Isn’t the situation serious enough? What made the PM’s silence even worse was the alacrity with which he rushed to the train accident site at Balasore in Odisha on June 3; and the midnight oil that he supposedly burnt in supervising preventive steps, relief and rehabilitation for the victims of Cyclone Biparjoy in Kutch on the Gujarat coast.
Amit Shah rubbed salt on Manipuri wounds by ascribing the Prime Minister’s vigil and guidance as the reason why not a single life was lost in Gujarat during the cyclone. The home minister would surely know just how many lives have been lost in Manipur, which in any case is probably way higher than the official admission of 130.
In the last 49 days since May 3 this year, Manipuris have learnt what it means to lose everything — homes, jobs, businesses. They’ve learnt to live without education, without access to the internet, without essential commodities and medical care. They’ve also learnt the future is anything but certain.
Around 50,000 people, mostly from the hills, are displaced. The bulk of the 4,000–4,500 sophisticated arms distributed to civilians from the armouries in Imphal and 1.3 million rounds of ammunition are yet to be recovered or surrendered. The homes of MLAs, ministers and the MoS for external affairs have been attacked and burnt. And to top it all, the state government’s failure to offer security to its citizens and maintain law and order is blindingly clear to everyone.
While Kashmir has had no elected government for the past five years, Manipuris have seen, over the last few weeks, something Kashmiris never have — dropboxes at street corners where looted arms and ammunition can be returned, with an offer of amnesty from legal action to the looters.
Electoral violence in West Bengal in a single district or two is enough for the BJP to clamour for imposition of President’s Rule. But in Manipur, President’s Rule is still the ‘last option’ for the Centre.
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The Hindu quoted a home ministry official as saying this week, “It is wait and watch for now, we are mindful that it may take months also. When the Kuki–Naga conflict happened in the 1990s, more than 700 people were killed and it took years to bring in normalcy.”
Would the response have been the same if similar developments had taken place in Kashmir or in an Opposition-ruled state? No Union government in the past has dragged its feet for so long following similar eruptions of violence in Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab or Kashmir. State governments have been dismissed, tough and professional governors have been rushed in, and security forces and the Indian army given a free hand to curb the violence and bring the situation under control.
Both Meiteis (53 per cent of the population) and Kukis (16 per cent of the population) say they smell a rat. While the Meiteis speak of an international conspiracy to encourage infiltration of refugees with the aim of destabilising the state, the Kukis are convinced of a diabolical plan to deprive them of their land in the hills.
The influx of refugees from Myanmar is a fact, despite the numbers being in dispute. While Meiteis suggest the figure runs into hundreds of thousands, Kukis say it is only a few thousand. With civil war raging in Myanmar and India allegedly supplying arms to the military junta there, the situation is hazy at best.
On paper, India has enough leverage with the junta to stop infiltrations. Meiteis claim that drug lords in Myanmar were encouraging Kukis to cultivate poppy in Manipur because of disturbances in Myanmar. Kukis, on the other hand, point to several strange coincidences. Barely a month before the ethnic clashes began in Manipur, the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) was withdrawn from the Imphal Valley.
The announcement was made simultaneously by the Union home minister in Delhi and the chief minister in Imphal. The withdrawal, they said, was facilitated by a sustained period of peace. Asked why AFSPA had not been withdrawn from the hill districts of Manipur, the chief minister speculated that it could be because they were close to the international border. It is uncanny that a month later, armouries in Imphal were ‘looted’.
Also Read: Why Manipur is Burning
Around the same time in April, the Manipur government urged the MHA to suspend talks with Kuki militants with whom the Government of India had signed an SoO (suspension of operations) agreement. The request was, however, turned down by the home ministry. The Kukis told the Supreme Court this week that both the Union government and the state of Manipur were complicit in launching an ethnic cleansing directed against the Kukis. They wanted the apex court to direct the Indian Army to be deployed in Kuki villages to protect them and to allow those Kukis who had fled to return.
The Solicitor General of India opposed the plea and claimed that security forces were already on the ground. Colin Gonsalves, representing the Manipur Tribals Forum, told the court that huge reserves of minerals, natural gas, petroleum and cobalt had been discovered in the hilly areas of Manipur; and that Kukis believe deliberate efforts were being made to terrorise the tribes and drive them away from the hills so that crony capitalists in cahoots with the government could appropriate these resources without any resistance from the people.
The inaction of the central government, they believe, only proved its complicity and confirmed their suspicions. Professor Kham Khan Suan Hausing, head of the department of political science at the University of Hyderabad, shared similar suspicions of complicity with Sudha Ramachandran, South Asia editor of The Diplomat.
He recalled that in October 2022, the chief minister inaugurated the Chandrakirti Memorial Park on the Indo–Myanmar border at the very same site where the Zo chief Go Khaw Thang was ‘treacherously’ captured before being killed in Imphal in 1872 while in the custody of the Meitei monarch Chandrakirti.
Tribal land around the Chivu Salt Lake (in Tonjang village on the Indo–Myanmar border) was also acquired and declared a ‘protected’ site. The state government claimed this was the place where Thangjing, a Meitei god, was intermittently sighted. Similar sacralisation projects were implemented in the Koubru hills in Kangpokpi district by invoking Mount Koubru as a laipham (the seat of the Meitei god Lainingtho).
N. Biren Singh’s pet political project ‘Go to the Hills’ was intended to bridge the hill–valley divide. Several centrally sponsored developmental projects were inaugurated and cabinet meetings were held in the hills; but Hausing alleged that radical outfits like the Meitei Leepun aggressively promoted religious pilgrimages to the hills while another radical group, the Arambai Tenggol, was allowed to hold arms training camps.
The sacralisation project had the blessing of the RSS even as the state government drove a wedge between Hindus and Christians in the state. As proof, Hausing cites the refusal of the state government to regularise ‘even a single tribal church against the 188 Meitei Hindu temples that were regularised’ in recent years.
The state government also collected licensed guns from people in the hills in February–March 2023 on the pretext of ‘re-verification’ of licenses. The inquiry committee headed by a retired high court judge is unlikely to make much headway anytime soon. But the central government has persistently ignored suggestions to convene an all-party meeting to discuss the situation in Manipur.
The parliamentary standing committee is yet to deliberate on the crisis and permission for fact-finding committees to visit Manipur has not yet been given. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Modi, who had apparently halted the Ukraine war for a few hours with a single telephone call, is unable or unwilling to end the conflict in Manipur.
He had once referred to the eight north-eastern states as the ashta-Lakshmi or the eight manifestations of Goddess Lakshmi. This week he refused to meet three different delegations of legislators and former legislators from Manipur, two of them from the BJP, and flew off to the United States, leaving one of those eight goddesses to burn.
(Patricia Mukhim is the editor of the Shillong Times)