Manipur: Is it too late for the state to recover?

Failure to initiate a dialogue early in the conflict will have its consequences & time is certainly running out — but is it too late to send a ‘Mahatma Gandhi Peace Mission’ to both Manipur & Myanmar?

Kuki women protest in New
Delhi against the
ongoing ethnic
violence in Manipur and call for chief minister N Biren Singh, seen as biased towards Meitei interests, to step down (photo: Vipin/National Herald)
Kuki women protest in New Delhi against the ongoing ethnic violence in Manipur and call for chief minister N Biren Singh, seen as biased towards Meitei interests, to step down (photo: Vipin/National Herald)

Subir Bhaumik

The union and state governments’ failure to initiate an inter-community dialogue in the early days of the Manipur conflict and their failure to control the violence has made any resolution a difficult, if not near-impossible, task now.

The continuing violence in the state has hardened positions, attitudes and responses on both sides, with some Meitei groups even threatening to review the state’s merger agreement with India (a subtle hint at secession) and Kuki groups doggedly pushing for an administration independent of the state government.

Overwhelming evidence of the links between mobs engaged in violence and those who were handed over firearms by the state and senior members of the state government has also added fuel to an already blazing fire. Members of the same group, the recipients of arms, were seen arriving at the chief minister’s residence and tearing up his resignation letter—seen widely as a publicity stunt to pressurise Delhi into retaining the chief minister.

The much-hyped narrative of 'a war against poppy cultivation and narco-terrorists', which demonises the Kuki tribes wholesale as a drug cartel, conceals the involvement of powerful entities (including relatives of senior ministers in the state, of all ethnicities) in protecting the Burmese drug trade.

Poppy cultivation in Manipur, patronised by Burmese drug lords like Zhang Zhi Ming, Lo Hsin Nian and the Wei brothers, needs to be rooted out by effective crop substitution programmes to help tribal farmers earn a decent income. The government and Meitei groups have been waxing eloquent against Kukis being ‘narco-terrorists’, but are silent about the state government’s conspicuous failure to take serious steps against the flourishing drug trafficking.

Why is the Itocha drug cartel in Manipur (run by relatives of some powerful politicians) and their role in marketing the Burmese-origin drugs not probed?

It is an open secret that 'Manipur’s Kiran Bedi, Thounaojam Brinda, had to resign from her police job because she had tried to book a very close relative of a top ruling party politician, who then accused her of complicity in gold smuggling.

Lt Gen Nishikanta Singh, a retired Manipuri officer of the Indian army, in a sad tweet recently described Manipur as “stateless”, where “life and property can be destroyed at will”, and drew parallels with Libya, Syria and Lebanon. If Manipur—whose “eastern gates” hold the key to prosperity as the land gateway to South-East Asia—sinks into what the North-East’s top political scientist Sanjib Baruah refers to as a “durable disorder”, India’s 'Act East' outreach will fall apart.

This is yet to dawn on decision makers in Delhi, apparently, though they make so much of Modi's Act East policy. The ministry of external affairs's concerns over the Ukraine conflict is in stark contrast to its wait-and-watch policy on Myanmar as well.

If Modi is critical of Nehru for missing out on challenges nearer home and focusing on bigger issues, he can also be accused of something similar. Why is India leaving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to do the heavy lifting in Myanmar and instead focusing on distant Ukraine? It defies logic and makes Modi's 'neighbourhood-first' policy sound like just another cliche.

Couldn’t India have sent a Gandhi Peace Mission to both Manipur and Myanmar to get a meaningful dialogue started between the different stakeholders — the army, varous political parties, armed ethnic groups, et al. After all, we had access to all of them and still enjoyed much goodwill until recently.

This writer had suggested earlier that the minister of state for external affairs from Manipur RK Ranjan Singh, Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga, retired lieutenant general Konsam Himalaya Singh from Manipur and former ambassador to Myanmar Gautam Mukhopadhyay could be enlisted for such a peace mission, along with a few Buddhist monks from India and South-East Asia who are popular in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the nation has been told that the prime minister’s many visits to the North-East are evidence of the BJP government having handled the region so much better than predecessors.

Yet the prime minister’s failure to visit Manipur even once since May this year, when the powder keg was finally lit — even as he took half a day off to attend an ASEAN–India meet — calls the bluff on his concerns and priorities.

His public silence on the developments in Manipur and his subsequent bluff and bluster in Parliament, while passing all the blame to the Congress for Manipur’s current woes, is in stark contrast to Rahul Gandhi's visit to the state.

Rahul Gandhi addressed specific issues like tribal autonomy and the miserable conditions in the relief camps. His visit and the sensitivity he showed exemplified the compassion and concern for fairness and balance in governance that seems to have little or no place in the BJP’s governance style or structure.

If the Bharatiya Janata Party called out Gandhi's visit to the refugee camps as 'drama', what would they say of the televised meditation of the prime minister inside a cave in Kedarnath?

It is high time, however, to ask some hard questions and seek some clear answers instead of getting carried away by hype and humbug.

The Manipur imbroglio has raised serious questions about the future of India’s outreach to South-East Asia as well, because Manipur holds the key to its success.

Demands for tribal autonomy are, however, viewed with suspicion in Assam and Manipur alike by the ruling upper-caste elite. They see such demands as a prelude to yet another tribal state in the region on the lines of Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. But the tribal autonomous council in Tripura successfully turned recalcitrant tribespeople into stakeholders while retaining the territorial integrity of the state. The successful Tripura experiment is worth emulating elsewhere in the North-East, surely

The most critical question now, then, is whether New Delhi has lost too much time by doing nothing.

Is it too late to salvage the situation?

Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC and Reuters correspondent, is an acclaimed author on India’s North-East and its volatile neighbourhood.

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