Who or what is holding back Modi and Shah from sorting out the mess in Manipur?

As we observe a year of ethnic strife in Manipur, the inaction and silence of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah raise questions about the endgame

Manipur Police and Army personnel during a search and area domination operation in Manipur (photo: PTI)
Manipur Police and Army personnel during a search and area domination operation in Manipur (photo: PTI)

A.J. Prabal

A tense and sombre Manipur on Friday observed the first anniversary of the nightmarish ethnic strife that exploded on 3 May 2023 — with shutdowns, candle light vigils and memorial meetings. The year saw about 220 people lose their lives, over 60,000 people displaced, around 100 reported missing, and the state divided into two virtual war zones, with armed village defence forces patrolling their respective areas, carrying out ambushes on both Central forces and ‘enemy territory’, with innocent citizens bearing the brunt.

By all accounts, Imphal Valley is inhabited exclusively by the Meitei, the northern hills by the Nagas, and the rest of the state by Kuki-Zo tribes. The valley is out of bounds for the Kuki-Zo, forcing them to travel to Mizoram's capital Aizawl, 12 hours away by road, in medical emergencies, to avail flights to travel outside the North-East, and for other provisions.

Students who could do so have left the state and taken admission in distant states. Those who are stuck and cannot leave their families have either taken up arms, or are trying to continue attending online classes and sending their test papers through the district administration, which transport them in helicopters to colleges and Manipur University in Imphal.

Why couldn’t the mighty Indian State resolve the issue and restore normalcy in the past year? Why has New Delhi allowed various armed groups a free run? Why has there been no serious attempt to confiscate firearms in the possession of civilians? Why have the two sides not been brought to the table and negotiations initiated for peace and a settlement?

Warring Meitei and Kuki groups have been in constant touch with officials of the Intelligence Bureau and the ministry of home affairs during the last year. While the participants were told not to share details with the media, the unending talks and the complete silence on possible solutions make one wonder if there has been any headway at all.

Bimol Akoijam, a JNU professor and the Congress candidate from Inner Manipur Lok Sabha constituency, feels chief minister N. Biren Singh is a "convenient scapegoat". There is little doubt, he told The Week in an interview, that in Manipur, it is New Delhi which calls all the shots. Why then are 60,000 people still living in refugee camps? Why have they not been rehabilitated and their return home facilitated?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not found time to visit the troubled state even once in the last one year. He has had the time to visit election-bound states multiple times. In Manipur, however, he left it to Amit Shah to address a token rally in Imphal before flying out.

The Election Commission reported 68 per cent polling in the state, relatively low by the state’s own standards, but also relatively high in view of the boycott call issued by various groups.

The MLAs and MPs of the state had been summoned and lectured to by a militant group in Imphal a few months ago. Some of these groups claim to be 'nationalists', and maintain that Manipur’s accession to India in 1949 did not have the sanction of the people. If New Delhi has a view on such contentions, it is not publicly known.

It is not clear what the Union government eventually wants to achieve in Manipur or what the way forward is. Nobody undermines the might of the Indian State and its ability to restore peace and sort out the issues in Manipur. So, the obvious conclusion is that New Delhi did not have the will to solve the issues and did not want a solution.

The question is why? What is holding back the hands of the State?

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