In 1978, the Congress (I) found itself as the main opposition at both the Centre and in Punjab. At the same time J S Brar, a farmer from Moga, was appointed as the Head of the Damdami Taksal, a small religious school in Moga,at the young age of just 31years. He had just come into the limelight after his followers clashed with the Nirankari Sikhs that had resulted in a dozen deaths and was becoming increasingly popular among the masses. In the hopes of influencing him and to take advantage of his popularity, the Congress cultivated him and assisted him in establishing the Dal Khalsa Party.
With his help they were able to win seats in Punjab during the General Elections of 1980. In the process however they created a Frankenstein, the rest of course is history as their protégé, Bhindranwale, went rogue. The story didn’t end well,for either him and associates, or for Mrs Gandhi. In fact, it was a national tragedy that set us back years and continues to haunt us to this day.
More than forty years later, history has repeated itself, as the ruling BJP and its allies, find themselves in a somewhat similar, but far worse situation. So bad in fact that both the Prime Minister and his Home Minister have been rendered not just speechless, but hors de combat! While Bhindranwale may have had support from within the community, and from across the border as well, the all-powerful State had him in its cross-hairs and it was only a matter of time before his armed uprising was squashed, as he and his supporters found themselves bottled up in the Golden Temple.
But Manipur is a very different matter. Here, the BJP’s protégé, Chief Minister Biren Singh, has the State and its infinite resources at his disposal, for all practical purposes the equivalent of Afghan Warlords we read about. What makes it infinitely worse, and far more tragic,is that he continues to be supported and financed by the Central Government, despite unabated violence for over three months,and the deliberate denigration of the Army and the Assam Rifles as they attempt to stabilise the situation. In what is completely unprecedented and wholly unacceptable, the State Police has gone so far as to file an FIR against the Assam Rifles in Bishnupur.
The Army’s III Corps (Spear Corps), responsible for the region, has been forced to respond publicly on social media stating that “some inimical elements have made desperate, repeated and failed attempts to question the role, intent and integrity of central security forces, especially the Assam Rifles, working relentlessly towards saving lives and restoring peace in Manipur.”Additionally, there are growing calls from within the Meitei community, including a letter by 40 MLA’s of the ruling party, all Meiteis,asking the Home Minister to remove the Assam Rifles. As to which community would stand to gain from such an action is fairly obvious.
The inexplicable apathy of the Central Government,despite all that has transpired,suggests that it is either complicitor wholly incompetent. In fact, the combined opposition has lost no opportunity in alleging the very same in Parliament and suggesting the BJP is attempting to fulfil its Hindutva agenda against the minority Christian community there. However, there are some unconfirmed reports suggesting that the Home Minister had attempted to get the Chief Minister to quietly tender in his resignation, but in a public spectacle the Meira Paibi, the erstwhile women’s social movement that has become increasingly militant, supposedly ‘forced’the Chief Minister to burn his resignation letter in public.
Since then, the central leadership has quietly acquiesced and refused to act. This is borne out by the Home Minister’s statement in Parliament ruling out replacement of the Chief Minister or imposition of President’s Rule, during discussions on the reply to the motion of no confidence brought against the Prime Minister and his council of ministers by the combined opposition. Further reinforced by the vague generalisations on the subject of Manipur the Prime Minister resorted to in his reply thereto, incidentally only after the opposition had been provoked into walking out. This suggests that they are wholly bereft of ideason how to tackle a recalcitrant Chief Minister of their own party, without bringing the party into disrepute or making laughing stocks of themselves.
To understand how we have come to this wretched state of affairs, one must reassess the prevailing narrative that was initially disseminated by the State’s well-oiled propaganda machinery.We were led to believe that this was an ethnic flare-up, between the valley-based majority Meitei community and the Kuki tribals who inhabit the foot hills over illegal immigration and drug trade. The fact that the adjoining states of Nagaland and Mizoram, which also share a border with Myanmar, have not been greatly affected in a similar manner suggests that while the problem may exist, they are not as serious or existential as made out by the Meitei Community and endorsed by the Central Government. Moreover, there is little doubt that Kuki tribals have inhabited the area for over 200 years and to label them as illegal immigrants is wholly false.
Interestingly, great deal of effort and emphasis has been laid on suggestions that this was not a religious conflict as nearly 40% of Meiteis were either Christians or followers of their own indigenous religion (Sanahamism). It was also alleged that many of the Meitei Christian Churches had been torched by the Kukisin Churachandpur. However, the Investigative Report to the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance by its Chair, David Campanale, published on 21st June states “Seven weeks after communal violence broke out in Manipur in north-east India, a picture is emerging of grave abuses against human rights, human dignity and disruption of peaceful relations between people groups. As this brief report sets out in witness testimony, there are clear indications that ethnic and economic disputes have been weaponized against the acceptance of religious pluralism and the ability of individuals to freely worship”.
The report further goes on to list that out of over 500 churches that have been destroyed, a total of 250 were Meitei Churches, of which the overwhelming majority were in Imphal and its outskirts. To suggest that these were burnt by Kukis would be farcical, given that at that time Kukis were fleeing for their lives from Imphal and its outskirts. This aspect is clearly brought out in the report by the replies of stakeholders among Meitei Christians when asked reasons for their being targeted in a predominantly Meitei and Kuki dispute. The answers given by them were:
- “Meiteis who follow the indigenous religion i.e. Sanahamism (and even Hinduism) want to get rid of Christianity from their community. They want to revive their own religion. Many Meitei Christians have been threatened with their life and have been given an ultimatum to renounce their Christian faith and accept Sanahamism.
- Meitei Hindus fear that the Christians are growing in number and are at 4 lakh (400,000 in population) amongst the 14 lakh Meiteis (1,400,000 in population). Officials of the Meitei Christian Churches Council Manipur (MCCCM) believe that Christians number 1 in 50,000 to 1 lakh.
- Christianity is seen as a tribal religion by the Meiteis, as it is practiced, in the main, by the tribal people in Manipur – mainly the Kukis. Christians among the Meiteis are therefore considered as ‘tribals’ by the Meitei community. It may be that the people who have attacked Meitei Christians are perceiving their attack to be against tribals more generally”.
The report further notes that “from the witness testimonies and wider reporting on the situation, it is evident that the large-scale violence is not sporadic and random. The Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun, Meitei extremist groups, have been observed to target Christians deliberately, either forcing them out of the land or requiring that they convert to another religion. Out of the 50,000 people who have fled their residences, as reported by the Press Trust of India, 35,000 are said to belong to Christian tribal communities”. It must be emphasised that the credibility of this report has not been publicly questioned, andit is also supported by statements made by Archbishop Dominic Lumon of Manipur, the head of the Catholic Church there.
It is a matter of historical record that one of the most troubling aspect of the political and socio-economic issues that have haunted Manipur over the decades has been the demand,accompanied by violence, of its Naga tribals for the Nagalim cause, or the integration of the areas occupied by them into Nagaland. Understandably, the Meitei community has strong objections to any attempt to change the historical borders of Manipur. Moreover, acceptance of such a demand would set a precedent for a similar demand by the Kuki tribals as well. Therefore, given the scathing findings of this report and from the manner in which events seem to have been orchestrated, it is possible that this is a well-planned pogrom against not just the Kukis but also the Meitei Christians as well.
Both these communities are seen as relatively much smaller, weaker and more divided than the Naga community within Manipur. Possibility that the Meitei militant organisations, allegedly with state support, initially planned to occupy and consolidate the foothills, thereby pushing out the tribals. It is a no-brainer that the Naga community would be given a similar treatment in the future.However, even though these groups still seem to believe they will be able to gain ascendency, the plan does not quite seemed to have worked and a stalemate of sorts exist on the ground. The fact is that even if they had been successful or do succeed in the future, the Kukis would move deeper into the hills, resort to guerrilla warfare and continued fighting.
Whatever be the truth, one thing is clear, even state supported majoritarianism has limits. Once crossed, minorities are bound to respond, as the Kukis have done, and the consequences of such a response will be prolonged violence that is bound to adversely impact the State’s socio-economic development in the long term. The fact that the violence has been orchestrated so blatantly suggests it had the tacit support of the Naga leadership, which is for all practical purposes dominated by the NSCN(IM).
They obviously hoped to reap benefits as well, despite attacks against their people, churches and educational institutions which were played down. This appears to have been a grave misjudgement on the part of the NSCN (IM) leadership, which now finds itself under severe pressure to reverse course from within the Naga community, both within Manipur and Nagaland. The recent major protests organised in Naga dominated districts against the attack on churches and the call for integration with Nagaland are obviously a fallout of this unhappiness.
For the Central Government to continue believing that it can solve the ongoing strife without resorting to President’s Rule or re-enacting AFSPA and tasking the Army to control the situation, can only be termed as wishful thinking. The fact of the matter is that longer the delay, the more this virus will spread in the North Eastern States and the government may then be faced with a dire security situation as it is bound to face demands for secession. The government would do well to note that Aizawl is the natural epicentre of the Chin-Kuki-Zo communities that are spread through Manipur-Myanmar-Bangladesh-Tripura in areas contiguous to Mizoram and are presently consolidating themselves. Moreover, there should be no doubt that in this troubled and volatile environment, China would not be averse to fanning the flames, which will only add to our troubles.