The violence that began in May 2023 and seems to continue to date, has the potential to unravel peace in the entire North Eastern region. Peace in the North East has been brought about after decades of unrest and insurgency at a great cost. Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died over the last fifty years to achieve this. If not controlled quickly, the Manipur violence has the potential to destroy peace and jeopardize Indian efforts to establish land link with SE Asia in its ‘Look East’ policy. It is time we realize that the stakes are indeed very high.
The immediate trigger for the inter-tribal killings was the Manipur High Court hearings on Scheduled Tribe status to the Meitei community. A demand that has a 40-year history. Valley dwelling Meitei’s see this as legitimate. The opposition to this potential move, voiced by the Kuki tribals, is equally valid as they fear threat to their land and culture through the dominance of numerically strong and aggressive Meitei’s. This in nut shell is the background to the current events. But this was neither new, nor unexpected. What caused the mayhem is the partisan role played by the state administration and police, who openly sided with the Meitei’s. In every such situation, it is expected that the Central Government play a neutral and fair role. In this instance the central govt. its agencies and para military forces have failed in this role. Incompetent and ignorant bureaucrats and politicians have brought about anarchy in the state.
More and more, the Manipur situation seems to resemble the 1990 genocide of the Kashmiri Pandits in the Srinagar valley. Only the names are different but the actors are the same, an aggressive dominant majority, partisan state apparatus and mute central government. May be some day we will know the truth through a film like “Manipur Files” like we came to know through ‘Kashmir Files’.
Religion was not a factor in this violence. But the fact that the Meitei’s are Hindu and Kuki’s Christians, has given this a colour of persecution of Christians. Repercussions of this are already visible in neighbouring states like Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya. Anarchy in Manipur has the potential to engulf the entire North East.
Inter-tribal clashes and violence are nothing new to the region. The British handled it with ruthlessness. Every time a tribe went on to invade other village, the British would send punitive expedition. The punishment for the offending tribals was usually burning of the village and collective fines. Obviously, the 19th century methods cannot be used in 21st century, but some form of collective punishment needs to be devised to bring back the fear of law. A point that needs to be noted is that the well-organized women’s groups of Meitei community, were conspicuously absent when Kuki women were being subjected to inhuman atrocities!
There is no dearth of armchair based analysis of these tragic events but the need of the hour is quick and resolute action. The first and foremost is to instill confidence in the Kuki community. It is worthwhile to ask the neghbouring CM of Mizoram, to carry out the role of peace maker and to bring sane elements from both communities together. The standard measures are well known to most police officers. Formation of peace committees in Imphal valley, where ever there is mix population is necessary. Since there are credible reports of partisan behaviour by the state police apparatus, it is necessary that these forces be confined to barracks and central forces take over their role.
Due to the long-term involvement of the army in North East, there is no dearth of senior officers with understanding of the region. It is time that the Central Govt. utilize their expertise in handling the situation. It may seem like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted away, but still nevertheless it may well send a message if the Armed forces Special Powers Act, is re-imposed in Manipur. This will give the necessary authority to the armed forces to act without waiting for a nod from the local authorities, who stand compromised in the eyes of Kuki tribals.
Fundamentally, the entire North Eastern region poses a complex security challenge to the Indian govt. It should not be forgotten that less than 200 years ago, the tribes were in constant conflict with each other. Head hunting was common. The society and economy was and to some extent still is in ‘hunter gatherer phase’ of civilization. The modern means of communication and technology has brought in digital age gadgetry but the mind sets and social attitudes are still of the past. There is tremendous resistance to concept like gender equality etc in Nagaland, where there are no women legislators. This is just one example. The tribal society is very egalitarian and there is no concept of private ownership of land. This presents a big problem when one talks of mix population. There are indeed no easy answers. Home ministry will do well to associate area experts on permanent basis to monitor the situation in North East. Our hyper active judiciary also needs to stay off the areas of tribal diversity where Angel’s fear to tread.