The news cycle this past fortnight has been dominated by two things: the matches in the cricket World Cup and the savage bombing by Israel of Gaza, this in retaliation for a terror attack by Hamas on its soil. In our obsession with one or the other, a melancholy landmark has passed by almost unnoticed — the six-month anniversary of the onset of the crisis in Manipur.
A few weeks after the violence first erupted in Manipur, I wrote about it in The Telegraph and also gave an interview to a website urging that we recognise the seriousness of the situation there. My remarks prompted this brilliantly sardonic remark by an observer: “The problem with the BJP is they don’t consider Manipur a national crisis, they believe the protests in France are a national crisis, the Pakistani woman marrying an Indian man is a national crisis, a Muslim marrying a Hindu in some small village not a single BJP member has visited is a national crisis, Oppenheimer movie is a national crisis. These are national concerns for the BJP.”
This column shall try, probably in vain, to reorient our attention to the crisis in Manipur, now that it has entered its seventh month. My own interest in Manipur was initially that of a historian, seeking to understand how the state became part of independent India in 1949, and how it has fared since. This interest was further stoked by a visit to Manipur some years ago when I was struck by its natural beauty, the richness of its music and dance traditions, the independence of its women, and — even then — the rivalrous relations among the state’s three major ethnic groups: the Meiteis, the Nagas, and the Kukis.
Though to both the historian and the traveller the tensions were visible, the scale and intensity of the present conflict have been unprecedented and perhaps unanticipated. Over the past few months, Meitei militants and Kuki-Zo militants have come to see one another as irreconcilable enemies. The violence on the ground has been reproduced online, where abusive remarks are rife.
What we know as the Godi Media has obscured and ignored the crisis in Manipur. Fortunately, independent websites like Scroll and The Wire have apprised us of what has been happening, the former with its focused ground reports, the latter through interviews with representatives of the different groups involved. I have also kept myself up-to-date with conversations with colleagues from the state from all sides of the spectrum. It is on these sources of evidence that the analysis that follows is based.
Before May 2023, Kukis and Meiteis by no means co-existed in complete harmony. They were differentiated by religion, with most Kukis being Christian and most Meiteis being Hindus. The Kukis lived largely in the hills whereas the Meiteis dominated the Imphal Valley. The Kukis resented the patronising attitude that Meitei politicians often displayed towards them; the Meiteis complained that the scheduled tribe status that Kukis enjoyed gave them an advantage in accessing government jobs.
Inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts are not uncommon in our country. In fact, such conflict has been a regular feature of our career as an independent nation. Yet even in this troubled history, the ongoing Meitei-Kuki conflict stands out in terms of the scale of the violence and, especially, the complete polarisation. The evidence gathered by independent observers suggests that in this conflict the Kukis are somewhat at a disadvantage because it is the Meiteis who control the levers of State power, Meitei politicians to whom the police and the bureaucracy report. One mark of this asymmetry is the fact that many churches — more than two hundred, according to one estimate — have been burned down.
There was some amount of distrust between Meiteis and Kukis before May 2023; since then, the relationship has become absolutely toxic. Once, there was enough mutual toleration for many Kukis to live and work in the Imphal Valley and for many Meiteis to work in the hills. Now, however, the ethnic separation is almost complete, with Kukis leaving the Valley out of sheer fright and Meiteis doing the same in the reverse direction.
For the tragic state of affairs, three individuals must bear principal responsibility. The first is the chief minister of Manipur, who has appeared noticeably partisan, tilting towards the side of the Meiteis. The ideological partisanship of the government led by N. Biren Singh has been matched by its lack of administrative competence. As a report in The Indian Express documents, the state government allowed, and perhaps encouraged, the large-scale looting of arms by militant groups shortly after the conflict broke out. Six months have now passed and, yet, only a tiny percentage of these looted arms have been recovered by the state. And earlier this week, even as this article was being drafted, there were fresh reports of an “armed mob [consisting] of members of the Meitei right-wing group Arambai Tenggol” attempting to loot a police armoury in the state capital, Imphal.
The second individual responsible for the ongoing tragedy in Manipur is the Union home minister who, after one brief visit to the state, has done precious little to stem the violence, spending his time and energy instead on polarising the electorate in other states where assembly elections are taking place. The third is the prime minister, who has not visited the state at all, while allowing the chief minister and his own home minister a free hand in doing all they can to do nothing to resolve the crisis. Whether it stems out of insensitivity or arrogance, this conspicuous lack of interest in the people of Manipur is unbecoming of the prime minister of India. A trip by Narendra Modi to the state, with him visiting both the valley and the hills, would send a signal that he cares for the Manipuris, whether Meiteis, Kukis, or others. It might even begin a conversation between the leaders of the two communities as a first step towards a possible social reconciliation.
Biren Singh may have acted as he has because he believes that stoking Meitei supremacism helps him stay in office. But why have Amit Shah and Narendra Modi been so unconscionably neglectful of Manipur and Manipuris? Is it because sacking Biren Singh — which should have been the first step — is an admission of weakness? Is it because they think that demonising Kukis will help them consolidate the Hindu vote in the next general election? Or is it just rank incompetence? For, unlike their professed hero, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Modi and Shah are skilled largely in propaganda and self-promotion — they altogether lack Patel’s ability to govern with wisdom or administer with care and understanding.
In the past few months, the home minister and the prime minister have maintained a studied silence on Manipur, while being extremely loquacious on other subjects while on the campaign trail in Rajasthan, Telangana, and other states. Interestingly, though, the sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh briefly touched on Manipur in his annual Vijaya Dashami address. An English translation of his speech had him saying: “Why are the Meiteis and Kukis, who have lived together for so long, in so much conflict?… Who gains from this? Were there any outside forces? There is a strong government. The (Union) Home Minister visited the state. Yet, whenever things calm down, some tragedy happens… Who are these people? It is being fuelled."
Before and after Mohan Bhagwat’s speech, this trope of a ‘foreign hand’ being responsible for the Manipur crisis has been energetically promoted by Hindutva handles on social media. There have been suggestions that because the Kukis are largely Christian, they are somehow less than truly Indian, whereas the Meiteis, because they are largely Hindu, are solidly and reliably patriotic. These claims are false and pernicious. Hindutva ideologies wish to vilify Kukis to excuse the errors of their own leaders in Imphal and in New Delhi.
That the crisis in Manipur has persisted for so many months, and that there is no visible sign of its abating, is a mark of the utter failure of this ‘double engine sarkar’. Despite its majority at the Centre and in the state, despite its control of law and order and of the police and the paramilitary, the Modi-Shah regime has brought Manipur and Manipuris to this sorry pass. Mohan Bhagwat claims the government run by his fellow RSS pracharaks is ‘strong’; however, it may be more appropriately described as incompetent and malevolent. This government’s incompetence is manifest in its failure to prevent the outsourcing of law and order to private actors; its malevolence in encouraging a majoritarian agenda in a border state so as to enhance its prospects of winning the next general elections.