Save Manipur

Political bankruptcy leads people to advocate identities rooted in religion and race

Nandita HaksarNandita Haksar

The violence in Manipur continues, its impact on the neighbouring states, especially Mizoram threatens the peace and stability of the region for a long time to come. A senior retired officer of the Indian Army compared the situation in Manipur to the situation in West Asia.

Now, a retired top Army officer has tweeted the dire state of affairs, equating the situation in his state with that of war-ravaged Libya, Lebanon and Syria. Lt Gen. L Nishikanta Singh (retd) tweeted: “I’m just an ordinary Indian from Manipur living a retired life. The state is now ‘stateless.’ Life and property can be destroyed anytime by anyone, just like in Libya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria, etc,”

There have been many ethnic and even religious conflicts in Manipur over the years. In a word, this is a place where identity politics is backed by guns and this has made it a dangerous and difficult to deal with.

While it is important to understand the deep historical roots of this conflict, it should be clear that this time the violence is fundamentally different from all the past conflicts and its implications for India are going to be long term and deeper.

Never before has the violence in Manipur attracted the attention of the international community but this time the American ambassador went so far as to say that the US would be happy to mediate. The European Parliament even discussed the events in Manipur. The violence in Manipur has links to Myanmar and some experts say poppy cultivation may have been encouraged by Chinese businessmen.

However, it is not the international dimension which makes the resolution more difficult but the involvement of the various state institutions. In the past there has been complicity of political parties but from reports it would seem this time both the Centre and the State are complicit.

There are several inquiry committees and a judicial commission that are going into the causes. The three-member judicial commission, led by former Guwahati High Court Chief Justice Ajai Lamba, made its first visit to the troubled state on July 14. The commission has been officially tasked with examining the circumstances that led to the turmoil beginning on May 3. The other members of the commission include Himanshu Shekhar Das, a retired bureaucrat, and Prabhakar Aloka, a former intelligence officer.

Anyone who has accused the state of being complicit in the violence has been accused of defamation by members of the Meitei community and FIRs have filed against them.

During his visit to Manipur, home minister Amit Shah said the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) would be tasked with investigating six cases related to the violence. There is another committee which is looking into the issue of poppy cultivation. We will have to wait for the results of these committees and the judicial commission.

Meanwhile, the violence continues unabated with beheadings and shootings, arson and wonton destruction of property. Some have even termed this as ethnic cleansing of one community.  The violence would never have reached such levels had it not been for the availability of weapons, the existence of trained militants and even clash between the armed forces and the police.

Save Manipur 

Guns Galore

These guns are in the hands of insurgents, the militias, armed forces, police and ordinary citizens who have licenced guns. The Wire did a RTI and according to the information they got, there are 35,117 active gun licences in Manipur. This is up from 26,836 in December 2016. The BJP government led by N. Biren Singh came to power in March 2017. Coincidentally, since then, around 8,000 gun licences have been issued. According to reliable sources these guns have been issued overwhelmingly to one community, the majority community. It is important to remember that neighbouring Nagaland has the highest number of active gun licences in the Northeast, more than Manipur.

In addition to these licensed guns there are armed groups belonging to each of the identity groups. The arms are sophisticated, and the militants are well trained. Apart from the militant groups there are various militias; these have been set up by successive governments. The militias are usually of surrendered militants and are known to be merciless.

This time the two militias that have been named by the Kuki and Zomi organisations responsible for the much of the violence: the Arambai Tenggol and the Meitei Leepun. On July 15, came the news that the Meira Paibis handed over a Maring Naga woman to Arambai Tenggol. The Nagas have condemned Arambai Tenggol members for killing the 55-year-old Maring Naga woman, Lucy Marim, in Chandel district. The Nagas have shown great self-restraint despite the fact that there have been consistent efforts to provoke them into joining the conflict.

Congress leader Bhakta Charan Das has likened the Arambai Tenggol, named after a weapon used by the Manipuri kings, and the Meitei Leepun to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal. It has been alleged that it was members of these two organisations that were responsible for the looting of the arms and ammunition from the police stations.

While there is no official figure but The Indian Express, quoting sources, said on June 3 that as many as 4,000 weapons had been looted from the police and state armoury and very few of these have been recovered so far.

Kuki organisations have accused Meitei militant organisations along with the Meitei militia and the Manipur police of jointly attacking their villages. For instance, the Khamenlok area villages’ chiefs alleged that thousands of heavily-armed Meitei militants, including the banned UNLF cadres and militias, aided by armed personnel drawn from Manipur Police commandos and the IRB, attacked villages in the Khamenlok area in Saikul subdivision of Kangpokpi for three days on 12-14 June 2023.

In reply, the popular Meitei singer has written a song, which is being called a ‘genocide song’. Jayenta Loukrakpam, known by his stage name Tapta, based in Imphal, released a controversial song on Friday, July 7. Among other things, the song says ‘Meiteis will never have peace until every Kuki is killed.’ He says the indigenous Kuki militants plus migrant Kuki terrorists plus the Indian central force, all of them combined are attacking the Meiteis.

Apart from the looting of arms and ammunition, banks too have been looted. Days after cash and ornaments valued at over Rs 2.25 crore were found missing from an Axis Bank branch in Manipur’s Churachandpur, criminals targeted another bank in Kangpokpi district and looted computers and other electronic items worth nearly Rs 1 crore in July second week.


Meira Paibis

Indians across the country have expressed shock at the role the women have played in the violence; in some cases, women of one community even encouraged the rape of women from the rival ethnic community.

The fact which seems inexplicable is the role of the Meira Paibis, who have been looked upon as peacekeepers. They have a long history of fighting against drugs and alcohol from the 1970s. Seeing these torch bearers patrol the streets in the Manipur Valley made people feel safe.

Later during the time when the Valley was declared disturbed under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and when the Assam Rifles (and other security forces) picked up young men on mere suspicion of being militants and tortured them brutally, it was the Meira Paibis who rescued many of these young men from the clutches of the security services.

Under the Act the armed forces are supposed to hand over the insurgents or suspected insurgents to the police but instead they torture them. That was when the mothers came into action, going to army camps and rescuing the youth. It is in this background we must see why the Meiteis are angry with the attack on the Meira Paibis, who compelled the Assam Rifles to release 10 insurgents in this round of violence.

When a fact-finding team of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) went to Imphal and blamed the Meira Paibis of being a part of the violence, Liben Singh filed a case of defamation against the NFIW team. An FIR was lodged on July 9 against the NFIW members at the Imphal police station on the charge of hurting the sentiments of Meira Paibis and terming the violence as state-sponsored without understanding the situation.

The complainant accused the three individuals of disrespecting Meira Paibi activists of Manipur and terming the chief minister’s resignation as a ‘stage-managed drama.’ They have also been charged with contending that the May 3 riots were ‘state-sponsored violence.’ In his complaint, Liben said amid the crisis in the state, Meira Paibis had been playing a crucial role in restoring peace.

Unfortunately, the Meira Paibis have not played their usual role of peacekeepers and they too have been pulled into the violence and seem to be complicit in it. They were the one group with the moral and political clout which could have played the role of peace makers.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with refugees at Moirang and Churachandpur relief camps in Manipur
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with refugees at Moirang and Churachandpur relief camps in Manipur


Armed Groups

There are three factors that make it virtually impossible to disarm the civilian population. The first is that the people genuinely need the arms to defend themselves as the situation is very much like a civil war. The violence continues and the armed groups are involved in defending their respective ethnic communities.

Secondly, the security forces are unable to offer security to the people for a number of reasons. There have been several incidents when the Assam Rifles and the Manipur Police have exchanged fire. There is a long history of conflict between the police and the Assam Rifles from the time the state was declared disturbed under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA).

It should be remembered that women have been in the front of the fight against the AFSPA with the most dramatic protest taking place in 2004 when some Meitei women took off their clothes in protest against the rape and killing of a woman by the armed forces. This is an example of alienation of the people from the Indian security forces. In the past a Kuki militia was created by the Centre to put down Meitei insurgency and this militia was absorbed in the security forces. Thirdly, there is a spillover effect of the military rule in Myanmar.


Myanmar Factor

Many Meiteis have been blaming the influx from Myanmar for the violence in Manipur. This is in line with the Central government’s stand that the people taking refuge from the brutal military rule in Myanmar are ‘illegal migrants’ and the Centre has initiated a house to house survey to identify these people in Mizoram and Manipur and many of them have been detained or put in some kind of camp.

In Myanmar the resistance to army rule is being done by the civil disobedience movement in and around the Burman majority area and the armed wing of the National Unity Government (NUG) called the People’s Defence Force (PDF). The armed wing was formed by the NUG from youths and pro-democracy activists on 5 May 2021 in response to the February 2021. Estimates by The Irrawaddy put the PDF’s numbers at 65,000 in November 2022. Many of these fighters cross the border into Manipur and Mizoram. Some of them may have been involved in the violence when they offered help to their Kuki/ Zo brothers as an act of solidarity because the Kukis have been helping the refugees from across the border.

The issue was brought up by the external affairs minister S Jaishankar on July 17 when he met his Myanmar counterpart Than Swe and flagged the disturbance of peace on their common border.


Identity Politics

Broadly, the people living in Manipur are divided into those who are living in the Hills and those who are living in the Valley. But this does not really give an accurate picture of the complexity of the identities. The Nagas and the Kukis are both exonyms and subsumed under each of the broad category are numerous tribes; and these are not fixed identities.

In part these categories emerged during the colonial rule and subsequently have evolved. At one point smaller tribes came together to make one bigger tribe. For instance, the Zeliangrong tribe is a combination of four tribes; at one time the Mao and Poumai were together but then they split into two. Some tribes were categorised as Kuki by the British but have opted to identify with the Nagas and other tribes have split into two—half identifying as belonging to Zo group while the others have joined the Nagas.

The Meiteis too are not as homogenous as it may seem. There is a caste system with those with a prefix ‘R.K.’ belonging to the royal family and the Andro people who did not convert to Hinduism are put in the Scheduled Caste category. There is also a community of Meitei Muslims. There is a substantial Nepali community in Manipur as well as Marwaris. There are also migrant labourers who perform essential services.

Almost all of these are backed by armed groups constituted to defend the identities. Their demands include self-determination and autonomy to secession from the Indian union. Although some of these groups call themselves socialist or even communist, their political vision does not encompass any basic socio-economic programme for the people.

Ethnicity has trumped religion most of the times with the Nagas and the Kukis, both Christians, having had a deadly history of conflict. Meitei are Vaishnavs but many have turned back to their old indigenous religion, Sanamahi, and many of the militia and underground groups adhere to this ancient religion. Some Nagas also practise a religion called Herraka and these indigenous religions have the patronage of the Hindu nationalists.

The church, a majority being Protestants, have links with their headquarters in America. The small group of Catholics have their link with the Catholic network. From the time Manipur joined the Indian union there has been insurgency and insurgents.


Naga Insurgency

Historically, it was the Nagas who first started an armed resistance to the Indian State in support of their demand for a sovereign state which would amalgamate the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam (Naga hills were a part of Assam), NEFA (later Arunachal Pradesh) and across the border in what was then Burma.

The armed resistance stated in the 1950s and the Government of India responded by passing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. The Nagas have their own armed wing, trained initially in Pakistan and later in China and well equipped. They continue to run a parallel government and have been in peace talks with the government of India since 1997. The one reason that the talks did not progress was that Manipur objected to the Nagas claiming a part of the hill districts as their homeland.

In the past the Nagas have clashed with the Kukis opposing the demand for a Kuki homeland, which the Nagas consider their land. They have an alliance with the Meiteis this time and have refused to be drawn into the conflict.

The slogan of the Naga national movement is Nagalim for Christ and the official religion is the Protestant Christianity. There have been bitter differences between the Catholic and Baptist Nagas; the latter are predominant among the Nagas with linkage to the American Baptist church.


Meitei Nationalism

Meitei nationalism is rooted in pride in the fact that Manipur was an ancient kingdom with its distinct culture, history, language and an ancient religion. The tribal communities insist that the Meitei kingdom did not include the hill areas; this is challenged by the Meiteis who claim that the Kingdom extended to the entire territory of the princely state.

Meitei nationalism is rooted in Sanamahi religion and Vaishnavism. But a growing number of conversions to Christianity has provoked the Meitei extremists’ groups attack on Meitei Christians and the destruction of their churches.

The Meitei Christian Churches Council has come out with a statement saying that said that the ongoing ethnic violence in Manipur was not a case of a dominant community attacking the Christian minority, insisting that the conflict was instead between Manipuris and illegal immigrants.

Meitei Christian leaders held a meeting recently at the Constitution Club of India in New Delhi to “counter the argument being put before the world that the violence is being orchestrated against Christians in the State.” The convener of the Forum for Restoration of Peace in Manipur maintains that the only indigenous communities in Manipur are the Nagas and the Meiteis.


Meitei Muslims

In addition to the Meitei armed groups (which implicitly means Hindu and Sanamahi groups) there are Meitei Muslim armed groups. Prominent among them is the People’s United Liberation Front (PULF), founded in 1993.

On May 30, 2007, another Islamist outfit operating in Manipur, the Islamic National Front (INF) merged with the PULF. The INF was established in the 1980s and its cadres were reportedly trained by the Kuki National Front in Churachandpur district.

Besides seeking to safeguard the interests of the minority Muslim community in Manipur, the PULF’s purported objective is to secure an Islamic country in India’s northeast through an armed struggle in collaboration with other Islamist fundamentalist groups.

The organisation also envisions a society based on Islamist values and to this end, has acted against the prevalence of substance abuse and alcoholism among Muslims in the state. It has also passed diktats on the dress code for Muslim girls in the State.

As of now the Meitei Muslims, Meitei Hindus and Meiteis practising their Sanamahi religion along with the Nagas have declared themselves the ‘only indigenous tribes’ of Manipur.


Kuki Insurgency

The Kukis are an ethnic group including multiple tribes originally inhabiting the north-eastern states of India such as Manipur, Mizoram and Assam; parts of Burma (now Myanmar), and Sylhet district and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

In Manipur, the various Kuki tribes, living mainly in the hills, currently make up 30 per cent of the total 28.5 lakh population of the State. In 1997-98 there was a clash between the Thadou and Paites in Churachandpur.

Over 352 people died, thousands of homes were destroyed and over 13,000 people were displaced. The Thadou-speaking Kukis had been displaced from their home in the northern part of Manipur to Churachandpur. The Paite-Zomi were the original inhabitants of the district.

By 1997, a group of minor tribes (including the Zou, Vaiphei, Gangte, Simte and Zomi) led by the Zomi/Paites formed the Zomi Reunification Organisation (ZRO). This group had a militant wing named the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA). At that time, the Thadou-speaking Kukis had already formed the militant Kuki National Front (KNF).

There are now some 23 different Kuki militant groups. The main objective is to have a separate administration either like the Bodo Territorial Council or some would like to join Mizoram and form what has been termed as a Greater Mizoram.

Amid the demand for a separate state for the Kuki-Zomi tribals in ethnic violence-hit Manipur, the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) in Mizoram continues their campaign to establish a homeland for all the Zohnahthlak (Zo ethnic tribes) across the northeastern region.


Alternative Politics

The political parties could have provided a way forward by having a programme for development, economic and cultural, by which the various communities could feel a sense of belonging to Manipur and to Indian Union.

The various communities supported the BJP, perhaps not understanding the Hindutva ideology. With the latest experience they will have no alternative to go back to their identity politics. In the past the chief ministers of Manipur have included people from the Nagas and Muslim community.

However, the successive governments in Manipur fell into the easy way by patronising one or the other community and its armed wing. The insurgents also did not allow democratic institutions such as the Hill Areas Committee to function and even stopped elected members from entering their constituencies.

The identity politics has permeated all institutions: political parties, courts, police and civil society. The intelligence agencies, too, use these identities to play a deadly game of divide and rule. Those from other parts of India who have tried to work in Manipur have also landed up working with the majority community and their media and intellectuals dominate the discourse on Manipur.

Ironically, safe in their camps the insurgent groups of different communities often share a bonhomie that they deny their people. Even when people are disillusioned with the insurgent groups they need their help in situations as the one they find themselves today. Their political bankruptcy leads them to advocate identities rooted in religion and race. Their vision is racist, patriarchal and does not recognise class differences that have emerged within each community. So many tribal people from Manipur have been forced by poverty to become migrant workers in distant towns and cities. Far from their home state they come together under a northeast identity asserting their right to be called Indian.

The question we should all be asking is whose interest does identity politics serve?



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