February 2023 marked two years of the Myanmar coup, and it is now becoming clear that India, especially the Northeast, is now seeing potentially long-term ramifications. Mind you, this is something many saw coming. But then, let us not forget that the past two years have been anything but challenging for the region. The state of Manipur, for example, like the rest of India, had to battle the deadly second wave of the pandemic in the first year of the Myanmar coup and in 2022 it witnessed the state elections.
So, it came as no surprise when various pressure groups, student organisations and civil society organisations came together to demand a National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Manipur too, on the lines of Assam. Such protests, meetings and discussions have been a staple in Manipur for years now, but anytime a protest reaches the power corridors of Delhi, there is only one aim: national attention. Manipur’s demand for NRC on the lines of Assam is an attempt to highlight, at a national level, the influx related to the influx of Myanmar and Bangladesh immigrants.
Of course, Manipur is not the only state that is witnessing refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Assam’s complicated history with people from Bangladesh has numerous books dedicated to it. Mizoram, on the other hand, has also witnessed tens of thousands of refugees coming to the state, mostly from Myanmar and recently from Bangladesh too. However, you will be hard-pressed to see a more contrasting response to refugees in Mizoram versus Manipur. For Mizoram residents, those coming from Myanmar and Bangladesh are kin: the Kuki-Chin-Mizo connection is more ancient and much stronger than national ties. For Mizoram residents, there is no world where they do not help those from the ‘other’ side. I would not be wrong in saying that it is not a common sight to see a state minister say refugee kids would be admitted to local schools under the Right to Education. The number of refugees in Mizoram varies between 30,000 and 40,000. This is a big number for a state with under 11 lakh residents as per Census 2011.
I have spoken about the need for India to raise the attack on ethnic minorities in Bangladesh in an earlier column, which can be read here. For now, at least, the incoming refugees in Mizoram are neither seen nor projected as threats.
Manipur, however, is a completely different picture. The state has been cold at best to the refugees from Myanmar for several reasons. It will be easy for me to sit here and blame the ‘anger’ against refugees on xenophobia, but things are never that simple in the Northeast. The state, even today, is dealing with the unequal relationship between its hills, home to the tribal population and the valley, which is home to the Meitei population. After years, it seems that the hills and the valley are finally trying to see eye-to-eye, best illustrated by the fact that during the Jantar Mantar protests witnessed in Delhi, Naga student organisations stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their Meitei counterparts.
Manipur CM has made it clear in as many words that they share the concerns of those protesting, even making it clear that the refugees are either promoting poppy cultivation or facilitating the drugs trade in the state that has made ‘war on drugs’ its priority. The state government withdrew the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with two militant groups, Kuki National Army (KNA) and Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), alleging that the two organisations were involved in poppy cultivation and creating unrest among forest encroachers.
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I will not focus much on the demand of NRC itself: every society has the right to ask for laws that they think will protect their rights and if Assam can have an NRC process under the supervision of the Supreme Court, Manipur can have similar aspirations too. Far more challenging will be the process of implementing it. Assam’s NRC has been mired in controversies with the BJP leaving no stone unturned to point out their issues with the process. Given that even a state where the NRC process has dominated headlines for decades has not managed to get it right, what is the guarantee that Manipur will do it more effectively? The suggested cut-off date of 1961 is likely to create innumerable headaches for the residents too, especially the indigenous population.
Also, let us not forget, even in 2023, we are no closer to ‘solving’ the refugee issue. Take Assam for example. How many people have been deported to Bangladesh until now as per the NRC process? Where are we, diplomatically speaking, in reaching an agreement with Bangladesh to ‘accept’ those we seek to deport? These are uncomfortable questions we do not have an answer to because capitalising on the fear factor of the indigenous population is far easier than taking steps to address them. Manipur may have the right to demand an NRC, but for now, I see nothing to indicate it will be a fair, unbiased and honest process. Of course, I will be happy to be proven wrong.
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