Opinion: Why only a 'political solution' can save Manipur
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The recent upsurge of violence in Manipur is a grim reminder to all who thought that the worst was over and that the process of reconciliation, slow and difficult though it may be, can at least begin. Again, it was a reminder that the status quo is over and a political solution is the only way forward. This can be in the form of a complete separation of the Kuki-Zomi from Manipur or a much greater autonomy within Manipur that will in actuality be akin to a complete separation without stating it as such. I say this because it’s not just the Kuki-Zomi who don’t want to stay together with the Meitei, but the Meitei themselves also believe in the same. The sustained attack on the Kuki-Zomi areas, whether unprovoked or not, is proof of that, along with the continued demonisation of the community as illegal immigrants and narco-terrorists.

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This process of delegitimisation of the Kuki-Zomi was started by none other than the Chief Minister of Manipur, Biren Singh, an ethnic Meitei who had gotten into a spat with Kuki social media users accusing them of being from Myanmar.

That was not a spur-of-the-moment comment but gave insight into his feelings towards the Kuki-Zomi community. He also blamed the community for being engaged in poppy cultivation and drug trade, declaring the crisis a war on ‘narco terrorists’. Such claims are ironic considering that the former Assistant Superintendent of Police, Thounaojam Brinda, had accused Biren Singh of being engaged in the drug trade. If this is indeed a war on drugs and against ‘narco-terrorists, as Brinda claims, he himself is part of the same problem.

So, is this crisis being manufactured so that his group (whoever they may be) can oust the Kuki-Zomi and take control of the drug trade in the state? If that’s not the case, how can someone accused by a former top cop of being involved in the drug trade fight against the very same drug trade? That’s an oxymoronic situation, to say the least.

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The conduct of the Chief Minister is not limited to making damaging claims against a certain community; he has also been accused of using the state machinery to perpetuate violence against them. While that claim has to be investigated, it is very clear from ground reports that the Manipur police have played a partisan role in the conflict. Whether it was in their inability to protect Kuki-Zomi lives or taking part in committing acts of violence (as accused in the siege of Khamenlok and other locations), the state police have painted itself as a very communal force. This is also where a political solution is becoming inevitable.

In ordinary situations, rioting occurs when non-state actors commit acts of violence against a group of citizens. Here, the state then enters the fray to control the situation by taking steps to ensure no harm comes to the common citizens while at the same time initiating actions to punish the non-state actors to stop the violence. In all this, the state gives assurances to the beleaguered citizens that it will protect the life and property of all concerned.

The miscreants are punished or brought under control, giving rise to confidence among the citizens that the state is doing its duty, and slowly but surely normalcy returns. This is not the case with Manipur. The continued violence on that ground is proof that the citizens do not feel safe with those in charge of the state machinery. And the fact that it is dominated by an ethnic community accused of using the state machinery to attack the other community, anything short of a political solution is a death sentence to the latter.

Let’s take the example of the return of people displaced by violence to their original locations. Recently, there was a news report that displaced Meitei from Churachandpur were seeking to return home. Biren Singh also stated that the government was working on a plan for the resettlement of displaced individuals on their respective lands. Ultimately, this should happen, but the process has to happen in both directions.

The Meitei, who have been displaced from the hills, should be allowed to return to the hills, while the Kuki-Zomi, who have been chased away from the valley, should do the same. But with the recent forced removal of the last remaining Kuki-Zomi from the valley, it is difficult to see how the Meitei can go back just yet. Even if people are allowed to return to their homes, the challenges are not over.

Recently, when my friends and I were discussing the violence in Manipur, our host (in whose house the discussion was taking place) told us about the plight of his friend, who belonged to the Kuki-Zomi community.

This individual had worked in the Indian armed forces and, after retirement, decided to invest all his life’s savings into buying a property in the valley and constructing a house for himself and his family. He was advised to stay in Shillong but was insistent that he wanted to go back to Manipur. The house and its belongings, which were worth crores of rupees, were destroyed and looted by Meitei miscreants. Our host was contacted by his friend, requesting a loan of Rs. 10,000 as he had no money left. This is the story of many of those who were displaced from their homes, whether from the valley or the hills. Will such people receive adequate compensation to rebuild their lives?

Considering how the Manipur government, dominated by the Meitei, is handling the Meitei refugee shelters in the valley, it is highly unlikely to happen.

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Will any Kuki-Zomi return to the valley? That might have been possible if they thought that the government would be able to protect them. However, the partisan conduct of the government does not inspire any confidence in that. For sure, if any Kuki-Zomi were to attempt to return to the valley, the radicalised non-state actors would try to attack them. The police, as it has been proven earlier, will either not try to stop them or might join them instead. Whether this scenario plays out or not, this is what the Kuki-Zomi fear.

In any case, if it happens, the Meitei civil society is not going to stop it since, firstly, it will face retaliation if it does and, secondly, it is also complicit in taking a communal stand. The common Meitei people, who may have nothing to do with the violence and may want to stay together, will not come out to show their support for the returning Kuki-Zomi. If it were to happen, such gestures would have already been visible on the ground. Instead, one sees Meitei mobs accompanied by Meira Paibis leading the attack on Kuki-Zomi areas.

Whether it’s a sentiment shared by all the Meitei or not, this can only be read as an unmistakable sign that the Meitei do not want to stay together with the Kuki-Zomi. This is the same sentiment shared by Kuki-Zomi as well.

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Thus, given that both communities are making it crystal clear that the divide is now insurmountable, what option is left except for a political solution?

There will be an argument from the Meitei side that they are not against all Kuki-Zomi but only against a certain section that are illegal immigrants and engaged in narco-terrorism. The indiscriminate violence, which includes the rape of the wife of a Kargil martyr, does not support such arguments.

Also, how will one determine who is an illegal immigrant? One solution advocated by the Meitei and supported by the Naga is to conduct an NRC (National Register of Citizens). Recently, there was an exercise conducted for a similar purpose in Assam, with the target this time being another minority, the Bengali Muslims. The exercise did find a large number of Bengali Muslims who could not produce the relevant documents, but it also found many Bengali Hindus, Assamese Hindus, Bishunpriya Manipuri, and many tribals like Bodo (20,000 of them), Karbi, and Rabha as well, who were subsequently excluded from the final NRC list.

So, does it mean that the Bodo (which include groups like the Garo, Tripuri, and Konyak who actually speak a Kok-Borok language and not a Kuki-Chin-Mizo language, which the other Naga groups speak) are illegal immigrants despite being one of the oldest indigenous communities in the North East? Based on the experience in Assam, what if the proposed NRC produces a list that does not include many Meitei and Naga as well?

Will the Meitei and Naga disown such individuals and families, or will they claim that a lack of paperwork does not mean that they are illegal? Will the same facility be available to the Kuki-Zomi as well? I think we know the answer to that question. So, what exactly is an illegal immigrant? And will it mean that all this killing has been over a lie? That would be a cruel punch line to this whole crisis.

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If the state had done its job, the violence could have been contained at the earliest. But its failure to do so and its alleged complicity in fanning the violence, coupled with the failure of the civilian Meitei society to rise above its communal trappings, make a political solution inevitable. If not, the violence will continue unabated for a very long time, which will have severe security repercussions for the entire region.

(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organization or institution)

Also Read | Manipur: Security forces recover weapons from Churachandpur district

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