Manipur has been a playground for competitive politics of its different ethnic groups for decades. The present tension between Meeteis and Kukis, which erupted on May 3, is a grave reminder of this. There are precedents of such conflicts and tensions since the 90s involving various tribal and non-tribal groups. Such a politics of identity and politics around identity foresees a tumultuous future with no groups gaining anything. From history, we learn, but the people of the state seem unwilling to do so. Manipur has experienced several identity-based conflicts which could have served as opportunities for the people to learn to co-exist; however, that has only remained a hope. The future seems bleak if the state’s residents fail to learn from the present Meetei-Kuki conflict again.

One can trace the violence to the tribal solidarity organised by the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur (ATSUM) on May 3 in the hill districts of Manipur against the demand for inclusion of the Meetei community in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list and the Manipur High Court’s directive to the state government to recommend the same to the Union Government. 

It would bode well to note here that ATSUM is an umbrella group of tribal students from the Kuki and Naga communities. This was a ‘peaceful’ march, and, ironically, it was at the end of this march that the unfortunate violence erupted.

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The tension that finally broke through its fissures on this day had been brewing for years, and the conflict is not solely a consequence of the ST demand status of the Meeteis. At the bottom of this conflict, the land question and limited resources of the state lie unaddressed. Interestingly, what remains unanswered is although the march was a joint solidarity march of the tribals of Manipur, Nagas were not a participant in the violence that flared up subsequently. This is an intriguing question that both sides are asking from their vantage points. 

Who do we blame? That is easy

The government’s inaction and failure of the state intelligence at the time of crisis is a slap on the face of Chief Minister N Biren’s governance. The CM has accepted intelligence failure, but his acceptance is not a means to end the crisis. Not only is this a failure of state intelligence, but also of the CM’s much-touted ‘Go to Hills’ campaign. His misg-overnance of the state cannot be overlooked. Like his ‘War on Drugs’ campaign, the ‘Go to Hills’ campaign is a smokescreen for a bigger political opportunity. ‘Go to Hills’ seems a façade, a ploy to establish himself as “the people’s CM” without really touching the heart of the people. This is a festival for the political class to siphon public money as they busy themselves puppeteering the same public. Different public and veteran political figures point out that the present conflict could indeed be a result of his mis-governance and internal political (or otherwise) fight within his government.

The present conflict is an echo from the hill ranges reflecting back to the valley asking which hills has the Chief Minister been going to. He has lost that opportunity to tackle the situation head-on with his inaction and lack of creative political negotiation. He resorted to his favourite tried and tested public control measure of imposing a blanket ban on internet services to clamp down on the crisis. However, despite this intervention, the crisis continues to persist. Some conflicts cannot be subdued simply by depriving the people of their voices under the pretext of quelling rumours.

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Coming to terms with the reality

The tragic communal clashes between the Kukis and Meeteis have seen numerous deaths on both sides so far. This article does not delve into who started the conflict. Many have written on the issue with various claims and counterclaims. Claims are contingent as they share different and conflicting narratives. Both sides seem to suggest a perceived sense of victimhood due to the conflict and frequently justify their acts of violence as a reactionary response to being wronged.

There is no accurate government data as of now regarding the number of deaths and displaced populations. It is estimated that there are around seventy deaths while many have disappeared without a trace. The displaced population roughly numbers over 40,000 where both Meeteis and Kukis share around the same figure. There is a sense of returning to normalcy with fewer reports of violence. However, the foothill areas continue to be zones of conflict. 

The Meetei villagers are fending for themselves with little to no help from the state against heavily armed Kuki armed groups who are under a Suspension of Operation pact with the central government and the state government. 

Visualising the way forward

The aftermath of a catastrophic communal tragedy is as challenging as controlling it. Amidst the cries of death and loss of property, the call to tame the burning impulse to avenge the lives cruelly cut short supersedes logic and humanity. The loss of humanity at the moment of killing/shooting others salvages one’s humanity in the name of love for one’s son, daughter, wife, father, and mother lost in the conflict. But these acts of vengeance sow the seed for a perpetual cycle of violence. It becomes a loop of inflicting material and human losses on either community with no end in sight. Such a side of the human is hard to talk to, to reason with. This is expected and a person with no death in his family speaking of the humanity of the other kind becomes illogical. When the desire for revenge becomes the prime focus of action, rumours of rape of young women spread far and wide, within the community and outside. Rumours like these become the reason to further hurt the community and seek vengeance. The rumour of rape spread like wildfire, it cannot be definitively proven for lack of evidence.

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The violence has presented before us a familiar demographical spread of people in the state. The population of Manipur is scattered across the hills and valley with no community enjoying an absolute habitation of either region. It is because of such a nature of demographic presence that the conflict has consequential deaths and loss of property on both sides. Similar degrees of violence, destruction of property and loss of lives in Churachandpur and the border town Moreh have played out equally in Meetei-dominated Imphal and other valley areas. In the race for revenge and an eye for an eye, everyone can be both target and perpetrator of the violence. 

This should inform us that theoretically, no one is safe in the state. Anyone can be a victim of such a conflict in Manipur because everyone lives in proximity to one another. You have loving neighbours living together for years only to become targets of revenge of each other’s community. Such a demographic spread, philosophically and not literally, suggests that the land, hill or valley, does not belong to any one community but to everyone. 

The mental trauma and trust deficit between the communities is wider than before and seems unrecoverable. The central and state government’s role is immense to bring back the peaceful co-existence of these communities. However, the people who form these communities themselves have a bigger role to play. They should accept the demographic distribution of the state and the inevitability of living together. The concept of living together is not foreign to the state and its people. This is a familiar experience. Reiteration and acceptance of the familiar landscape of the state, at a time of conflict, is a sure way to normalcy. Contamination of identity rather than purity has been the way of life in Manipur and this needs to be reinstated into the minds of the people. Radical identity politics of the contemporary world poses an obstacle to achieving this positive change of mind. The inability to accept a multi-faceted identity and a departure from the familiar impurity will result in further conflicts and deaths. 

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Another significant way to return to peace is to give an ear to the stories of brutality by one’s own community on the other. There has been a complete lack of such a practice. Instead, we take refuge in stories of brutality on “my community” by the other. If we only listen to “my own” story, “my own” sense of wrong and justice, we have lost half of the entire truth. With the internet ban and limited sources of news, we consume stories narrated within the community which in turn ends up igniting rage and demonizing the other community. At a time like this, listening to stories from the other end might salvage humanity of a larger kind and save one from a false sense of victimhood fuelled by rumours. Not counting the dead but a willingness to reconcile and listen to stories from the other is the way forward. 

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Perhaps unintended, Zomia Studies, which over-swept the region and the larger part of South East Asia, has afforded a larger and divisive political vocabulary and powered the mobilization of people. One is tempted to assume that, with reservation, the academia of Manipur is highly polarized into hills and valleys. This is a greater cause for concern as it suggests a deliberate break and irreconcilability between the two. The region needs to look instead into its shared culture, and knowledge and initiate negotiations.

At this moment, emotions are running high and the public questions the silence of the government. Biren has lost all credibility to govern the state. Distrust in Biren from both parties is palpable. For his own sake and the people of the state, he should resign from the CM post and peace will follow his resignation.

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Views expressed are personal.

Also Read | Manipur needs peace; current issue not religion related: Paban Kumar

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