Manipur conflict: Can we rise above our ethnic affiliation?
Manipur protests (file photo)

The gathering organised by Shillong Times to commemorate their 78th year of founding on August 12, 2023 was illuminated by the presence of Vrinda Grover, an eminent Supreme Court lawyer and Member of the Ukraine Commission of Inquiry. Listening to her talk about the legal landscape and the challenges that the Indian Constitution is facing was very illuminating and, at the same time, highly inspiring. Of great importance to people from the northeast, though, were her observations on Manipur. After all, the conflict in Manipur is something that is happening close to home, and how the country reacts to Manipur serves as a template for how they will react to such events in other parts of the region, including Meghalaya.

Of particular interest was her observation of a clear divide based on ethnic affiliation among the human rights fraternity after the conflict began. Indeed, the interview of Meitei human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam by Karan Thapar was a very good example of that divide.

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Many who watched the interview might have gained the impression that Babloo Loitongbam was attempting to bridge the divide between the Meitei and the Kuki-Zomi by demonstrating fairness and impartiality. However, there were moments during the interview that indicated otherwise. One such occasion arose when Karan Thapar enquired about the Kuki-Zomi’s demand to prevent the Manipur police, who were reported to have taken a biased stance in the conflict, from entering the hills. Babloo responded by pointing out that the Manipur police consisted of not only Meiteis but also other communities.

This, in my view, appeared to push two narratives: firstly, suggesting that if any partisan conduct occurred within the police force, it wasn’t exclusive to the Meiteis; and secondly, implying that apart from the Kuki-Zomi, other ethnic groups within the state had no issues with the Manipur police. In essence, Babloo seemed to imply that the Kuki-Zomi demand lacked validity. It was only when Karan Thapar persisted in proposing a quid pro quo – suggesting that if the Assam Rifles were to be withdrawn from the valley as demanded by the Meiteis, the Manipur police should also withdraw from the hills – that Babloo eventually acquiesced to the idea.

Babloo’s sympathetic inclination towards his ethnic community was further revealed on another occasion when he was questioned about the role of Meira Paibi in the ongoing conflict. While acknowledging their problematic behaviour, he also emphasised their significance and accorded them greater importance than even the Army in safeguarding society. However, the situation on the ground contradicts this perspective, as there is evidence that Meira Paibis not only assisted the rioters but have themselves faced accusations of engaging in violence and facilitating the victimisation of Kuki-Zomi women by Meitei miscreants.

If Meira Paibis indeed play a role in protecting society, it appears that the well-being of the non-Meitei population takes a backseat in that society, considering the recent events that have unfolded. Then there’s the statement towards the end where Babloo discusses the history of Manipur as perceived by the Meitei and the notion of abiding by it, whether one approves or not. In essence, the message conveyed was that Manipur’s territorial integrity should and will remain uncompromised.

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Throughout this conflict, history has been utilised as a weapon in two distinct ways: Firstly, there’s the narrative portraying the Meitei as subjugators of the tribes, thus asserting their right to rule over them (and their homeland, the hills) indefinitely; Secondly, the notion is put forth that the Kuki-Zomi are a recent addition to this historical timeline, with many among them having ancestors whose presence dates back relatively recently, thereby making their claim problematic. Babloo indirectly alluded to this second aspect when he didn’t entirely dismiss the idea of many Kuki-Zomi being recent migrants. He provided an example by mentioning the increase in Kuki-Zomi MLAs from eight to ten, which aligns with the number of Naga MLAs decreasing from twelve to ten.

While this observation might appear simplistic, it raises questions about how these two groups could possess an equal share of seats in a representative democracy, especially considering that the Nagas have roughly 10% more population than the Kuki-Zomi. This might be linked to the methodology of constituency delimitation, ultimately a political decision made by those in power.

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Returning to the topic of illegal immigration, despite Babloo’s attempts to downplay this factor in the conflict, he never fully debunked the notion of a substantial number of Kuki-Zomi being undocumented immigrants. Even though their share in the total population only increased by 1% during the period from 1951 to 2011, his response didn’t definitively refute the idea. This isn’t to deny that some level of migration likely occurred, but the question remains: has it reached a scale that threatens the demographic equilibrium of the state? The available data doesn’t seem to strongly support such a claim.

Regarding historical claims, whichever group makes them – be it the Kuki-Zomi, Meitei, or the Naga (who also assert unique histories) – it all hinges on convenience and the overt or covert objectives behind projecting a particular narrative. Neither the Kuki-Zomi nor the Naga accepts the claim that the Meitei had subjugated the hills; transforming it into their legitimate territory. Furthermore, even if we were to assume that this was true, by that same logic, the entire subcontinent, including Manipur, should still belong to the British since they once dominated the region. However, that notion belongs to the annals of history, and the subcontinent is no longer under colonial rule; instead, the region now constitutes modern nation-states, including India, governed by a Constitution.

As such, it’s vital to remember that Manipur has also transitioned from being a princely kingdom ruling over subjects to becoming a democratic state governed by the Indian Constitution. The citizens of Manipur are entitled to live dignified lives free from fear and intimidation. When their lives are threatened, they have the right to demand the most appropriate arrangement to ensure safety from persecution and discrimination. The Kuki-Zomi are pursuing exactly this by advocating for a separate administration, as equal citizens under a Constitution, rather than as subjects under a monarchy. The purported history of one group cannot be used to justify oppressing the present and future prospects of another.

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Although Vrinda Grover may not have had him in mind when discussing the divide within the human rights fraternity, to me, Babloo Loitongbam serves as a perfect illustration of that divide. However, he is not the sole example. I had high expectations that Thounaojam Brinda, who had taken a firm position against Biren Singh’s alleged involvement in the narcotics trade (if that allegation is true, does it not label him as a narco-terrorist?), would advocate for peace. Regrettably, she turned out to be even more explicit than Babloo in asserting that the ongoing conflict centres around the broader interests of the people of Manipur (specifically the Meitei), pitted against those of the narcotics mafia (linked with the Kuki).

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Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that she attempted to run for office and was unsuccessful. Thus, her hardline stance could potentially be attributed to her desire not to jeopardise future electoral prospects.

My disappointment with Babloo, on the other hand, is rooted in more fundamental concerns.

There will be those who accuse me of being unfair towards Babloo, who actually faced threats from Meitei organisations like Meitei Leepun due to his work with refugees fleeing persecution from Myanmar. He also hinted that he refrains from saying certain things out of fear of reprisals in his home community. This fear is undeniably real, and being ostracised from one’s community poses a grave danger.

However, what he could have chosen to do was to decline the interview, avoiding the legitimisation of some claims made against the Kuki-Zomi, and worse, urging them to accept an arrangement that nearly resulted in their ethnic cleansing. Unfortunately, the harm has already been done, and there’s no way to undo it for anyone involved.

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I am, however, saddened by the persistence of bias towards one’s community, even among those who claim to dedicate their lives to advocating for human rights (emphasising the term “human”). In fact, so-called moderate voices often get co-opted by regressive forces to further their own agendas. While there’s nothing inherently wrong in feeling afraid, if one cannot contribute positively, it’s better to avoid causing harm.

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Karma Paljor

Today, the conflict is between the Meitei and the Kuki-Zomi; tomorrow, it might involve the Khasi-Jaintia pitted against other groups, with some potentially being minorities. Will some of our people who presently profess to fight for the rights of all stand in solidarity with the oppressed from the opposing side? Or will they, as seen here, retreat into the biased perspective of their ethnocentrism? Frankly, I am not optimistic, but I still hold onto the hope that my scepticism will be proven wrong.

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

Also Read | Opinion: Can ‘disarmament’ solve the Manipur crisis? 

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