Manipur’s conflict has harsh lessons for all of India’s Northeast

Dibrugarh: Rampant ethnic chauvinism of the kind that has shattered Manipur’s civil society is ingrained in communities across Northeast

BY | Thursday, 19 October, 2023

G Kanato Chophy is an assistant professor of social anthropology at Dibrugarh University in Assam.

(This article was previously published in Himal Southasian)

In mid-July, the Coordination Committee for Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), a Meitei-led civil-society organisation based in Imphal, wrote to the European Parliament. COCOMI declared that a resolution the European Parliament had adopted on Manipur, where ethnic violence had been raging since May, wrongly framed the Indian state’s conflict as one between two communities. Instead, it said, the violence was between “immigrant Chin-Kuki narco-terrorists.” In saying this, the COCOMI was sticking to its line of projecting the hill tribes of Manipur, now foes to the Imphal Valley-dwelling Meiteis, as both criminals and outsiders in the state.

In the four months of violence so far, Manipur’s state government and India’s central government have failed to reestablish law and order, and both the local and the national media have become increasingly unreliable, often saturated with misinformation. But perhaps the most tragic factor in the Manipur crisis has been the erosion of civil society in the state, evident in the vicious other-ing of fellow citizens and neighbours. The disintegration and myopia of Manipur’s civil society is one of the root causes of the unrelenting violence.

Multiple factions throughout India’s Northeast that place ethnic considerations above common societal goals are in danger of making the same awful mistakes. As a Naga neighbour, watching Manipur disintegrate from Nagaland to the north, I see that the purported ethnic ideals of Nagas, Kukis and Meiteis have pitted all three communities against each other. For the Nagas there is Nagalim, implying a unity of all traditionally Naga areas achieved through armed struggle, risking violence in the region. For Kukis it is Zalengam, with the integration of all Kuki geographies, which traverse national and state boundaries and overlap with the home areas of other ethnic groups, making a perfect concoction for political and ethnic conflict. For Meiteis, there are notions of the thousand-year-old Meitei civilisation, laced with a sense of cultural and ethnic superiority over their Naga and Kuki neighbours. As a result of all of this, when ethnic conflict erupts, we end up treating each other barbarically, including as perpetrators of sexual violence.

Multiple factions throughout India’s Northeast that place ethnic considerations above common societal goals are in danger of making the same awful mistakes as civil society organisations in Manipur.

In the past, civil society in Manipur has been exemplary in fighting for the rights of the common people. The state is no stranger to political violence and state repression, and several groups have been at the forefront of civil-rights protests there. This includes the All Manipur Students’ Union, the All Manipur United Clubs’ Organisation and the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights, which have campaigned on issues such as territorial integrity, land and indigenous rights, as well as extrajudicial detentions, killings and military occupation. Women have led protests against the repressive Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which grants sweeping impunity to Indian armed personnel in “disturbed areas”. The iconic photo of 12 women stripping naked outside Imphal’s Kangla Fort in 2004 to protest against sexual violence and other violations by the Assam Rifles has been a symbol of human-rights protest in the Northeast for almost twenty years. So it has been doubly devastating in the present crisis to see women’s bodies become sites of violence and retribution, as in the now notorious mob attack on Kuki women in the village of B Phainom, recorded in a video that was widely circulated online.

Most civil-society organisations in Manipur have their roots in the interests of individual communities. When push comes to shove, as in the present crisis, these organisations have chosen narrow ethnic interests over shared human rights and values. They have indulged in war cries and hate speech against people they perceive as “others”. Groups that espouse reason and moderation appear to be on hiatus or to have been forced into silence, while the jingoistic ones call the shots. The Meira Paibi, Meitiei women’s groups earlier famous for standing up against state abuses, have now gone as far as to justify sexual violence against Kuki women. The Kuki Inpi, the apex body of Kuki tribes, and the recently formed Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum, a joint body of Kuki-Zo tribes, have notably refrained from hate speech. However, their messages and political positions call for solidarity of the Kuki-Zo people and a separate system of administration for them, not for peace with the Meiteis. While this is in the context of Kuki-Zo groups being disproportionately on the receiving end of the present violence, and they cannot be expected to unilaterally chart a course for coexistence, the deepening of ethnic antagonism is clear on both sides.

The Northeast states in general, and Manipur in particular, need civil-society and human-rights organisations that go beyond ethnic identity or group interests. Government agencies like the Manipur State Commission for Women and the Manipur State Human Rights Commission function under the directives of India’s central government but become non-functional in cases of major upheaval. In the vacuum they leave, ethnic-based organisations hijack key issues.

Civil Manipur’s civil society organisations have indulged in war cries and hate speech from public platforms against people they perceive as “others”. Groups that espouse reason and moderation appear to be on hiatus or to have been forced into silence.

Manipur’s influential human-rights and civil-rights organisations have long been established on lines of ethnic identity, with each body representing its own community’s political interests. Groups like the All Manipur United Clubs’ Organisation, the United Committee Manipur, the Kuki Inpi, the Kuki Organisation for Human Rights Trust, the Kuki Women’s Organisation for Human Rights and the United Naga Council inherently perceive neighbouring communities as threats. This polarises the respective communities they represent in struggles for land, power and resources, and also polarises the wider society as a whole.

In times of conflict, new civil-society groups crop up that are especially susceptible to ethnic chauvinism and even xenophobia. Radical cultural organisations like the Arambai Tenggol and the Meitei Leepun thrive on notions of cultural supremacy in the past and cultural self-preservation in the present, to the exclusion of all outside groups.

These dynamics exacerbate the ethnic tensions simmering across the Northeastern states. For instance, Assam teeters precariously over the abyss on the long-standing issue of who does and who does not count as a citizen, with ethnic and religious identities key to how people define who belongs and who does not. Arunachal Pradesh suffers a fixation with tribal identity and with religious polemics largely imported from North India. In Tripura, the divide between tribal and non-tribal communities is deepening. Nagaland is caught up in a morass of ethnic nationalism and tribalism, pitting the major Naga tribes against each other.

Assam teeters over an abyss on the issue of citizenship, Arunachal Pradesh suffers a fixation with tribal identity, Tripura’s divide between tribal and non-tribal communities is deepening and Nagaland is caught in a morass of ethnic nationalism.

The core democratic principle of universal human rights is impossible to uphold if ideas of compassion, fairness and justice apply only to one’s own community. Civil society can only play a decisive role in peace-making if it can rise above the bitter dissension and suspicions that have gripped the entire Northeast. And its importance is ever greater when, as in Manipur today, the government fails abjectly at building peace itself.

Deepening the divide

There is little doubt that the Manipur state government is complicit in the ongoing violence, labelling its Kuki citizens as narco-terrorists and illegal immigrants in line with the dominant Meitei position. It Is unfair and a heavy burden for a lone community to be held culpable for the state’s drug problem. While some Kuki-Zos are indeed involved in opium cultivation and drug trafficking for cash and weapons, this is not a Kuki-Zo problem alone. The drug trafficking network is widespread, involving big players from both sides of Manipur’s international border with Myanmar. Neither is it a recent phenomenon. Naga, Kuki and Meiteis armed groups, as well as similar outfits from other communities in India’s Northeast, have profited from the illicit trade in drugs for decades.

The central government has ignored analyses of the conflict that show it as a case of state-sponsored violence, which are given credence by the paralysis of many state forces and the unhindered looting of state armouries by mobs. Had it not been for the Indian Army, which has largely been professional and impartial in maintaining law and order, the violence would have spiralled further out of control. The central government’s stance has been dismaying, giving precedence to political power – specifically, the maintenance of the incumbent state government under the Bharatiya Janata Party’s N Biren Singh – over people’s lives. If it had taken the conflict seriously, it would have replaced the controversial Biren Singh, and that would have been only the start.

In Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland, tribal and ethnicity-based organisations can bring state governments down if they choose to due to their enormous bargaining power in state politics. For example, T R Zeliang was forced to resign as the Nagaland chief minister in 2017 following a sustained agitation by tribal bodies opposing a policy of having 33-percent reservation for women in urban local-body elections. In past conflicts in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, civil society has mediated between the state and armed groups and also negotiated peace during factional clashes.

At a time when Manipur needs right-thinking people from the state to speak truth to the rest of the country, many academics, social activists and human-rights workers have chosen obstinate support for their own ethnic groups.

Few people were surprised by the radical Meitei Leepun leader Pramot Singh indulging in hate speech, but now even the previously moderate COCOMI, foremost among Meitei civil-society groups, has demanded the “total eradication of illegal immigrants”, thereby completely alienating Kuki-Zo communities.

Misinformation and hate speech coming from these groups has been amplified by local media. The catch-22 situation with Manipur’s Imphal Valley-based English press has been that you are uninformed if you do not follow it and misinformed if you do. From 3 May, the first day of the violence, the press became increasingly partisan, peddling biased narratives and seldom fact-checking stories and incendiary rumours. Social media quickly took over as the main source of information and news sharing. Truth became a casualty, paving the way for false news and hateful propaganda with appalling consequences: arson, looting, rape and killings. This set the stage for the situation, particularly in the Imphal Valley, where many more Kukis have died or had property destroyed.

Although the Indian national media has covered Manipur extensively, a large section of it has not really grasped the internal politics behind the violence. At a time when Manipur needs right-thinking people from the state to speak truth to the rest of the country, many academics, social activists and human-rights workers have chosen obstinate support for their own ethnic groups instead of portraying the difficult reality, vitiating their otherwise fine work.

Manipur is now blighted by lies, insidious propaganda, fake news and half-baked truths, and these carry tremendous implications for inter-community relations and collective memory down the line. Ending unwholesome name-calling and ugly caricatures is much needed for peace-making and reconciliation. History teaches an important lesson: denigrating or stereotyping a community has been a key ingredient in all genocides.

Civil society still has a major role to play in initiating peace. After the end of the conflict, people will have to coexist with neighbours who, in many cases, may have looted and torched their homes or killed their loved ones. Even if the government finally takes real steps towards peace, a lasting reconciliation will have to involve members of the affected communities.

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Making enemies

The current Manipur crisis has many triggers, and the factors multiply the further back into history one goes. It stems from long-standing grievances over land-holding, the struggle for resources and the contention over traditional homelands. What it is not really about is illegal immigration, though this bogey has caused tremendous apprehension. The India–Myanmar border is porous, but there is no evidence that fighters from Myanmar’s Chin State are part of this conflict, as much propaganda would have one believe. The Chin are engaged in a popular armed resistance against Myanmar’s powerful ruling junta, and they have a substantial armed force in that fight. But, despite shared feelings of ethnic unity with India’s Kuki-Zo people, the Chin are unlikely to have the inclination or resources to meddle in Manipur, especially as the resistance struggle in Myanmar continues to escalate.

The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar from its internal strife is spilling over into India’s Northeast, but in the form of refugees. These refugees include members of numerous ethnic groups – not only Kuki-Chins but also Bamars and Nagas. Mizoram has received the maximum number of refugees, estimated to be upwards of 40,000. More than 8000 have taken shelter in Manipur, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but these numbers cannot substantially change the demography of the state.

On migration and many other issues, most communities in Northeast India are highly susceptible to tumbling down a similar slope of ethnic chauvinism, especially as this chauvinism can masquerade as a venerable drive to self-preservation.

Moreover, Myanmar’s Chin State had economic potential before the military coup that brought the junta to power and set off the country’s current unrest. Refugees fleeing war-torn Chin State into Mizoram and Manipur are not economic migrants seeking a better life in India. They are very likely to go back to their homeland if the political situation in Myanmar improves, or else to join the Chin diaspora in Western countries under UNHCR resettlement programmes, as has been the case in the past. They pose no real threat to anyone in India, Manipur included.

On migration and many other issues, most communities in Northeast India are highly susceptible to tumbling down a similar slope of ethnic chauvinism, especially as this chauvinism can masquerade as a venerable drive to self-preservation. As the Naga theologian Kethoser Kevichüsa astutely noted in my book Christianity and Politics in Tribal India, there is a clear danger of ethnic identity becoming idolatrous, requiring the shedding of blood.

Both the Kuki-Zo and Meitei have rich cultural traditions and proud pasts. These two remarkable communities have interesting histories to embellish their ethnic pride. For instance, the Kuki glory in the fact that even the British found them formidable, while the Meitei, whose Manipuri kingdom at one point extended up to Mandalay in present-day Myanmar, take pride in how they proved a handful for empires looking to overrun them. History and cultural pride can be celebrated, but empathy and human dignity cannot be sacrificed at their altar. Any society where women encourage men to sexually assault “other” women has hit rock bottom in terms of humanity and compassion.

Manipur is a forewarning for all communities in the Northeast that we are headed for a grim future until we learn the cardinal principle of being human: compassion. Heed the words of the British-American poet W H Auden: “You shall love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart.”


*The article has been republished with permission from Himal Southasian 

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