Manipur : The struggle for peace

Gaituang Newme *

The Manipur mayhem, which started on May 3, still appears to have no end in sight between Kuki-Zo and Meitei communities. People are disturbed with pain and anger. It is forcing the people to spend the days in worry and anxiety. Murders are committed, houses are burnt, public opinion falters, and people change their stance.

For a short while, they felt that peace was within reach. But these hopes were disappointed, with the wreckage of gunfights flourishing along the ethnic lines that continue to keep the “pandora box” open.

The conflict is defined by each side’s unique dynamics of articulation in relation to the other. Nonetheless, the main points of assertion and contention is on the illegal immigration, ethnic territory, poppy cultivation, land, and political autonomy. Both sides, it can be argued, have never convinced the other, and have used “violence” as a metaphor.

This has an impact on finding a peaceful settlement. Worse still, one fails to understand the trauma from the Nagas-Kuki clashes in the 1990s, thousands lost their lives, and thousands more were displaced. By the time the clashes ended in the middle of the 1990s, both sides suffered. Yet this horrific carnage hardly produced any positive outcome. It took decades to reconcile both sides. Yet, no lesson has been learned.

Interestingly, Manipur has a strange way of repeating history itself. This is partly due to the deeply divided society along the lines of ethnicity in Manipur. It is worth noting to mention that Manipur was a princely State having its Constitutional head in 1947.

However, with the integration of princely States, Manipur was merged with the Union of India in 1949. The instrument of the accession sign did not go “well” with the people. This has a bearing on the formation of insurgency groups moulded on the ideas of protecting their own “territory.”

It is in the context of this “territorial protection” that we need to understand the happenings since May between Kuki-Zo and Meitei. Yet people in other parts of India all think majoritarian Meitei are suppressing minority Kuki-Zo. In fact, a majority Indian public observed the entire episode only through the lens of majoritarian and minority cards. It appears that the two sides of the opinion have been comprehensively neglected.

Therefore, the crux of the issue, is that Meitei has been opposing “Population engineering” from illegal immigrants. They point to the fact that there is an unusually rapid increase in the Kuki-Zo population in Manipur which is evident in an extraordinary rise in the number of new villages in districts where Kuki-Zo predominates.

They believed that the “illegal settlers” were creating several villages with “political aspirations.” This posed a real threat to “Meitei land” with the belief that Chin-Kuki-Zo would transform the regions and demography crafted on the idea of “Zalen-gam”i.e., integrating all the Chin-Kuki-Zo inhabited regions which covered National and State boundaries.

Furthermore, Meitei claims their original inhabitants trace back to its own recorded history in the “Royal Chronicle of Manipur” which they inhabited from at least 33 AD.

Laced with a sense of losing their culture and identity, Meitei saw a reason for demanding ST status to safeguard their ancestral land. In this respect, Meitei’s claim involves, therefore, an integrative message - hills as well as valley- and it initiated a comprehensive form in the spirit of “unity in diversity.”

Nevertheless, this integrative concept has become something of a battleground for decades. This battleground has come, on one hand, from Nagas’s separatists within Manipur and on the other side, from Kuki-Zo arguing that demand for a tribal identity is one way to control tribal land in the hills and violate the Constitutional provision of Article 371C.

In assessing the present conflicts, one needs to examine rigorously the notion of “territorial protection” in general. As a matter of fact, the elucidation of the “majoritarian theory” inserted in the current conflict of Manipur saying that the majority of Meitei suppressing minority Kuki-Zo is “problematic.”

In other words, had it been a religious conflict, and Meitei supremacist ST demand- the Nagas and the Kuki-Zo would have been teamed up. But this is not the case.

In this connection, it is worth noting to revisit the historical events in the year 2015 in which all tribal bodies i.e., Nagas and Kuki joined in opposing the Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reform Act (Seventh Amendment), Bill. These Bills were thought to be an effort to include the provision of MLR & LR Act, 1960 in the hill areas- to argue the Bills were condemned as being “anti-tribal” by Nagas and Kukis.

Here one can broadly map out the interesting answer- to say it is, therefore, the present ethnic conflicts pull in the direction of the ownership over a piece of land determined by the question of who arrived first, and who currently has authority over the land.

In this context, it is noteworthy to remember the interesting article by Late Kaka Iralu in “The Foundations of Naga Nationhood” (2003) wherein he commented that “no individual in the world has fallen into the earth from outer space. All political histories of every Nation… originate from some concrete geographical lands. Within the boundaries of this geographical land…people develop their National identity, their cultural identity, and their political identity.”

Building on this logic, he articulated that for the British, the current “geographical land” is called Britain; for the Russians, a “geographical land” named Russia; and so on- bounded by National and international laws. In reality, this is a valid case to be questioned in the present ethnic conflict: Whether Meitei is in Kuki-Zo land and Kuki-Zo is in Meitei territory legally or illegally ?

Is Meitei defending their lands from illegal Kuki-Zo encroachers because they have no other lands than present land and vice-versa ? The immediate explanation is not hard to find for this fact. Unfortunately, this narrative does not suit mainstream media as we are living in a “business-driven society” - a borrowed word from Prof Noam Chomsky. This silence perhaps makes no sense and defeats the purpose of the conflict.

Given such a scenario, it does not come as a surprise in a deeply divided society like Manipur, to have each ethnic community have different point of opinion. But the most astonishing is an attempt at “colonizing by discourse”- to borrow a term used by Raile Rocky Ziipao.

A classic example is PS Haokip, who in his book “Zale’n-gam the Kuki Nation”(1998), articulates that the Kuki give refuge to Nagas tribes, and in return, the Nagas tribe paid tax to the Kuki chief (p.87). He further claims sovereign Kuki State was already in existence before the establishment of the League of Nations and United Nations (p.89).

This reflects, in fact, a colonial intellectual attitude with a total absence of opinion from the other ethnic group. And it is obvious, in one way, to claim a sense of possession, territories, and people, and undermine the “existence” of other ethnic communities. One important thing to note immediately here is that such a claim can be accepted as authentic and accepted by future researchers from their point of view.

This is the everyday situation in Manipur. In my view, it is probably going to get worse with time if there is no ethical-logical answer to the question : “We were here first”? “We are indigenous people”? “Does this land belong to us or them”? “We are the real owners of the land”? This would have a bearing on the “re-genesis” of ethnic conflict in the days to come.

* Gaituang Newme wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a PhD Scholar (Eco),
Central University of Karnataka,
Dept of Eco Studies and Planning
This article was webcasted on 19 October 2023.

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