Wanted : The Idea of Manipur

Rajendra Kshetri *

"Every man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for
Whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
- John Donne

I begin this article with the above John Donne lines as a goodwill message pf peace and co-existence to all the stakeholders involved in the ongoing Meitei-Kuki Clash. No attempt should be made to (mis) construe as favouring and/or disfavouring one community or the other.

Contrary to what has been /was reported/projected in National media (both Electronic and Print), what happened at Churachandpur on May 3 and afterwards in and around the Imphal valley was/is not a clash between tribals and non-tribals. Nor was/is it between Christians and Hindus. Nor between majority and minority. Labelling the clash as such would be sheer reductionism and amounts to missing the trees for the woods. It is oversimplification of a complex issue.

The clash was between the Kukis, an ethnic community (Christians who happen to belong to the Scheduled Tribe list of the Constitution) and the Meiteis, an indigenous ethnic group (Hindus who belong to the general category).

What kick-started the clash was when participants of Tribal Solidarity March, a rally organised by and under the banner of the All Tribal Student's Union, Manipur (ATSUM) to protest the demand of Meitei for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe list of the constitution, turned violent with no apparent provocation and set ablaze houses of Meitei residents in Torbung village of Churachandpur district and rendered hundreds of innocent people homeless.

The Churachandpur cauldron spread in no time to the Kuki dominated areas of Moreh and Kangpokpi district. The pertinent question raised but still unanswered is why the supposedly peaceful march turned violent only in the Kuki dominated district of Churachandpur and not in other tribal dominated districts say in Senapati and Ukhrul where the rally was organised too.

Another equally important element/ point was the presence of underground militants with AK 47 in their hands taking part in the rally. Not to mention the fact that the rally was spearheaded by illegal immigrants (Myanmarese) from neighbouring Myanmar.

What followed in the next two days, i.e. 4th and 5th May was retaliation of the Meiteis from the Imphal Valley. Emotions ran high among the people of both the communities. Houses, shops, shopping malls and vehicles were burnt down and set ablaze in and around the valley.

What was witnessed was complete madness and nothing short of a mayhem with both communities targeting each other. It was spontaneous violent outburst of 'an eye for an eye' leaving no time to think/reflect that 'an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.'

Close to hundreds of innocent/precious lives have been lost and decades old permanent settlements of both the communities have been wiped out and uprooted. With emotions calling the shots, there was hardly any room for sanity, sense and sensibility and reason to prevail upon. Never in the recent history has Manipur witnessed such complete communal carnage.

Who/what started this violent conflict? How did it begin in the first place ? Who/what ignited the fire ? What /who is responsible, shall be held responsible for the communal flare up between the Kukis and the Meiteis who have been a symbol of peaceful co-existence for so long. Was/is there the presence of a 'powerful foreign hand' at play ?

Is it a mere coincidence that the Chinese Foreign Minister was in Myanmar on May 2, a day before the Churachandpur Carnage ? Is China looking for another eastern corridor (after Arunchal Pradesh) to intrude into Indian territory ?

Is the Red Dragon trying to do (through the Churachandpur district of Manipur) what it has apparently failed to do in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh ? Is someone/somebody high up in the corridor of power in league with drug cartels to turn Manipur into another Cambodia ?

Different narratives of conflicting nature have emerged, since May 3, from both the communities putting forth their perspectives:

Kuki Perspective : The Kukis put the whole blame squarely on the shoulders of the Meiteis. According to them and as stated by the All Tribal Students' Union ,Manipur( ATSUM), (The Sangai Express May 11,P.1) whose incumbent President is a Kuki, the Tribal Solidarity March on May 3 was "a democratic and peaceful rally" which "ended at around 2 pm in all the districts."

It further contended that "at around 2 pm in the afternoon, Meitei Volunteers came and set afire the Centenary Gate at Leisang in Churachandpur and beat up rally participants…" which resulted into a scuffle /fight between the "Meitei Volunteers'' and "people who gathered at Kangvai….''

In an interesting but dangerous turn of events, 10 MLAs belonging to the Kuki-Chin group demanded a 'separate administration' (akin to separate homeland) for the Kukis in Manipur. They openly declared that Kukis are not safe in Manipur and cannot live peacefully with the Meiteis.

Meitei Perspective: The Meiteis, an indigenous ethnic community, have always believed in and practised the principle of peaceful co-existence amongst all communities living in Manipur. A peace-loving community, they have never been the one to first provoke /attack other communities.

But when pushed to the wall, they retaliate and fight back as was evident in the "Chahi Taret Khuntakpa" (Seven Years Devastation) period (1819-1826), Anglo-Manipur War of 1891 and the not so recent clash of 1993 between the Meiteis and Meitei Pangals.

What happened in the aftermath of May 3 was /is no different as far as the Meiteis are concerned. It was/is retaliation/reaction from the Meiteis. Nothing more. Nothing less.

An eye-witness account of what actually happened in Churachandpur on May 3 has this to say: "Since the Meitei population in Churachandpur consist of a minority, and most of them are engaged in running their own businesses, there is no possibility of them disrupting or impeding the rally" (Mangalleima Bymra, "Manipur Violence :An Australians eyewitness account," The Sangai Express, Imphal May 10, 2023).

It is worth recalling, lest one forgets, that it was the Meitei community who mediated in the Naga-Kuki ethnic clash of 1992 and played the crucial role for peaceful-coexistence between the communities.

Even in the midst of continuing violence and acts of arson and house burning by the suspected Kuki militants under SoO (Suspension of Operation), under the very nose of security forces deployed to bring the volatile situation under control, the Meitei community by and large is conspicuous by its self-restrained/controlled posture. Appeal for restoration of peace and normalcy and co-existence are mostly and mainly from the Meitei and the Naga Communities.

The Meiteis, as a community, are not against the Kuki community as such or any other community for that matter, but only against those "illegal immigrants'' from Myanmar (whose population grew in geometrical progression in the last 10 years or so in a particular district) and 'drug lords/cartels', be it Meitei, Naga or Kuki, (who are believed to be masterminding the ongoing violence.

Naga Perspective: In spite of the fact that the 'Tribal Solidarity March' of May 3 was organised by and under the banner of ATSUM, which later on turned into violence in Churachandpur, the Nagas, the other indigenous ethnic community of Manipur, have refused to be drawn into the ongoing Meitei-Kuki ethnic clash.

In a significant gesture of goodwill and extending a hand of friendship to all concerned, the Tangkhul Naga Long (TNL), apex body of Tangkhuls, "has warned that no organisation and group should check vehicles or frisk communities in all areas under its jurisdiction in Kamjong and Ukhrul districts,'' in order to "avoid aggravation of the current situation and unwanted incidents.'' (The Sangai Express, May 17, 2023).

No attempt, overt or covert, is made here consciously or unconsciously to lend even an iota of credence and/or support to any of the aforesaid perspectives. A dispassionate perusal (of the perspectives) will make one clear which of the perspective(s) holds water. A disinterested (as different from 'uninterested') reader shall need no convincing as to which one is parochial.

To better locate and understand not only how it all began and what is happening but more importantly why it is happening, one must take into account a few of the policy measures/initiatives launched by the State Government over the last couple of years such as
i) Drive against poppy cultivation,
ii) War on drugs,
iii) Eviction drive against illegal occupants/settlements in reserved/protected forest areas,
iv) Initiative to conduct household survey to identify illegal immigrants,
v) Implementation of National Registration of Citizenship (NRC).

Of the three major ethnic groups in Manipur, only one particular community is known to have strongly resisted/opposed these Government initiatives as some kind of vendetta against the community. Of course, the recent directive of the Manipur High Court to the State Government to send (recommendation) report to the Centre for inclusion of the Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribe category of the Constitution came at the most opportune time and used it as pretext to unfold a long-thought-out plan strategy.

That it was a lame-pretext and used as mask is getting more and more obvious with the unfolding of events day after day. The Churachandpur Carnage of May 3 appears to be more of a culmination of a hidden agenda and less of an opposition to the ST demand by the Meiteis.

It is understandable, to a certain extent, if and when the Kukis bat for Kukis and persist with their perspective. The same goes for the Meiteis and the Nagas too.

But who bats for Manipur? Who shall bat and bowl for an entity, a non-negotiable entity called Manipur ?

This is the all-important, most crucial question and assumes greater significance than ever before. The present crisis besetting Manipur could be turned into an opportunity if concerted and consistent efforts are made/called for the resurgence of an idea-The Idea of Manipur.

For the unconversed, an erstwhile Princely State and now a State of and under the "Sovereign Democratic Repu- blic" of India (following the Manipur Merger Agreement of 1949), Manipur was once an Independent Sovereign Kingdom in South East Asia with more than two thousand years of civilisa-tional history. Manipur and her people had the unique distinction also of being the first to exercise adult franchise in free India.

The resurgence of this idea–the idea of Manipur as a geo-political, historical and cultural entity with pluralism and multi-culturalism as basic tenets-call for all good people, cutting across ethnic/religious lines, to come forward and share/exchange ideas for a resurgent Manipur. There are still a few good men left in the State.

They all should come out from their self-imposed silence and join politics, not necessarily electoral politics, of strengthening the idea of Manipur. For how long should they continue to remain and live as 'prisoners of silence'. They owe it to Manipur. The Bourgeoisie mentality of "I am not my brothers' keeper" is passe.

As Napoleon so succinctly said "The World suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people, but because of the silence of good people'' (emphasis mine). Leaving everything to/in the hands of politicians will ultimately lead to undoing everything that the 'Idea of Manipur' stands for . "Politics", as Charles De Gaulle said "is too serious to be left to the politicians."

The Non-negotiable Entity, that is Manipur, is now passing through a turbulent time of existential crisis. A crisis that threatens to tear apart the socio-economic, geo-political and cultural fabric of 'this little paradise on earth.' Unless and until the crisis is resolved and put to rest once and for all, Manipur will always be on the edge of a volcanic eruption. One way of preventing the impending eruption is to advance, advocate, promote, share and believe in 'The Idea of Manipur'.

I began this article with the profound lines of the magnificent seventeenth century metaphysical poet . I shall now end my take, my perspective on the burning cauldron of Manipur with his most profound line: "No Man is an island".

* Rajendra Kshetri wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The author is Professor of Sociology at Manipur University
This article was webcasted on June 02 2023 .

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