The ruckus created by the Opposition in and outside the Parliament over Manipur, is a clear indication that they do not want to know or discuss the complexity of the issue.
The Home Minister Amit Shah promised to appraise the Parliament and welcomed debate. But, the Opposition wants to hear only the Prime Minister.
This may be a ploy to delay the debate to optimise the political benefits of an extremely one-sided and narrow narrative of a problem that concerns national security. But the blame for giving the Opposition the handle should go to the Narendra Modi government in Delhi.
BJP gets votes to act. That’s a great expectation, the Prime Minister has invited upon himself. Voters are ready to pardon his mistakes, if any.
But they do not want to see India’s tallest leader remain silent, which Modi was until recently. It sent the wrong message even to his most loyal voters.
Time To Get Tough
It is, therefore, imperative for the government to act. The imposition of Article 355 may not be enough.
The immediate task is to give the army and security forces a free hand to enforce law and order in a state, which is divided on ethnic lines.
Right now, the state administration has no control over the Kuki-dominated areas in the hills (that constitute 90 per cent of the landmass) and has been witnessing unabated infiltration of men, drugs and arms from the bordering Myanmar districts, for the last two years.
Drugs, arms and gold smuggling has been an old problem of the state. The return of the military Junta in Myanmar in 2021 made the situation worse.
Armed militia groups, known as the people’s defence force (PDF) in Myanmar, took refuge in Manipur (and Mizoram) taking advantage of the open border and tribal kinship.
The rapid growth in the number of tribal villages and increase in poppy cultivation in hill districts (which is indicative of the expanding empire of the Chinese drug cartel in Myanmar) were most concerning.
The Chief Minister N Biren Singh government has been active in turning the tide over the last year, leading to social tension. The High Court order favouring tribal status to Meiteis in April completed the rift.
No single community can be blamed for whatever happened next. The hills have witnessed as much violence on the Meitei community as the capital city of Imphal has seen on the Kuki-Zomi community. (Thankfully, Nagas didn’t participate in the mayhem.)
Among the differences, the Imphal Valley, constituting 10 per cent of the state area, had socially influential Kuki tribesmen. Some of them were ruling party MLAs as well. Naturally, atrocities in Imphal attracted media attention.
On the other hand, the Meitei population in the hills were from the less privileged sections and they were scattered. TV cameras failed to capture their plight. They are now living in relief camps. Some of them fled to neighbouring states.
Security Forces Need Cover
Manipur has one of the longest histories of insurgency. The trust level between communities had been historically low with rivalries between Naga, Kuki and Meitei running for centuries.
In 2008, the state entered into Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreements with insurgent groups Kuki National Army (KNA) and Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA). On the flip side, the agreements allowed Kuki ultras to retain the arms.
In March, the Manipur government scraped the SoO pacts, citing violence and, violation of agreements. According to the Chief Minister, ZRA president is a Myanmarese, while the KNA is led by one Hoakip who is from Nagaland.
The Meitei groups, which were at the forefront of insurgency once, were under severe pressure from India’s security forces, over the last decade and mostly fled to Myanmar bringing visible change in the law and order in the valley.
The coup in Myanmar and the resulting infiltration first disturbed the arms balance. And, as the current crisis hit, the old tribal rivalries took precedence with Meiteis feeling they were arms short.
The violence had destroyed the peace efforts of the past. Meitei insurgency groups would surely utilise the sentiments to regroup and recruit. Thousands of sophisticated weapons will spread the violence and may bring the entire region to a tipping point.
This must be stopped at any cost. The existing framework of Article 355 and a lame-duck government in Manipur may not deliver that. The clannish state police are impacting the ability of the security forces to go on a clampdown.
At the same time, security forces cannot, and must not, go out on combing operations in such a volatile atmosphere, with TV cameras in the toe and allowing the local cottage industry of human rights groups to flourish.
The re-imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is surely a choice. The government may impose it for a definite window, like six months and, go whole hogged in nipping the trouble at the bud.
The Research Centre for East and North East Regional Studies, Kolkata, a think-tank set up by veteran army officers, recommended similar measures to the Union home ministry.
The Narrative Factory
Ethnic clashes are not new to the Northeast. In 2011, Arunachal Pradesh suffered its worst crisis as Jarbom Gamlin from the Galo community became the chief minister.
Nyishi community which dominates Itanagar went on a rampage against Galos.
But the Manipur crisis is distinct in its scale. The gap in official communication is misused in spreading one-sided narratives, which has now gripped the global and Indian media.
This is done to keep the attention away from the primary problem. There was a serious legal or policy flaw in granting special protection to the hill districts of Manipur under Article 371C of the constitution.
This has essentially created a unique situation where the past rulers and oldest inhabitants of the land, the Meitei community, who constitute over 50 per cent of the state population, are crammed in approximately 10 per cent of the land.
The Supreme Court may be right in pointing out loopholes in the High Court order for granting scheduled tribe status to Meiteis. But, it must work with the government to ensure the community’s rights over resources.
After all the tribal status would have put the Meitei community at par with Kukis and Nagas in the state.
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