The horrendous ethnic violence in Manipur, where the Meiteis are pitted against the Kukis and the state has more or less failed both sides, has brought out the usual solutions: split the state further by giving Kukis their own state or an autonomous tribal area.
That none of this has worked in the North East, despite Assam being sliced and diced, does not matter to those looking for a quick fix.
Has anybody thought this through, and what impact it can have on the human rights situation once the separated Kuki and Meitei regions seek to ethnically cleanse pockets of territory occupied by the other community?
Has anybody thought how a mere Kuki-Meitei solution will leave the question of Nagaland’s claims on Manipur’s Naga-inhabited zones? Or Mizoram’s efforts to oust Meiteis and non-Zo people from its territory?
Has anybody wondered how this will impact the demands of tribal people in all areas of the North East, including Tripura?
The Manipur conflict points to three realities. One is the growing irrelevance of state or national boundaries to people scattered over large areas, but who share a common identity.
Two, the idea of splitting up people into smaller and smaller geographical entities in order to provide ethnic coherence is also past its sell-by date.
And three, the concepts of “nation” or “state” themselves need redefinition in today’s context of people moving across borders, whether internal or external, in search of a better life, or by leaving a violence-torn one behind.
The Westphalian nation-state died long ago, even though post-colonial states were conceived in the shadow of that very flawed idea: that “nations”, or people with a sense of common identity, should be lumped in the same geography in order to prevent strife and war.
But Europe’s history showed that the nation-state could not prevent war with other nation-states, and today it is becoming clearer that even within a state civil strife cannot be prevented.
We saw what has happened in Nordic Sweden or France, even as states in Eastern Europe refuse to accept immigrants from certain regions of West Asia or Africa.
If there is any state that, even today, seeks to be defined as a nation-state, it is probably communist China, which is using intimidation and violence to force an assimilation of the Tibetans and Uyghurs into a Han sense of nationhood.
Babasaheb Ambedkar, whose ideas about nationhood were influenced by the writings of nineteenth century French historian and scholar Ernest Renan, called for the partition of India on religious lines precisely because of this assumption.
He even went as far as to suggest a mutual exchange of populations between India and Pakistan to ensure internal coherence. India wisely did not do that, but that has not enabled us to prevent internal conflicts based on religious or other identities.
Secularism, as defined by India’s elite, or even as defined by European history and thought, has not succeeded in submerging identities beyond a point. The more we suppress identities, the more the push against it from below.
Today’s reality is that “nations”, or groups with a strong sense of common identity, can exist in separate states, and, conversely, several “nations” can exist in the same state as defined by geography.
In many ways, one aspect of the caste system, the idea of “jati”, was the creation of a geography-neutral identity, where the same social group can exist across many states.
Jews, for example, have had a common religious identity even when they did not have a state to call their own. Islam, for its part, does not even accept the idea of a nation-state, leave alone the idea of living in a “secular” state.
I once asked a high-profile editor from the minority community what would happen if Uttar Pradesh had been broken up into four states, as planned by Mayawati at some point.
He was unequivocal: Muslims from the other parts of the state would move towards western UP so that the community’s political strength is unchallenged.
Even within India, the creation of linguistic states has exacerbated, not reduced, tensions within the sub-nationalities within. One would have thought that Telugu-speaking Telangana would have been content remaining a part of Andhra Pradesh, but it was not.
In Karnataka, the existence of a Marathi-speaking minority in Belagavi (Belgaum) has increased tensions between Maharashtra and the state, even though there is no reason to think that the Marathi-speakers within Karnataka have lost out in any way.
Karnataka and Tamil Nadu regularly indulge in open verbal warfare on the question of sharing Kaveri waters, even though the real issue is between the upper and lower riparian regions in Karnataka itself, and not just about sharing water with Tamil Nadu.
Nowhere is this identity-based tension worse than in India’s North East, where the creation of seven states has not led to lasting peace.
The Nagas and Mizos want to expand their territories to parts of Manipur, while in Tripura, the tribals want greater control of their own affairs so that post-partition Hindu Bengali immigrants, who now form a majority, do not get to rule the roost in their districts.
But separating tribal areas from cosmopolitan urban areas is not going to solve any problem.
If anything, the inner line permit (ILP) system, and the artificial separation of “tribal” from “non-tribal” citizens, has only made antagonisms intractable. Add religious missionaries to the mix, and these conflicts can only exacerbate.
In pre-British India, the idea of India as a sacred geography was created not by the power of the state, but — to use Diana Eck’s expression — by the footprints of pilgrims crossing state boundaries as pilgrims to various pilgrimage centres.
Radha Kumud Mookerji, a historian of the early twentieth century, said that nationalism in Indian culture was partly defined by the idea of common holy places.
The existence of states governed by different rulers did not matter either to the pilgrims or even to the rulers themselves, who facilitated their movement.
Before Islam emerged on the scene, this was much the situation in many parts of the world, including Arabia, where Mecca was a common pilgrim centre for many tribes.
This syncretism was upset by the advent of Islam. But even Islam does not unite all identities, as we saw with the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, and the failed attempts to create supra-national Arab states in the immediate post-colonial era.
The union of Singapore and Malaysia unravelled pretty quickly in the 1960s.
So here is what we should be acknowledging.
First, “nations” and group identities cannot be contained within states. Looser connections should be allowed to build across nations and even internal state boundaries.
Second, the creation of smaller and smaller states carved out of bigger, more diverse states, may not fully solve the problem of identity. This will need the exchange of minority populations — and is thus disruptive.
Worse, this may still not prevent fresh people from moving into ethnically-homogeneous states. We have seen in Europe, where immigrants from West Asia and Africa are frequently in conflict with the majority.
The only solution that has not been tried is to allow for the creation and formal recognition of two or over-lapping states — one defined by territory, and the others by identity association, which the territorial state must formally acknowledge and accept as a reality.
This would mean a trans-national association can access support, both moral and financial, from its group across the border as long as its actions are not inimical to the interests of the territorial state in which it inhabits.
In any case, even within a social group defined by religion, caste or language, loyalties can separate. We are seeing this within the white Anglo-Saxon group in the US, where the dividing line is not ethnicity or language, but political ideology.
In mega corporations, the matrix structure allows an employee to report to two or more bosses — one in his own region, and another to his profit-centre head somewhere on the globe.
Maybe, just maybe, modern states should start by acknowledging that social groups can have multiple loyalties. The challenge is to work out where loyalty to any one entity must stop or begin. And how to manage two different kinds of loyalties. This is where India must show the way with new experiments in state structure.
We must start by acknowledging that multiple states and nations can exist within each territory — just as multiple identities exist within each human being. The actual identity is framed by context.
PS: It is worth examining why tribal areas want special treatment. Like citizens seeking backward status in order to get preferential treatment in jobs and education, a tribal status often brings economic goodies from the Centre.
One should recall that the Kuki-Meitei conflict started when a court asked Manipur to examine the possibility of giving the Meieis tribal status. Clearly, that status is prized. It is about the extra moolah that tribal states get from the Centre.
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