Manipur: Despicable Politics

Indefinite curfew was imposed in large part of the state following the violence on May 3. Curfew is still in force though curfew relaxation has been made for 12 hours in the valley and between seven to 10 hours in neighboring hill districts.

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A vehicle burned during ethnic violence in Imphal, Manipur, India, May 4, 2023. © 2023 AFP via Getty images

The Government of India on June 4, 2023, has notified a Commission of Inquiry under the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, to inquire into the incidents of violence in the state of Manipur on May 3, 2023, and thereafter. The Commission chaired by Justice Ajai Lamba, former Chief Justice of Gauhati High Court with Himanshu Shekhar Das, Indian Administrative Service (Retd.) and Aloka Prabhakar, Indian Police Service (Retd.) as members, according to the notification “shall make inquiry with respect to the causes and spread of the violence, which took place in Manipur, and whether there were any lapses on the part of any of the responsible authorities or individuals.”

On the last day of his four-day (May 29-June 1) visit to the state, Union Home Minister (UHM) Amit Shah had assured the Press that “a judicial commission will be set up under the chairmanship of retired Chief Justice of the High Court to investigate the Manipur violence”. He had also asserted that “a peace committee would also be constituted under the chairmanship of the Governor of Manipur, in which representatives of all sections would be included.” This peace committee is yet to be formed. However, several peace committees consisting of different Ministers and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) have been formed and teams have rushed to the violence affected areas to ‘restore normalcy’.

Ethnic clashes erupted between Kukis and Meitei/Meetei on May 3, 2023, in Churachandpur District, and spread rapidly across the state. According to the latest official figures released on June 2, 2023, at least 98 people have lost their lives and 310 have been injured in these clashes. In all, 4,014 cases of arson have been reported. Since the beginning of the violence, the state police has registered 3,734 cases and arrested 65 people for their involvement. The official release said that, at present, a total of 37,450 persons displaced by the violence had taken refuge in 272 relief camps.

Indefinite curfew was imposed in large part of the state following the violence on May 3. Curfew is still in force though curfew relaxation has been made for 12 hours in the valley and between seven to 10 hours in neighboring hill districts. State-wide internet shut-down that was imposed on May 3 remains in effect till today.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah during the June 1, 2023, press conference, appealed for peace and urged people who had looted weapons from police armouries to return the weapons at the earliest, failing which they would face stern action. [A June 4, 2023, report citing an unnamed official stated that only 18 per cent of over 4,000 weapons, looted or taken away from police armouries have been surrendered to the authorities.] In a clear indication of fear of insurgents becoming active participants in the ongoing violence, Shah warned that those who violate the Suspension of Operation (SoO) conditions would be dealt with sternly. It is pertinent to recall here that a total of 23 insurgent groups in Manipur under two conglomerates [United Peoples’ Front (UPF) – eight; and the Kuki National Organization (KNO) – 15] are currently under SoO Agreements with the GoI, since August, 2008.

The UHM, however, categorically described the present violence as nasli hinsa (ethnic violence).

On June 1, 2023, Army Chief General Manoj Pande, responding to a question regarding the involvement of ‘insurgent groups’, emphasized,

The current situation that we are facing is that of ethnic clashes between two communities… The current situation is a manifestation of law and order… There is also this challenge of misinformation, of narratives which are coming out from both sides. That is another issue which we need to be careful about, and that is another appeal which we had made that for only credible information, and specially for the media and such influencers not to abet this kind of misinformation.

Earlier, on May 30, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Anil Chauhan had asserted,

The situation in Manipur has nothing to do with counter-insurgency and is primarily a clash between two ethnicities. It is a law-and-order kind of situation and we are helping the state government with the problem. We [the Army] have done an excellent job and saved a large number of lives.

Thus, both the Army Chief and the CDS termed the violence as ethnic, dismissing allegations of armed insurgent involvement.

In a despicable attempt to polarize populations, however, state Chief Minister (CM) N. Biren Singh, who has for long been widely criticized for his communal politics, favoring the majority Meitei Hindu community, in an irresponsible statement on May 28 had asserted,

The fight is not between two communities (Meities and Kukis), but between Kuki militants bound by the Suspension of Operations agreement and combined teams of the central and state security forces. We are trying to find the culprits behind the killing of innocent civilians. Massive combing operations have been launched along with helicopter surveillance. Till now we have reports that around 40 terrorists have been eliminated.

Several media outlets linked to the Hindutva movement compounded these allegations by declaring that the conflict was a Christian (Kuki) – Hindu (Meitie) confrontation, and weaving a generalized narrative of Christian Missionary activities in the state and Northeast region into allegations of ‘church-sponsored violence’ in the present context, developing another stream of falsehoods, which quickly inflamed social media.

Chief Minister Biren Singh has been adopting an anti-Kuki stand for long. In an interview published on May 9, 2023, his fellow Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Saikot Paolienlal Haokip in the Churachandpur District of Manipur asserted that the Chief Minister was “anti-Kuki”, and “prejudiced and was “maligning the entire Kuki community”, adding “many Meiteis confirm this”.

In his statement on May 28, Biren Singh sought to introduce the ‘insurgency’ angle in order to shift the blame for the violence exclusively on the Kukis, even before an investigation had been launched. Unfortunately for him, the statements that followed – by the UHM, Army Chief, CDS and Security Advisor – challenged his claims and exposed his malicious designs.

It is significant that the present crisis has largely been sparked by the order of a single judge bench of the Manipur High Court on March 27, 2023, comprising Acting Chief Justice M.V. Muralidaran, directing,

The first respondent (State Government) shall consider the case of the petitioners for inclusion of the Meetei/Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list, expeditiously, preferably within a period four weeks from the date of receipt of a copy of this order…

Soon after the judgment, tensions started emerging in the state, eventually culminating in major violence on May 3, with a dramatic escalation on May 27-28, and continuing sporadically thereafter.

It is significant that a Supreme Court bench headed by the Chief Justice of India, D.Y. Chandrachud has rejected Muralidaran’s order as “obnoxious” and “absolutely wrong”. The CGI noted further,

We have to stay the order of the Manipur HC. It is completely factually wrong and we gave time to Justice Muralidharan to remedy his error and he did not… we have to take a strong view against it…

Though the bench was initially of the view that it would set aside the High Court order, it later chose to direct the petitioners to join the proceedings before the division bench of the High Court hearing the intra-court appeals challenging the order of the single judge bench.

Significantly, and despite the Supreme Court’s observations, Justice Muralidaran failed to rescind his order, only amending it to extend the deadline of “four weeks” to “one year”.

While the security situation has now improved, occasional flare-ups persist, with the most recent flashpoint at Serou in Kakching District, any laxity at this juncture may prove detrimental as ethnic violence has not ended as yet. Indeed, ethnic violence had subsided after few days of major clashes in early May, only to flare up again in end-May.

It is significant that the present eruption of violence comes after years of steady counter-insurgency consolidation in Manipur. The SATP database, which has documented the conflict since March 6, 2000, registers a peak of 496 fatalities in 2008; just seven insurgency-linked fatalities were recorded in 2022.

The previous year had seen an abrupt spike, with 27 fatalities recorded in 2021, but 2020 registered just seven killed, and 2019, nine fatalities.

The multiple insurgencies in Manipur date back to over four decades. Enormous success has been achieved in containing most of the insurgencies, and SF dominance has been secured across the state at enormous cost in blood and money. A small cluster of seven ‘Valley based’ (Meitei) groups – under the umbrella identity of CorCom (Coordination Committee) – and seven other groups – Hmar People’s Convention- Democracy (HPC-D), National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF), Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), Kuki National Front (KNF), National Revolutionary Front of Manipur (NRFM) and Kuki National Liberation Front (KNLF) – remain marginally active.

The attempts to polarize the populations under these circumstances is nothing short of criminal malice. The High Court’s ‘obnoxious’ order, and the Chief Minister’s equally obnoxious statements, have destabilized the state, provoked widespread violence, and entrenched communal prejudice and hatred even deeper than before. The harm done will take years, if not decades, to repair – if, indeed, there is a sustained and good-faith effort to abandon the despicable politics of polarization. It is unlikely that Chief Minister Biren Singh can spearhead any such good-faith initiative, given his patently communal approach, and the complete loss of faith, certainly, of the state’s tribal population – as well as of at least a section of the Meitei community. It remains to be seen whether a more sagacious leadership will be brought to the helm. If not, Manipur is likely to see worse to come.

Ajit Kumar Singh

Ajit Kumar Singh, is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Conflict Management

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