While Manipur is no stranger to violence and ethnic clashes, the communal rioting seen this year is essentially the consequence of the majoritarian authoritarianism that characterises the BJP’s approach to “forced assimilation”.
The largely Hindu Meitei population of the valley has lived in relative accord with their largely Christian tribal neighbours of the hill areas, owing to deep sensitivity to each other’s separate identity, reinforced by constitutional arrangements for a degree of autonomy through district councils and hill administration councils under Article 371 C, and political accommodation through reservations for ST in the assembly and including tribal representatives in the cabinet.
But ever since the BJP stole its way to power to overturn the outcome of the 2017 election, a strident majoritarianism has pitted the Vaishnavite Hindus of the valley against the Christian tribals of the hills leading to the present outbreak that has been simmering over the six years that N. Biren Singh has been chief minister.
A dissident Kuki MLA of the BJP, Paolienlal Haokip, has described the Biren Singh administration as “the best example of inept handling of everything”. Ineptness is evident in the BJP government’s drive against the cultivation of poppies, cannabis, and marijuana, launched in February this year, to clear reserved forest lands that, it was claimed, had been “encroached” upon by tribals in general and particularly by “illegal immigrants” from Myanmar across the border. This is a good illustration of the “double engine sarkar” at work, for it is the Central government that has looked askance at the Muslim Rohingya and Zo tribals fleeing Burmese junta persecution by refusing to grant them ‘refugee’ status and the local Manipuri BJP that has attempted to cow down the tribal minority instead of working towards their gradual emotional integration into a composite Manipuri identity.
While the origins of the problem may be traced to the British having been “insensitive to kinship ties” across the Manipur-Burma border, the current aggravation arises from the inhuman outlook of the Manipur government that has condemned the Zo tribals fleeing genocide as “illegal immigrants”; sought an NRC, as in Assam, to identify “foreigners” in the Kuki-dominated districts; and roughly handled delicate issues of land rights and cultural identity. Large swathes of Kuki-Zomi-Hmar lands have been declared reserved forests or otherwise put out of bounds to the locals without following “established procedures”, leading to severe economic disruption as the unyielding hills are more easily cultivated by slash-and-burn methods known as “subsistence swidden farming” than back-breaking terracing for settled farming.
As underlined by Kuki public intellectuals of repute, the police have been “deeply communalised”; the authorities, as a whole, have been “biased” rather than “equidistant”; and civil society organisations have been incentivised to “propagate a more radical brand of Meitei nationalism”. In consequence, a vicious spiral of mutual violence has been spun. The inbuilt majority of Meiteis in the assembly (39 of 60) has in March 2023 withdrawn the suspension of operations agreement with two major Kuki and Zomi armed entities. And into this cauldron, the Manipur High Court has directed the government to prepare the ground to declare Meiteis as Scheduled Tribes, thus removing the last safeguard of the existing hill ST. Such has been the loss of confidence in the fairness of the Biren Singh government that almost all BJP Kuki MLAs and opinion-makers of the Kuki and other minority tribal groupings have demanded a “separate administration” by placing the hills under the sixth schedule, as in neighbouring Mizoram.
Such is the outcome of substituting “unity in diversity” with BJP-style “unity through uniformity”. Manipur in microcosm is the fate awaiting the Indian Union if saffron rule is continued in 2024.