North East Is North East

Manipur Imbroglio and the Road Ahead

Arup Baisya

“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” (Richard III, Shakespeare)

In 2021, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) asked the Chief Secretaries of Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, and Arunachal Pradesh to “take appropriate action as per law to check illegal influx from Myanmar into India. The MHA has said that State Governments have no powers to grant “refugee” status to “foreigners” and added that India is not a signatory to the United Nation’s Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol. Mizoram Government’s humanitarian approach to give shelter to 270 members of the Kuki-Chin community who entered Mizoram from Bangladesh by referring to them as “officially displaced persons” necessitated such overriding ‘Farman’. The kingdom regurgitates similar ‘Farmans’ from time to time to put the institutional architecture of the relation between state and centre, between citizens as voters and the state in the reversed order in the power relation. Be it the process of NRC or the identification of citizens, the message is loud and clear–“The ruler King is almighty, the state is mightier than the people”. Now the Subedars in the states in the Northeast are emulating the same vocabulary verbatim. Mizoram wanted to be an exception by being humane towards their ethnic brethren in the neighbouring countries; this is considered insubordination by the Kingdom. The kingdom has ignored the ethnic ties of the North-Eastern states with neighbouring countries and its special diverse character. The Kingdom betrayed the Northeast long back by raising the bogey of infiltration and lost the battle to socially and psychologically integrate this part with the rest of India. They raised the bogey in Assam against Bengalis and now in Manipur against Kuki-Chin and the battle is lost. The Bengalis still have their socio-political stake within Indian state howsoever fragile, but Kukis are the most marginalised and vulnerable. Over the dead bodies of the innocent, the King is now walking the tightrope in search of his horse which has lost its course within the smoke generated by the fire of internecine conflict within the Manipur imbroglio. It’s a fallacy that the Kingdom knows that the bogey of infiltration would lead the Kingdom to scrape the barrel and break fresh ground.

In the recent past, the Kingdom strived to tread a different path to integrate North-East with India. This path does not place the people at the core for inducing the socio-psychological passion of Indianness. But it’s built on the idea that geographical connectivity is the foundation of Indianness. This opportunity of building connectivity has not arisen from the requirement of the emerging market economy from within, but from the opportunity of mercantile order of trade resuscitated in the ancient trade route as a global imperialistic design of competitive trade and geopolitics thereon. This imperialistic interest is considered by the Indian big bourgeoisie as a God-gifted opportunity, albeit the imperialists are God for them when they are keener on making a stupendous profit from the speculation of buying and selling with Government backing, be it real-estate or spectrum for telecom industry or infrastructure, than risking their investment in manufacturing. North-East is north-east, rugged hills to plunder, valley for internecine conflict, it’s not that part of India where FDI is forthcoming. The rest is, of course, left with coercion, AFSPA, and army baton and bullet. The look act policy, the term coined by Modi Government which has been adept in coining slogans, is an effort in recasting India’s restive northeast as the gateway to Myanmar and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. New Delhi has been planning to build profitable trade with Southeast Asia through Myanmar as part of the Asian Highway Network. New office buildings and customs departments are being built on the outer edge of Moreh town; a smart hotel heralds the hope of more high-profile visitors. Visitors and residents alike pass three to five checkpoints to enter the city and building sites in Imphal. Despite the illusion of security, Moreh is host to a myriad of insurgent organisations from all three ethnic communities: Meitei, Kuki/Zomi, and Naga. Why such insurgency from all the communities of Manipur, even the Meitei’s of Manipur? Those who think that Meitei is a monolithic community enjoying their dominant position in the valley do live in absurdity. All insurgent groups are vigilant to guard their “no man’s land” so that their land and resources are not grabbed by the so-called “modern moneyed mafias”. This modern development is alien to their own internal development and integral to their social dynamics. Despite rugged hills, Manipur has been witnessing modern development of agriculture, especially by the Meiteis, developing small businesses and transformation of household handicrafts into marketable commodities. But mercantile capitalist development from above also needs to establish a client-patron relationship with all communities. Based on this class, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could garner support to elect the ST legislatures in the state Assembly to form Biren Singh Government. The long-drawn-out RSS Hindutva campaign also fits within this framework of the client-patron relationship. RSS has been promoting the symbols, rituals, and culture of the tribal religion, mostly the oral tradition of animism, and painting these traditions within broad canvass of Hinduism and transforming the mass pathos generating thereon to be pitted against Christianity which is alleged to be responsible for destroying the tribal culture. This reactionary subaltern revivalism has helped RSS to get their act together and made significant inroads in an ethnically diverse region of the Northeast. Rammadhav was deputed long back to stitch an ethnic alliance under political Hindutva, and his temporary success made him on cloud nine, but eventually, it seems now, they have burnt their bridges.

Manipur lost her independence to British India in the year 1891. From 1892 onwards it became a princely state under the political control of the Government of British India. Accordingly, the administration of the state was a political agent who was vested with all political powers. This British Paramouncy continued till 1947 when India got independence. The policy of non-interference was followed by area expeditions that were reported in order to quell the opposition of the hill communities to the colonial extension of commercial activities in and through their land. The territorial politics which was hitherto unknown to the hill communities was subsequently introduced by forcefully merging the hill tribal areas into the princely state of Assam for administrative convenience. The pre-independent Northeast Frontier comprised of Assam and two princely states of Manipur and Tripura had witnessed reorganisation and redrawing of the boundary in the region during the post-independent period until the attainment of statehood by Manipur in 1972. The erstwhile British legacy of handing over of few states of North-East to India in the backdrop of the then-world imperialistic geopolitical interest is written in History. Within this global imperialistic geo-political order, Indian territorial policy from the period of Indian independence to the beginning of the neo-liberal phase was to integrate the region through a form of clientelism where the local client class of state-wise dominant community was allowed to maintain their privileged position within the territorial chauvinistic power of the state. Manipur has been a centralised state in the valley region and village-based autonomous authorities in the hills. The autonomy of the hill areas is maintained by the promulgation of various acts by the state Government dominated by the valley predominantly inhabited by the Meiteis and it is the only state where the fifth and sixth schedules are not applicable in the hills. This institutional architecture built over the years had been supporting the flow of surplus revenues from the hills to the valley through a government tax system and the lack of Government investment for infrastructural development in the hills. This has remained the long-drawn-out bone of contention between the hills and valley due to the demand of the tribals for territorial scheduled status.

This relationship took a new turn during the neo-liberal phase and got momentum when the BJP came to power both in the Centre and the state. The organisational ground for such a policy shift had been prepared by RSS from below. The essence of this shift was to dismantle the power of the client class over the territory of the state and to bring it under the direct command of the Centre on Hindutva plank. The look act policy, the changes in the land relation, and the formidable presence of Christians to be pitted as alien “other” have made the situation favourable for the Indian ruling class to pursue such a project vigorously. The Indian ruling class has succeeded to a large extent in their policy drive barring some still insurmountable territory of resistance like Nagaland and Mizoram.

The change in nomenclature from look east to look act policy is dictated by the Modi Government’s claim to boil the ocean. In 2022, a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International stated about Myanmar’s army rules, “Alarm bells should be ringing: the ongoing killing, looting, and burning bear all the hallmarks of the military’s signature tactics of collective punishment, which it has repeatedly used against ethnic minorities across the country.” China is exploiting Myanmar’s situation of ethnic conflict and Western sanctions thereon for its economic benefit. China recognised Myanmar’s Military Government and its infrastructural project restarted and China is interested in protecting its investment in rebel-controlled areas. The National Unity Government (NUG) which is a loose coordination of many of the rebel ethnic organisations is not recognised by China, but China has backed various groups in order to help secure minerals or energy resources and their business stake in drug, teak, hydropower, gas, and rare earth. India’s ambition for establishing trade hegemony in south East Asia is destabilised by Chinese influence and now it appears that the centre’s wrong northeast policy and political Hindutva project have backfired and almost dismantled the bargaining power with the help of Japan against China. Imphal-Mandalay Bus service, India-Myanmar-Thailand territorial highway and Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Project, and multi-dimensional regional trade are all dependent on geographical control over the land route by the Indian Government. But the alienation of ethnic communities from their land and forest resources, the containment of their anguish thereon by military means, and socially and politically diverting attention by fanning Hindutva communal-nationalistic passion cannot be sustainable for long when world’s mighty powers are present as a stumbling block in the road ahead. India struck an agreement with Myanmar and Bangladesh to declare a similar approach to crack down on ethnic insurgency. This policy along with communal fascist design to incorporate a section of the middle class through client-patron relations and ruthlessly suppress the popular discontentment due to over-exploitation of the poor toiling masses would turn the Northeast into a boiling pot with a vicious cycle of ethnic insurgency, communal strife, and state repression.

Apparently, the demand of Manipur’s Meitei for ST status had a triggering effect on ethnic violence. But the root cause lies elsewhere within the premise of alienation of the masses from their land and natural resources and thereby creating ethnic vulnerability. The neoliberal policy of the state has created a large chunk of floating young generation cutting across all the communities, albeit with quantitative differential traits of their vulnerability defined by the socio-political position of the respective community they belong to in the institutional hierarchy. This vulnerable young generation is alienated from their traditional bondage with land and nature and thereby from the traditional ethos of peaceful co-existence but has not found a place in the modern institutional arrangement and productive system. They live in a vacuum devoid of any forward-looking value system and lost faith in the system which is corrupt to the core, and can do extremely hard work for their survival and in the absence of that, are susceptible to falling prey to any reactionary ideological and masculine activities to ventilate their despair and run around in circles. Meiteis in the valley are no exception, but as a community, they are relatively privileged and dominant. Meitei-psyche in the valley were still recently boastful of their developed status in comparison to the tribals and were quite stable with their revenue earned from fertile valley land which is 10% of the total land of Manipur and from the revenue earned from the surrounding hill areas and agricultural land. But the land crisis and unemployment already made the community restive. The Meitei social activists who have been demanding the withdrawal of AFSPA as Manipur remained outwardly peaceful during the last few years have lost ground as they failed to fathom the inner social dynamic that necessitates addressing the economic crisis through the democratisation of state and society. The reactionaries at the helm of affairs have turned the table to arouse passion against vulnerable religious and ethnic communities as imagined enemy. The reactionaries are successful in generating passion against those from the hills and outside who have settled in the valley and for grabbing the land of the hill areas where tribes reside with some kind of institutional protection. The Meiteis actually have been trapped in the overriding project of the centre to take overall control of the state to a commanding height and also for eviction of the tribal people from their land not only for route-mapping and infrastructural construction under look act policy but also for real estate business by the land mafias and their political masters who belong to a pan-Indian network of vested interest. The ruling class conspiracy is revealed by the fact that the Manipur Government issued a public notice on June 3rd, 2022 by setting a dateline of 1st July 2022 for submission of applications for forest rights of forest-dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers and notifying that no application will be accepted beyond the dateline. The Government knows very well that the people residing in the remotest part of the state in the hilly terrain with abysmal communication facilities cannot even be aware of such Government notification in such a short period of time. Furthermore, had the Government been serious about ensuring their rights, the process would have been made continuous and sustained till the last mile residents are not provided with their legitimate land rights and forest rights. The long silence of the tribal legislatures of the ruling party over the issue has been conspicuous, but with a hidden intent. From the development of the event leading to full-scale violence, there is ample reason to believe that the eviction drive of the tribal and the desecration of churches was a meticulously designed plot. The delayed response of the central government and the central leadership raised many eyebrows from various quarters.

Every cloud should have a silver lining. One can surmise that the saner voices from Meitei activists and affected common people are the silver linings in the cloud. But the hegemonic and dominant socio-political design is a premonition of a tempest where such silver linings might fade away. What is the alternative road ahead then? The most disappointing phenomenon is the absence of any left discourse in the entire political gamut though the left played some positive role up to the 1980s. The new socio-political landscape has found the left unaware of and in the static mindset and led them to lose ground to be extremely marginalised. The political effort behind the slogan of multilayered autonomy and federalism is down for the count so long as it is devoid of any class power to challenge the super-exploitation of labour and nature by the imperialists and the Indian ruling class. Women are keen on saving nature as they are still metabolically linked with nature to a great extent in the Northeast and a vast new generation of toiling masses desires to lead a decent life with the value of their labour power and social security. And this section of every marginalised and vulnerable community is also really agog with a desire to resist the state’s policy of unabated and rampant eviction. From within the garb of a vibrant resistance movement against accumulation through displacement that has been set in motion in the Northeast as a precondition to initiate a capitalist market economy for exploitation, the real struggle against imperialistic capitalist plunder can only surface and the agenda for a new political restructuring of state for safeguarding constitutional democracy and also to do away with a democracy deficit for further democratisation of state and society can be a formidable counter-narrative in the political discourse. Let the left introspect and be socially active hook, line and sinker, it is better late than never.

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Vol 55, No. 52, Jun 25 - Jul 1, 2023