Jurriën timber Manipur, a border state in the north-east, continues to witness large scale ethnic violence. The violence, which began on May 3, had abated somewhat after three weeks but saw a fresh spate during and after the (long-delayed) visit of Union home minister Amit Shah at the end of May.
We are now in the middle of June and the violence shows no signs of abating. In the past week, nine persons from one community – reportedly vigilantes on their way to attack another community’s village – have been killed and the Imphal residence of a Union minister from Manipur has been torched.
The proximate and long-term reasons for the violence are known to all and there is no point in repeating them. However, the response of the N. Biren Singh government to the violence has been enigmatic and gives credence to allegations by tribals that it is being abetted by the state. In an article in the Indian Express, Professor Kham Khan Suan Hausing notes that “these riots seem to follow an established pattern witnessed in other parts of India. This pattern follows what Paul Brass calls an ‘institutionalised Riot system’ (IRS) wherein riots are prepared, activated and sustained with explanatory justification”. He further goes on to say that this violence, like the Hindu-Muslim riots in other parts of the country, are manufactured and sustained by an institutional ecosystem.
It is difficult to believe that several thousand weapons looted from various armouries of the police could be taken without the complicity of police personnel. The Meitei-dominated police is also being widely accused of letting rioters belonging to organisations like the Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun go berserk against the tribals. Even if the allegations are untrue, the incidents themselves are a sad reflection on the competence of the Manipur Police and its leadership.
It was apparent on May 3 itself that the situation was well beyond the capability of local police to control, particularly because of loyalties split along ethnic lines. Charge should therefore have been immediately handed over to the Central armed police forces. The Assam Rifles, which has a large body of troops located at many places in Manipur, could have been requisitioned and deployed immediately to control the situation. The delay in deployment of the Assam Rifles (AR), which is a force consisting of soldiers from all over the country besides locals, is baffling and perhaps intended to let the rioters have a free hand. Immediate deployment of the AR followed by the subsequent induction of CAPF jawans could have brought the situation under control during the initial phase and prevented loss of life and property.
While the reluctance of the state government to take timely and effective action can be attributed to different ethnic loyalties within the establishment, what is inexplicable is the total inaction or lack of any visible action on the part of the Union government.
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Manipur never became a priority because both the prime minister and home minister did not deem it fit to interrupt their campaign trail in Karnataka and take charge of the situation in the violence-torn state. Many ministers of the Union cabinet, including perhaps the junior ministers in the home ministry, continued to focus on Karnataka, campaign for the BJP there – and invoke ‘Bajrang Bali’.
The prime minister remained and continues to remain missing in action by neither saying anything on the situation nor visiting the state to even take stock. After the campaigning was over, Modi preferred to indulge in theatrics involving the ‘sengol’ and the inauguration of the new parliament building besides focusing on the important task of flagging off Vande Bharat trains on new routes in Odisha, the north-east, Goa and Uttarakhand.
The media by design or under instructions largely ignored the news about Manipur and remained focused on Karnataka elections, the Congress’s problems with cabinet formation in Karnataka, the sengol and the controversy over Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the US. Such are the priorities of the media.
Even though the elections were over on May 10, the home minister did not go to Manipur to press for the restoration of law and order till the parliament house was inaugurated and the sengol placed in the safe hands of Modi. He went there only on May 29, by which time causalities had further gone up. Amit Shah’s visit apparently had no effect on the law and order situation, which continues to remain grim. The peace committees announced by him have been a nonstarter so far. And now, there has been a fresh eruption of violence and arson in the past few days.
As per reports, districts like Churachandpur and Bishnupur in south Manipur have been blockaded by the Meitei women, the “Meira Peibis”. The blockade is not only depriving the Kuki tribals of daily essentials but also preventing supplies to the security forces deployed in those districts. Lt General L Nishikanta Singh (Retd), a veteran belonging to Manipur, has in fact tweeted this to bring it to the notice of the government and Army headquarters. Helicopters had to be put in service to supply rations and stores to the Assam Rifles and columns of other forces deployed there for law and order duties. Union Minister R.K. Rajan Singh, whose house was burnt on June 15, has roundly lamented the law and order situation in Manipur. But the prime minister and his government don’t seem to be moved.
Manipur is a border state and has a history of ethnic conflicts between various tribes. This, however, is the first time that the predoninantly Vaishnavite Meiteis have come in conflict with the mainly Christian tribals. The Nagas have so far kept themselves away from the conflict. But the signs are ominous because of large scale burning of Churches (said to be 249 at last count) and many temples (17 according to one survey) besides radicalisation of Meiteis may take a communal turn, converting the ethnic conflict into a communal one. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad jumping into fray also doesn’t portend well for the communal harmony. Another factor is the demand by tribal groups for a separate administration for the area inhabited by them. The situation therefore is extremely delicate and if not controlled may lead to a civil war like situation which China is ever ready to exploit.
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In a severe indictment of the way the situation in Manipur has been handled, the veteran Lt Gen L. Nishikanta Singh – with 40 years of dedicated service to the nation tweeted – “The state is now ‘Stateless’. Life and property can be destroyed anytime by anyone just like in Libya, Lebanon or Syria etc It appears Manipur has been left to stew in its own juice. Is anyone listening?”
I’m just an ordinary Indian from Manipur living a retired life. The state is now ‘stateless’. Life and property can be destroyed anytime by anyone just like in Libya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria, etc. It appears Manipur has been left to stew in its own juice. Is anyone listening ? pic.twitter.com/VqfwLrF2DR
— Lt Gen L Nishikanta Singh (R) (@VeteranLNSingh) June 15, 2023
As brought out above, the situation in Manipur is extremely serious and government must take all measures to bring it under control. The first step towards this is to impose president’s rule there and remove the incompetent and complicit government of Biren Singh.
The prime minister must lead from front and rise above partisan considerations. Failing this, he is in danger of being dubbed the Indian avatar of Nero. For the second time in his political career.
Sanjiv Krishan Sood retired as additional director general, Border Security Force.