When violence broke out in Manipur in May this year between the Meitei and Kuki communities, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had sent a delegation of her MPs
Ever since Manipur erupted in violence on May 3, it has been continuing to burn and the violence shows no sign of abating. Prospect of peace seems to recede with every passing day and differences between the ethnic groups seem ever more irreconcilable.
Neither the State nor the central government seem to have any clue about controlling the spiralling violence and restoring normalcy. In the process, many alternative and mostly unworkable suggestions have emerged and are being debated: these include separate territorial administrations or even separate states for the warring ethnic groups of Meiteis and Kukis and giving more autonomy and powers to the existing autonomous district councils, as if autonomy alone could solve all problems.
The reality, however, is that Manipur’s problems are too complex and multi-layered to be addressed by such simplistic solutions, and in the short term. It remains a deeply divided society and the divisions run deep due to a combination of demographic, geographic and historical factors. To understand the root of the problem, we first need to look at the demography of Manipur. The state has two major physiographic regions, the Manipur River valley and a large surrounding tract of mountainous territory referred to as the Hills.
As per the 2011 census, of its population of 28.55 lakh, 70 per cent live in the rural areas. About 57 per cent of the population are the Meitei, who live in the valley and are largely Hindus. But the valley is a hillgirdled island of just 10 per cent of the State area which hosts 57 per cent of the population, while the Hills have 90 per cent of the area that hosts 43 per cent of the population including indigenous hill tribes like the Naga in the north and the Kuki in the south, who are mostly Christians and members of Scheduled Tribes (STs).
While the Hill districts are sparsely populated, the population residing in the Valley districts face severe pressure on land, more so in a highly ruralised agrarian society. But section 158 of the Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act of 1960 prevents the valley people from acquiring any land in the hills from their ST owners, while allowing the hill tribes to freely own land and settle in the valley.
It was the Manipur High Court’s direction to the Government in April to consider including the Meiteis among the STs which would have addressed this anomaly that triggered the violence on May 3, and which eventually spiralled completely out of control. But the Hill people, while they enjoy their land rights, are deprived and disempowered in many ways. The hills being remote and inaccessible remain neglected, with hardly any viable infrastructure or market, and cannot offer much scope for employment or livelihood.
Agriculture in Manipur, like in the rest of north-east India, still remains primitive, beset with Jhoom cultivation, limited irrigation and fragmentation of land. The state does not have any industry ~ in fact, the tertiary sector commands almost 50 per cent of its economy. Unlike in the rest of the country where the growth of the tertiary sector was led by growth in trade, hotels, restaurants, banking and insurance, in Manipur, it is driven mostly by government jobs. Over the last five decades since it attained statehood in 1972, the Government has remained the sole driver and regulator of Manipur’s economy. In 2000- 01, government expenditure accounted for 78 per cent of the state income, or the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP); in 2021-22, it was still 79 per cent of GSDP.
Thus, there is hardly any space for the private sector to function, let alone flourish, and the unholy nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and contractors rules the roost and appropriates all the benefits and privileges that are there to take. Corruption is the order of the day and accountability remains a far cry, a fact testified by reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) year after year, on which no remedial action is ever taken.
To quote just from one report pertaining to 2020-21, “Utilisation Certificates (UCs) in respect of 6,664 cases aggregating Rs 11,331.76 crore given to Departments of the State Government during the period up to March 2021 were not submitted to the Accountant General. Non submission of UCs is fraught with the risk of fraud and misappropriation of funds.” Without audit of these certificates, nothing will be known about the end use of these funds. The state government is dysfunctional and even the will to take corrective measures is missing.
A virtual withdrawal of entrepreneurial support systems killed whatever little scope for development was there. Government being the only player in the economy, whatever money it spends controls development and affects the lives of people in many ways. But the expenditure made by the government is highly skewed between the valley and the Hills, attributable partly to the acute absence of infrastructure and institutional capacities in the Hills.
In 2021-22, for example, the share of the Hills and the Valley in total government expenditure were 25 per cent and 75 per cent respectively; even in per capita terms, Government expenditure in the hills was less than half that in the Valley (Rs 28056 against Rs 59856). That has been the pattern all along and it has created a deep-seated resentment among the hill tribes against the government dominated by the Valley people who are better educated and better skilled. Hills have remained impoverished and neglected, lacking in avenues for employment and income.
The development works in the hills were also severely affected due to the protracted insurgency that predates the formation of the state. An asymmetric solution was attempted to address the marginalisation of the hills by giving them more autonomy in self-governance through the creation of six Autonomous District Councils in the hills through the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971.
But without resources and a budget, and being dependent entirely on the caprices of the state legislatures, they remain too powerless to usher in any change. A complete lack of accountability characterises their functioning, and the CAG has repeatedly refused to provide any assurance on their accounts or the use of funds by them. It does not create even a whisper of protest among the legislators or intelligentsia.
Perhaps the complete lack of accountability among governance institutions serves the vested interests and perpetuates the existing privileges so much that any attempt to change the scenario will be rendered futile by those who reap the advantages of the present dysfunctional system. The benefits of the government’s welfare schemes continue to elude the people.
Giving more autonomy cannot address these deep-seated structural weaknesses, without which a new agency created will only inherit the existing weaknesses. Illegal immigration has added one additional layer of complexity to this imbroglio. Five Manipur districts ~ Chandel, Tengnoupal, Kamjong, Ukhrul and Churachandpur ~ share a 400-km border with Myanmar which is mostly unfenced and allows uncontrolled illegal immigration from across that strife-torn country.
The vast tracts of forests in the Hills which are practically outside the control of the state apparatus host these immigrants who clear the forest for highly lucrative poppy cultivation whose trade flows freely across the border. Some local people also join in, in the absence of any other viable economic activities. It was the state government’s anti-cultivation operations to root out the drug menace that attracted the wrath of the people who stood to lose their livelihood and built up anger against the government.
This ultimately erupted in violence, looting of police armouries often with their active collaboration, culminating in a scale of atrocities and brutalities the state has not seen since the peak of its insurgency (1990-2010). The reality then was that there were state and non-state actors who are ‘stakeholders’ in the whole ‘business’ of militancy; they did not want a solution to the problem.
As a military officer who had seen the problem from close quarters had said, “The pretence on the part of both state and non-state actors, however, must continue so that they can hoodwink an already looted and tormented people; the militant says he is staging a ‘revolution’ for the masses whose cause he thinks his outfit must alone champion, while the powerful state actors say they are seriously engaged in the business of ‘conflict resolution’.…. Both the militant and the politician involved in the industry of terrorism thus expediently exist for the sake of each other.”
Obviously, the militants stood to benefit more by remaining outside the reach of law than by coming within it, and the situation is again fast reverting to that now. To address the problem of development, the present central government has focussed on rapid development of infrastructure which ultimately would have created the space for private entrepreneurs and industry to flourish, creating conditions for more transparency, accountability and public participation in the processes of development and democracy.
Alas, the current imbroglio has completely derailed the process and nobody seems to have any clue. Development is the only solution and peace is an essential prerequisite for that. Restoring the trust of the people at any cost ~ trust in government and between different ethnicities ~ is the most urgent need, and the government does not have indefinite time to ensure this. Otherwise it will be a slippage back to the horror of the 1990s.
(The writer is a commentator, author and academic. Opinions expressed are personal)