The Centre has done well to intervene to quell the violence, looting, and arson in Manipur last week by imposing Article 355 of the Constitution in the state. Enforcing the law in a sensitive border state which has a past history of inter-ethnic flare-ups and an armed insurgency must be the top priority in the wake of tensions that have arisen from the Meitei-tribal (mainly Kuki and Tangkhul Naga) clashes in Manipur which have since spilt over to neighbouring states. The clash between hotheads from the Meitei and Kuki communities in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, was a warning that matters could get out of hand very quickly indeed. Reports of Meitei families living in another neighbouring state, Mizoram, inhabited overwhelmingly by the Chin-Kuki-Zo ethnic group, have come in, and in Nagaland too tension between the Meitei and Naga communities is rising.
The fact that Union Home Minister Amit Shah skipped his scheduled election rallies in poll-bound Karnataka to focus on the situation in the North East is an indication that the central government is aware of the potential for mischief by external forces in a volatile scenario. The series of steps taken thus far are adequate, but there can be no taking the eye off the ball. It devolves upon the Chief Ministers of Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland to ensure the safety of all communities, especially minorities, within their respective states. The Nagaland and Mizoram governments have held meetings with community leaders to douse tensions and also roped in the church, which has massive social influence, to help maintain peace. All this is playing out against the backdrop of two issues. First, the on-and-off demand for tribal status to be accorded to the Meitei community by some prominent voices in Manipur.
The Meitei are the majority community in the state and reside mainly in the Imphal Valley while the surrounding hills are inhabited by the Kuki and Tangkhul Naga tribes. Secondly, the Naga peace deal is in the final stage of negotiation, and there are powers in the region inimical to India’s interests; they would not like that process to come to fruition. Nagaland has opened a helpline for people from its state currently residing in or visiting Manipur in case they want to be evacuated, while Meghalaya has reached out to students from the state studying in Manipur and assured that they would be evacuated if required. But it is Manipur, where the tensions began, which must do the hard yards. That the state government’s handling of the situation has been sub-optimal is apparent.
The Union government has appointed Manipur’s Additional DG (Intelligence) Ashutosh Sinha as the overall Operational Commander to restore the rule of law and appointed former National Investigation Agency Director-General Kuldip Singh as the Security Adviser to the Manipur CM. These are developments which send out a clear signal to Chief Minister N. Biren Singh that his administration’s handling of the situation has not been up the mark. Cadres of proscribed militant outfits that had been dormant for a while are reported to have been in the forefront of the violence last week. They must not be allowed to whip up ethnic tensions.