The Indian state, for all its sub-optimal functioning over the decades, has exhibited a consistent ability to contain armed, state-seeking secessionists ~ right from 1947, and across political dispensations. Has this curbing of secessionist activity resulted in egregious rights violations? On occasion, yes. But that is the nature of the beast known as hard power; the modern democratic state’s constitutional monopoly over violence with appropriate checks and balances is an unexceptionable notion. Indeed, it is the premise on which the legitimacy of the nationstate rests.
But when to use hard power, and how, is the key. These are some of the issues thrown up by the inter-community violence that has seared Manipur over the past month. While the violence has abated, the fissures between the Meitei and Kuki communities run deep. Make no mistake ~ as the ethnic cauldron simmers in Manipur, India’s northern neighbour will be tempted to stoke the fires in the North East. The Kuki community, which inhabits the hilly regions of Manipur (as do the Naga tribes that comprise close to 15 per cent of Manipur’s population), has upped the ante and is demanding a separate state be carved out on ethnic lines. The Meitei, the majority community in Manipur and settled mainly in the Imphal Valley, have dug their heels in against this demand.
Both state and central governments have rejected the Kuki statehood demand too. The Kuki argue that the recent violence, arson, looting, and forced migration makes living alongside the Meitei within Manipur untenable. But the majority community counters this by asserting that a large proportion of those identifying as Kuki are illegal immigrants from Myanmar who need to be detected and deported. The Nagas, mainly belonging to the Tangkhul tribe and especially dominant in the Ukhrul district of Manipur, also oppose the Kuki demand for a separate state.
The Naga narrative has long been that thousands of people belonging to the Kuki-Chin-Mizo-Zomi ethnic group have infiltrated into Manipur from Myanmar and settled on lands that traditionally belong to Naga tribes. Also in the mix is the Meitei demand for Scheduled Tribe status which has picked up momentum. The N. Biren Singh government, in what security experts agreed was an ill-advised move, withdrew from the ‘suspension of operation’ (SOO) agreements with the Kuki National Army and the Zomi Revolutionary Army. The government claimed that the two militant outfits had led the protests against the proposal to grant ST status to the Meitei community and were instrumental in provoking the attacks on the Meitei living in the Kukidominated Churachandpur district. State police personnel, despite individual acts of courage, have proven incapable and/or unwilling to take on those indulging in violence and are divided along ethnic lines themselves.
Public trust in the law enforcers is low across communities. As a first step to restoring normality, the Central Police Organisations or Assam Rifles could be tasked with law and order maintenance with the proviso that simultaneously an overhaul of the state police will be undertaken under expert guidance. On this, there can be no compromise. Secondly, as has been suggested by many, a ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ needs to be established at the earliest with all stakeholders having a voice. We can do it now, or repent at leisure.