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'Identity politics responsible for Manipur situation'

June 20, 2023 10:25 IST

'The State uses identity politics as part of divide and rule; the militant groups too use identity politics and civil society groups are also divided along ethnic groups.'

IMAGE: Security personnel stand guard during a protest over the killing of nine civilians at Konung Mamang in Imphal, June 15, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

Manipur is burning. The violence that started on the 3rd of May continues, perhaps more aggressively.

Is there no solution to what Manipur is suffering from?

Nandita Haksar, activist and lawyer, who has fought human rights violations in Manipur from the 1980s, analyses the situation in the North East state in this e-mail interview with's Shobha Warrier.


To some, the violent situation in Manipur is a reaction to the illegal migrants from Myanmar. To some others, it is a fight based on religious lines.
It is also said to be a fight between the majority Meiteis living in the valley and the tribals from the hills.
As someone who has been involved in Manipur from the 1980s, how do you see the current situation?

There are many factors that have led to this violent events in Manipur: Historical, geographical and political.

Obviously, I cannot give the details of each, but let me briefly touch upon each:


Manipur joined the Indian Union in 1949, but become a full-fledged state only in 1972; between 1949 and 1972 Manipur remained a Union Territory. It is bounded by Nagaland to the north, Mizoram in the south and Assam in the west.

It has approximately a 400 km long border with two regions of Myanmar -- Sagaing to the east and Chin state to the south. It is the gateway to Southeast Asia and crucial for India's Look East Policy.

The international border between India and Burma by the British cuts across many communities, but the ties across the border have remained live.

The frequent military coups and influx of the refugees fleeing from persecution has been constant in Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur.

This time, after the February 2021 coup, many people from Myanmar have taken refuge in our country.

It is true that some of these refugees have settled in India, but the fear of the 'outsiders' and the cry against 'illegal migrants' is being propagated by vested interests.

Immediately, there is no danger of the citizens in Manipur becoming a minority because of the influx.

However, the Government of India should allow the state governments to register these people as refugees and provide basic humanitarian aid. This registration would protect the local citizens and also allow for a humanitarian approach to the refugees coming to our country.


Before the communities were converted to Vaishnavism and Christianity, there were more equal relations between the two. The conversion to Vaishnavism also brought with it caste and concepts of purity and pollution. This has historically caused resentment.

But there has been a movement among the Meiteis to convert back to their pre-Hindu religion, Sanamahi.

The two most aggressive groups in the current violence, the Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun, are Sanamahi and not Hindu.


The geographical and historical factors are manipulated for political purpose and in Manipur, it has been done since the 1980s.

In order to deal with the Naga insurgency, the Government of India had raised Kuki commandos which were operating like militias. These were absorbed into the Assam Rifles and now we see their role in the present violence.

There have been Naga-Kuki clashes in the 1990s, and both are Christian and both are hill people. So we see that religion can be used, but is not the major factor. It is the political manipulation of religion, history and culture.

In one word, it is identity politics which is largely responsible for the situation.

There is no space where the communities can come together as 'Manipuris', and so there is no question of having conversations across the communities.

It would require a great deal of statesmanship and commitment to build such a space.

Unfortunately, this would not be possible because of the 35 plus armed groups operating in the state.

IMAGE: A view of the charred and damaged remains of the official residence of Manipur Minister Nemcha Kipgen after it was burned down by mobs in Imphal, June 16, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

Various Christian organisations have raised concern over the number of churches that were attacked in the violence.
Is the conflict between Hindus and Christians?

The violence is not primarily a 'Hindu' versus 'Christian' and the Meitei Sanamahi are the most aggressive by all reports.

But the BJP while denying that it is a Christian-Hindu clash has, by its policies tried hard to turn it into one.

Again, I will say majoritarianism has also fuelled minority communalism.

And the missionaries have also been involved in aggressive proselytising in the valley.

Do you think those who live in the hills, the Kukis, do not trust the state government anymore? What is the reason behind this distrust and suspicion?

I think Kuki (and Naga) political leaders have been opportunist in joining the BJP even though they did not fully understand its ideology or its history.

Now they have seen that merely joining the party would not mean that their interests would be looked after or respected.

In any case, the Kuki group of tribes had joined hands with the Naga tribes to oppose the Meiteis's demand for being declared a Scheduled Tribe.

The tribals have, for long said that they have been economically discriminated against and politically dominated by the valley people.

So, this distrust and suspicion has been confirmed by the latest violence, and the way the state government and the BJP have handled the situation.

IMAGE: People in large numbers take part in a torchlight vigil in response to the ongoing violence in Manipur in Bishnupur, June 17, 2023. Photograph: PTI Photo

You had written in an article, 'Even the human rights movement was soon divided along communal lines, with each community focusing on specific violations rather than uniting to fight as one. In all these cases, the activists from New Delhi added to the divisions rather than bringing people together.'
Can you please elaborate on this?

The human rights movement in post-Independence India started after the Emergency in 1975. There was the People's Union of Civil Liberties and then there were state-level human rights organisations.

Both the organisations took up cases of State violence. However, at the time, in the 1970s they were not willing to take up human rights abuses committed by the Indian armed forces. We were also not aware of the situation in the North East.

It was this reason that the Nagas formed their own human rights group, the Naga People's Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) and the Mizos too had formed a group. Then the Sikhs formed their own and human rights movement got split down ethnic lines.

In Manipur the NPMHR took up human rights violations of the Nagas, while the Meitei human rights groups focused on the human rights violations in the falley.

It did not occur to the Naga and Meitwei human rights groups to come together to fight the armed forces. They ran parallel campaigns.

Then came Irom Sharmila and her fast in support of the demand for repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

For the Delhi (and other Indian activists) Irom Sharmila was an icon of non-violence. But she had never condemned armed resistance and besides she was supported by the Meitei armed groups.

The Delhi groups turned the campaign into a save Irom Sharmila instead of repeal AFSPA.

IMAGE: Manipuris participate in a candlelight vigil demanding peace and to raise concern over the current conflict in Manipur at Mukundapur in Kolkata, June 17, 2023. Photograph: PTI Photo

Do the tribals in the hills feel neglected by various state governments?

Yes, of course. You have to just visit Manipur and see the infrastructure. The life of the tribals is so much harsher because of the terrain and also because of lack of roads, transport, housing, educational institutions and medical facilities.

In the past, it was part of the counter insurgency policy and not develop insurgency prone areas.

Manipur has become one of the poorest states in India. This was not true when it joined the Indian State.

IMAGE: Nandita Haksar

The Kukis are demanding a separate Hill Council. When I interviewed Professor Nabakumar, he said dividing a state on ethnic lines would set a bad precedent. What do you say?

I feel strongly that identity politics is destroying the country.

The State uses identity politics as part of divide and rule; the militant groups too use identity politics and civil society groups are also divided along ethnic groups.

However, if the Meiteis do not want a division of Manipur, they must initiate the process of confidence building.

It will be very difficult because there are few traditions and historical precedence, and with this latest violence, there is almost no way that a new politics could emerge which could bring all communities together.

Intelligence agencies have played a big role as well in creating divisions.

Who can douse the fire that is burning Manipur?

A very mature politically committed group of men and women can; who have a political vision which is genuinely inclusive and their integrity is unquestionable.

I do not know of any such group as of now. But knowing Manipur, I believe it can emerge. Otherwise everyone will lose.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/