'As soon as the violence broke out, they should have stepped in and sent a message that the state is there to stop this violence.'
'Had they done it right there, the situation would not have gone out of control.'
When the Bharatiya Janata Party won the Manipur assembly elections on its own and appointed Chief Minister N Biren Singh to rule the state in March 2022, it created history.
The BJP, which was called a cow-belt party, proved that it had become a pan-Indian party with a presence in a crucial north eastern state.
This was then; now, Manipur is burning and the BJP is clutching at straws, with its leadership more focused on the Karnataka elections.
The central government has invoked Article 355 and sent in Rapid Action Force personnel to Manipur to maintain law and order.
Thousands of people have been evacuated from Manipur as ethnic riots rocked the state, resulting in people crossing over to the neighbouring states of Assam and Mizoram for safety.
The violence between two communities, Meiteis and Kukis, has resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people. Internet services have been shut down as the government is trying hard to contain rumours with the potential to incite violence.
Syed Firdaus Ashraf spoke to Pradip Phanjoubam, editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and a well-known commentator on Manipur issues, to find out what is happening in the state.
When Manipur voted for the BJP last year, it was felt the state would see a double engine sarkar. But here we are seeing violence all around. How come the state government and the Centre were caught completely off-guard?
The BJP was busy with elections in Karnataka and they did not pay much attention to Manipur. Therefore, the situation went out of control, but right now it is very much in control. They neglected it and could have easily sensed it coming.
As soon as the violence broke out, and when the first fire started, they should have stepped in and sent a message that the state is there to stop this violence.
Had they done it right there, the situation would not have gone out of control and since they did not do it at that moment, people (warring factions) thought the situation in Manipur was a free for all.
Is it true that the violence started because of the Manipur high court order on quotas for the Meitei community?
That is a misrepresentation of facts. The Manipur high court simply told the state to send a recommendation to the Centre whether the inclusion (of Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribe list) should be there or not.
The state did not do it for the last 10 years, and some people reached out to the court which gave directions to the state to do the needful by approaching the central government.
The court has no authority to declare the Scheduled Tribe list as it is in the power of the central government to declare it.
The Manipur high court merely said go do it. The court did not say 'yes' or 'no' to ST status for Meiteis.
What caused the latest round of violence? Is it true the riots began with just one incident, when a Meitei driver's truck hit a bike and ran over a stock of water bottles kept for use by peaceful tribal protestors?
This was just an excuse as the real reason was due to a rally (following the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur's protest against the demand for the inclusion of Meiteis as a Scheduled Tribe) in the hill districts of Manipur.
I spoke to some people in Churachandpur district where the rally was about to be dispersed at 2 pm and there was a sudden rumour that there was a rampage at the Kuki war memorial site. After which the rampage started.
It was found out later that the memorial site was intact, although some say a small tyre was found burning outside the gate of the memorial. This was the starting point of the violence.
Is it true that the Manipur government was making Article 371C of the Constitution (to protect tribal rights and interests) redundant by eviction of the tribal community from several villages in the hills?
Article 371 does not say this. It only talks about the function of a committee of the state legislative assembly to look into affairs of the hills (of Manipur).
The eviction of what you are saying is not happening everywhere, but is happening only in the reserve forest areas of Manipur. And these reserve forest areas were declared before the merger of Manipur with India. At that time no one was living in these reserve forests.
After Manipur became a part of India (in 1949) it was (initially) a Union territory and it was Parliament's decision to retain those reserve forests of Manipur.
Now, what has happened is that the Kuki community disperse themselves from one place to another for various reasons. I have written about it in detail in The Indian Express.
Because of these land holding patterns and economy of these villages, they cannot support more than 5-6 families. Once these families get big, they disperse. This leads to so many disputes even with the Nagas and now many of them have come into the area of reserve forests too.
Add to this is the problem of poppy growing in these areas. This poppy growing leads to conflict between the community and the government and has got nothing to do with other communities. But people are interpreting in a different manner about this issue.
Did the violence lead to burning of churches in Manipur?
Yes, many churches were burnt in Manipur. I went to see it personally, but it was only the Kuki community churches that were burnt down.
What can you tell us about the interplay among the Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis in Manipur?
Meiteis are Hindus, and in the hills after 1891 when the British captured Manipur, the missionaries came and started converting the people of the hills where the Kukis lived. They tried hard to convert the Meitei tribe too but they failed.
Therefore, they went to Ukhrul district (to spread Christianity) and from there to other places in the hills of Manipur, which in itself is a huge story.
Their mission succeeded in the hills, but in the valley Christian missionaries did not succeed in converting the Meitei population who are Hindus.
Has the BJP's victory in Manipur led to a sort of feeling of Hindu supremacy in the local Meitei population?
Politics in Manipur is different and it is not religious. Any party ruling the Centre, people of the state tend to lean towards that party.
This gave success to the BJP in Manipur as they are ruling the Centre. It is not about party ideology or religion, but yes, maybe a bit of it is there, but it is not sweeping (the state).
Does this violence have nothing to do with the Hindu-Christian divide?
The Manipur violence has got nothing to do with the Hindu-Christian divide.
The division is only about the people of the hills and people of the valley.
The valley is more prosperous and developed whereas the hills are still backward. This has led to interpretation in many different ways.
Some say it is discrimination and some say it is natural as in the valley to do agriculture is easy, so therefore it is developed.
This is not for any bias, but because of topography.
J M Scott, the traveller explorer, said the road to invest in hills is much more. What you invest in the valley is say Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) for development, you will need Rs 5 crore (Rs 50 million) to do the same kind of development work in the hills as you have to cut the hills.
The same thing applies to agriculture as you have river water stable in the valley which gives you good agricultural output for your land. This is not possible in the hills where they have to do terrace cultivation which cannot support a large population.
Reports say that Burmese refugees are coming in and this has led to an increase in the population of Kukis which is causing problems for the Meiteis. How far is it true?
A little bit is happening. Mobile population has always been there in Kukis, but it is not too much. One can check the population census and get the answer.
And when you say influx, it has to be influx of a large population. The Burmese refugee problem is a little hyped up.
Some say the genesis of this violence is from 2015 when the Congress government of Okram Ibobi Singh passed three bills that defined the 'indigenous people' of Manipur by restricting outsiders from the state.
This resulted in the tribal population of Naga and Kuki becoming suspicious towards elected governments as they feel this 'indigenous tag' was to give more power to the Meiteis as the hills already enjoyed protection.
Is there any truth in this?
These bills should have been for valley districts only because in the hills of Manipur nobody can go. Even the Meiteis cannot go and the hills remain mono-cultural.
In the valley area of Manipur, Indian citizens outside of Manipur too come and sometimes it becomes difficult to distinguish them from a Bangladeshi citizen. This was felt at that time in 2015 so these bills were necessary.
The government did wrong by bringing these three bills for the entire state and not for the valley alone. Had they done it for the Manipur valley alone it would have served the purpose.
The valley has a very mixed population although Meiteis are in a majority. This was the major intent of those three bills. These bills made Kukis feel excluded, but the Nagas did not feel that way. The Kukis protested against those bills for very long.
That deadlock continued for 600 days after which tensions were defused. What led to the defusing of tension?
The fatigue factor. You cannot remain there forever. Moreover, those bills did not become an act, therefore the protest fizzled out.
Boxing legend Mary Kom put out a tearful message of her state burning. What do you think is a solution?
The violence has to be controlled. Civil society must step in to meet different society leaders and members to sort out tensions. They must decide what the next action should be.
Do you think states in the north east were carved out without actual consideration to the composition of ethnic tribal populations, which has led to tensions to this day, and in some cases even violence?
If they had done so on tribal community lines, then there would have been 200 states in the north east. There are more than 200 dialects in the north east, so you cannot have 200 states.