SPOTLIGHT

Eyes wide shut: How the state turns away from Manipur’s realities

Published : May 30, 2024 11:00 IST - 16 MINS READ

Members of the UNAU tribal women’s forum at a protest against the ethnic violence in Manipur, in New Delhi on May 4.

Members of the UNAU tribal women’s forum at a protest against the ethnic violence in Manipur, in New Delhi on May 4. | Photo Credit: MANVENDER VASHIST LAV/PTI

The government’s demonisation of the Kuki-Zo and support for radical Meitei groups has driven a permanent wedge between the two communities.

A year after ethnic violence erupted in Manipur, a charge sheet filed by the National Investigating Agency (NIA) at a Guwahati court on May 14 alleged that the NSCN (IM) has been helping the cadre of banned Meitei insurgent outfits Kanglei Yaol Kanba Lup (KYKL) and the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA) enter the country “in order to exploit the current ethnic unrest in Manipur” and “with intent to carry out violent terror attacks targeting the rival Kuki-Zo community with prohibited arms and ammunition”. During this ‘current ethnic unrest’, videos and photos of unprecedented, brutal violence has surfaced from Manipur, most of which find presence of armed men, who are still being referred to as ‘armed miscreants.

Over a year after the conflict began, the State government has been downplaying the role of banned outfits even when Central forces posted in Manipur have reported their presence. Since May 3, 2023, the ethnic violence between the dominant Meitei community and the tribal Kuki-Zos has claimed over 220 lives and uprooted over 60,000 people who now live in camps across the State, or have sought refuge outside Manipur.

The Guwahati charge sheet was filed against five persons arrested during the thick of the violence in September last year. At the time of their arrest they were dressed in camouflage attire resembling uniforms worn by security personnel. By then, there had been multiple incidents where Meitei men wearing such uniforms had either killed or participated in violence targeting Kuki-Zo villages.

In one such incident reported by The Caravan on September 8, more than 30 such men were given safe passage by the Manipur Police on the directions of local politicians, even after it was established that they had orchestrated violence leading to arson, two deaths, and the displacement of more than 1,000 people.

Also Read | Arambai Tenggol: How a Meitei ‘sociocultural organisation’ became an armed-to-the-teeth militia

The weapons and ammunition recovered from the five were from the lot that was looted from police armouries, according to the charge sheet. (In multiple incidents across the year, more than 6,500 firearms and ammunition running into lakhs of rounds were looted.)

Role of Meira Paibis

Interestingly, the arrest of these five was met with widespread protests at the time, most visibly by the Meira Paibis, who demanded their release claiming that they were merely village volunteers. (Protest against or resistance to arrests of armed Meitei people had become commonplace by then, with the Meira Paibis being especially instrumental in securing the release of any such men who would be apprehended by armed forces.)

The Meira Paibis declared a 48-hour bandh in the valley districts. They thronged police stations, clashing with the police and the Rapid Action Force (RAF), giving a call to fill jails, and even vandalising the residence of the officer-in-charge.

The ruckus ended with a special NIA court actually granting bail to all five, amidst celebrations, even though the five were arrested under the stringent UAPA. Such bail orders are almost unprecedented, as seen in many cases across the country.

At a memorial wall of remembrance in Manipur’s Churachandpur on April 8. The wall contains photographs of Kukis believed to have died in the ethnic violence.

At a memorial wall of remembrance in Manipur’s Churachandpur on April 8. The wall contains photographs of Kukis believed to have died in the ethnic violence. | Photo Credit: FRANCIS MASCARENHAS/REUTERS

The arrest of the five was one of the first such instances on the Meitei side since the violence began on May 3.

The Meira Paibis are referred to as “women activists” by armed forces, but in this conflict they have been active enablers of the violence, aiding and assisting armed Meitei groups.

One of the five men, Anand Singh, was eventually arrested again by the NIA. Singh had courted many such arrests in the past and was known as a PLA leader. In the charge sheet, the NIA alleged that Singh “mobilised local youth” for armed training to escalate the ethnic strife. It added that in July 2023, he “participated in a weapons training camp organised in Selloi Langamai Ecological Park near Keikhu by PLA cadres, where around 80-90 young men received training in handling firearms. Singh assisted in imparting training on battle drills and jungle warfare to the participating youth.”

Highlights
  • Since May 3, 2023, the violence between Meitei and the Kuki-Zos has claimed over 220 lives and uprooted over 60,000 people.
  • The Meira Paibis have been active enablers of the violence, aiding and assisting armed Meitei groups. Apart from the Arambai Tenggol, banned insurgent groups have seen a resurgence.
  • Chief Minister Biren Singh has not spoken against armed Meitei groups, but has gone out of his way to position “Kuki militants” as aggressors.

NIA findings

The findings of the NIA are crucial to understanding the response of the State government in retrospect, especially Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, who has been blamed for fuelling the violence and for refusing to step down even in the face of his failure to control the violence.

The failure of a state, though, does not lie just in its actions but also in the disinformation that is shared at its behest. This disinformation can either be a refusal to acknowledge what has happened and claim accountability for it, or it can be an imagined counter-reality, blared out by the heads of states themselves.

Throughout the violence, Biren Singh, from time to time, blamed “Kuki militants” for the situation, while staying completely silent on the lead-up to the violence or the armed groups in the valley and their role in the violence. The only time he did speak about them was when he brokered a peace deal with one such group, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF).

The group has since been involved in violence at buffer zones and is also actively recruiting young people in the valley, even offering them stipends. In particular, Biren Singh’s silence about the activities of the Arambai Tenggol needs to be called to question, as this group has been charged with many counts of atrocities by various groups and organisations, including Naga groups, who have otherwise remained aloof from the conflict.

At a relief camp for internally displaced Meitei, in Imphal on April 27. The ethnic violence in Manipur has forced large numbers of both communities to seek shelter in government-run camps.

At a relief camp for internally displaced Meitei, in Imphal on April 27. The ethnic violence in Manipur has forced large numbers of both communities to seek shelter in government-run camps. | Photo Credit: RITESH SHUKLA/GETTY IMAGES

Biren Singh has not once spoken about any of these armed Meitei groups antagonistically, but has gone out of his way to position “Kuki militants” as aggressors right from the beginning, accusing them of attempting to “break Manipur’s territorial integrity”—almost to the extent that the word near-synonymous with Kuki-Zo in Meitei districts now is “militant”. Or “poppy cultivators”. Or “illegal immigrants”. The latter two labels see their root in the words of the Chief Minister himself.

State narrative and dismissal of reality

Manipur is a textbook example that helps us understand a state-manufactured narrative, where a State engulfed in ethnic violence is casually dismissed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, who said on April 8 that owing to the “timely intervention of the Government of India and efforts made by the Government of Manipur, there has been a marked improvement in the situation of the State”.

Days after this statement, videos of two Kuki-Zo men being chopped up limb-by-limb went viral in the State. Similar messaging of a parallel reality of calm is regularly dished out by the Chief Minister as well, denying the scale or extent to which Manipur remains riddled in violence.

The only outcome of this form of structured disinformation and denial of reality is that the BJP successfully managed to drive a wedge between two communities that will be hard to undo. Especially when the experience of the Kuki-Zo, who can no longer access the capital of the State they belong to, has been reduced to nothing.

Civil war-like situation

The situation in Manipur can now be defined as a full-blown civil war, which began from protests organised by the All-Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) on May 3, 2023. These rallies were opposed to a court order that suggested granting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the dominant Meitei.

The predominantly Hindu Meitei are concentrated in the valley area around Imphal, the State capital. They enjoy political dominance; Chief Minister Biren Singh himself is a Meitei as are 40 legislators in the 60-member State Assembly. On the other hand, the minority Kuki-Zo tribe, along with the Naga, are predominantly Christian and form about 40 per cent of the State’s population. They mostly live in the hills around the valley and have ST status.

Also Read | Singing in the dark: How artists from Manipur are reacting to the conflict

The root of the violence lies in an order issued in March 2023 by Justice Muralidharan of the Manipur High Court recommending that ST status be extended to the Meitei too.

This problematic portion of the order was eventually removed by the same court in February 2024 after a pushback from the Supreme Court, where a Bench led by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud said: “The order was not only factually incorrect but also against the principles laid down by the Constitution Benches of the Court on the classification of communities in the SC/ST list.”

Kuki children play inside a relief camp for internally displaced people, in Litan village on April 27. RITESH SHUKLA/GETTY IMAGES

Kuki children play inside a relief camp for internally displaced people, in Litan village on April 27. RITESH SHUKLA/GETTY IMAGES | Photo Credit: RITESH SHUKLA/GETTY IMAGES

But the damage had been done. The High Court order led to widespread resistance from the Kuki-Zo and Naga tribes, who believed that constitutionally anointing the Meitei as a tribe would be an injustice to the already under-represented tribes of Manipur. Many protests and rallies were organised in opposition.

When protest rallies were announced across the hill districts on May 3, Meitei organisations such as the Meitei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol announced counter-blockades, which were in place from the night of May 2. The rallies ended peacefully in all the hill districts, except Churachandpur, where the Kuki-Zo found a portion of their centenary gate set on fire. This led to fights between the two sets of protesters, escalating to arson and violence.

Attack on Meitei Christians

In no time, this spread to the other districts, but the worst was marked out for Imphal and its peripheries. Mob lynching, gang-rape, and the burning down of churches of the Meitei Christians figure in the FIRs as having occurred in the first week alone.

As the rest of the country had its eyes on the Karnataka Assembly election and its outcome, Manipur burned for days, with barely any mainstream media coverage of the extent of violence. Data reviewed by Reuters showed that in the first week of May alone, 77 Kuki and 10 Meitei were killed.

An investigation by New Lines Magazine found that almost all churches of Meitei Christians in Imphal were burnt down in the first week, including accompanying threats to many to convert to Sanamahism. By the second week, almost all the Meitei from the hill districts had to be relocated to the valley and the Kuki-Zo from the valley to the hills. This was done under the supervision of the armed forces.

“Manipur is a textbook example that helps us understand a state-manufactured narrative, where a State engulfed in ethnic violence is casually dismissed by the Prime Minister himself.”

On the very first day of the conflict, a total Internet shutdown was put in place, restricting any form of information from leaving Manipur, barring what journalistic organisations could put out. This shutdown was in place for months.

A perusal of the reports of Imphal-based media outlets from May onwards shows that most of them were just using the narratives set by State authorities. These media organisations, almost all dominated by Meitei, only relayed the Chief Minister’s messages. They failed to report on the forms and types of violence orchestrated in the State, and did not once critique the failure of the Biren Singh government in bringing the violence under control.

Further, the reality of what went on in Imphal and its peripheries did not make it into national news until much later.

The only information in national reports were statements of the Chief Minister, made through press conferences from Imphal. What one could gather from this was that the information blockade served as a tool for the state to establish its version as the only version available.

Chief Minister’s agenda

Biren Singh, in the initial weeks of the violence, maintained that “there was no fight between communities, it is purely with government. When government tries to do something, then resistance or acceptance is always there all over the world”.

This stance changed towards the end of May, when he started blaming outbreaks of violence on “Kuki militants”, calling them terrorists and alleging that they were attacking villages. He made multiple such references to them. The same was copied by media agencies, to the extent that even when Kuki-Zo villages were attacked, the perpetrators, according to the media, were “Kuki militants”.

The silence of the State government, the Chief Minister, and the local media about the biggest player in the violence, the Arambai Tenggol, is one that needs a closer look. The Arambai Tenggol, an organisation birthed by BJP politicians in Manipur, especially MP Leishemba Sanajaoba and Biren Singh, has proclaimed itself the saviour of the Meitei in Manipur.

Its members orchestrated a takeover on January 24 in Imphal, thronging the streets in armed vehicles and finally administering an oath to Meitei legislators, even beating up those who questioned them. Through social media posts, its members call for unity, often couched in degrading anti-Kuki language. This was happening even before the war, where the Arambai Tenggol would mimic similar vitriolic statements of the Chief Minister.

BJP support for Arambai Tenggol

The Arambai Tenggol enjoys the patronage of BJP leaders even though its name has come up in several FIRs since the onset of the violence, including an “attempt to kill” the additional SP on February 27.

This was the first time the Manipur Police itself issued a press statement against the group, saying it was “engaged in many anti-social activities such as assaulting civilians, and snatching vehicles from the public and government officials”. The group was blamed for booth capturing and violence during the election as well, but no member of the Arambai Tenggol was arrested.

Apart from the Arambai Tenggol, banned insurgent groups have seen a resurgence, and yet there have been no efforts to bring them under control in spite of indicting evidence against them. Their activities are not just in the buffer zones; a major chunk of complaints that have surfaced against them are from Imphal valley, ranging from extortions to physical assault.

Unfortunately, most of these cases go unreported, following the trend that seems to have been set since May 3.

How journalism was used to support the State’s narrative set the tone for how the conflict was perceived by the rest of the country. This continues till date: the Chief Minister still makes statements about how he is targeted because he has cleared acres of poppy fields and it is carried as news, word by word, with no background check. That a senior police officer zeroed in on the Chief Minister’s role in the drug mafia is no longer relevant. Many more questions remain answered.

The disparity in aid to the tribal-displaced and access to state institutions in the affected hill districts has been brought up many times by Kuki-Zo leaders and organisations, but remains unaddressed. Hundreds of students who had to flee from Imphal continue to face difficulties in accessing their institutions, even to procure a migration certificate to study elsewhere.

At a polling booth in Ukhrul district during the second phase of the election on April 26.

At a polling booth in Ukhrul district during the second phase of the election on April 26. | Photo Credit: RITESH SHUKLA/GETTY IMAGES

What has been starkly evident is that the state’s narrative leaves no place for redressal or justice. This is evident in the way the criminal justice system has failed victims. When photographs of two Meitei teenagers who had gone missing surfaced on the Internet, there were widespread student protests in the valley, with armed forces even raining pellets on the protesters. It was only after arrests were made swiftly the protests died down. But this has not been the case in the hill districts. In the viral video case, a few arrests were made but at least three persons who were named as accused are still to be apprehended.

Many more photographs and videos of brutality have surfaced since, including a beheading and bodies being desecrated, but none of these has led to arrests. Attacks on Meitei people critical of the government have also led to no action. In fact, even the abduction and attack of a senior police official by the Arambai Tenggol did not lead to arrests. Instead, Sanajaoba shared a post that urged the Arambai Tenggol and the Manipur Police to work together. The post was eventually deleted.

Perhaps the most troubling fact is how little has been done to indict the role of the bureaucracy in the violence. That lynchings and rapes were carried out by mobs running amok in Imphal, the seat of power not just of the Chief Minister but many high-ranking officials, has not come under as much scrutiny as it deserves. Why did orders under Section 144 of the IPC and orders seeking help from the Army come almost a day after the violence began remains unanswered.

Political intervention

A State government official who did not want to be named, claimed that bullying and political interventions were part and parcel of working in Manipur. While the functioning of officers in a State riddled by insurgency has always been complicated, from facing threats to even staying functional, matters seemed to get better from the mid-2000s, as the Manipur government cracked down on insurgent outfits.

But with the rise of Biren Singh, a reversal was initiated. He and those close to him are said to control every posting, and anything considered antagonistic usually leads to transfers. The Chief Secretary at the time of the violence, Rajesh Kumar, was to retire more than a year ago, but his tenure was extended twice, even when other eligible officers were available for deputation.

Also Read | Editor’s Note: The deafening silence on Manipur

When questionable orders were made at the Chief Minister’s behest, including declaring villages in the hill districts illegal without following due process, there seems to have been complete compliance by the bureaucracy.

Insiders said that nothing could be done because of political compulsions, the weight of which was especially felt in Biren Singh’s regime. Among the officers, a clear distinction can be made between those who are vocal about the discrepancies and those who are not. Most of those belonging to the former category no longer serve in Manipur, barring a few exceptions.

While the Inquiry Commission that has been constituted to investigate the violence said it would be looking at the failure of officers to address the violence on time, there is barely any precedent in the recent past where such accountability has been pinned on erring officers.

There are fears among the people of Manipur across districts that matters might only get worse after the declaration of the Lok Sabha election results on June 4. But “worse” is only a relative term now, as there has not been even a sliver of change in the attitude of the Centre or the State government in dealing with the issue. Furthermore, the need for justice and reparations to begin the process of conciliation seems to be totally lost on all those who are in power.

Greeshma Kuthar is an independent lawyer and journalist from Tamil Nadu. Her primary focus is investigating the evolving methods of the far right, their use of cultural nationalism regionally, and their attempts to assimilate caste identities into the RSS fold.

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