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Manipur: How peace has become the first casualty with 'shrinking space' for pluralism

By Biswanath Sinha* 
Unlike most of the states in India including the northeastern states (except Tripura) Manipur as a nation-state has existed for many years. The ancient chronicle of the Meiteis, the dominant community there the Cheitharol Kumpapa, lists 74 Meitei kingdoms going back in time to 33 A.D. The kingdom known as Meitei-Leipak, Poirei-Lam, Kangileipak, etc had possessed a distinct political and territorial status for centuries. 
In today’s backdrop of communal unrest in Manipur, it’s important to understand the political events post 1947. Between 1947 and 1949 when the British had left the sub-continent and Manipur got annexed to India, the nation state had adopted a constitution of its own that envisioned a democratic society under a constitutional monarchy. 
Based on the principles of universal adult franchise, elections were held both in the hills and valley in 1948 and a representative government was formed with the Maharaja as the constitutional head. This is unique to the history of Manipur – something unprecedented in the sub-continental history.
In the eyes of a Meitei, the concept of the territorial area of Manipur is inextricably linked to her identity and culture, as well as her physical and spiritual well-being. Between 1949 to 1956 Manipur was a Part C State and was governed by the Chief Commissioner appointed by the President of India. It was made a Union Territory in 1956 and a fully-fledged State in 1972.
 For the native Manipuri citizenry of an earlier free national state, it was viewed as forfeiting nationhood followed by down-gradation of their status in the Indian nation construct. However, that the society continued with the spirit of democracy, ethnic inclusiveness, and equality can be evidenced by the fact that the first Chief Minister (CM) of Manipur after it achieved full statehood was Mohammed Alimuddin (1972 and 1974), a Muslim (Meitei Pangal) who constitute about 8% of the state’s population. He was one of the first Muslim CMs of India outside Jammu and Kashmir. 
Many movements for attaining full statehood were jointly fought by all the communities. When the minority Naga tribes’ (with about 26% of the state’s population) representatives Yangmaso Shaiza (1974 and 1977) and Rishang Keshing (1980, 1981, and 1994) became the CMs of Manipur, it was viewed as a legitimately normal democratic process by the majority Meitei community.
However, with the growth of population and faced with the reality of a competitive environment in business, education, and service sectors, the Meitei soon feared that they lagged behind others and their opportunities in their own land shrunk. The feeling of being politically marginalized got a stronger voice when in 2001 the Union Government reportedly agreed with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN Isak-Muivah fraction), a Naga nationalist group to extend the ceasefire in ‘all Naga inhabited areas including Manipur’. 
In an immediate ‘public uprising’ on June 18, 2001, 18 people were martyred even as the Manipur Assembly building was burnt down and the CM bungalow was attacked by the agitators. The fault lines were widened then.
The present conflict between the Meitei and Kuki surrounds, but is not confined to the popular Meitei views: 
  • that Kukis are trying to increase their demography by illegal means -- read bringing their own stock of Chin-Kuki -- Mizos from Myanmar; 
  • that Kukis are occupying large patches of lands in reserve and protected forests; 
  • that many of such lands are used for poppy cultivation and in turn it ends into the drugs value chain which affects the entire population, especially the youths and; 
  • that in the Kuki chieftaincies which is an antithesis to democracy, any ‘headman’, a hereditarily determined position is free to settle in a new forest land and can ‘distribute’ land to new families. 
Some of these factors also were behind the bloody conflict between the Naga and the Kuki resulting in heavy casualties and the Kukis were forced to flee from Chandel and Ukhrul districts between 1993 to 1997. From the Kukis’ view, 1,157 people were allegedly killed by Naga militants during that conflict, and monoliths were inscribed with those names recently.
The Meiteis on the other hand have to realise that their past glories cannot weigh more than future dreams; and clubbing all the Kukis as illegal immigrants is wrong and counter-productive. If they have taken the lead role in bringing the state to eminence, acclamation, and greatness, as a dominant community, then they have been silent observers, if not equal participants in plunging the state to be one of the country's most corrupt and militarised territories. 
Ever since the incidences of economic blockade (by the tribal groups) and counter-blockades (by the Meitei groups) since the beginning of this century, to the culmination of the present fierce conflict, one can hear a common sentiment in the valley: they cannot accept any non-Meitei as the CM of the state anymore. The fault line got further widened here.
As the largest and the most powerful community, the Meitei have always had an upper hand in the power sharing, administration and economy. But an analysis of the evolution of the Meitei society starting from royal’s time will reveal the fact that a few elites concentrated the power at their hands. They played a critical role in getting the Meitei delisted from the scheduled tribe (ST) list in 1951. 
They patronised corruption, nepotism and favouritism across the administrative and business system. Today, Manipur is probably the only state in India where government jobs - starting from a peon’s to officer’s post has a ‘fixed’ rate known to the public, and is ‘sold out’. A new political class, across the communities, only got added to this elite group. Such elitism is so deep rooted that this class of people even impose themselves for being ‘chief guest’ in all major social events paying money to the organisers. 
These elites, present across otherwise egalitarian Meitei, Naga and Kuki societies, have properties in Imphal and metro cities; have shares in all corruption which in most of the cases have already been institutionalised; have direct or indirect links with the underground elements and they have created a cronyism where the majority of the population are excluded. This fault line of Manipur which is not delinked to the current crisis, cannot further be kept under the carpet.
We cannot have the current lawlessness in Manipur continued for long. All the stakeholders – the central and state governments; civil society organisations (CSOs); academicians; celebrities; sportspersons and artists -- are attempting to bridge the gaps, albeit in a slow process. It’s high time that all communities there revisit the idea of multiracialism, democracy, and accommodativeness laid down by their founders many years back. 
Addressing the fault lines narrated earlier has to be a part of this process.
---
*Social sector leader. Among many roles, he has worked extensively in Manipur in rural livelihoods, energy, sports and entrepreneurship for nearly two decades. Views are personal

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