Manipur: Where voters are more concerned about existential threats than electoral preferences

At the heart of the violence lies majority triumphalism combined with a systematic denial of knowledge acquisition, specifically histories, for the minority community in Manipur.

Mass Burial sites at Lamka, Manipur, India. Photo: Thanglianmung Neihsia

As India enters the final phase of its mammoth six-week-long national elections, voters in the troubled northeastern state of Manipur remain more concerned about existential threats than their electoral preferences. A little over a year since inter-ethnic violence erupted on May 3 last year, there are no signs that the state is anywhere close to becoming normal. With over 220 lives lost since then, there are no signs that the state with a population of about 3.6 million is anywhere close to becoming normal.

In a way, the apathetic response to the state’s plight from India’s government has to do with Manipur’s relative parliamentary insignificance since it accounts for only two seats out of a total 544. They are currently held by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies.

People in Manipur are more concerned about their lives than about their votes. “Common people continue to be displaced and there is no measure yet for us to go back to a place called ‘home’. Do not give up, yet. On us,” appealed Hoihnu Hauzel, in a regional media women’s WhatsApp group. Hauzel is an independent journalist based in Manipur, who runs The Northeast Stories, an e-magazine.

At the heart of the violence lies majority triumphalism combined with a systematic denial of knowledge acquisition, specifically histories, for the minority community in Manipur.

The dominant Meitei culture pushing against the minority Zo community leads to a persistent denial of “self-education” which keeps the Zos from learning their histories and cultures. We are surprised that even professors and academics from the Meiti or other non-Zo communities do not bring these issues to the table.

Internal colonisation

In postcolonial contexts, organised institutional structures perpetuate “internal colonisation” by systematically restricting access, suppressing expression, and excluding certain groups.

Contemporary definitions of cultural genocide are understood to describe the intentional destruction of a culture, without necessarily involving killing or violence, against members of the group in question. Cultural genocide can include the eradication of cultural activities, artefacts, languages, and traditions.

In the case of the Zos in Manipur, “cultural genocide” is reflected in the attempts to deny education to this community, besides the destruction of records, literature, and artefacts related to education, and the targeting of indigenous Zo scholars to silence their expressions.

Education as an underlying form of cultural reification, when silenced, erased, and denied, is a process, slow or fast, inclines to practices of cultural genocide. Such denial has a tremendous impact on indigenous communities which is one of their only means of large-scale cultural dissemination that also ensures intergenerational “growth” in society.

Through semi-structured interviews, informal conversations, and an overview of news on the violence over the past seven months, we found distinct cases of culturally genocidal attempts against the Zos throughout the ethnic violence, which have not received significant attention.

To clarify, we prefer to use the term Zo because this is the authentic identity by which the Zos identify themselves before the advent of the colonisers when they "code" them categorically under colonial names such as Kuki or Chin, depending on the country (India, Myanmar, and part of Bangladesh) and context (Mizoram, Manipur, Assam, Nagaland, etc.). There are different ethnic groups within the Zos - Mizo, Zomi, and Kuki, among others.

Lifelong work in flames

Akin to the burning of libraries and books and the destruction of heritage sites across the world as processes of cultural genocides, the Manipur mayhem against the Zos was insidious. One such incident was the case of a pioneering Zo scholar and a prominent anthropologist whose significant work has not been inscribed in the Indian and Manipur state history curriculum, even though his contribution has been historically valuable for the Zo ethnic groups.

In May 2023, mobs began to mark, burn and destroy colonies and residences of the Zomi and Kuki tribes. All hell broke loose on 3 May 2023.

Eminent anthropologist Dr. Kam Khen Thang Hauzel, 76, was in his home library Imphal Valley, when an angry Meitei mob attacked the house where he had always lived, and told him and his family to leave. Some faces seemed familiar, people with whom Dr Hauzel’s family had co-existed for decades.

The mob torched the entire house. Dr Hauzel, in psychological trauma for several months, mourns not just the house he had lived in for over 50 years, but also his library containing the 30 books he authored, plus his unpublished manuscripts and his lifelong collection of more than 4,000 books of different genres. Also destroyed were the state-of-the-art tools he used for his writing, including laptops, desktops, printers, scanners, and cameras.

Dr. Hauzel’s rich body of work has always upheld advocating and propagating literacy and knowledge for his community and the tribals at large. He was the first Zomi to have translated and compiled an English-Paite dictionary. When he completed his PhD in 1978 in Social Anthropology at Guwahati University, Assam, he became the first Zomi to obtain a doctorate. Having tracked the tribes of Manipur since his student days, he retired as director of the state government-run Tribal Research Institute retirement. India’s Sahitya Akademi, an organisation dedicated to the promotion of literature in India's languages, then appointed him as Director of the Northeast Centre for Oral Literature. He has also been a member of the Executive Board and General Council of the Manipur State Kala Akademi for several years. He was the first Zomi to have translated and compiled an English-Paite dictionary.

Collective failing of Zo students

It bears pointing out that Manipur University is one of “the many hands” of the Manipur State, controlled and dominated by Meiteis. Zos, on the other hand, dominates many colleges in Manipur that are affiliated with Manipur University, like Rayburn College in Lamka. The examinations, questions, and curriculum are influenced by Manipur University, which has predominantly centred on the Meitie ideology for decades.

The declared results of the 2022 undergraduate examination in Manipur University show how sections of the Zo students from Rayburn College were made to fail the examination. For example, the vice principal of Rayburn College, when contacted by the HIlls Journal, shared the following statistics (also available at the Rayburn College official statement):

1. Only 10 out of 76 Zo students in the Department of Psychology cleared their fifth-semester examination in 2022.

2. In various subjects, numerous Rayburn College students received ‘zero/no marks’ in their 2nd and 4th semester examination, 2022.

3. Some failed students had no marks attributed to their Modern Indian Language subject, a local and regional language subject. They were not denied “marks” in their regional papers, their mother tongue.

4. Some students’ internal practical marks at Rayburn College are not reflected in their final mark sheets, resulting in relatively low scores, or failed grades in such subjects.

Several tribal organisations issued complaints with the controller of examinations at Manipur University. Within a couple of hours of the complaint, new results were declared by the Manipur University where at least 41% “passed”, from the “10” pass percentage in the first declaration. To this day, one still wonders about the capacity of Manipur University administration to “recheck” students' examination papers so fast.

Collective denial of medical examination

A group of 27 Zo MBBS students displaced from Imphal sought the intervention of Governor Anusuiya Uikey in November 2023, alleging that they were barred even though they had paid their fees and filled out their application forms. This happened while the National Medical Commission (NMC) explicitly permitted displaced students to appear in university exams at their college or an alternative institution.

In a two-page memorandum submitted to Governor Anusuiya Uikey through the Churachandpur deputy commissioner after the protest rally, the Zomi, Kuki, and Mizo students highlighted their denial of the examination. The NMC issued a No Objection Certificate (NOC) on 13 November 2023, emphasising that the university may decide after consultation with colleges and state authorities.

Destruction of students’ documents

The Meitei radicals hunted the Zo students in the Manipur University campus during the initial phase of the violence. A Zo student leader from the university told Tonsing that if it was not for the Assam Rifles posted in the university, “we would not have survived.”

He also recalled how certain Meitei (Manipur) student unions had been pressuring the government to remove the Assam Rifles from the campus. He became suspicious of the pressure to remove the Assam Rifles only after he had to flee the university and wondered, “What if this was planned all along? I am glad the Assam Rifles were there for us.”

Another survivor that Tonsing spoke to, in Delhi in a camp arranged by internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Manipur, said that he identified leaders from the activist group Arambai Tenggol (Meitei for "dart-wielding cavalry") leading the crowd. Arambai Tenggol is sometimes described in Manipur as a revivalist organisation dedicated to restoring the pre-Hindu, native Sanamahi religion to the Meitei people.

Showing a photograph on his phone, he told Tonsing “Until the Arambai Tenggol leader came into our hostel building, the crowd was in control. But as he entered, the crowd got intense as if they received the authority to do what they wanted” (translated).

In the process of hunting, harassing, and violating their rights, Arambai Tenggol and Meitei mobs deliberately searched for certificates and documents of the Zo students. They collected and burned them inside the campus. The administrators did not intervene. In many cases, they destroy write-ups and theses of current PhD students. An IDP, when he arrived in Delhi, told us, “It is challenging to seek admission to new institutions as our academic records and certificates were deliberately destroyed by the Meitei radicals. Many of us are worried about our future.”

Distributive FIRs

Another technique of silencing and denial of Zo voices involves the home department of Manipur requesting the police to investigate the members of the Zomi Students' Federation (ZSF) Union from Lamka, Manipur, who published a book titled The Inevitable Split: Documents on State-sponsored ethnic cleansing in Manipur, 2023.

According to the letter, the Commissioner of Home Affairs directed the state police to file a first information report or FIR (common around Southasia, with the police recording details of the incident being reported), and prohibit future publication of the book. The student union has been active in leading the Zos throughout the conflict, particularly in the legal courses and ensuring the safety (medical and humanitarian) of Kuki IDPs, more specifically, fleeing to Lamka, Manipur.

The case of a history book titled “Anglo-Kuki War 1917-1919: A Frontier Uprising against Imperialism During the First World War'' (published by (Routledge, 2019) is another example of attempts to erase perspectives from the “margins”. Manipur Police filed an FIR in which individuals from Ukhrul, Imphal East and Imphal West villages complained against the author Dr. Vijaykant Chenji and editors, Jangkhomang Guite and Tongkholal, from the Kuki community at Jawaharlal Nehru University. They alleged that the book misrepresented the armed Kuki rebellion of 1917-1919 as being an Anglo-Kuki conflict. The academicians and the retired colonel were charged with "waging war” against the Government of India and promoting "enmity between different groups" by editing and authoring the book.

Another case, filed against the Head of the Department of Political Science Professor Kham Khan Suan Hausing at the University of Hyderabad, illustrates how the narratives are controlled. Based on a complaint by “one Khomdram Manikanta Singh” filed on August 2, 2023, the professor was summoned to court. In the petition, the complainant alleged that the four persons, including Prof. Hausing, became first-time voters in 2005 and were not listed on the electoral roll earlier. The petition claimed that the state is under serious threat due to the large influx of illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries. The complainant also alleged that the professor is suspected to be a Myanmar national.

These cases were brought against him at a time when he was the most vocal professor the Zo people had during the conflict.

Beaten to death

Hanglalmuan Vaiphei, 20, a B. Com. student at Rayburn College in Lamka, Manipur, India, was apprehended on April 30th by the state police from his home in Lamka, Manipur on the grounds of sharing a Facebook post that was “critical” of CM Biren Singh. His death was reported to have taken place in Imphal on May 4th 2023, the hub of the Meitei population, after he had been escorted from court to the Sajiaw Jail. Vaiphei was allegedly beaten to death by an armed Meitei mob that robbed the police of their weapons.

The state of student safety remains alarming.

There are numerous other cases unreported throughout the violence. However, all these elements are not isolated from each other. It must be seen collectively, related, and taken into serious consideration to realise the larger impact it has structurally, historically, and culturally not just on the Zo people and society as a whole.

(Suanmuanlian Tonsing is an indigenous PhD student at the School of Information, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Michael KC Thanga is a PhD candidate and ad hoc lecturer, researching philosophy of psychoanalysis at North Eastern Hill University, Shillong, India.  Views are personal. By special arrangement with Sapan)

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