The crisis in Manipur has been brewing: Depths of discord in northeastern India

The danger is that the cracks in the Constitution are widening. The need of the hour is to find the true meaning of religion. A divisive agenda no matter how strong, will end up dividing the nation and enhancing a culture of division.

Martin Macwan May 23, 2023
Crisis in Manipur (Photo: Youtube)

Manipur has been in a state of conflict for quite some time. It is not surprising that the situation often escalates into violence in this northeastern Indian state bordering Myanmar. The beginning of the current spell of violence in Manipur was perhaps spontaneous but not the discontent and discord between the Meitei and the Kuki tribals.  Multiple problems have contributed to the strife between the two groups which are clearly divided by lines of geography, economy, caste and religion. 

The Meiteis who are mostly Hindus live in the plains of the Central Valley while the largely Christian Kuki tribals live in the surrounding hills. The Meiteis, who are better off, educated, constitute more than half the population and are the ruling elite, want to be included in the list of the state’s scheduled tribes, setting off the current crisis which escalated after the Manipur High Court asked the State government to consider the demand. The BJP has been in power here for six years under Chief Minister Biren Singh, completing the first year of his second term, yet nothing has been done by the Centre or State to de-escalate a crisis that will ultimately spread, challenging the constitution, unravelling the efforts to uplift backward classes and ruining the work of our founding fathers. In such a situation appealing for peace in Manipur is just not enough.

Peace is so distant and the only thing that is evident now is the depth of the discord and lack of trust. This can be measured by the fact that 10 Kuki legislators, including two ministers from the present Manipur government and seven BJP legislators have petitioned the Union Government to provide for a separate administration as a constitutional measure for the hills. They have stated that there are no ST members in the valley and there are no Meitei members in the hill areas. The divide is clear.

The depth of the discord can also be measured by the fact that some home entrances in the valley areas now reportedly carry written signboards spelling out the social identity of the residents in those homes. What happens then to the constitutional principle of ‘Fraternity’ which now seems to be an alien concept in the streets of Manipur? According to Dr Ambedkar, both Equality and Liberty have no meaning in the absence of Fraternity.

The depth of the discord can also be measured in the demand by Meitei leaders that an official inquiry be instituted to decide the citizenship status of the Kuki tribals. There are different reasons being put on the table by various stakeholders as the root cause of the trouble including the fact that Kuki ST members can purchase land in the valley dominated by the Meitei but not vice versa; the Meitei was referred to as an ethnic group but not included in the ST list during the framing of the Indian Constitution; the Meitei who represent 53 per cent of the population in Manipur reside in only 10 per cent of the state land. The other issues include the state government’s steps to remove tribals dwelling in the forest areas by terming them as ‘encroachers’; the avenues open for tribals by their ST quotas have also added to the discord between the two groups.

The underlying reason is clear. There is also an element of envy among the Meitei, though they are better off, seeing the progress the ST communities have achieved.

Plight of socially marginalised communities

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to say anything on such an important matter. This suggests that as a political party, their difficulty in promoting the idea of the Hindutva faces a dilemma, in such situations. Do the party and the notion of Hindutva recognise as a non-negotiable principle, the importance of the Indian Constitution which has carved out a safe space for the representation in multiple avenues of public life for the marginalised communities through a system of reservation? Or should the Indian Constitution be undermined by promoting the inequality of status as accorded by the caste system? Undoubtedly, the former calls for the party to also undertake a mammoth role, that of the social reformer.

Dr B R Ambedkar had argued before the Southborough Commission in 1919 advocating adult franchise for all Indian citizens on the grounds that the right to representation and the right to hold public office were an integral part of citizenship. The Indian Constitution later legalised adult franchise for all its citizens and introduced the system of reservation for Scheduled Cates and Scheduled Tribes spanning the fields of higher education, public sector jobs and the legislatures. The Constitution has expanded the scope of reservation to women, OBCs and lastly for the economically weaker sections who are not a part of the SC, ST and OBCs.

While the rationale for the latter is debatable given their social and political status in the country, the central question is: without reservations in place, would the SC and the ST, the most marginalised communities, have ever found representation, an all-important step towards achieving equality and human dignity in the country?

Reservation in the cases of the SCs and STs, apart from the educational and economic benefits has brought about space for their humanisation. They have suffered centuries of deprivation and humiliation with restrictions on educating themselves. And for the SC, even restricted physical mobility for moving around in public spaces.

Dangers of divisive agenda

The country has witnessed social tension between the Dalit and the non-Dalit communities for a long time. There have been numerous anti-reservation riots and the incidents of caste violence are by and large on the increase each year. India and all its political parties have failed to abolish untouchability and the practice of manual scavenging. The incidents of caste violence are often rooted in absurd grounds like Dalits growing moustaches or dressing better.

The patrons of Hindutva have undermined realities on the ground so much that in a state like Gujarat, Dalits though being Hindu, cannot enter temples in 90.2 percent villages.

While caste violence is not a new phenomenon, the large-scale violence against the tribal community in Manipur is unmissable.

The truth is perhaps simple. An appeal for peace is not enough. The danger is that the cracks in the Constitution are widening. The need of the hour is to find the true meaning of religion. A divisive agenda no matter how strong, will end up dividing the nation and enhancing a culture of division.

(The author is the founder of Navsarjan, a grassroots Dalit organisation fighting for human rights. Views are personal.  By special arrangement with The Billion Press)

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