By Ashis Biswas
Union Home Minister Mr Amit Shah’s belated announcement assuring that no official decision would be made regarding a proposed alteration in the status of Meitei tribespeople in Manipur state without a comprehensive discussion among all concerned groups and stakeholders is most welcome.
However, the violent Manipur episode has left several disturbing questions in its wake that need answering urgently. These mainly concern GOI’s style of governance, especially in an ethnically hypersensitive region. The inordinate amount of time taken by powerful GOI authorities to make only a bland anti-climactic announcement after a prolonged outbreak of mob violence, hardly enhanced the image of the ruling BJP-led NDA. After all, an explosive ethnic issue that called for handling with extreme delicacy, had instead been dealt with an appalling official insensitivity.
Even more worrying in this context is an obvious intelligence failure on part of concerned state and central agencies, to anticipate the massive fallout of their recent moves. Preliminary assessment reports confirmed the death of at least 64 people, destruction of property including Government offices and places of worship, to the tune of (est) Rs 100 crore, added to the spillover effect in Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh …… with fresh details still coming in.
Nevertheless in effect if not by intent, Shah’s statement was received with a sigh of collective relief. One question arises: why, in recent times, GOI seems to have become contemptuously intolerant of all contrary opinion on even matters of urgent public interest?
One would have expected the NDA Government — it is of little use blaming the Manipur Government for the crisis that was thrust upon it by Delhi-based policymakers! — to have learnt a lesson in good governance from its earlier retreat in its prestige fight against North India’s rich peasantry over the Farmers’ Bills in Nov 2021. Now the centre has had to take a step back again, this time in Manipur, but only in the face of a major eruption of ethnic violence that briefly shook the region’s stability.
In other words: Is it fair to conclude, as is apparent from the NDA’s recent functioning, that GOI will concede ground in matters involving the economic destinies of large groups of people in different parts of India, only in the face of prolonged violence and sustained resistance — and never mind the overall cost to the nation in terms of time lost in destruction of lives and property, loss of production and a myriad other negative consequences? Should this be India’s way forward in the new millennium?
One wonders how India’s pro-establishment journalists and spin doctors would respond to such questions — assuming that they’ll deign to respond!
Delhi’s conciliatory announcement, as stated, came only after an estimated 64 [people were killed in violent ethnic clashes, which returned to the otherwise peaceful region after a break of some years. Property mostly including government-owned or built assets and places of worship were targeted by frenzied mobs.
There was a widespread displacement of people on a national scale, as most forms of socio-economic activity were disrupted for days — offices remained shut, as well as shops, markets and schools. People were simply too busy in getting away from troubled Manipur as fast as they could.
There was the all important question: what had prompted the Guwahati High Court, GOI authorities and the Manipur administration to press for the inclusion of the dominant Meitei tribespeople as a scheduled tribe at this point of time?
It is common knowledge that despite being the dominant ethnic group in Manipur, the Meiteis who account for 53% of the state’s population, have long standing grievances. The remaining population includes the Kukis, Hmars, some Naga groups and 31 other smaller ethnicities. The Kukis and Nagas are mostly Christians unlike the Meiteis.
In recent years, there have been allegations from the majority Meiteis of a growing marginalisation coupled with increasing social assertion from the smaller tribes, especially the Kukis. The most serious complaint from some Meitei organisations has been that even the state Census operations have been conducted unfairly and the community has seen its overall percentage within the state population shrink over the year. This coupled with social benefits and special concessions that smaller officially registered tribes enjoy in the state, has been causing frustration and tensions within the larger Meitei community.
Therefore the demand for the inclusion of the Meiteis was neither unfair nor a conspiracy, say leaders of the community.
In addition certain other factors had led to new social tensions over the years, such as the unregulated entry of outstation people including illegal Bangladeshis, to the state. Such illegal migration and settlements were slowly altering the existing population patterns and worse, this was happening because of the collusion among some officials and politicians. Illegal settlements had come up in reserve forest areas, the green forest cover had been destroyed in some places.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) both in the state and the Centre, drawing their main support from the Meiteis, could not remain indifferent to such complaints. Central and state BJP leaders, helped also by advice by senior regional leaders like Assam Chief Minister Mr Himanta Biswa Sarma among others, put together what they felt would be a new fair socio-economic package for the Meiteis. It cannot be denied that the BJP’s move was influenced by familiar considerations associated with what is commonly denounced as practicing ‘vote bank politics’.
Enlisting the Meiteis themselves also within the ST category, BJP leaders felt, would at a stroke empower the community financially, ending their frustrations significantly. Along with this, the authorities would also conduct a drive to ascertain the extent of illegal immigration to Manipur, by carrying out official searches in different areas, to check how many people especially living in deep interior areas possessed requisite official citizenship documents.
Different ethnic groups however, strongly protested against both these moves. Social tensions/anger mounted, especially as the drive to check citizenship began .Matters came to a boil as armed Meitei groups, according to reports, accompanied officials in some cases as they went about their unpleasant business. It was not long before neighbour turned against neighbour in different areas within an otherwise peaceful Northeastern state .Inexorably, as one incident followed another, the decks were cleared for a major ethnic confrontation that brought credit neither to the state nor the centre. The rest as the saying goes is history. (IPA Service)