This is the third of our three-part series trying to observe the Manipur crisis from as many angles as possible. In this piece, the author argues that the first step would be to try to prevent more violence from taking place by exercising the writ of the State. The healing will come later, as it must.
ON April 27 a mob set on fire an open gym in Churachandpur district of Manipur, which was scheduled to be inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Manipur, N. Biren Singh the very next day.
On May 3, a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ was organised by the All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) to protest against the demand for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list by the Meitei Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee (STDCM).
In the judgment, delivered on March 27, the Manipur High Courtapproved the petition filed by the members of the Meitei Tribe Union for inclusion of Meitei community in the ST list on the ground that the state assembly neither initiated the process to submit the recommendation to the tribal affairs ministry nor provided a satisfactory response for keeping the matter pending for ten years since 2013.
The testimonies of some of the survivors of the riots from Imphal and Churachandpur areas, whom I have met here in Delhi, speak of the volume and scale of the riots that have wiped away completely one’s notion of a safe home and shared neighbourhood between Meitei and Kuki–Chin–Zo peoples.
In the judgment delivered on March 27, the Manipur High Court approved the petition filed by the members of the Meitei Tribe Union for inclusion of the community in Scheduled Tribes list on the ground that the state assembly kept the matter pending for ten years since 2013 without satisfactory grounds.
Tales of neighbourhoods that failed to rescue each other, polarised by the calls of the mobs or fear of backlash if one crossed the group’s boundary to save members of the other group, dominate the discourse of riots.
There are fewer tales in the public domain of cooperation and supporting and safeguarding each other in the face of walls enacted between the communities, hardened rigidly by the calls and cries of the mobs.
Unfortunately, such stories of hope could not be present in the discourse of violence that constantly resists mediation and connections. Tales of such cooperation beyond these walls, amid the violence, could have served as potent mediators in the ensuing violence. But the narratives of ethnic hatred and divides silenced their voices.
The testimonies of the survivors contain thehorrors and vulnerability they faced on the night of May 3 and the following few days. Their call for police security was in vain. Neither the neighbours nor the police rushed swiftly enough to protect their lives and property; people had to promptly escape to the neighbours houses or the forests to save themselves from the mobs.
Once the riots broke out rapidly, multiple narratives emerged from the horrors, the madness, and the mayhem. Social media is filled with explanations of why and how the violence began: the more the narratives, the more cases of violence.
While mobs rampaged neighbourhoods unchecked, every sharedness one has built in the past decades fell apart. One distinguishing factor of rioting has been the externality of the agency in committing violence that has consumed the intercommunity neighbourhood and shared ethnic spaces.
Who is the mob? Nobody knows in those moments of violence. But the mob is external to the home and neighbourhood. Mob violence did not suddenly erupt in the midst of the neighbourhood and the safe spaces of our homes. It intrudes into the secure areas and splits people into ethnic groupings. The act of violence has been meted out with the question:Who are Meitei and who are Kuki?
The testimonies of some of the survivors of the riots from Imphal and Churachandpur areas, whom I have met here in Delhi, speak of the volume and scale of the riots that have wiped away completely one’s notion of a safe home and shared neighborhood between Meitei and Kuki-Chin-Zo peoples.
This situation appeared distinct once we saw the images of gates of houses in neighbourhood’s pasted with posters indicating who should not be targeted, a technique people were forced to follow to identify themselves ethnically for the mobs.
For instance, today, the site of villages at Torbung in Churachandpur and the Kuki–Chin–Zo settlement in the urban Imphal area look deserted and empty. There are reports of bulldozing and flattening of open houses at Torbung.
Will the people return to the places they left? Many would say no, and many fear returning to their own houses. But one remembers home. In one of the recent testimonies I have heard, I learned how a non-Meitei spoke to a Meitei friend in Imphal to ask about the status of their house in the city, which they had left amid riots.
The same is true of the people who left their homes in Torbung in Churachandpur. It will be difficult to forget the house as the space of familial memory and the calmness of the neighbourhood.
Before people may entirely forget about their homes and be pressed to naturalise in new places, they must fight against every effort to silence these intermediate voices of hope and harmony.
Streets to bunkers: Armed militants, armed civilians
As people struggled to escape riots and faced a humanitarian crisis in relief camps, another bout of violence began on May 29 in Sugnu, Serou, and the neighbouring villages. What makes this phase different from the earlier one?
This time, violence is marked by activities involving suspected militants, armed civilians, looting of police stations, and the alleged complicity of Assam Rifles and paramilitary forces.
This phase of violence raised new issues and new questions. The violence began on May 29 while Union Minister of State for Home Affairs (MoS) Nityanand Rai was in Manipur. It happened at a time when the Chief of Army Staff, General Manoj Pande, had alreadyvisited Imphal on May 27, on a two-day visit to assess the situation on the ground.
Union minister Raireached Imphal on May 25. In a press conference at Imphal, he admired the beauty of Manipur and how the riots had posed problems to growth, culture and tradition. However, the violence was not contained.
Reports of attacks on villagers by armed militants and houses being set on fire filled the news. The chief ministercalled out the acts of violence as terrorism. The more alarming was the report of people arming themselves to defend their villages. It happened with the information of civilians robbing guns and ammunition from several police stations. It was a ‘civil war,’ not rioting for the general people.
The State’s complicity, directly or indirectly, in the current armed militants and civilian conflicts has brought to focus again, the issue of the State monopoly of violence.
The contours ofcivil wars were setting out in the field, along with the alleged reports of civilians looting arms and ammunition and the reported armed militants crossing the Indo-Myanmar border to aid the Kuki–Chin–Zo villagers affected by the violence.
Reports of people’s mobilisation for licenced guns and phrases such as ‘we want guns and ammunition, not food’ to fight external aggression filled the theatre of violence. There were reports of people firing from the bunkers in the foothills.
We also heard about people using private drones to watch the bunkers and the movement of militants. All happened while the MoS (Home Affairs), the Chief of Army Staff, and the Chief Security Advisor of the state were in Manipur.
A few things stand out in this development. The theatre of violence shifted from the sites of streets, urban areas, and interdistrict border villages of Charuchandpur–Imphal, and Imphal–Kangpokpi districts to the foothill villages.
While the urban and bordering districts’ towns became the site of relief camps, where people struggled for health, food, medicine and sanitary challenges, Imphal’s foothill and peripheral regions became the site of violence.
Why did not the presence of the Central minister and COAS make any difference in the condition of violence? When Rai arrived, many hoped that the situation would improve. Instead, a series of violent transgressions involving militants and armed civilians have started since then.
When the violence continues, people ask, what is the violence intended to achieve? Violence is political. At the same time, the violence associated with the riots could have resulted from a communal logic that transfers individual acts into collective acts.
An individual’s experiences of violence translate into the collective experience of violence. Violence at this scale involving armed militants has become part of the military and security discourse on State and non-State insurgent groups. It brings to the fore questions on the politics of violence, exceptionally executed by actors who share the State’s monopoly on violence.
State’s complicity, shared monopoly of violence
One of the critical issues that have emerged, particularly in the aftermath of May 29, the question of the involvement of armed militants in burning villages and killing villagers in the periphery of Imphal. Such a question emerged from the reported information on using sophisticated arms and ammunition, which ordinary villagers would not have used.
There is a claim that the armed militants are not involved, but the ‘village defence force’ (VDF) is defending the Kuki–Chin–Zo villages. VDF personnels were engaged with licenced guns.
Violence is marked by activities involving suspected militants, armed civilians, looting of police stations, and the alleged complicity of Assam Rifles and paramilitary forces.
The COAS who visited Imphal observed that Manipur violence was ethnic and unrelated to insurgency and counterinsurgency measures. However, his clarification does not stop people from questioning the position of the army and paramilitary forces in armed violence. Women’s associations would prevent army personnel from entering the villages because they accused the army of siding with the militants.
The State’s complicity, directly or indirectly, in the current armed militants and civilian conflicts has brought to focus again the issue of the State monopoly of violence. If the State’s monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force is the core concept of modern public law, one must question how militants exercise a similar monopoly?
In exceptional circumstances, does the State also exercise the discretionary power of deciding with whom to share the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence?
TheSoOin this context needs critical reflection. On August 1, 2005, the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement was signed between the Indian Army and Kuki and Chin armed groups, the Kuki National Organisation (KNO), and United Peoples’ Front (UPF).
A trilateral SoO agreement was signed in New Delhi on August 22, 2008 among the KNO, Union government, and government of Manipur.
The SoO lays down specific ground rules to be obeyed by the armed groups— that all the ‘under grounds’ (UGs) will abide by the Constitution of India, the laws of the land, and the territorial integrity of Manipur; all UG groups will altogether abjure the path of violence and will not engage in violence and unlawful activities; the security forces (meaning State forces) will not launch operations against the UG, as long as they abide by the agreement; and the cadres of the groups will stay in their designated camps.
The State and Kuki-Chin-Zo militant groups have engaged with each other for quite a long time through this dialogical process. Parties to SoO have been reported to have violated the ground rules of suspension of operation.
The inaction of the army and reported armed violence under SoO must be understood within the dynamics and spaces of dialogue that the State has been engaging with since 2005.
There can be two sides to the SoO. For the KNO and UPF, the SoO is a political space for realising the ‘State within the State’ and resolving their differences. One must know that the Kuki–Chin–Zo society has historically had three homeland demands: Kuki, Hmar, and Zo homelands. For the State, however, the SoO is part of their counterinsurgency measures.
Subir Bhaumik, a former British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) correspondent, observed that the State faces the growing strength of the ‘Meitei insurgent’ groups, who refuse to start a political dialogue. Under this pretext, a military agreement was signed between State security forces and the Kuki and Zomi insurgent groups in 2005 to remove Meitei insurgents from the Kuki–Zomi-dominated district of Churachandpur in Manipur.
The testimonies of the survivors contain the horrors and vulnerability they faced on the night of May 3 and the following few days. Their call for police security was in vain. Neither the neighbors nor the police rushed swiftly enough to protect their lives and property; people had to promptly escape to the neighbors or the forests to save themselves from the mobs.
Given this context, two things can be said. One, the SoO militants’ imaginary territory as a separate homeland defines their engagement with the State at the level of official dialogue. At the same time, violence is used to institute an autonomous political order that segregates and isolates communities territorially and culturally.
Secondly, the counterinsurgency measure restricts the army from acting on specific groups of militants under SoO and the reported involvement of the groups in violence. As such, under these circumstances, the narrative of dialogue and peace across communities is silenced.
The narratives of home and neighbourhood as intercommunity spaces must be recovered. When institutions fail, people-to-people exchange, discussion, and communication must start before it is too late.