Reading The Manipur Clashes: The Two Divides

- Thangkhanlal Ngaihte, Columnist

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As someone who have been writing, on and off, about Manipur – and the northeast – for the last more than 10 years, I can say with some confidence that the most significant outcome of whatever that has happened in Manipur hill tribal areas since Monday, the 31st August 2015 have been that the country literally wakes up to the reality of the Hill-Plain divide in Manipur.

Since 2001 when I started writing a Sunday column, 'Lamka Impressions' in The Sangai Express, an Imphal –based newspaper, I have repeatedly written about this divide. I tried to convey the deep sense of alienation and discrimination that the hillspeople feel in their own state to the Meitei plainspeople to which the newspaper primarily caters. I made the Divide a dominant theme in my writings not because I champion it, but because it's a reality. Afterwards, I wrote at least three columns in The Statesman's Northeast Page on the same issue.
It was neither a pleasant or easy task. I was aware many people were simply incredulous. Some knows, but thought better of not acknowledging it. I was also aware that many people thought I had exaggerated, and that I was prejudiced and biased in my analysis. My point is, how can you solve a problem if you will not first accept its existence?

As the media – ranging from newspapers in Manipur to national-level papers, Television and online portals like – highlighed the divide as headline news in the aftermath of the Churachandpur clashes, I cannot help but feel vindicated. The divide is there and it is deep. It cannot be wished away. On hindsight, the very fact that all tribal groups in the state, almost without exception, asked to be separated from the valley Meitei people should have been enough to convince us of the problem.
It may be mentioned here that much before the issue of Inner Line Permit (ILP) system for Manipur became predominant, the Nagas, under the aegis of the United Naga Council (UNC), have been demanding an "alternative (separate administrative) arrangement" for the Nagas in Manipur pending the conclusion of the Indo-Naga negotiations. The Kuki group have been demanding a separate "Kuki State" while the Zomi group are demanding the creation of Autonomous Hill State (AHS) for Manipur hill tribals.

In the time since the clashes erupted, there have been much talk about merits or demerits of the three bills passed in the Assembly, and whether the protests are a result of a misunderstanding, or ignorance, about the bills. This line of discussion misses one crucial point: the proposed bills were not available for study; they are not made public till after the clashes in Churachandpur died down. All that we have till then was the Memorandum submitted to the chief minister, Manipur by the Joint Action Committee on Inner Liner Permit System (JCILPS), which the government had accepted in toto. Nowhere in that Memorandum was it stated that the proposed ILP will apply only to the plain areas. It was a kind of document that makes you more confused, and raises more questions than it answers them.

In any case, my reading of the clashes are that they are a culmination of the mutually incompatible political imagination of the Hills and Plains and their almost visceral suspicion and dislike of each other going back for decades. If anything, the passing of three bills were the proverbial spark that lit up the prairie.

The second divide
There is another equally deep divide that the clashes in Churachandpur district and elsewhere have exposed. This was the divide between the "leaders" – a loose network consisting of underground groups, elected representatives like MLAs and leaders of tribe-based organizations, contractors, etc. – and the general public, the aam admi, in today's parlance.

These "leaders" who mutually benefited from the present dysfunction have grown so complacent that they simply cannot grasp the public mood nor can they gauge the extent of the people's frustrations. The MLAs were apparently so shocked by the outburst that some of them did not found their voice till today. The Joint Action Committee (JAC), which was formed to spearhead the movement emerging out of the mass outburst, had to retract its announcements on the demands and the future course of action, at least four times. This was simply because the JAC, made up elements from the "leader" class mentioned above, simply failed to give expression to the people's aspirations.
This is not a mass-led movement. It is a mass-pushed movement.

Some elected leaders, like Langkhanpau Guite, Chairman of the Churachandpur Autonomous District Council (ADC) were actually roughed up by the angry crowd as he tried to defend the JAC – in which he was a part – and its charter of demands which could not go beyond ex gratia payments to the victims. If not for the womenfolk, many of the houses of underground leaders and members of ADC would also be attacked.

Uncertain future
There are tricky times ahead. The passing of the three bills and the nine "tribal martyrs" who were killed in its aftermath has unified the tribals of Manipur, at least till now. Painstaking efforts are on to sustain the movement for "separate administration" or even "United Hill State". One noteworthy instance have been the spontaneous mobilisation of Manipur tribals in all the major cities in India and abroad, who organized themselves into Tribals' Forums and expressed their support for the movement. One other noteworthy - and most welcome - feature is that despite the deaths and the emotive nature of the outburst, no particular community have been targeted. As of writing, the MLAs are still apparently trying to hang on, but the longer they delay submitting their resignations, the worse it will be for them.
In the event, it is unlikely that the Meitei public will accept any attempts to nullify the three bills, not to speak of other political demands. At the same time, disingenuous attempts to portray the bills as wonderfully good for the tribals too, only makes them angrier. Meanwhile, the nine dead lying in Churachandpur morgue waits to buried, pending resolution of the JAC's demands which are not yet even discussed between the relevant parties. Much as I don't like, I just cannot shake off the feeling that, maybe, we are not seeing the worst yet.

***A version of this article was earlier published in The Statesman