‘Biren Singh’s BJP government is playing with fire in Manipur’

‘Had it not been for the complicity of the state and Biren Singh’s leadership, these riots would not have spread this far and for so long.’

Violence in Manipur flared up once again over the weekend when Kuki militants targeted a Meitei village.

This happened in spite of the Modi government imposing Article 355 on the state which is meant to protect the state from external aggression and internal disturbance.

And to make the situation worse, 10 Kuki MLAs from Manipur have demanded a ‘separate administration’ for Manipur’s hill areas.

Of these, seven MLAs are from the Bharatiya Janata Party which rulES Manipur under the leadership of Chief Minister Biren Singh, whose government was pulled up by the Supreme Court on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Directing the Manipur government to take steps to foster confidence and ensure peace and tranquillity in the state torn by ethnic violence, the Supreme Court asserted that being the top-most court it can ensure that the political executive exercises its power and does not turn ‘a blind eye’ to the situation.

What is going on in Manipur?

To find out more, Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com spoke to Kham Khan Suan Hausing, professor and head of department of political science, University of Hyderabad.

The first of a two-part interview:

Is it a new demand by Kuki MLAs for a separate administration from Manipur, or was it always there?

This is not new and was asked in the past, amongst others, by the Kuki National Organization (KNO) and United People’s Front (UPF) groups. They have been asking for separate administration for the hill areas including a separate ‘state within a state’ under Article 244A, a Union Territory and a territorial council modelled along the lines of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) under the Sixth Schedule (of the Constitution).

How do they expect to run this separate administration when the hill region is part of Manipur?

The demand for a territorial council by the SoO (Suspension of Operations) parties, namely KNO and UPF, for instance, by incorporating provisions of the Sixth Schedule and Articles 244A and Article 371C of the Constitution, is intended to give a semblance of a ‘separate administration’.

These demands in some sense draw from the experience of Meghalaya between 1969 and 1971 before it became a fully-fledged state, and the best practices of the BTC.

In fact, institutional frameworks of a separate administration are already there in the hill areas of Manipur under Article 371C wherein all ‘scheduled matters’ pertaining to the hill areas are mandated by law to be vetted by the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) which consisted of 20 members of the 60-member Manipur assembly; the provisions of the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971 which envisions ‘autonomous’ district councils in the hill areas, and the Manipur (Hill Areas) Village Authority Act, 1955.

Given that extant arrangements of ‘separate administration’ in the hill areas are either routinely bypassed by the state government or remain powerless and dysfunctional, the idea of a territorial council which the UPF and KNO negotiated with the Union government in the past under the umbrella of Suspension of Operations (SoO) pact signed between the central government, the Manipur government and Kuki-Zomi insurgent groups, was an attempt to overcome these.

The idea is to get more judiciary, legislative and executive powers while simultaneously incorporating more developmental mandate like the one that obtains in Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Council.

Among the Sixth Schedule provisions, the Bodoland Territorial Council has the most extensive powers when it comes to the executive, judiciary or legislature. BTC has a provision for a separate budget wherein funds allocated both by the Centre and the state are devolved within a specific time limit.

Is it not surprising that the BJP, which has a clear majority in the state assembly, is seeing this kind of violence? Is the double engine sarkar not working in Manipur?

By all accounts, it appears that the double engine sarkar does not work in Manipur. The collapse of law and order became fully evident as ragtag mobs were given a full night-and-a-day in the valley areas to engage in extensive ethnic cleansing and genocidal attacks on Kuki-Zomi inhabited areas in Imphal.

The delay in invoking shoot-at-sight order, which came only in the latter half of May 4, could not have been starker.

Apparently, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 which has been enforced in the hill areas for quite some time, could not prevent counter-ethnic cleansing drives of the Meiteis undertaken by their counterparts in the hills.

There is now ample evidence to suggest that two radical and militant organisations, namely Meitei Leepun and Arambam Tenggol, are largely responsible for carrying out extensive ethnic cleansing and genocidal attacks of the Kuki-Zomi.

In fact, Pramot Singh, the president of Meitei Leepun, openly incited his followers in his Facebook post on April 28, 2023, (which is not taken down so far) to ‘annihilate our traditional rival on the hills’.

Given his proximity to Biren Singh and the massive organisational support he received across the state, the extensive attacks on the Kuki-Zomi unleashed by ragtag mobs in the Imphal and valley areas could not have come about without the complicity of persons in power.

That these militant organisations nurture a political agenda and ideology which not only seek to revive pre-Hindu Meitei indigenous religious (Sanamahi) tradition by repudiating the Hinduisation of the Meitei communities, a process which began since the early 18th century, but also to restore the glorious past of Kangleipak (Manipur’s ancient name), which they contended was undone by Manipur’s merger with the Indian State in 1949 under ‘coercion’, their ideology and programmatic actions are clearly anti-India, anti-Hindu, and anti-Hindi.

Biren Singh may have found these militant organisations very useful to aggressively push his integrationist and majoritarian agenda and conveniently use this to electorally consolidate his position by neutralising intermittent challenges from powerful factional leaders within the BJP.

Yet, it becomes increasingly apparent that his BJP-led government is playing with this fire for a short time electoral gain.

Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah should see through this gamble soon enough. They must immediately sack Biren and impose President’s Rule to restore trust and legitimacy of the State and its institutions.

That is a serious allegation,’genocidal attack’, that you are levelling.

Unfortunately, it looks like that because had it not been for the complicity of the state and Biren Singh’s leadership, these riots would not have spread this far and for so long.

A review of civil war literature in other places will show that the recent waves of riots/civil wars in Manipur clearly constitute ethnic cleansing, and Biren Singh’s regime presides over an ‘institutionalised riot system’.

The same thing is happening in Myanmar where the army junta is targeting Rohingya Muslims.

Is it not true that Kukis have also attacked Meiteis as they fear that the Meiteis will get Scheduled Tribe status?

It is true that the Kuki-Zomi groups have also attacked the Meiteis in retaliation. However, let us be clear that these retaliatory attacks have nothing to do with the Meiteis’ demand for Scheduled Tribe status.

The Kuki-Zomi and all the tribal groups in Manipur, including the Nagas, have genuine fear that giving ST status to the Meiteis will be the surest way to snatch tribal lands.

Come to think of it, the Meiteis demand for ST status is also likely to create a Constitutional anomaly as they have already got protective discrimination benefits (reservation benefits) under the categories of Other Backward Class, Schedule Caste and recently Economically Weaker sections.

If ST recognition is accorded to them over and above the three categories, it will go against the 50 percent reservation ceiling that the Supreme Court laid down in the famous Indira Sawhney Case, 1992.

It must, however, be noted that the point in contention is not really about the Meiteis’ desire to get additional reservation quota, but a calibrated attempt to have access to ownership of tribal lands, which is seen as a deliberate attempt to snatch away the tribal lands of Kuki-Zomi communities.

Right now, the tribals get Constitutional protection for their land in the hill areas, a privilege which the Meiteis do not get.

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