Manipur displays Modi’s idea of India

A church burnt during the ethnic violence in Manipur, in Langching village, on 31 May 2023. Tensions between the Meitei and Kuki communities have spurred deadly clashes for over a month, while the prime minister Narendra Modi has maintained a studious silence. AFP/Getty Images
03 June, 2023

On 30 May, the chief of defence staff, General Anil Chauhan, told journalists that the situation in Manipur “has nothing to do with counterinsurgency or insurgency. It is primarily a clash between two ethnicities.” This directly contradicted Manipur’s chief minister, N Biren Singh, who had proclaimed, two days earlier, that “it is not a fight between communities” but “between the state and central forces against the terrorists who are trying to break Manipur,” a thinly veiled euphemism for Kukis. Singh, who has headed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s “double engine” government in Imphal for six years, was rebutted again, by the union home minister, Amit Shah, who asserted in his press conference on 1 June that the clashes were nasli hinsa—racial or ethnic violence. 

That a chief minister is not fully on the same page as the country’s home minister and senior-most military officer should be a matter of concern. What should be more worrying is the inherent truth in Shah and Chauhan’s claim of an ethnic clash. It has resulted in violence that has lasted for a month. Officially, 98 lives have been lost, but the actual number, as per ground reports, is higher. There are nearly forty thousand people in 272 relief camps, and many have fled to other states and even to strife-torn Myanmar. Around two hundred and fifty churches have reportedly been burnt and destroyed. The houses of a union minister and BJP MLAs have been attacked. The violence did not abate even during Shah’s tour and a visit by the army chief, General Manoj Pande. If it is a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country, the correct nomenclature is civil war.

Civil or not, the clashes have brought home the dangers wrought when the intricate tapestry of various ethnicities, that make the states of the Northeast, unravels. A discussion on the history and sociology of the region is beyond the scope of this column. The region’s seemingly stable inter se relationships emerged out of a cauldron of violence that lasted decades, in which the Indian state was as big a culprit as any foreign power or militant group. The sensitive nature of these fragile ties, in a land of numerous cultures, languages, ethnicities and religions, can only be sustained by an inclusive mindset at every level and in every manner. The formation of every new state in the region has created its own minorities, and it is unviable to split them into even smaller states. The provisions of Article 371, based on the same principles as the much-derided Article 370, provide the means to reconcile majoritarian claims with claims of minorities, to evolve a coexistence rather than a separate existence. In the words of Suhas Palshikar, it provides “a template for federalism within federal structure.” 

Instead, what we have on display, nationally, is blatant majoritarianism from the ruling party. The idea of one nation, one everything—anchored in the image of the old Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh slogan of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindusthan”—is intolerant of non-majoritarian coexistence and federalism in any form. This Hindutva narrative, fed to the masses as a political rationale through a propagandist corporate media, gives a licence to other groups to formulate their own majoritarian narrative. The majority, constructed on either religion, caste, language or ethnicity, can then be weaponised against the minority. In the Northeast, this has been witnessed in BJP-ruled Assam and seems to be the template followed in Manipur. In a recent interview, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the chief minister of Assam and the convenor of the North East Democratic Alliance, said that, in Manipur, “the distribution of population is such that seventy percent of people are in thirty percent landmass. Kukis and Nagas can come to the valley, but Meiteis cannot go to the hills. It is the same thing in Assam also, with regard to Bodoland.” RR Singh, the BJP MP from Inner Manipur and a minister of state for external affairs, has asked Modi to do away with Article 371, which provides special provisions for the hill areas of the state.