Three-quarter of a year into the Manipur violence since 3rd May 2023 and there is still no sign of the Meitei and Kuki-Zo ethnic conflict abating. Home Minister Mr Amit Shah came once and put in place various confidence building mechanisms notable among them being the deployment of thousands of armed personnel, assigning a special security adviser and constituting a Peace Committee. Unfortunately the Peace Committee has become a non-starter and no conversation between the two warring groups have started on the ground. With dialogue common grounds can be found and differences narrowed down. The inability to start talk has become the biggest hurdle towards finding a peaceful solution. There is an urgent need for both the Centre and State Government to find ways to start the talks. This could be attempted by constituting a manageable Reconciliation Committee of only a handful representatives of both communities under the chairpersonship of a senior politician/retired Govt servant as interlocutor and hold the talks in a safe city/location outside the State.
Many persons have been piqued and puzzled by the low key engagement of the Prime Minister (PM) in resolving the Manipur conflict. Criticisms abound that the PM has time to visit several temples across the country but has not found time to visit Manipur. It is indeed perplexing to understand the indifference and silence of the PM to the continued violence. Unable to decipher the reasons behind the silence, one is tempted to speculate why this is happening. Could it be perhaps a sense of disgust knowing that two brothers (Meitei and Kuki-Zo) within a family (Manipur State) are feuding and that the differences can be sorted out between themselves? The Central intelligence apparatus will definitely know that the primary problem is not poppy cultivation or cross border drug trade, but has more to do with Meitei anxiety to demographic changes in the State. It can be seen from the Census that the population of the backward tribes is increasing every decade compared to that of the advanced Meitei community. With the population tilted in favour of the tribes there is high likelihood of change in the power equation in the State.
The faster rate of population growth of the Kuki-Zo tribes is suspected to be on account of migration from across the border. However this is not the case for the Nagas which is attributable to backwardness and poverty. Perhaps the PM has been informed about these facts and that this is by and large a law and order problem which can be dealt firmly by the State Government and contained by the security forces ? Everyone knows that the society in the North Eastern States are militant in nature and plausible solutions have political ramifications. Both parties are aggrieved and no one would like to listen to complaints and bickering, least of all the PM. The leaders of both warring communities do not seem to have the right and positive attitude and frame of mind as of now and it is tempting to conclude that, at this juncture without change in attitude, nothing constructive will emerge.
The Naga-Kuki ethnic conflict in the 1990s was sorted out after a few years of intermittent clashes which caused deaths, loss of property and immense human sufferings and there are lessons to learn from this. In the Naga-Kuki conflict the disengagement between the two parties was preceded by eviction of several Kuki villages and a few Naga villages from vulnerable areas dominated by respective communities. The current stand-off between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo seem to indicate that the clashes have ethnic cleansing connotations, similar to that of the Naga-Kuki conflict, as continued attempts are made to achieve that goal in Moreh and the foothills adjoining the valley. There is a possibility that unlike the Naga-Kuki conflict, the current conflict between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo could be resolved on political lines ? The probability of a political solution cannot be ruled out given that the core issue of facilitating the return of Kuki-Zo people to Imphal, the capital city of Manipur, remain intractable. How can an entire Kuki-Zo community who are citizens of Manipur and represent about 16% of the State’s population become persona non grata in Imphal ? The current ethnic stand-off preventing the Kuki-Zo community from entering Imphal city is like a death-wish by the Meitei community, as any State Government cannot function without the participation of a sizeable number of the State’s population. By obstructing their return to Imphal, the Meitei community is unwittingly strengthening the hands of the Kuki-Zo people to make a strong case to Government of India of having their own administrative arrangement. Perhaps it would not be wrong to speculate that the Government of India is waiting for the right moment to prompt the Hon’ble Prime Minister to make a path breaking announcement that would resolve the Manipur crisis ?
Whatever the final outcome, people in Manipur are praying and hoping for peace to return. The conflict has not only affected the warring communities, but all the other communities living in the State. Daily wagers, farmers, internally displaced persons, school going children, job seekers and housewives are suffering in their own way inclu- ding astronomical price rise of essential commodities.
There is utmost urgency that the State Government should work hard in close coordination with the Government of India to find a solution for peace to return to the State without allowing the conflict to fester. The onus for bringing back peace and communal harmony will always be that of the Chief Minister of Manipur and he cannot palm off his responsibility to the Central Government.