Praying my Manipur returns to its normal happy self
(Dr.) Geetika Ranjan
Professor Department of Anthropology
North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong
I am writing about Manipur though I know that everything about it, particularly the all- pervasive ethnic conflict over the last few months, has already been explicitly written and much discussed. Yet I write because I want to write. I want to write because the pain and the pathos it carries, keeps coming before me, in one way or the other – in my chance meetings with my colleagues from Manipur, or when my students from Manipur share their felt experiences and even when I happen to read, here and there, words of wisdom on dignity of life, on being human and how this stand challenged yet again. Lately, a social media post from a social media friend shook me again to the core. To give vent to her pain as she wrote about her ‘home’ Manipur, she cited a song by Nina Simone -Aint got no/I got life. I searched for the lyrics of the song only to fully understand and feel the fear of death and destruction, and the desperation to just be alive and free. The song is about one having nothing –no home, no parents, no brothers and sisters, no children, no money, no job, no shoes, no love, no god……… yet despite this life of nothings, she has got life.
Let me tell ya what I've got, that nobody's gonna take away…………………… I got my arms, I got my hands, I got my fingers, got my legs, I got my feet, I got my toes, I got my liver, got my blood, Got life, I got my life
The song reiterates and reinforces the meaning, the value of just being alive. Being alive, breathe the free air and “the right to be free of fear” (Martinez, 2014:63) - it is this very life which has been brutally attacked in the recent ethnic conflict between the Meitei and the Kuki communities in Manipur, which stands ransacked by gruesome violence and vandalism since May 2023. Ethnic conflicts are not born overnight. Lake and Rothchild (1996:41) aptly comments:
Intense ethnic conflict is most often caused by collective fears of the future. As groups begin to fear for their safety, dangerous and difficult-to-solve strategic dilemmas arise that contain within them the potential for tremendous violence. As information failures, problems of credible commitment, and the security dilemma take hold, groups become apprehensive, the state weakens, and conflict becomes more likely. Ethnic activists and political entrepreneurs, operating within groups, build upon these fears of insecurity and polarize society. Political memories and emotions also magnify these anxieties, driving groups further apart. Together, these between-group and within-group strategic interactions produce a toxic brew of distrust and suspicions that can explode into murderous violence.
Manipur has a history of ethnic conflicts and to understand the recent one, it’s important to refer to the backdrop of the state, its people, and their culture. The “demographic composition of Manipur shows several ethnic communities and tribes found all over the state either exclusively confined or scattered or coexist” (Oinam 2003:2031). Manipur is broadly divided into the valley and the surrounding hills. The districts in the Imphal valley which constitute about 8-9 percent of the land is mainly populated by the Meitei. The tribes mainly inhabit the districts of the hills which constitute about 89 percent of the land area. Population wise Meitis are almost 57 percent.
Broadly speaking, Imphal Valley is about agriculture, surplus, affluence, and greater share on platforms of power and authority. Hills have been more about struggle for survival, with a history of “primitive subsistence economy of dry farming, hunting and gathering” (Phanjoubam 2005:278).
The state has many tribes, the two major ones being the Naga and the Kuki. While Meitei are mostly Hindus, some of them are still practicing the traditional religion Sanamahi. The Muslim Meitei are called Pangals. Naga and Kuki are mostly Christians. Meitei in the valley, “discovered what a blessing the fertile, well irrigated, alluvial river valley proved to be for a farming community. They progressively grew more prosperous, opening an economic gap with their brothers in the hills, thus marking the roots of all the complicated problems of disparity and inequity. This divide continually widened in the years ahead, and indeed one of the most daunting challenges before the Manipur administration today is to bridge this hill-valley chasm. Since the hills and valley dwellers have come to acquire different ethnic identities, an ethnic problem as well must be solved along this divide (Phanjoubam 2005:276).
It is in this highly complex geographical, historical, and demographic situation of Manipur wherein lie the core causes that simmered and eventually inflamed the fierce ethnic violence between the Meitei and the Kuki from May 2023. This ethnic conflict is the manifestation of the asymmetrical dimensions of the geographical, demographic, and economic realities of the land and the people in Manipur. Tension was building up from March 2023 itself when the Manipur High court order of March 27th2023, asked the state government to send a recommendation to the Centre within four weeks on the demand for Scheduled Tribe status to the larger population, the Meitei. The Meitei community have been requesting for the Scheduled Tribe status for about a decade now. The ST status would enable the Meitei to buy and own land in the hills, the main habitat mainly of the Kuki and other tribes. The Scheduled Tribe status to the Meitei implies access to economic benefits, reservation in employment and education, things to which the Kuki are entitled to, being a Scheduled Tribe. “It's also why Meitei are not allowed to buy land in the hills. Kukis can buy land anywhere in the state.” With the Meitei demand to be accorded the Scheduled Tribe status, the oft latent and oft manifest fear among the Kukis was fuelled yet again – fear of losing their land, jobs, and other benefits. In this long-standing situation of rights and claims, Keithellakpam Bhogendrajit, General Secretary of the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur (STDCM) opines, that the Meitei demand for the Scheduled Tribe status is about their identity. He reasons, “this issue is important to us because it is about preserving Meitei identity and culture.” Explaining the Meitei struggle for the protection of Meitei identity and land, he said, “We occupy only 8% of Manipur’s land despite being the dominant community. Anybody from outside can come here, buy land, and settle down. But we can’t even go to the hills, which are a part of our state, and buy land there. We want equal status”. The High Court order triggered protests from the tribes on May 3rd and this escalated into a very violent armed conflict between the Meitei and the Kuki leading to ruthless killings, vandalism, and arson, leaving many dead and displaced. The conflict between the Meitei and the Kuki also acquired religious contours. Church and temples were vandalized and burned as Kuki, the largely Christians, and the Meitei, the largely Hindus, entered a gruesome, unrelenting bloodbath. The Meitei Christians were even more badly hit. Amidst all the killings, destruction, and devastation, we, the fellow humans were left bitterly shocked and anguished when a heart wrenching, barbaric video went viral showing two Kuki women being paraded naked, surrounded by men, and one of them being allegedly gang raped. This dastardly, heinous crime shook the collective conscience of one and all. The woman stood ravaged yet again. Their bodies becoming sites of mindless brutal assault. History is replete with episodes of women being the targets of all that bottles up in the name of bitter hatred, anger, frustration between the warring parties. "Rape is more than a symptom of war or evidence of its violent excess. Rape in war is a familiar act with a familiar excuse." War rape is, “a weapon of terror," "a weapon of revenge" (Brownmiller 1991, 32, 35, as cited in Cacic-Kumpes, 1995) and rape of the person symbolizes rape of the community (Alison 2007, cited in Wieselgren 2022). Woman the person, woman the victim, woman the commodity, woman the body - stands humiliated, mutilated, and destroyed again and again and again. Christina Lamb, in her book Our Bodies their Battlefields: What War Does to Women (2020) writes that rape is the cheapest weapon known to man. She, the victim, dies a thousand deaths but the world goes on. Her agony, her trauma, her tears, refuse to let her go on. Amidst this pain, we, the human stake the matter to another level, when we defend, discuss, and debate the horrific tragedy and say, while sipping our tea leisurely, this happened in Manipur, so people are grieving, what happened to them when this happened in Rajasthan and Bengal. Cruelty, apathy, and hard-heartedness could not be more bitter. Days have turned into weeks and weeks into months. Life goes on. General elections are round the corner. Power dynamics of ‘politics and ‘politicization’ have taken the Center Stage, infusing a centripetal force, pulling everything towards it. The race for vote bank, to earn brownie points has begun. National news channels have also moved on. Wither Manipur?? The torn, disturbed state on the fringe – Manipur is also dragging on……or is it? Quoting from one of the recent media reports, "We have to protect ourselves because we don't think anyone else will. I feel scared but I must hide it" Alas! this is where we are! What should be done? What could be done? A lot has been written and discussed about what different governments did or did not do. What we see is another round of passing the buck resulting in routinization of blame game. Yet Manipur continues to be what, Pradip Phanjoubam writes, the “fractured land” (2005). I am no expert in political analysis and shall refrain from commenting on the political interventions taken (or not taken) from time to time with respect to Manipur. Yet what certainly comes across without any ambiguity is the lack of political will in handling the grim situation in Manipur. Political will brings within its fold pertinent terms like ‘intent’, ‘motivation’, ‘will’ and ‘capacity’, terms difficult to assess objectively. However, in this scenario of devastation, displacement, death and dirge, human resilience and dialogue can be instrumental in resolving the deadlock. Lastly a few words on why I put ‘My Manipur’ in the title of this write up. I was not born or brought up in Manipur, yet its mine, like every other place, for there live my fellows – the humans. Remembering John Donne and his masterpiece poem:
For Whom the Bells Toll
No man is an island,
Entire of itself...... Each is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europeis the less. As well as if a promontory were.
As well asif a manor of thine own
Or of thine friends were. Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee. …………… Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind
References: Alison, M. 2007. Wartime Sexual Violence: Women’s Human Rights and Questions of Masculinity. Review of International Studies,33 (1): 75–90. doi:10.1017/S0260210507007310. Brownmiller, Susan. 1991. Against Our Will -Men, Women and Rape. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. Cacic-Kumpes, Jadranka.1995. War, Ethnicity, and Violence Against Women. Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees / Refuge: Revue canadienne sur les réfugiés,14(8):12-15. Lake, David, A., and Donald Rothchild. 1996.Containing Fear: The Origins and Management of Ethnic Conflict. International Security, 21(2):41-75.
Lamb, Christina. 2020. Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women. New York: Scribner.
Martinez, Doreen E. 2014. The Right to be Free of Fear: Indigeneity and the United Nations. In Wicazo Sa Review,29(2 ): 63-87.
Oinam, Bhagat.2003. Patterns of Ethnic Conflictin the North-East: A Study on Manipur.
Economic and Political Weekly,38(21):2031-2037.
Phanjoubam, Pradip.2005. Manipur: Fractured Land. India International Centre Quarterly,32(2.3): 275-287.
Wieselgren, Herman.2022. Sexual violence along Ethnic Lines? Revisiting Rebel Civilian EthnicTies and Wartime Sexual Violence.International Interactions Empirical and Theoretical Researchin International Relations, 48:6,1216-1232.