Air of despondency has set in after nine months of ethnic conflict with no end in sight and fear that Nagas may be drawn into the conflict.
The scenario in Manipur in brief.
More than 3000 guns looted from the police armouries are still with the radical elements who flaunt it and ride in gypsy vehicles (masquerading as police), attired in security forces uniform, flaunting Kangleipak/salai taret flags, having a free run without the security forces accosting them even if they display the guns openly. Combing operation to recover looted guns have not started, Arambai Tenggol (a radical Meitei organisation) has humiliated elected representatives and made them kowtow to Meitei-centric agenda, extortion openly carried out by radical elements and SoO Meitei militants, no peace talks have started and no one knows what the state government is doing to bring back normalcy. Latest twist is the press communiqué dated 2nd February 2024 by United Naga Council (UNC) listing out several provocative incidents perpetrated on Naga citizens and warning both Kukis and Meitei not to provoke the Nagas besides informing Nagas settled in Imphal that they may need to vacate Imphal valley if situation so demands. The end result is despondency among the citizens of the state.
The state government writ does not extend anymore in the hill areas as no Meitei functionary dare to venture into the hills for fear of crossing the ring of territory at the foothills of the valley controlled by the Kuki-Zomi tribes. The valley too has slipped out of the hands of state government and now the Arambai Tenggol is setting the agenda. The UNC has come out strongly with a statement that portends to change the complexion of the crisis. It warned both Meiteis and Kukis not to provoke the Nagas and has advised the Nagas residing in the valley of the possibility of evacuation from Imphal if situation so warrants.
Manipur could turn into a country like Afghanistan where war lords control their own territories. In Manipur the Imphal valley is under the Meiteis, the inner ring comprising foothills are with the Kuki-Zomi tribes and the higher ridges comprising of the outer ring under the Nagas. Meiteis are no longer travelling by surface out of Imphal but only by air. The Kuki-Zomi living in the eastern side and Kangpokpi take the road to Dimapur in Nagaland while the rest take a circuitous route to Mizoram to go to mainland India. The Nagas do not face problems in travelling by surface, but are sometimes subjected to harassment, violence and killings by both Meiteis and Kuki-Zomi that the UNC has issued a statement warning of adverse consequences if provocation continues.
The Manipur conflict has added another aspect to the problems in the states sharing international boundary with Myanmar. Mr. Biren Singh, the Chief Minister of Manipur has advocated for removal of the Free Movement Regime (FMR) and erect ion of border fence between India and Myanmar and the Home Minister Mr. Amit Shah has shown his inclination to that idea. The FMR evolved in recognition of the artificial boundary between India and Myanmar and for allowing the kinship, customary, cultural and traditional relationship of the tribes living on both sides of the international border to continue their age old social and cultural interaction. Take the case of Longwa village of Konyak tribe in Nagaland. It sits right in the middle of the international boundary with one side each of the Ang’s house falling in India and Myanmar. The people living on each side of the village follow their own country’s government policy. The question of FMR and an erection of border fence does not arise at all for them and other villages of the same tribe. The NSCN (IM) has already warned that pursuing the agenda for removal of FMR and erecting border fence will shatter peace in the region. There have been suggestions that the Government of India should exempt the Naga areas from removal of FMR and not to erect border fence. The idea to remove FMR and erect border fence purportedly floated by Chief minister Mr. Biren has not gone down well with the Nagas of Arunachal, Nagaland and Manipur, and Mizos of Mizoram.
Mr. Biren Singh, the Chief minister of Manipur has been blaming poppy cultivation, drug trade, illegal immigrants for his incompetency in handling the Manipur conflict and ascribing all of them to the Kuki-Zomi tribes. He and the centre proceeded in dealing with the problem by large scale deploy security forces and destruction of poppy cultivation. Yet after nine months into the crisis there is no end in sight. Instead, Imphal valley has seen the rise of a radical element called the Arambai Tenggol emerging as the flag bearer of Meitei resurgence sidelining and humiliating the government in Imphal. They are setting the agenda which are all Meitei-centric ignoring 42% of tribal population and 5% of other communities in the state. The Kuki-Zomi who represent 16% (out of 42%) of the states population have been marginalised since 3rd May 2023 as they, including their elected representatives and government functionaries, can no longer enter Imphal. The Meitei people including politicians and government functionaries do not venture beyond Imphal valley. The geo-politics emerging in Manipur is akin to sphere of influence being carved out by different ethnicity; the valley, foothill surrounding the valley and mountains controlled by Meiteis, Kuki-Zomi and Nagas respectively. The soul of Manipur is also fragmented. The hearts of different ethnicity lies elsewhere; for the Nagas with Nagaland and the Kuki-Zomi with Mizoram. Manipur as an entity exist only in name sake and if the current crisis continues to drift like a rudderless floating deadwood, the state may not be sustainable as an entity comprising all three ethnicities.
There is an air of despondency in the state after the UNC press communique. There is imminent risk of the people taking law and order into their own hands for survival as the state government’s influence and writ keeps on diminishing in the hill areas and the Imphal valley. The centre has to wake up to the existing ground realities and take corrective measures before the rot sets in deeply into the vitals of the state.