14 May 2023  |   05:11am IST

Thinking of Manipur

The photograph accompanying this column was taken at 4 am on my first morning in Imphal in 2019, just under 3500 kilometres from Goa (but only 100 km from the Myanmar border), where the Indian government’s stubborn adherence to one single time zone for the entire country means dawn comes confusingly early. That precise moment remains indelible, because it was an epic beginning. Over the next few days on assignment, I had the opportunity to explore the most spectacularly beautiful valley, filled with the most wonderful people. It felt exactly like a fairytale.

I went to Manipur to profile Ronid “Akhu” Chingangbam, the cerebral musician (he has a doctorate in physics) whose Imphal Talkies is one of the greatest contemporary bands, but quickly met many other stars-in-the-making: indigenous weave evangelist Richana Khumanthem, ardent bookseller Martin Thokchom, and international investment banker-turned-entrepreneur Elizabeth Yamben, who told me “this is a different place from the one I grew up in. Now it is much more vibrant, open and collaborative. Young people are fighting to pursue their passions. We are slowly building a community to support each other and grow together.”

How did things deteriorate from that shining moment of optimism to the current ugly chaos where – per official sources – at least 60 people have been killed in the past 10 days, with over 1700 homes burned along with 40 churches, and at least 20000 refugees scattered in relief camps? One thing is for sure – there are no adequate answers in most mainstream and social media, which has become choked with propaganda and inflammatory accusations.

In this regard, an analysis from Debanish Achom on the NDTV website stands out. How To Misread Ethnic Violence in Manipur says it straight: “the commentary that the violence is the result of tensions between the Hindu Meiteis and the Christian Kukis - note the emphasis on religion - is simply misinformation. The northeast is a massive blind spot for most in the country's media and academia. They unknowingly tend to reduce the complexities of the region into a world-view familiar only to themselves.”

Achom explains that “the BJP is in power in Manipur, and it is easy for the party's critics to allege that the violence is communal. The nature of the crisis in Manipur that has displaced thousands of people, both Kukis and Meiteis, however, has a lot to do with socio-economics - the rush for government benefits, land and forest resources - and is less about identity and religion. To those at the receiving end of the violence, religion and identity are not even in the picture. The people who have suffered the most in both the communities are the poor.

Here's the gist of the problem: “The Meiteis, who have been historically in the "general" category and live in and around Imphal valley, cannot buy land or settle permanently in the hills. The Kukis, who are Scheduled Tribes (ST) and live in the hills, however, can buy land in the valley. A section of the Meiteis claim they are no different from tribals as they were converted to Hinduism in the late 17th century and they still follow their animistic religion 'Sanamahism', so they want to be ST. But the tribals are concerned that the numerically larger and economically stronger Meiteis, if brought under the ST category, would expand out of the valley to the hills and take away their livelihoods.”

There are other complications. Manipur (just like Mizoram next door) is dealing with the collapse of democracy in Myanmar, from where “the Meiteis allege many illegal immigrants have settled in the hills of Manipur and have embedded themselves with local tribes and it is they who are the tip of the spear of the protest by Kukis [but the] tribals say the problem of illegal immigrants is a work of fiction created by the state government.” In addition, “the last point of friction between the Meiteis and the Kukis is the state government's anti-encroachment drive in the hills, which the government wants to declare as reserved or protected forest. Many tribals grow marijuana openly in the hills. The state government in 2019 announced it planned to legalise marijuana cultivation for industrial and medicinal use. Again, add two plus two, and the suspicion among the tribals is that the government wants to take over the trade once it is legalised.”

There is much more to consider here from Manipur’s painful history, about which which I highly recommend Anubha Bhonsle’s excellent 2016 book Mother, Where’s My Country? Looking for Light in the Darkness of Manipur. But there are also insights only poetry provides, which is why I have been returning to the subtle, superb ouevre of Robin Ngangom, one of India’s greatest literary icons, who writes with great power and facility in both English and Meiteilon. From his landmark The Desire of Roots, I have been dwelling with great sorrow on these lines in We are Not Ready for the Hand of Peace: 

Peace without fear of another vicious tomorrow

is what we search, and not the false dusk of

the seven brandished swords who guard our backs.

We have exhausted springtide flowers to plant

in the muzzle of guns, and what we desire is the witness of soft winds; we wish to hear the melodious laugh of children, the eyes of beloved women.

 It is not the vile mockery of fiends we hope to hear again.

It is not the hour to greet each other with ‘Peace be unto you’ if we do not know how to comfort the bereaved by faithfully seeking out the killers of children and destroyers of our homes.

It is the guiltless peace of vengeance and redress we ask. There now arrive those who say they can fetch peace wrapped in embraces and garlands and tongues, they say they can soften the bludgeoning of ruthless hands.

They also extended soft palms, which became mailed fists that strangled justice, and what shall become of orphans and old parents whose shoulders succumbed to the weight of red blankets in far-flung hills?

It is the barbaric accord of revenge and retribution we seek, And none can grant it to us but ourselves. For this we shall ask our farmers to plant guns and daggers as well.

It is the honour we never received (but with which we honoured our ancestors) and all that has followed has also been foretold.

(Vivek Menezes is a writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival)


Idhar Udhar