Manipur Conflict: Echoes of History and the Perils of False Narratives

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THE OUTBREAK of the Manipur conflict more than two months ago between the majority Meitei community and the minority Kuki-Zo tribal community of the state has claimed at least 135 lives and over 1000 individuals left injured. The repercussions have been profound, displacing more than 70,000 people who now find shelter in about 272 refugee camps, or other parts of the  country. The conflict has caused a deep demographic and geographic division between the warring groups, with Kuki-Zo tribes fleeing to the hills while Meiteis move in the opposite direction. It is within this backdrop of turmoil that Samrat, author of ‘Northeast India: A Political History’, draws a poignant comparison between Manipur’s plight and the tumultuous aftermath of World War I and the phenomenon of ‘unmixing of people’.

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The collapse of empires—such as the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian—led to an extensive redrawing of maps and national boundaries across Europe after World War I. The collapse of empires led to what is known then as the “unmixing of peoples”. One poignant example emerged from Greece and Turkey, where a population exchange forced around a million Greeks to leave Turkey. Interestingly, some of these Greeks were forced to leave areas where Greek-speaking communities had thrived for millennia. Drawing further historical parallels, the Partition of India, which unfolded following the World War II and the decline of the British Empire, also revolved around the notion of “unmixing of peoples” and the establishment of “national homelands”. Within this historical context, one can observe striking similarities to the Manipur violence, in which the Kuki-Zo tribals head to the hills from the valley, while the Meiteis head in the opposite direction towards the valley.

One can see further similarities between the prevailing narratives and circumstances in Manipur, and those that existed in Europe in the years following World War I. For example, there is a stream of hate narratives directed at the minority Kuki-Zo tribes by the majority Meitei community. In addition to labels such as ‘outsiders,’ ‘foreigners,’ ‘illegal immigrants,’ ‘poppy cultivators,’ or ‘drug traffickers’—which have been used in different parts of the world to incite passion, hatred and xenophobia—the Meitei community has recently bestowed the term ‘narcoterrorists’ upon the tribals. The origin of this term can be traced back to May 30 when a self-proclaimed NGO called ‘People’s Alliance for Peace and Progress, Manipur’ filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, urging the government to take action against ‘Kuki militants’ engaged in ‘narcoterrorism’.  This  move  followed Chief of Defence Staff Anil Chauhan’s assertion that the violence in Manipur ‘has nothing to do with counter-insurgency operations but is due to a clash between ethnicities’.

The Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), the apex body of civil society organizations representing Manipur’s Meitei majority, has declared a ‘national war against the Chin-Kuki narcoterrorists.’ If one define ‘narcoterrorism’ as engaging in illegal drug trade and armed struggle (insurgency), it becomes undeniable that these issues, along with rampant corruption, have plagued Manipur for a long time, cutting across ethnic lines. It would be far from the truth to attribute these problems solely to a specific community.

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Manipur is highly vulnerable to illicit drug trade due to its porous border with Myanmar, the world’s second-largest producer of opium. Additionally, socio-economic  challenges, including high unemployment rates and limited economic opportunities, have contributed to Manipur’s history of poppy cultivation. Poppy is cultivated by people living in the hills, including Kukis and Nagas. When considering individuals arrested for illegal drug trade, government figures from the past five years indicate that 59% are valley-based Meitei speakers, while 34% are Kuki-Chin. Even top politicians in the state have been implicated in the illegal drug trade. A notable case involved a decorated police officer Thanoujam Brinda, who alleged pressure from Chief Minister N Biren Singh to release a drug lord named Lhukhosei Zou, whom she had apprehended with drugs worth Rs 27 crore in the international market. In protest against the non-conviction of the drug  lord, the police officer returned her gallantry award.

Regarding the connection between illegal drug trade and terrorism, often referred to as ‘narcoterrorism’, it is crucial to note that, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), eight terrorists or unlawful organizations are currently operating in Manipur, all belonging to the Meitei community. Most of these organizations maintain camps in Myanmar, with two of them having an informal alliance with the Myanmar Military: PLA (People’s Liberation Organization) and KYKL (Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup). These terrorist organisations are demanding independence from India, and have been fighting against the Indian state by specifically targeting the Indian army. As late as in 2015, 18 soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment were killed in an ambush by KYKL. Interestingly, the mastermind behind the ambush, self-styled Lt Col Moirangthem Tamba  alias Uttam was among  the 12 hardcore terrorists recently handed over by the Army to a Meitei women mob, called Meira Paibis. In a recent interview with “The Wire,” Professor Kham Khan Saun Hausing, the Head of the Political Science Department at Hyderabad University, explained that the illegal drug trade across the Indo-Myanmar border is monopolized and controlled by these proscribed terrorist organizations, functioning in collusion with a larger international drug and gun trade. While instances exist in which Kukis are caught in major drug hauls, it does not discount the fact that   the primary business of illegal drug trade is facilitated by the state’s bureaucracy and political leaders.

Considering these pieces of evidence, COCOMI’s actions amount to nothing more than scapegoating a minority community and labeling them as “narcoterrorists” for the entire state’s problems. This clear case of persecution by the majority community mirrors historical patterns  seen throughout history, with severe consequences. One poignant example that echoes this pattern is the persecution and propagation of hate narratives against Jews by the Nazis in 1930s Germany. Jews were unjustly accused of corrupting German culture and values, and were wrongly held responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War I. Furthermore, the deliberate destruction of over 200 Kuki villages, orchestrated by Meitei mobs, extremists, and militants with the assistance of the state’s security forces and their womenfolks—Meira Paibis—seems to be aimed at clearing the way for future Meitei settlements. This reflects a recurring pattern in human history, with a notable recent example being the Nazi invasion of other countries during World War II. This invasion was also justified by the desire to expand German “lebensraum” or living space. Such policies and actions by the majority Meitei community have no place in the 21st century. PM Modi, while referring to the Ukraine-Russia war, told the Russian President Vladimir Putin that ‘this is not an era of war, let’s  talk peace’. Ironically, the PM has yet to speak a word about the ‘civil  war’ happening right in his own country.

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The propagation of false narratives intended to incite passion and hatred against a minority community has played a significant role in the violence witnessed in Manipur. It is important to acknowledge the role played by CM N Biren Singh in this context. On June 11, the CM advocated for peace by stating, “Jo ho gaya so ho gaya. Let’s give peace a chance.” However, merely a day later, he characterized the conflict as one between the government and illegal immigrants. This is deeply concerning, given his prior use of terms such as ‘outsiders,’ ‘illegals,’ or ‘foreigners’ to describe the Kukis. This follows his failure to portray the conflict as one between security forces and ‘Kuki terrorists’, based on his own fabricated account of security forces killing 40 Kuki militants on May 28. To comprehend the motive behind the smear campaign targeting the Kukis, it is imperative to examine the underlying cause of the conflict. In a revealing interview with “The Wire,” Meitei MLA Nishikant Singh Sapam, Chairman of the Committee on Privileges and Ethics in the Manipur Legislative Assembly, stated that the conflict primarily revolves around land. It becomes evident that labeling Kukis as ‘terrorists,’ ‘narcoterrorists,’ ‘illegal immigrants,’ or ‘foreigners’ serves no purpose other than undermining their legitimacy, subjecting them to discrimination, and providing a justification for their dispossession from their rightful land.

Lalmin Kipgen, PhD, is an Associate Lecturer at Arden University Berlin. Views are personal. (lkipgen@arden.ac.uk)

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