Athuan Abonmai, an advisor and former president of the top Zeliangrong Naga body, Zeliangrong Baudi ( Assa, Manipur, and Nagaland) was killed in Tamenlong district on Wednesday after being abducted by a hill-based armed group.
The news shocked and grieved all Kanglei people, both in the hills and in the valley, cutting across ethnicity and religion. What made it much more traumatic for the people was the manner in which he was killed. He was bludgeoned to death with a sledge hammer, the cruelest form of execution.
Except for a few who might support or fear the killers, almost every organization in the valley and the hill, including CSOs, condemned the murder in the strongest term. Moreover, many individuals on Facebook and other social media sites condemned the assassination, and I, too, condemn the killing, calling it a cowardly and cruel act.
There has also been a lot of discussion about this cowardly murder on a number of platforms. Many prominent state figures, including public intellectuals, social activists, and journalists have formulated many theories as to why he was assassinated. Similarly, I shall argue why he was killed here, although my perspective and ideological orientation will be slightly different from that of others.
All of their arguments, in my opinion, do not go beyond what a layman would argue. It is clear that they are clueless to something, either wittingly or unwittingly, while their innocent minds investigate the situation.
Although the majority of the people in the state believe that Athuan Abonmai was kidnapped and battered to death by the NSCN (I-M), as of now, no one has claimed the responsibility for the murder. So, I will desist from commenting who were the culprits. However, based on his political activities prior to his death and the reactions of armed groups, it is reasonable to conclude that he was slain by those opposing those who are hell-bent on exploiting the hill-valley animosity and ethnicized dichotomy to further serve the agenda of a few ethnic, community and tribal power elites.
“Who is profiting from his death?” is the first question, which most people have skirted. It is probable that the killers would justify their actions that he was against the interests of the hill people. However, I am curious as to who the “hill people” are in this context. Is it referring to the poor and powerless hill people or a few powerful elites?
The hill power elites are ethnicizing politics to divert attention away from the real issues confronting the hills, as I have argued many times before. For, it profits them while portraying themselves as the savior of their underprivileged highlanders. They have leveraged the hatred between the hill and valley to retain their power and status. As long as there is hill-valley hatred, they can blame other ethnic groups for their underdevelopment, poverty, and other problems that plague the poor in the hills. They have been able to conceal their selfishness and exploitation of the poor hill people on the bottom rungs of hill society.
If the ethnic antagonism between the hills and valley is resolved, their power and position will be jeopardized. So they feel threatened when someone comes along and tries to disclose the truth and break down the barrier that separates the hill from the valley.
We recently learned that a hill armed group had threatened some RTI activists from the hills to retract the applications they had filed. Any rational individual can understand why the activists were threatened by the group. The armed group’s goal here is not to safeguard the poor hill people’s interests, but to conceal the fact that it is their own hill power elites who are exploiting the hill people, not the valley people.
It is worth noting that, regardless of ethnicity, all of Manipur’s poor people are the same, whether they are Meitei, Nagas, or Kukis. They are oppressed, exploited, marginalized and impoverished in equal measure. The argument is that the valley and hill power elites are responsible for the backwardness and miseries of both hills and the valley.
The ethnic elites of the hills and valleys appear to be rivals on the surface, but they are not. They are friends, or rather partners, in deceiving and exploiting the masses. The phrase “hill and valley enmity” was coined and reproduced by them to obscure underlying deep class structure.
One might wonder how hill society’s class structure and Abonmai murder are linked. There is, nevertheless, a strong connection between the two. He tried to show the true color of the hill elites and how they wrongly manipulate the hill-valley hatred to maintain the status quo of their position and power on several occasions. He was the lone radical among the hill leaders who could see the root cause of the hills’ backwardness in the hill elites’ insincerity and their class interests. His existence, ideology, and activities posed a serious threat to the few hill political and power elites.
His efforts, which include public lectures and discussions on TV talk shows and other platforms, are a form of radical conscientization that has the potential to free the people from the false consciousness that their social elites have implanted in their minds.
As a result of his work, some hill people’s old idea of valley oppression of hill people have begun to be replaced with the new idea of class oppression where the oppressors are not the valley people but their own social and political elites. This hurts the interest of the ethnic power elites in the hills. As is common in class society, the only immediate way to halt this threat is to eliminate the man. Thus, the hill power elites and their allies from anywhere including the valley and those close to the state power structure in the current scenario can be held responsible for Athuan Abonmai’s fate. This is perpetrated in order to maintain their power and status, as well as to keep the hill valley divide intact and durable.
(Kh Ibomcha is a social and political commentator who contributes regularly to major newspapers and online platforms based in Manipur)
(Courtesy: The Frontier Manipur)