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Ethnic Cleansing: No Subterfuge Please!

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
22 May 2023
The Meiteis live in the Imphal Valley while the surrounding hills are inhabited basically by Nagas to the North and Kuki-Mizos to the South.

Ethnic cleansing was first tried out in Bosnia (1992-95) when the Serbs used it against Bosnian Muslims and Croats. The Bosnian Croats also used it against the Serbs, though in a limited manner. The strategy was simple.

The armed Serb militia would descend on a Muslim village and start attacking the men, who being a minority, would run away. The women and children would also follow them, except at the risk of facing rape and murder. They would then loot their houses. All the valuables would be taken away and the houses burnt down.

Since the attack was all of a sudden, they could not have carried away any documents or proof that they lived there. Their schools and mosques would also be burnt down. For the scattered people, they have no way to claim their property. For them it is better to start life afresh.

This is called ethnic cleansing. As mentioned, the Croats were also ethnically cleansed from village after village. We saw the phenomenon happening in Gujarat. Thousands of Muslims found that they could not go back to their old villages because the houses where they lived had all been burnt down or occupied.

Many of them remain as refugees in the Lok Sabha constituency of Home Minister Amit Shah, where, a study found, that they vote for the strong man because they do not want to face another pogrom. Nobody would say that ethnic cleansing is not effective.

If anybody has any doubt on this score, Manipur provides yet another example of ethnic cleansing. A little bit of history will help us understand the situation in the state. Manipur is the oldest state extant in the North-East, though it was formed later than Nagaland and Meghalaya.

A succession of Meitei kings ruled the state since 33 AD. The name Manipur was taken in the 18th century when Garib Nawaz was the King. Until then the state was known as Kangleipak with Kangla (Imphal) as the Capital. 

Like Emperor Constantine, the King underwent a conversion and declared Vaishnavism as the state religion. Much to his chagrin, the indigenous faith, named after the deity Sanamahi, did not disappear, though the old scriptures were burnt. “It remained a popular underlay, culturally rooted in a variety of observances”.

The Meiteis live in the Imphal Valley while the surrounding hills are inhabited basically by Nagas to the North and Kuki-Mizos to the South. The Nagas and the Kukis are collective names for various tribes and they are Christian. The religion was introduced to the region by the American missionary churches.

A Manipuri lawyer in Delhi, whom I talked to, refused to accept that it was a Hindu-Christian issue in Manipur. “Most of the killings were done by the black shirt, black trouser-wearing militia, who are not Hindus but warriors of the Sanamahi movement”. She believes that they have the blessings of the Chief Minister.

It is a different matter that it was a Scottish missionary, who came to Imphal in the 19th century, who discovered the long-forgotten Meitei script from the early Manipuri coins, copper plates and stone slabs. Like Hermann Gundert in Kerala, he compiled an English-Manipuri dictionary, a primer on Meitei grammar and wrote a Meitei history.

The Meiteis are so sensitive that they objected to Bishnupriyas in Cachar calling themselves Manipuris. The state assembly even passed a resolution objecting to the use of the word Manipuri, for they were “lower caste immigrants from Bengal”.

The Meiteis are the most educated and the richest. They also control politics, though it is a fact that the first chief minister of the state was a Muslim. The Muslims constitute about 7 percent of the population. In May 1993, there was an anti-Muslim riot in Imphal in which 97 people were killed. Out of them only three were non-Muslims.

Why I mentioned the riot is to draw the readers’ attention to the proclivity of the Meiteis to take the law into their own hands. One other community which is prosperous in Manipur is the Tamils. They speak a variety of languages and they reached there, mostly from Burma. They are successful traders and businessmen.

Once, they, too, had to undergo violence, at the hands of the Kukis, not Meiteis. The last Tamilian to reach Imphal was Justice M.V. Muralidharan. He is from Vellore in Tamil Nadu. He was appointed a judge of the Madras High Court.

He earned fame or notoriety when he gave a very controversial judgement. Someone lost the post of teacher because he could not answer one question correctly. The question was: What is the language in which Vande Mataram was written? He answered that it was in Bengali. The recruitment board said it was written originally in Sanskrit and then it was translated into Bengali when the author included it in his book Anandamath. 

It was Justice Muralidharan who heard the case. He collected all the details and gave his verdict in favour of the teacher-aspirant, saying that the song was originally penned by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay as “Bondey Matorom” in Bengali. It was later translated into Sanskrit. He upheld the petitioner’s plea.

He also ordered that Vande Mataram should be sung once in a week in all the educational institutions in the state to inculcate patriotism among the students. The learned judge did not even know that the Constitution did not recognise Vande Mataram as a national song and he had no right to issue such a loony order.

Justice Muralidharan was once again in the limelight when he acquitted a man, who was awarded 10 years of rigorous imprisonment for sexual assault of a woman by a lower court. Of course, he was within his rights to do so.

What raised eyebrows was that the judge directed the Director-General of Police, Tamil Nadu, to peruse the judgment and arrange training sessions for all the officers investigating criminal cases in the state. Many wondered whether he had gone bonkers.

The realisation would have dawned on the Collegium that it had erred, and seriously at that, while making the appointment without adequate check and background information. A person who has an elephantine view of his judicial capabilities is hardly the person who can take judicious decisions.

To cut the story short, the Collegium considered the case of Justice Muralidharan and decided that the best place for his services was Manipur. I do not know whether the collegium considered the fact that Imphal has a large community of Tamils and he would find himself comfortable there.

No, Justice Muralidharan did not want to leave the Madras High Court. He would have liked to stay in the state. He made a representation to the Collegium which considered his case and informed him that it could not change its decision. He should proceed forthwith to Manipur.

That is how Justice Muralidharan landed in Imphal. If the Collegium thought that a problem was solved by transferring him to Manipur, it was sadly mistaken. It did not know that greater problems awaited not only the collegium but the whole country.

The Chief Justice of the Manipur High Court was Justice P.V. Sanjay Kumar. The Collegium chose him for the Supreme Court. Justice Muralidharan was the senior-most judge and the Collegium had no other option but to appoint him as the Acting Chief Justice.

The Collegium probably thought it would watch his performance before confirming him as the Chief Justice. And then Justice Muralidharan exploded a bomb. What happened was that as a single judge, he had to hear a case in which the petitioners demanded that the Meiteis be declared as a Scheduled Tribe.

Manipur’s ancient chronicle Cheitharol Kumbaba has listed 74 kings who ruled the state since 33 AD. How could the majority community be declared ST with all the attendant reservation benefits? As in the case of Vande Mataram, Justice Muralidharan ordered that his decision should be implemented within four weeks.

He set a deadline, violation of which would invite, naturally, contempt of court proceedings. There was protest from the non-Meiteis who realised that they would not get the benefits of reservation which would be cornered by the socially, culturally and educationally forward Meiteis.

Those who know the legal proceedings know only too well that when a single-member Bench wrongly decides a case, the remedy is to file a review application before a larger Bench of the same court. Whether the other judges are Meitei or Kuki, the point is that the judgement is utterly flawed.

Under the Constitutional scheme of things, no judge has the power to declare a community as a Scheduled Tribe. By the way, the Meiteis constitute about 55 percent of the population. That right vests with the President of India who, incidentally, is a Scheduled Tribe herself.

When the Manipur case came up before the Supreme Court, it also upheld the argument that the High Court had no right to pronounce such a verdict. Yet, it allowed the division Bench of the Manipur High Court to hear the case. It should have itself heard the case given the serious law and order situation it created in the state.

No riot or ethnic cleansing is possible without the state connivance. The rioters are cowards who will run away when the security forces show up. It is only when the police looked away as in Gujarat in 2002 and in Delhi in 1984 that anti-Muslim and anti-Sikh killings were possible.

Call them Kukis or non-Meiteis or whatever, the victims in Manipur are overwhelmingly Christian. What was attempted was nothing but ethnic-cleansing. The black-uniformed Arambai Tenggol functioned like the Stormtroopers in Nazi Germany and those who burnt men and women at the Best Bakery in Vadodara in Gujarat.

They were allowed to roam the streets of Imphal and target Christian houses and establishments. Arson was the weapon they used. They would storm into a house and ask the people to show their identity card. That would confirm their identity.

If they were Christians, they would be thrashed and they would run away. Thereafter, they would loot the house of all the valuables. Then the house would be burnt down using gas cylinders and other combustible material in the house itself. Nothing would be left in the house. Ethnic cleansing can also be called proof cleansing!

They have in this manner burnt and destroyed dozens of churches, schools and theological institutions. The names of many of the churches burnt down suggest that they are American. The Catholic Church was also not spared. For instance, some of the best schools where the Meitei elite studied and which belonged to the Catholics were burnt down.

Although the official figures say that only 71 people were killed at the time of writing, a person from Manipur I contacted in Delhi said that the figure would be in the hundreds. With the Internet down, communication with Manipuris is almost impossible.

Had the state government been keen to suppress the violence, all it needed to do was to call the Army which has a strong presence in the state. Instead, the stormtroopers were allowed a free hand from May 3 to 6. It is difficult to believe that it was a spontaneous reaction to the negative feeling Justice Muralidharan’s verdict created in the minds of the non-Meitei population.

Evidence suggests that considerable planning had gone into the anti-Christian pogrom. To say that it was not a religious issue but an ethnic issue is to close your eyes to the truth. A few days before the violence, some churches were demolished using bulldozers by the state government. The state also used its power to clear the forests of Christian settlers in the name of targeting the illegal migrants from Myanmar. They were also asked to surrender their weapons they were entitled to use to protect themselves from wild animals.

Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised the voters of Manipur that his party would strengthen peace in the state if given a chance. His party won 32 seats out of 60. About 20 Christian Kuki and Naga MLAs are also with the party. How truly it is said that while voting for the BJP, the Manipuris were as gracious as to let the burning stick that sought the warehouse of wood get just one chance!


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