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Manipur – A Blot on Indian Democracy

Anto Akkara Anto Akkara
15 Apr 2024

Indian democracy lies in a pathetic state of total paralysis in Manipur, with lawlessness and anarchy reigning for nearly a year over the northeastern state with a population of a mere 37 lakhs.

The protracted bloodshed, mayhem, anarchy and the abject failure of state machinery to intervene and restore law and order continues amid a huge contingent of nearly 50,000 armed forces being reduced to spectators due to a lack of clear directions from the Central Government.

The country has witnessed several major bloody carnages in recent decades, like the 1983 massacre of Muslim migrants in Nellie in Assam, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, the 1993 Bombay riots after the Barbi Masjid demolition, the 2002 post-Godhra Muslim carnage in Gujarat and the 2013 Muzaffarnagar bloodshed. However, in all these cases, the Indian state did not buckle for long and restored law and order within days, deploying a mighty army that put its foot down.

But, in the case of Manipur, which was engulfed by brutal killings and arson since the evening of May 3, Prime Minister Modi, heading the Central Government – constitutionally duty bound to have used its emergency powers under Article 356 to enforce law order - remains dumb and deaf - silent spectator even at the threshold of the anniversary raising the question: 'Is Manipur a part of India for Mr Narendra Modi?'

When Christian targets in the tribal region of Dangs in Gujarat went up in flames during Christmas 1998, Prime Minister Vajpayee rushed in. Following the Gujarat carnage of 2002, Vajpayee cautioned then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi of his 'Raj Dharma' (royal duty) to restore law and order.

Compare Prime Minister Vajpayee's reaction to Prime Minister Modi's response, who remains deaf to the desperate cry for restoration of peace in Manipur, where the state machinery is utterly in shambles.

Shockingly, Prime Minister Modi, who waxes eloquent about 'great Indian democracy' abroad, has not bothered to set foot in Manipur, which continues to burn and simmer with the stunning kidnapping of police officers from police stations even in Imphal and brazen attacks on the army continuing in the 11th month.

The conflagration erupted in Churuchandpur, the heartland of the Kukis, following a Tribal Solidarity March protesting a controversial order from the High Court of Manipur recommending ST status to the Meiteis, who constitute over 52 per cent of the state population.

Report of Kuki attacks on Meiteis spread like wildfire in hours, plunging the Imphal Valley, which accommodates 90 per cent of the Manipur population, into the orgy of violence against Kuki minorities while the Meitei settlements in the 'Hills' surrounding the Valley also went up in flames. The official death toll of 220 is far from the reality. The conflagration has left more than 60,000 people refugees, the overwhelming majority of them being ethnic Kukis (all of them Christians). At the same time, over 10,000 Meiteis have also been driven out from Kuki strongholds like Churuchandpur, Moreh and Kangpokpi.

During my first challenging trip to Manipur in early May, as the anarchy spread, I could see hundreds of charred vehicles even on the roads, commercial buildings and skeletons of torched houses and churches as I travelled to Churuchandpur in the south, across Imphal valley and to Kangpokpi hill district in the north.

Before landing in Manipur, the Home Minister made a categorical statement on May 26 in Guwahati: The clashes in Manipur were "because of a court judgement".

This declaration was a rebuttal of the claim that the BJP government of Manipur told the Supreme Court on May 17 that "the genesis of ethnic violence in the state was the crackdown on illegal Myanmar migrants, illicit poppy cultivation and drug business in the hills…". This claim had been parroted by dozens of saffron-friendly news outlets and web portals, fanning the saffron narrative on the ethnic conflict in the nation while the internet remained suspended in Manipur and the grim reality got blacked out.

Home Minister Amit Shah Rebutted

Despite Home Minister Amit Shah refusing to endorse the contentious reasons put forward by the Manipur BJP government for the conflict, BJP chief minister Biren Singh remained adamant on his government claim in the Supreme Court on the eve of Amit Shah's arrival in Manipur—declaring on May 28 that "the latest clashes were not between rival communities, but between Kuki militants and security forces".

Manipur would not have plunged into the present chaos had the Home Minister acted dutifully against the Chief Minister for this defiance and failure to restore peace in four weeks.
The fact that the Manipur High Court deleted its controversial order on February 22 lent credence to the argument that the 'unconstitutional order' was a ploy to trigger the Manipur mayhem, and the judiciary has now washed its hands off like Pontius Pilate.

Chief Minister Biren Singh had admitted on May 21 that the unprecedented violence was "due to security and intelligence lapses of the state government and stated that the government is ready to take all the blame".

But even a month after this public admission, the state administration continued to remain in limbo amid a chorus of national outcry against the lawlessness, exemplified by the ambulance rushing an injured boy to hospital with his mother being torched.

June 16 witnessed the torching of the residence of Ranjan Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs, hailing from Manipur, despite nearly two dozen security officials guarding it. The wanton act further exposed the total failure of the administration to uphold the rule of law from vigilante outfits like Arambai Tenggol, which have become a law unto themselves after looting police armoury and spreading terror in Imphal Valley. Yet, the central government remained a silent spectator.

"The Law and order situation in Manipur is a total failure", fumed the stunned deputy foreign minister of India, Ranjan Singh. Yet, the Modi government refused to invoke Article 356 to dismiss the Biren Singh government.

Earlier, towards the end of May, when Home Minister Amit Shah visited the state – four weeks into the violence – meeting cross sections and announcing a million solatium for dependent families of those killed, the entire Christian areas of Sugnu town was torched, reducing to ashes hundreds of houses, livelihood setups along with the oldest Catholic church, convent and school occupied by a vigilante group with armed forces leaving the area.

Treason Outside, but No Action in Manipur

The country has witnessed how those opposing controversial policies of the government, like social activist Fr. Stan Samy speaking up for exploited tribals, have been witch-hunted as 'urban terrorists' and slapped with sedition and terrorism charges.

Indians with conscience and concern for civil rights will not forget the treatment meted out to 22-year-old university student Disha Ravi in 2021. Disha was one of the Bangalore chapter founders of 'Fridays For Future', a global movement begun by climate change activist teenager Greta Thunberg of Sweden. Modi's special mandarins flew down to arrest Disha under sedition charges after she modified a "toolkit" - a flier, tweeted by Swedish climate activist Thunberg, suggesting ways of helping the farmers.

But the NIA branded it as a "call to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India" and put her behind bars in Delhi. Amid the national chorus of protest, the Supreme Court ordered Disha's release.

Manipur cauldron witnessed a stunning sedition case that can be white-washed only in a banana republic – not a democracy. "Women-led mob forces security personnel to let go of 12 militants in Manipur: Army". This June 25 headline of the Hindustan Times exposed the pathetic face of Indian democracy in Manipur. Security forces, the report said, "were forced to let go of the 12 Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) militants they apprehended after a "women-led" mob of around 1,500 surrounded them."

The 12 KYKL members the army apprehended earlier in the day included Moirangthem Tamba, alias Uttam, a mastermind of the 2015 ambush that killed 18 army personnel."

Killers of 18 soldiers of Dogra regiment were released from army custody by Meitei women led by 'local leaders', the army statement pointed out, while local BJP Meitei MLA Thounaojam Shyamkumar Singh conceded that he was 'present' in the mob.

Is this not a crime of sedition? This incident shows how democracy has been thrown to the wind in Manipur, with the "ultra-patriotic" BJP regime remaining a mute spectator and failing to file a sedition case in this shocking case of the army being forced to release terrorists who had killed 18 Indian soldiers in an ambush.

Such an anarchic situation, aggravated by spineless administration, forced senior army officials to even share on Twitter (now X) that "Women activists in #Manipur are deliberately blocking routes and interfering in Operations of Security Forces. Such unwarranted interference is detrimental to the timely response by Security Forces during critical situations to save lives and property."

Hindutva Agenda Under the Cover of Ethnic Conflict 

Contrary to various reports, the number of churches damaged or destroyed in the orgy violence is over 600. This includes 247 churches of Meitei Christians that had been damaged or destroyed in Imphal Valley in 36 hours from May 3rd night as an alert army went on the offensive, adding a shocking dimension to the ethnic conflict.

When a Meitei mob was desecrating an ethnic Naga church, they were promptly called back for targeting the 'wrong church'. That clearly showed that there was indeed a Hindutva agenda behind the synchronized attacks on the Meitei churches. The steady spurt among Meiteis embracing the Christian faith, rising steadily among the Meitei population, has rattled the Saffron Parivar. The surprising May 16 editorial of 'The Organizer' alleging that the bloodshed was carried out 'with the support of the churches' confirmed this further.

(The style book of the Hindu nationalists - displayed in Kandhamal in 2008 – was repeated in Manipur in a copycat manner. Pastors of destroyed or damaged churches were made to sign affidavits that they would not return. The pastor who went to file an FIR against the desecration of his church was not just threatened by the police. They called the Meitei vigilante group that proceeded to destroy completely the damaged church.)

Wilson Lalam Hangshing, general secretary of the Kuki People's Alliance, aptly sums up the deep polarisation gripping Manipur: "Kukis have left the (Imphal) Valley, and Meitei's have left the Hills ... The separation is complete."

It was manifest when I made a third trip in December to the northeast to pursue the Manipur holocaust after visiting refugees in Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram. As I travelled from Imphal via Bishnupur to Churuchandpur, the vehicle had to be stopped over a half dozen times in two kilometres at check-points manned by different army units and Manipur police – as if one was crossing over to another state, reminding me of the travails of crossing over to LTTE-held Vavuniya from Sri Lankan mainland during the ethnic conflict.

Modi's Stoic Silence

Amid such even geographical separation on ethnic lines in Manipur, the nation remains intrigued by the silence of Prime Minister Modi on the suffering of tens of thousands of refugees, including Meiteis, let alone Kuki Christians. But for speaking out for 36 seconds at the entrance of Parliament on July 20 on the 'naked parade' of two Kuki women (on public pressure), the Prime Minister has not uttered the word 'Manipur' in nearly a year despite the PIB mandarins boasting that Modi had visited the north-east 60 times since 2014.

Despite freely moving around the country, including making half a dozen trips to Kerala alone three months before the Parliament elections, Modi has yet to find time to enter Manipur. He has no qualms about going on an elephant safari on March 8 in Kaziranga National Park and even feeding elephants. Still, he could not step foot in simmering Manipur—a mere 230 km from Kaziranga—to distribute chocolates to starving homeless children.

But Modi's inexplicable silence on Manipur is rooted in the comprehensive political agenda of Sangh Parivar in Manipur. Had the army been given complete freedom to restore law and order, the bravado of the dreaded Arambai Thengol cadres could have been curbed, quieting Kuki outfits.

The BJP leadership is also wary of sacking Chief Minister Biren Singh, who has been a complete failure in performing constitutional duties, fearful of losing the support of the majority ethnic Meiteis and antagonizing the Meitei militants.

Manipur witnessed the literal trampling of Indian Democracy on January 24 at the historic Kangla Fort in Imphal. Thirty-seven Meitei MLAs and two MPs (Lok Sabha MP Ranjan Singh, deputy foreign minister, and Rajya Sabha MP Leishemba Sanajaoba, patron of Arambai Thenggol) had been summoned by the Arambai Thengol 'to sign an oath to protect Manipur'.

When the Congress MLA K Meghachandra, who is also Manipur Congress President, refused to sign the 'oath', he was beaten up. Two concerned Meitei BJP MLAs rushed forward to stop the assault on their fellow legislator. But they, too, were not spared by the Meitei militants in uniform while central security forces and Manipur police remained mute spectators.

Is this called democracy? Who is responsible for plunging Manipur into such anarchy, leaving Manipur a black spot on the face of Indian Democracy?

(Anto Akkara is a journalist working with international media. He is known for his investigative work on Kandhamal, exposing the Hindu nationalist agenda behind the 2008 bloodshed through his books, documentaries, and social media campaign for 'Truth & Justice for Kandhamal'.)
 

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