Manipur is limping back to normalcy though the situation is still tense. People are living in fear. The affected districts are still volatile. That is the assessment of people on the ground. Even after a fortnight, internet closure has not been lifted. Any spark could lead to a relapse of the mayhem.
The current situation in the North Eastern state is impossible to describe especially for those not on the ground. Summing up the present atmosphere is a difficult task. People are deeply wounded and have suffered loss, not only physically but mentally, socially and spiritually. The ambience is one of mistrust and animosity. One is against the other depending on which community you belong to.
More details are slowly emerging. The rally on the ill-fated date is blamed for the madness that followed. Generally everyone agrees that the massive ‘tribal solidarity march’ was peaceful till the end. According to reliable information, after the rally as over a truck hit a bike and injured some people. The driver who happens to be a Meitei was beaten up by the protesters. That was supposedly the start of the unabated violence.
The rampage went on relentlessly for three to four days. The riots were on daylight and under the shadow of the night. With good reasons, the riots are termed as an ethnic cleansing. Mobs, apparently, selectively went from village to village, locality to locality, killing people, looting houses, burning down households and properties. All hell broke loose as attacks and counter attacks went on unchecked. The epicentres are Churachanpur and the Imphal Valley. However, the Kuki population in Imphal Valley suffered the most.
In Imphal different groups of 40-50 people went around asking for ID cards from people. They were armed with sticks, knives and other tools. Some were equipped with guns, some of which were snatched away from police stations without much of a resistance. It is clear they were looking for people from a particular community. So these are not merely mobs. They could be organised groups out to commit atrocities against the targeted community.
The barbaric acts have taken more than 70 innocent lives. One agency’s estimate says there are more than 45,000 people in shelter camps both in Imphal valley and in the hills. The break downs are as follows: Around 14,000 in Imphal West district; 12,000 in Imphal East; 4500 in Bishnupur district; 5,500 in Churachanpur; and 7000 in Kangpokpi district. Spot verification is not possible due to the prevailing situation. The government has put the number of houses burnt at 1700. But sources say this figure is a molecule. The government says 35,000 are displaced. Now hundreds are ghost villages of burnt debris. Such was the brutality.
The actual number is much higher. From the Imphal Valley those who bore the brunt are not only in the relief camps. They have escaped to neighbouring Assam, Mizoram, Shillong and even Delhi. Kuki MLAs have gone to Aizwal (Mizoram). They have stated that they and their people would never return to Imphal. Leaders of pressure groups and civil societies too have fled to safer location. They are communicating from outside their home state. Such is the effect of the mindless ethnic violence.
Whatever be the cause or causes, the state government is under scrutiny. The administration is accused of inaction. The police allegedly either remained mere onlookers or even aided rioters. The delay of more than 24 hours to call in central forces is interpreted as deliberate so that the perpetrators could execute their plan. Manipur is likened to Gujarat in 2002 and Kandhamal (Odisha) in 2008 where the states allegedly watched and allowed rioters to go on a rampage with impunity. What we have now is an unimaginable suffering of people. The cruelty of goons may be horrifying but the state governments' culpability in not containing violence must be investigated. The first one to be made answerable is the Chief Minister himself who had been articulating a narrative against the tribal community, whether on poppy cultivation, ‘encroached’ settlements in forest lands, ‘illegal’ immigration and others. He stands accused of being the Chief Minister of his community. But the CM does not act alone. He has apparently the support of the BJP top bras in his questionable decisions that angered the Kuki populace.
Earlier reports identified 25 churches which were either burned or destroyed. More recently. an organisation called Churachandpur District Christians Goodwill Council, has listed 121 churches which have been completely burnt down, partially burnt down, destroyed or vandalised in Imphal Valley. A newspaper has reported that more than 200 churches (including home altars) have fallen victim to the unscrupulous hands. The destruction of churches took place from 3rd to 5th May. Footages, and collaborated by inputs from Imphal, show the torching of churches took place even in broad daylight.
Before the clashes took place, a pastor allegedly preached derogatorily against a practice of a group of the majority community. Later he insisted that his comments were taken completely out of context. Moreover, he apologised for his ‘mistake’. Yet a section pledged to protect their indigenous culture and religion. Amplifying this issue built up passion.
Questions arise as to why were the Christian places of worship targeted? If it was only an ethnic clash, why take aim at the churches? The church, per se, has nothing to do with the contentious Meitei or Kuki issues. Some churches belonging to the Meitei community too became victims. So there is a religious angle too. The way the destruction took place, it looks to be an organised crime. The hatred against Christians all over the country has reached the North East.
It is now well-known that the Hindutva outfits do not want tribals to have the exclusive rights to their lands and resources as guaranteed by the Constitution. The Hindutva followers even work to strip tribals of their ST status so that their lands are grabbed by all. Manipur is a fall out of this dangerous extreme rightist philosophy. It is also noted that the Manipur violence took place days after the Chhttisgarh-based saffron outfit Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram landed in the state. Are the two just coincidences?
In 2016 while visiting a mutual friend in a hospital in Guwahati, a Meitei stated, “It is our own fault that we are not tribals. We rejected the offer because we did not want to equate ourselves with the backward hills people.” What he said may be disputed but it is now clear that the majority community is demanding ST status now to be able to buy tribal land in the hills. While acknowledging that the Meiteis are limited to the 10 or 12% territory in the valley, it must be stated that there is nothing in the hills. There is no development at all. All that the hills people possess is the land and forests. If these are taken away from them they literally have nothing more.
The bulk of the resources are concentrated in and around Imphal. Prominent universities, colleges, schools, hospitals, different institutes, facilities, government offices are located in the 10% territory. The staff and employees are dominated by Meiteis because they are more educated. The tribals have not come up to the level of the non-tribals. Granting ST status to the Meiteis will put the tribals at a huge disadvantage. It will be a decision taken so that the tribals can never catch up with the rest. They still need reservation. A level playing field with the non-tribals is undesirable now and in the near future.
The unprecedented violence echoed a ‘feeble’ and ‘lukewarm’ response from the church. Apart from a couple of prelates like the Bangalore’s archbishop, Peter Machado, there was no categorical condemnation. There were individual bishops from other parts of India who expressed dismay at the large-scale violence against Christians. But a unified reaction is still absent. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) had a very brief and weak media release. The bishops in the North East merely requested for prayers. Bishops from outside the region had stronger words. Lay church organisations in the region were completely silent. Probably tribal sentiments are greater than religious affiliation. Tribal difference does exist though the religion may be the same. Few consider humanity as greater than anything else.
The Church has failed the sheep. It has failed to stand up for the tribals against a regime that is trying to snatch away the constitutional rights of tribals. Instead a section in the institution is allying with the fascist forces politically.
Time heals, but till the homes, villages and churches are rebuilt; till the displaced people return; till the loss of human life is accepted; till the wounds are cured; till the suffering is eased; till animosity is reconciled; who knows how long Manipur requires?