It is the sixth month and counting.
Manipur, a remote state in the far northeast of India, has been plagued by ethnic conflict, with no apparent resolution in sight. Tensions remain extremely high on the ground, and yet, we seem to have overlooked this issue, distracted most recently by the ongoing Israel-Hamas war that erupted on 7 October.
While it is undoubtedly compassionate to empathise with the suffering of the Israel-Palestine conflict victims, it is worth noting that our Prime Minister responded to that within eight hours through his ‘X’ account.
However, it's disheartening to recollect that it took him 79 days to address the crisis in Manipur. Journalistic teams received Israeli visas within 90 hours to cover the war-torn Israel-Palestine region, while the plight of Manipur has been pushed aside and normalised, leaving its people struggling to survive.
Hundreds have lost their lives, and thousands have been displaced, living in makeshift camps with minimal access to food and shelter. Meanwhile, our media enthusiastically highlights the suffering of the Israel-Palestine conflict victims.
The question arises: why does the Israel-Palestine issue take precedence over Manipur?
Fundamental Principles of the Idea of Fraternity
The comparison between the attention given to the Israel-Palestine situation and the neglect of Manipur is not meant to downplay the significance of the former, but rather to highlight the painful neglect of the latter.
It is natural to empathise with the pain of both the Jews and Palestinians, but it's disheartening that we have failed to empathize with our fellow Indians.
In this context, it's essential to reflect on the fundamental principles of brotherhood and sisterhood enshrined in our great Constitution under the banner of fraternity.
According to Ambedkar, fraternity can be equated to ‘fellow feeling,’ which "lies in sharing in the vital processes of life". The focus is on the act of ‘sharing,’ including sharing in the pain, sorrow, joy, and happiness of others.
This underscores the importance of our ability to empathise with the suffering of the people in conflict-ridden Manipur. Only a limited number of journalists and media outlets made an effort to report on the Manipur issue to ensure it remains a part of our daily discourse that serves as a constant reminder of the challenges people face in this remote state.
Barkha Dutt, who courageously visited the state and featured various stories on her YouTube channel Mojo Story, through her ‘X’ account, raised the question, “Why isn’t #Manipur one of our top headlines everywhere?” The sheer ignorance of the Manipur conflict prompts us to question whether we have lost touch with the true essence of fraternity. As highlighted by the South Indian actor Prakash Raj in his conversation with The Wire, fraternity will only remain a constitutional principle unless we actively ‘cultivate’ and incorporate it into our way of life.
Manipur's Political Landscape is a Complex Web of Interests
Delving deeply into the complexities of the Manipur issue presents a formidable challenge for political leaders unless they handle it with great caution. In the state’s assembly, the Meiteis hold the majority of seats, that is, 40 out of 60, while the other two prominent ethnic groups, the Kukis and the Nagas, collectively possess about 20 seats.
Together, these groups account for approximately 41 percent of the state's population. For a long time, the Kukis and the Nagas have harboured desires for separation from Manipur, but their aspirations have been hindered by the intense political discord among the three major ethnic groups. To fulfill the demands of either the Kukis or the Nagas would entail risking the support of the majority of Meiteis.
As a result, the political landscape is a complex web of interests, and the prospect of establishing a separate administration for the Meiteis poses a direct challenge to their continued existence. This situation represents a political puzzle for which there is no straightforward solution, yet it is one that must be addressed to pave the way for lasting peace on the horizon. However, as a consequence of the ongoing conflict, the division and animosity between the two opposing communities escalated to such an extent that the Kukis saw complete separation as their only viable solution.
Drawing from the analysis of Erin K Jenne, the initial stage of ethnic cleansing, that is ethnic removal, involves not only expelling ‘enemy’ groups from the territory (through tactics like induced flight, forced expulsions, or mass murder) but also intentionally destroying or desecrating their sites of national significance, which includes graveyards, churches, monuments, and other landmarks that hold cultural and historical significance.
The current conflict has resulted in a staggering toll, with over 146 Kuki lives lost, more than 200 villages, over 7,000 houses, and 360 churches reduced to ashes. Additionally, it has forced 41,425 individuals to become internally displaced persons, according to the recent data released by KSO Media and Documentation Cell in their Daily Newsletter titled Thingkho le Malcha, issue number 49. It is essential to note that this does not imply that the Meiteis have not suffered losses, but the magnitude of the Kuki community’s losses is undoubtedly unparalleled.
Nevertheless, the primary purpose of this article is not to engage in a blame game or contest of victimhood by delving into who suffered more and who bears responsibility for the situation. Instead, the intent is to shed light on the fact that a significant part of our country has been in turmoil for the past six months. It is both our moral and constitutional duty to demand action from the government, be it the central or the state government, to bring an end to this crisis.
The pressing question remains: how can we achieve this?
Lest We Forget
In response to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Indian government exhibits prompt empathy for both actors. However, in the case of Manipur, there is a conspicuous lack of interest. Additionally, only a significant number of us raise our opinions either in support of or against either community, and few are a harbinger of peace in the state. And there’s a whole lot who remain disengaged as Manipur’s issues have never been a concern for them.
It is relatively simple to become entangled in ethnic and religious fault lines during a conflict, particularly when the matter is frequently covered in the media which keeps it in the public consciousness. However, the ethnic conflict in Manipur struggles to garner media attention. One plausible solution to resolve the Manipur crisis is to make it a regular feature in the media, ‘lest we forget’ that part of our state is burning amid the Israel-Palestine war.
With both the state and central governments failing to ensure the security of their citizens, we have witnessed their failure to maintain law and order. The state government has already been entangled in and taken sides in the ethnic division, but what about the central government? And is the media overshadowing Manipur by the Israel-Palestine war a deliberate attempt to keep the Manipur issue out of sight?
Understandably, the current Chief Minister, N Biren Singh, is a revered leader for the BJP, given that he brought Manipur into the BJP's fold. However, allowing the crisis to persist for over six months turns Manipur into a graveyard. It appears that the central government is making minimal efforts to bring it to a conclusion.
Therefore, it falls upon us, as the citizens of this country, to demand action. We have observed the nation’s outcry in cases like Nirbhaya, in which the government acted swiftly.
The critical issue here is that we simply do not pay attention to it. For that matter, when did Northeast India ever become a subject of interest for the government and for us, the citizens?
People from the northeast have consistently been treated as outsiders. Perhaps it is time for us to embrace them as part of our collective identity. Hopefully, in doing so, we can empathize with their plight and unite in demanding an end to this ongoing crisis.
(Seikhongam [email@example.com] is a PhD Scholar at the Delhi School of Economics; Anuj Goyal [firstname.lastname@example.org] is a PhD Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University.)