In what appears as staged political theatrics which will make noted playwright of Manipur like Ratan Thiyam to wink and run for his money, Biren Singh announced that he will not resign as Chief Minister of Manipur on the afternoon of 30 June.
In doing so, Biren purportedly attempts to kill three birds with one stone:
Firstly, to neutralize any attempt by New Delhi to held him to account for the complete breakdown of law and order in the state for over 58 days, dismiss him and impose President’s rule in the state; secondly, to send out a political signal to his rivals and to the centre that he continues to enjoy widespread popular support amongst the Meiteis in the valley areas, and thirdly, to trump Rahul Gandhi’s message of empathy, love and care.
While it remains to be seen how successful Biren Singh will be in insulating himself from the centre’s writ or in securing his gaddi for now in ways which affirms his pabung (fatherly) status amongst his majoritarian-minded electoral constituency, a close examination of how these theatrics was staged both as a political stunt and as a political statement will shed light on the nature and future of stateness and democracy in Manipur and beyond.
The fact that Biren Singh pressed the service of Meira Paibis, a group of torch-bearing women, and other frontal Meitei organisations to stage this theatric to reinforce the largescale popular support he continues to enjoy from the valley areas is both interesting and baffling.
Despite their historical role in combating social crimes, promoting peace and human rights in the state, the Meira Paibis seemed to have overtaken and dictated the terms of the ‘high reason of the state’ and its role in maintaining law and order in the state in the wake of this violence.
That a woman protestor was called out of the legions who dotted the 200 metre-long stretch from the Chief Minister’s bungalow to the Raj Bhawan on that day to tear apart Biren’s resignation letter by Susindro Meitei in the presence of Konthoujam Govindas, another cabinet colleague, who along with him were earlier at the receiving end of arsoning on their houses by the same groups makes a good political optics.
Yet this political stunt hides an inherent tension in the institutional ecosystem within which Biren’s majoritarian politics operates. Using ‘arson’ by vigilante groups as a tool to intimidate and ‘coerce’ factional leaders like Govindas, Susindro and other possible dissenters to fall in line is likely to leverage an oppressive democratic culture which is not likely to serve the cause of stateness and democracy in Manipur and beyond.
The Implications on the Future of Manipur
If we place these theatrics against three widely reported instances where the state caved into the dictates of the Meira Paibis, the implications of this institutional ecosystem on the future of stateness and democracy becomes apparent.
Firstly, blocking the deployment of central security forces in the foothills which has emerged as the buffer zone to secure peace on the pretext that they support the Kuki-Zomi groups.
Secondly, ensuring the release of members of two banned Meitei terrorist organisations on two occasions with full impunity.
The first occasion pertains to the release of 4 suspected United National Liberation Front (UNLF) cadres at Lilong on 19 June who were arrested in two separate vehicles, armed with lethal weapons including 51mm mortars.
The second occasion pertains to the release of 12 cadres of Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) who were apprehended by 3rd Army Corps at Itham village in East Imphal on 21 June.
This includes the self-style Lt. Colonel Moirangthem Tamba alias Uttam who masterminded the 2015 ambush of 6th Battalion Dogra army convey wherein 20 soldiers were killed.
And thirdly, largescale mobilization of women and mobs in thousands which frontally led the state police and armed militants in unleashing attacks on and arson of Kuki villages of Aigejang, Khopibung and Khamenlok on 11-13 June.
That the state under Biren Singh’s leadership has capitulated to these groups suggests that the quintessential Weberian character of stateness as a ‘coercive monopoly of power’ is compromised.
While Meira Paibis have considerably aided and extend the integrationist and majoritarian agenda of the state under Biren Singh’s leadership, their love-hate relationship with Biren and their contentious role in this violence has exposed not only the weakness of the state but also signals the danger of allowing the state to be dictated by vigilante mobs whose agenda do not always cohere with the cause of democracy, freedom and justice.
Indeed, this love-hate relationship becomes apparent after marionettes of the state like Meira Paibis and various Meitei frontal organisations attempted to block Rahul Gandhi’s convoy at Bishenpur on his way to Lamka (Churachandpur), the flashpoint of this conflagration, on 29 June.
Despite the fact that the major arenas of violence shifted away to the northern foothills of the state for over a month now, the alarmist framing of security scenario by the Bishenpur district administration and police helped in forestalling Rahul’s road trip to Lamka, the southernmost district.
However, the complementary and mutually reinforcing position of the Meira Paibis, Meitei frontal organisations and the state administration was neutralized by Rahul’s steely resolve to hire a helicopter from Imphal to Lamka.
The heartwarming welcome, on-site visit to relief camps, personal interactions and widespread media coverage on his dinning with children victims of this violence in Lamka underscore Rahul’s message of empathy, care, and love of fellow-citizens.
This is in sharp contrast not only to Biren’s persistent targeting of Kuki-Zomi groups but also to Prime Minister Narendra’s stoic silence and disinterestedness to visit and resolve Manipur’s violence since its outbreak two months ago.
'The Myth of Double Engine Sarkar'
Even as Rahul’s visit exposed Modi’s deafening silence and the myth of double engine sarkar in effectuating law and order—all of which put the BJP, the state and central governments into tight spots—frontal Meitei organisations in the valley areas were deeply disappointed over their failure to forestall this visit.
Given that the steady access of metro-based journalists and political party leaders to the hill areas have either leveraged or lend credence to the alternative tribal narrative which does not cohere with but rather competes and juxtaposes with the state and Meiteis’ narrative, a visit by such a high-ranking political leader like Rahul is bound to have important bearings on Biren’s position and control of the violence narrative so far.
As the tightly-weaved state and Meitei-majoritarian narrative increasingly got exposed with such visits and frustration got built up overtime, Biren Singh and his political managers were compelled to come up with these ingenious political theatrics to trump Rahul’s message and undercut the possible political ramifications that an alternative violence narrative might entail on BJP’s political fortune on the one hand, and on the interest of the Meiteis on the other hand.
The news of two Meitei casualties including a retired navy, who died in the course of their offensive strikes of a Kuki village in the Leimakhong area on the same day of Rahul’s visit to Lamka accentuated their frustration and anger against Biren Singh and his government.
The agitated mobs frontally led by women groups protested against Biren Singh’s government ineptitude in controlling Meitei casualties and hurled abuses against the Chief Minister on the evening of 29 June.
A careful reading of the Biren Singh’s resignation theatrics the following day therefore cannot be oblivious to this immediate context.
However, these theatrics should not merely be seen as an act of political one-upmanship which seeks to stage-manage political optics in ways which foreground the manufactured consent and popular support that Biren continues to have from the valley areas.
A shrewd political stunt such as this may help offset the political significance of Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Lamka and Manipur.
It may also eminently serve to neutralize any attempt on the part of New Delhi to impose President’s rule and hold Biren Singh’s failure to establish law and order for over two months to account, yet the long-term implications such theatrics entail on the future of stateness and democracy in deeply divided societies like Manipur and beyond should not be lost sight of.
(Kham Khan Suan Hausing is a Professor and Head, of the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)