What Manipur is witnessing today is the only instance in post-Partition, Independent India, where the country has seen people being divided and segregated geographically, albeit on ethnic lines. While the Meiteis have left the hills, Kuki-Zo tribes have left the Imphal valley; the ethnic divide is complete.
The violence that erupted on 3 May has reached its 26th day, and yet, the state government has failed to bring the situation under control in the sensitive border state of Manipur.
While the Indian Army has done a commendable job to avert a far greater human tragedy, they also remain helpless as they cannot take sides in what is basically an 'internal problem'.
The Manipur police are clearly divided along ethnic lines now, with the Meiteis in the Imphal valley helping their community and the Kukis doing likewise in the hills.
While the Manipur Police Commandos, notorious for its 'encounters' in the past, could have brought the situation under control, the Kukis allege that they are actually at the forefront of attacking Kuki villages along with the Meitei group Tengol.
The Meiteis, in turn, allege that the Kuki insurgent groups, currently in a Suspension of Operations (SOO) with the Central and state government since 2005, are directly involved in the fight.
The Meitei-Kuki Conflict Intensifies
Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, in a press conference on 28 May, declared that he will use all the state police forces, including the paramilitary, to crush the Kuki 'terrorists' – a group currently in a tripartite talk with the Central and state governments.
Such an open declaration of war, seemingly targeting a particular community, even if it is on insurgents, makes the situation far more volatile.
While some Kuki leaders allege that they have the basic right to defend themselves either through volunteers or otherwise, the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) spokesperson Dr Seilen Haokip denied the involvement of the Kuki insurgents under SOO.
The killing and burning of villages have been going on in the borders of the hills and valleys for the last 26 days. However, violence has escalated in the last two days again like how it did when the fighting started on 3 May.
Fresh violence has erupted in the border towns of Kangvai (Churachandpur), Suknu (Chandel), Saikul (Kangpokpi), Kangchup (Kangpokpi), Moreh (Tengnoupal), and Sekmai (Imphal East). While the first four are in the hills, which are attacked by Meitei Tengol, the last two were attacked by the Kukis.
Even as the Manipur chief minister claims that the state is back to normalcy, the Manipur state armoury was looted again for the second time on 28 May from three places in the valley: 2nd and 7th Manipur Rifles camp, Imphal, and 3rd IRB Camp, Thoubal.
Questions are being raised as to how the state armoury could be looted in Imphal for the second time. Kukis are also believed to have looted a police station in the Tengnoupal district.
With 1,000-odd automatic weapons still in the hands of Meitei Tengol, and Kukis also looting police stations in the hills, both communities now have a considerable number of automatic weapons.
Meitei undergrounds, who have been waging war against India for an independent Manipur, were lying low in Myanmar and pockets of Manipur valley for the last decade. With their positions in Myanmar increasingly being threatened by the People's Defense Forces of Myanmar, since they are seen as pro-junta, they were often seen in the hill districts, possibly looking for a space for themselves.
The attack on an Indian Army Colonel along with his family on 13 November 2022 by the Meitei insurgents in the Churachandpur district testifies to that. Thus, their involvement in the current conflict cannot be ruled out.
Manipur's Human Rights Crisis Has Been Weaponised
Though the Manipur government collected licensed guns from the people of Manipur two months before the violence started (for verification), the Kukis still have considerable country-made guns.
Besides that, a state with a porous border like Manipur has easier access to automatic weapons from across the border making the prospect of peace look very bleak.
Unlike earlier, when various human rights bodies and peace activists were seen active in Northeast India, this time, they are conspicuous by their absence.
One problem in the Northeast is also that human rights bodies of respective communities only vouch for their own people without a general concern for 'human rights'. The press has also been wholly polarised from both sides with many mainland Indian presses also relying on them without actually verifying facts from the ground.
Even the civil societies belonging to the Meitei and the Kuki-Zo communities are yet to sit together to find a solution. In fact, Kuki leaders have even given a stern warning to their community to not entertain any overtures from the chief minister, blaming him as the chief orchestrator of the violence.
Kuki-Zo people have even refused to meet the visiting central government delegates in Deputy Commissioner's offices preferring the Assam Rifles' camps.
The issues that need to be resolved run deep, and healing will take tremendous effort. The Kukis, who fought the British colonial rule for three years from 1917-1919 and helped Subhas Chandra Bose's INA, are hurt that they are labelled 'refugees'. For the Meiteis, the Manipur Kingdom, which was once ruled by the Meitei kings from the valley, are unhappy to see themselves not being able to buy land in the hills even as tribals are also increasingly dominating the state bureaucracy.
Centre's Intervention Is the Need of the Hour
Now that Union Home Minister Amit Shah has reached Manipur, much hope rests on him. He shoulders a very big responsibility. The Home Minister of India will know well that a sensitive border state like Manipur cannot be allowed to burn any further without harming India's interest in the long run. The Meitei and Kuki-Zo civil societies also have a major role to play to end the violence.
While the Central government might insist on surrendering arms, the question is whether the state police force can be trusted to remain neutral to control the situation. The Kuki and Meitei civil societies, on the other hand, should realise that a complex problem like the current one will need to have an attitude of 'give-and-take’ in order to find a lasting solution.
The distrust is so deep now that perhaps, having a non-Meitei and non-Kuki chief minister (perhaps a Naga!) might help bring the situation to normalcy before a more lasting solution is negotiated.
Even as the Indian Army and paramilitaries have played a neutral role, it might help to transfer all Kuki and Meitei officers in their ranks from Manipur to build trust and maintain complete fairness.
If the Meitei and Kuki civilians scorn peace initiatives from the central government, it will be at their own peril. One hopes that once Amit Shah leaves Manipur, he would leave with a blueprint of peace without which the state would burn beyond repair, and someone might be 'pleased' to order a shoot-at-sight again.
(Dr David Hanneng is a Tata Samvaad fellow and a social activist based in Nagaland. A former professor at the Tetso College Dimapur, he is currently engaged as an Independent Researcher who focuses on issues that affect the Northeast. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)