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Manipur as Hindutva laboratory
Not Hindu-Christian, Not Meitei-Kuki but Hindutva-Minority
The real nature of the internal conflict in Mainpur recently spilt out of internet constraints emplaced there, precisely to prevent such a spill. The true nature of the conflict is now in better, though not full, view.
Apparently, to those who know, what is visible is merely the tip of the iceberg. Chief Minister Biren Singh lets on that ‘hundreds’ of such atrocities that recently jolted the national conscience took place.
The same logic the regime’s master spinner, S Jaishankar, attends the internet ban. If blood thirsty and voyeuristic mobs can be gathered at short notice across Hindutva-pervaded New India for the lynching itinerant Muslims, mobs can equally easily be incited in conflict zones for mass killings.
Left unstated is that without scrutiny there is impunity, allowing for atrocities.
The bonus from an information blanket is that the wider voting public is denied information necessary for making an informed electoral choice on whether the State observes the Rule of Law and is capable of maintaining Law and Order.
However, the nature of internet being such, the reality of Conflict Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) in Manipur is now known to the embarrassment of the Modi regime.
Currently, it is brazening it out in parliament, avoiding accountability that goes with the parliamentary system of government. Procrastination over a discussion on Manipur is craftily being attributed to Opposition stonewalling.
What’s clear is that the Modi-Shah duo will not allow the Manipur iceberg a Titanic replay.
Dimensions of the conflict
The conflict has been characterized as an ethnic conflict. The visiting Chief of Defence Staff - well-briefed by Army subordinates - clarified the nature of the conflict early on, refuting the spin of the state chief minister that it was a spike in Kuki insurgency necessitating a crackdown on that ethnic group.
To what levels religious animosity informs the ethnic hostility is debatable. Ipso facto, from the manner churches have been targeted, it cannot be wished away. Doing so would be to down-play the addling of the Meitei mind that majoritarian supremacism has wrought.
Not only has a Hindutva busybody Ram Madhav admitted to making inroads into Manipur’s social context, but Narendra Modi’s claim of several visits since his Pracharak days to Manipur, testify that Hindutva – with all its energy, single mindedness and money - cannot but have been an active causal ingredient.
Home Minister Amit Shah claims that Modi contributed to ‘emotional integration’ of Manipur with the country. Hindutva, the vehicle for such ‘integration’, has resoundingly proved its limitations.
Quite like the mess it has made of society and politics in Gujarat, Karnataka and the Gangetic belt, it can be expected to have a similar baleful effect in a delicate border state.
CRSV and ethnic cleansing
CRSV has come to symbolize the conflict.
In the short term CRSV escalates a conflict and over the long term its effects make reconciliation difficult, if not impossible. Usually incident in ethnic conflict, it serves to brutalise.
Since criminality gets full play with conflict outbreak, CRSV can have an inadvertent start in criminal behavior. It gains momentum in mirroring actions if left unchecked.
In Manipur, rationalization has it that a rumour of Meitei women being raped supposedly set Meitei perpetrators off on a reprisal on bodies of Kuki women.
To the extent CRSV is resorted to by design, the intent of perpetrators and their minders is to use women’s bodies for signaling dominance. Unable or unwilling - due to lack in testicular fortitude - to get at the other side’s well-armed males, perpetrators set upon women.
CRSV incidence in Manipur suggests that there have been - and likely continue to be - dimensions of the conflict that have been kept under wraps. Damning is participation of some Meitei women in handing over Kuki victims to rapist male counterparts. They also interfered with the response of security forces to stanch the prevailing instability that provides conditions for CRSV.
As to whether, CRSV is present by design or is byproduct of the conflict spiral will probably be ascertained by the Central Bureau of Investigation that has taken over some cases for trial outside the state. However, it may well be that the caged parrot will instead obscure linkages and accountability.
For the regime, CRSV potentially busts the lid placed on the nature of the conflict. It exposes the driver of one engine, Prime Minister Modi, who has studiously kept mum all through the conflict, and has instead chosen to persist with the driver of the second engine, Chief Minister Biren Singh.
Biren Singh allowed full play to majoritarian Meitei vigilante militias, the Arambai Tanggol and Meitei Leepun, along with the women organization, Meira Paibe. As vehicles for restoring traditionalism and authenticity, these militias style resemble affiliates of the Sangh Parivar.
A big difference is that they are armed. The looting of armouries at conflict outset emboldened them. Despite asymmetry, Kukis held their own. As underdogs in an existential fight, they mounted a successful self-defence.
They appear to have been more circumspect in targeting unarmed civilians. They permited transit out of territory in their control of Assam Rifles escorted Meiteis. They kept their powder dry for taking on raiding parties and, from perches in the hills, interdicting a resumption of normalcy in the contiguous plains area.
The unambiguous result has been mutual ethnic cleansing as fait-accompli. Figuring amongst crimes against humanity, CRSV facilitates ethnic cleansing. Both signify a burning of bridges.
This couldn’t have been due to inadvertence. It can advisedly therefore be taken as the intent. That burnings of houses continue shows that returns are not envisaged as part of a usual post-conflict peace process.
The Kuki’s protesting Meitei efforts to gain Scheduled Tribe (ST) status through the judicial route led to outing of the dubious means being used by the Meitei-dominant state government.
A judgment of the single judge bench of the Acting Chief Justice of the Manipur High Court required the state government to fast track the Meitei demand for ST status. The Supreme Court took umbrage at the High Court’s proactivism on the issue, it being outside the judicial ken.
When the Meitei are already advantaged as members of the Other Backward Caste and some as Scheduled Caste, what purpose could have been served if the whole state populace numbered as ST? Clearly, cornering reserved seats was not the purpose.
Access to land controlled by Kukis and Nagas, who number in the ST list, is supposedly the root cause. This inordinate and sudden hunger for land begs the question: Why?
Musings on social media provide a tentative answer. Given the close hold on information that the Modi regime has, speculation cannot be dismissed off hand. Controversial bills such as the one that opens up the forests for exploitation at the cost of local communities show up priorities.
One piece has it that quite like in mineral rich Central India, there are mineral deposits in the hills that corporate India – that has the Modi regime in its pocket in a new ‘Black Market of Power’ – wishes to exploit.
The second is that centralized planning in authoritarian India has alighted on the hill areas for plantations for palm oil production. Consequently, as in Central India, locals have to be sufficiently conditioned – if necessary by use instrumental use of force - to give way.
A third is the renewed thrust for India’s Belt and Road Initiative look-alike project in its Act East playbook. Foreign Minister Jaishankar, while attending a regional meeting recently, pushed for the India-Thailand land corridor through Myanmar. This has put a premium on the route the eventually-multimodal corridor would take.
That Meiteis perhaps want a piece of the action explains the recent finessing of ethnic cleansing in the burning of vacated properties in Moreh, the likely site of a future multi-sectoral hub.
An alternate theory
Violent political extremism does not emerge in a vacuum. When country-wide political culture is Hindutva-tinged, Manipur cannot escape being singed. Prevalent local conditions lead to particularism in the way a place is Hindutva-impacted, which, in Manipur, translates into violent political extremism.
The misuse of the judiciary by Hindutva is no secret, be it Ayodhya then or Varanasi now. The mass exoneration of perpetrators in Gujarat 2002 cases while human rights defenders continue in prison or face the courts shows up the Gujarat Model.
The Manipur High Court continues under an Acting Chief Justice, who pushed for an early conclusion to the vexed issue. The Acting Chief Justice has been in the chair since February, though the Supreme Court had recommended early enough that the vacancy be filled with a permanent appointee. However, the matter kept pending by the government, led to the Supreme Court changing its nominee, with the new Chief Justice named early this month.
The interim duration was long enough for the Acting Chief Justice to in a single-bench case judgment set the cat among the pigeons. This begs the question as to whether the delay in appointment was by design.
Interestingly, the Acting Chief Justice claim to fame is his ‘nationalism’ on display in his judgment on the Vande Mataram case. In that case he required a wider dissemination and increased sanctity for the song.
To the extent Vande Mataram is praise for a Mother Goddess, it is akin to idolatry, prohibited for Muslims. A long-standing Hindutva ploy is to keep Muslims on the back-foot by projecting that their reservations on such provocations as showing up a deficit in their allegiance to the nation.
Whether the learned judge lent his services yet again to Hindutva purposes, either purposively or unwarily, is moot. Another judge in Imphal – a Meitei - arraigned a prominent academic Kuki voice in order to silence it.
A Gujarati judge in Gujarat shut out a parliamentarian in a defamation case. Has the Gujarat Model been extended to Manipur?
A security accounting
Hindutva implicated, it would be naïve to expect the regime to turn against its instruments. The state government has been transparently duplicitous in underplaying the conflict in order to legitimise its tepid response.
But, what of the record of the Army in light of its knowledge of the nature of the conflict evidenced by incident CRSV?
To acknowledge, the Army has done sterling service in securing the Kukis in the hill areas and creation of a buffer zone in areas covered by Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), allowing it greater freedom of action.
The Assam Rifles has stood up to bullying by the state government, that attempted to put it on the backfoot citing illegal immigrant influx, though fully knowing that there is a civil war on next door across a porous border.
However, in retrospect, to call the situation in Manipur a ‘law and order kind of situation’ did injustice to the magnitude of the conflict.
The implication of the other characterization - ‘clash between ethnicities’ – should have been followed up with energetic counsel. As the repository of national security expertise, it knows what happened in the Balkans.
It can be plausibly argued that being called out in aid to civil authority does not imply it usurp power for securing people. It can only be subordinate to the government and operate with restraint and preferably in magistrate presence.
However, it bears recounting that the Army didn’t wait to deploy and operated with gusto at the outbreak of conflict in Kashmir, even without AFSPA cover till it was applied in mid 1990. When it did wait for AFSPA before launch in Assam, the militant horse had already bolted its jungle camps. (I know for I was there.)
In the early days, the Manipur situation was akin to the one in Gujarat in end February 2002. The Bison Division when flown in did not call for AFSPA imposition but set about its task. Leading the Punjab Boundary Force under worse circumstances, India’s most respected general, ‘Timmy’ Thimayya, did not dither.
When there are the Code of Criminal Procedure protections for those acting in good faith in aid to civil authority, is AFSPA necessary?
Even so, AFSPA is an existing legislation for Manipur. All it takes is for the Governor to declare an area ‘disturbed’. Just as AFSPA can be rolled back – as it was done only lately from most of the Imphal Valley – it can be reinstated as quickly.
In any case, to retrieve the Indian State’s loss of monopoly over force when some 3000 stolen weapons continue in Meitei hands, it may yet require to be reinstated, if only when the regime changes.
For its part, this regime might prefer the weapons with their ‘own boys’, just in case needed to contain Nagas – who are no doubt watching intently - when the Framework Accord gets by its sell-by date.
Being an in-house matter, it is cannot be known if the Army thumped the table adequately. From the meek manner if fell in line with the regime’s policy stance on the deflation of Article 370 and the response in Ladakh, it cannot be readily taken that the Army’s input was firm, frank and forthright.
Manipur is the new Hindutva laboratory. Here are some take aways:
· The arrogance of the first engine is transmitted to the second one, seen in the state government targeting Kukis in eviction drives and cornering them on poppy cultivation.
· From the Gujarat pogrom is clear CRSV and ethnic cleansing are endemic to Hindutva. Its surfacing in Manipur should suggest a linkage.
· The double engine promise includes holding hands of the second engine driver even if in a train wreck.
· The judiciary will be subverted when it signals amenability for such abuse.
· Unwary Hindu communities will be exploited as a Hindutva beachhead to threaten non-Hindu neighbours.
· Crying ‘wolf’ over illegal immigration is hallmark.
· The Citizenship Amendment Act being no substitute, non-articulating a refugee policy creates yet more vulnerable groups for Hindutva leverage.
· Other areas are equally primed, such as Assam.
· The military is reduced to handmaiden.
However, the principal take away of the Gujarat Model was how to escape accountability for crimes against humanity. The learning from its Manipur laboratory reinforces this lesson.
The closer Modi gets to miss the bus to his already-announced third term, the more likely that the Manipur conflict will replicate on a wider scale, where the double engine drives the Hindutva gravy train.
For their part, the learning from Manipur for national security minders and instruments is how to end the Gujarat Model of impunity. Implacability on this score will deter and contain another Manipur, a Manipur elsewhere or Manipur going national.