Manipur: Smoking out the majoritarian agenda
Doungel: The smoking gun
In wake of Home Minister Amit Shah’s four-day visit to Manipur, the Union government has appointed a three-member committee to come up with a report within six months on the ethnic turmoil that engulfed Manipur through May.
One aspect the Committee would not be seizing itself with is the side-lining early in the crisis of the state’s Director General of Police (DGP), P Doungel, an officer of the 1987 IPS batch. Doungel’s younger brother, C Doungel, of the IPS 1990 batch, who - being next senior – should logically have taken over as ‘operational commander’ was also similarly ignored. Both were Union Public Service Commission selectees of their time, with the suffix RR (Regular Recruit) to their designations. Instead, their junior from the IPS 1993 batch, Ashutosh Sinha, heading the intelligence branch, was made ‘operational commander’.
Alongside, the Union government appointed a retired former central armed police force chief, Kuldeep Singh, as security adviser to the state government. Ordinarily, advisers are appointed to assist governors and lieutenant governors run matters as proxies of New Delhi, such as has been the case with Jammu and Kashmir since mid-2018. On occasion, a democratically ruled state could also pitch for the assistance of an adviser, as Assam once did in the late Nineties, using the services of top cop, KPS Gill, an Assam cadre IPS officer, to contend with insurgency.
The Union home ministry elevated an officer of neighbouring Tripura cadre, Rajiv Singh, of the 1993 IPS batch, as DGP Manipur. Rajiv Singh, at the time serving with the central armed police at two steps lower inspector general rank, has been shifted from his parent cadre for a three-year tenure. How Rajiv Singh’s credentials occasioned the move does not find speculation in the open domain. What the two appointments spell in light of the trend of regime acolytes tenanting significant posts is that they have been vetted well for their Hindutva worthiness, professional endowments being only a bonus.
Rumour has it that the two Doungels were marginalised for being Kuki – members of one of two contending ethnicities, the other being the majority Meitei. As per one report, the senior Doungel was ‘shunted’ out to a newly created post, Officer on Special Duty (OSD) (Home) - OSD in babu-speak for no special portfolio. He was kept out of briefings of Amit Shah, though accompanying him to Kuki areas during Shah’s visit from which Chief Minister Biren Singh stayed away.
Kuki social media activists went to lengths to point out the asymmetry in the power structure and relations that resulted, that then endangered their community. Though risking plausibility, they went so far as to point out that if Doungel has been benched by the state administration, so should Meitei military officers participating in humanitarian operations. For its part, the Army went ballistic, denouncing any notion of partisanship on its part. However, it missed the point that it was merely caught in social media crossfire. The good part is that in doing so it tacitly undercut the state government’s action over Doungel.
The dubious manner the police is subordinate to political bosses in India is well known. Examining how Doungel was de-facto superseded at the crunch would reinforce the truism that professionalism and merit within the police stand to suffer if the chain of command is trifled with. Besides, Doungel’s potentially wise counsel not having a forum for ventilation and his good offices with Kukis left untested, the majoritarian agenda of the ruling party found full play.
What the Committee will not uncover
The august Committee is unlikely to uncover reasons for the disruptive decision of Chief Minister Biren Singh at the very outset of the crisis and to what extent was it responsible for the inability of the state to regain control in an early timeframe – assuming it wished to. If Doungel was found incompetent, the Committee would unlikely want to prove how within a day of the crisis outbreak the officer forfeited the trust of his political masters, though he had been in the chair for over a year. The Committee will certainly not be asking after whether his ethnicity played a role, as rumour has it. Did any action of Doungel smack of parochialism?
It will not answer the question: Was the sacking an anticipatory one to allow the majoritarian agenda to unfold without any embarrassing witnesses? A coverup can certainly be expected about a more damaging question: Was the chief minister - who was also his own home minister - acting of his own accord or being dictated to by New Delhi? Surely, Nagpur’s role will not be broached at all.
It is naïve to expect a Central government-appointed committee to come up with meaningful findings in the Modi era. Since Manipur has been subject to the ‘double engine’ treatment, with the ruling party at the Center also holding the reins in Manipur, it cannot end up blaming the ruling party.
As with the expectation from the committee probing the recent train crash at Balasore, the Committee would likely sweep the truth under the carpet, in the best tradition of Indian committeeship since Independence. The Modi era is no different. The Balasore accident case being handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, even prior to the Railways coming up with its findings, pre-suggests a finding of sabotage. This explains Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grandiloquent end-of-visit quote when he ‘vowed’ those responsible will be punished.
There is no record of a search for accountability by this regime in its numerous shortfalls and missteps. The only one that can be recalled is the return to cadre of the officers in charge of national security adviser’s security detail, when his house was gate-crashed by a mentally disturbed person. In the security sphere, lapses that have not seen accountability include Ladakh, Balakot, Pulwama, Amshipora, lynchings, the mini-pogrom at North East Delhi and the outrages on university premises in the national capital.
This is of a piece with its overall policy on coverups, witnessed in the case of sexual harassment of national level wrestlers, Covid deaths and the warning-less lockdown provoking a mass migration that rivalled Partition in magnitude. This is part of information warfare of a government in perpetual election mode, governance being a matter of perception management, with budgets for publicity being higher than achievement being advertised.
Instead, witnessed is a white-wash exercise. Examples include elevation of a terrorist to parliament, terror perpetrators’ sentences being remitted, mob violence agents being let off and terror tag being put on activists.
It is well-regarded in security circles that should the government so will, no civil unrest can last more than 24 hours. Manipur’s has gone on for a month, and there is no certainty it is at an ebb. It witnessed periodic bouts of instability, some incidents taking place even as Amit Shah was on ground. Beginning 1 June, combing operations are underway to disarm the two communities.
Critics, particularly with insight into the Kuki side, have it that, to begin with, the government was not serious to bring unrest to an end. If it was evident Biren Singh was not up to the job, then Amit Shah should have stepped up. But Shah had the usual alibi of being busy elsewhere, in this case with elections in Karnataka. Kuldeep Singh clarified that Article 355 - that allows the Central government to take over internal security – was not in force in Manipur. Since accountability would devolve on the Central government should it have stepped up, Shah wisely remained distant; notably even making a trip to Guwahati but not Imphal while violence continued.
There is no escaping the conclusion that the problem was being kept alive for other aims, quite the way violence has been used elsewhere to put Muslims ‘in their place’. So long as the cycle of violence continued - with the Kuki village defence guards rising to the occasion in a credible show of self-defence - the impression that an ethnic contest through violent means was touted. Such an explanation is both obfuscatory and self-exculpatory.
The trigger was the provocative burning of a symbol at a historical site associated with the Kukis. This had as backdrop Kukis rallying peacefully against a Meitei bid, using the judicial route, to get to Scheduled Tribe status. A finding that ethnic fissures are at root distracts from the proximate cause: Who stands to benefit from violent conflict?
Cadences of the Gujarat Model
Conflict management in Manipur is resonant of the Gujarat Model. Whereas the Model itself has come into disrepute in the economic sphere - with which it is most associated – there is a less remarked security aspect of the Gujarat Model. One facet of this is that an internal security situation be allowed to continue till the ulterior aim is achieved. This proved successful in Gujarat in February 2002 when majoritarian extremists were given two days by then Chief Minister Narendra Modi to go about committing crimes against humanity on their Muslim neighbours.
From the preliminary statistics in terms of deaths, internally displaced people and on destruction of property and religious places, it appears Kukis have been worse off. The Kukis - having the self-defence means and largely inhabiting a defined locale - were able to fend for themselves, making for a civil war of sorts. On their part, they have victimised the Meiteis in their midst. Ethnic cleansing now seems to be complete, quite like in Gujarat where ghettoization of Muslims resulted.
Another facet of the Gujarat Model operational is seen in the castigation by Biren Singh that security forces were contending with ‘terrorists’ referring to self-defence groups of the Kukis. These ad-hoc groups comprised common citizens and Kuki militants who were disarmed in the longstanding Suspension of Operations (SoO) process. Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Anil Chauhan repudiated the notion, categorising the crisis as an ethnic conflict. He undercut Biren Singh’s attempt to put the minority community in the dock, so as to legitimise violence against them by state security elements in league with militants of nonstate armed groups of the majority community, the Meiteis, namely Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun. In Gujarat too, the state security apparatus was an active participant not only in the pogrom, but afterwards when it manufactured the myth of Muslims as terrorists.
Superficially the problem was ignited by the attempt to take a judicial route by Meiteis to gain Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. Though the Supreme Court clarified to the High Court that the judiciary is not the appropriate forum for conferring ST status, using the judiciary to its advantage has been a Hindutva forte. The Ayodhya temple, reopening of temple-mosque issues and obscuring Hindutva fingerprints on terror attacks show its tendency to justify its position using likeminded elements in the judiciary. Hindutva invests in judicial luminaries on the lookout for sinecures, though in this case there has been no hint of the judicial complicity – only of judicial incompetence or over-reach.
The lack of peacebuilding suggests that - as in Gujarat - ethnic enclaves are likely to be the shape of the future – as is not unusually the case in disruptions of social harmony of this level. This is another facet of the Gujarat Model, allowing for the minority to be kept under closer surveillance and disciplinary pressures.
Hindutva overlordship has emboldened Meitei extremists. A leader of the Meitei Leepun is seen donning a saffron scarf in a recent interview, showing the connect. It is clear from the expectations of impunity with which extremists invaded the armouries. While this was replicated in the Kuki areas, the well-stocked armouries were mostly in the Imphal Valley. Apparently, the weapons in SoO lockups in Kuki areas tallied. The complexion of the state armed police and paramilitary that stood by and, in cases, as seen in social media posts from the Kuki side, supported the Meitei militants, is majority Meitei. The dangers of lack in the diversity index in security forces is that majoritarian myths get normalised for want of a counter narrative.
Hindutva as proximate cause
Hindutva is averse to Christianity, as much as it is Islamophobic. The continuing violent template in Central India owes in part to the Hindutva penetration of the forested tribal belt, in a manner of religion following the flag. Likewise, in the North East, Hindutva, has made inroads with the Meiteis and Ahom, and the effects can only be similar. In Manipur, it puts the Kukis in the same position as the Adivasis and Bengali Muslims elsewhere.
Hindutva disapproves of diversity. It prefers a monolith national identity with Hinduness as leitmotif. It has a security rationale, believing that fissiparous tendencies can be managed better with a uniform national identity. Majoritarianism then naturally comes to fore as answer. It has therefore sought headway in the North East, site of India’s older insurgencies. Since diversity cannot be done away with, being a function of geography as much as history, it is reconciled to accommodating other identities but in a hierarchical framework. The holdup over the matter of Flag and Constitution of the Nagaland Framework Accord is a case to point. The Naga tribes are unwilling to reconcile to the levels of assimilation that the Hindutva-answerable Indian security minders desire.
Hindutva ideologue Ram Madhav acknowledges been active in Manipur. In a recent piece, he admits, ‘I have worked in the Northeast for many years and am familiar with the fault lines there.’ To him, ‘(C)ontrary to the propaganda (with which this post will presumably be clubbed with to him (italics mine)) that it was Hindu-Christian violence and the Christians are victims of a Hindutva project, it is only a resurfacing of the Kuki-Meitei rivalry that dates back to the time of independence.’ He would like us to believe that, ‘(A)ttempts (that to him no doubt include this post) at linking the violence in Manipur with Hindutva are mischievous.’ Elsewhere he claims, ‘Everybody must understand that the issue in Manipur is not a religious conflict as some are trying to project it.’
Hindutva’s potion for national security has been found wanting in Kashmir. It has influenced the national security attitude and posture in that benighted region for as long as the internal conflict there. The onset of Hindutva and the rise in travails of Kashmir were coincident. If Hindutva has been unable to return normalcy to its flagship national security enterprise despite playing its ultimate card, the voiding of Article 370, it is presumptuous for the likes of Madhav and his acolytes in the national security woodwork to think that Hindutva is the answer for the North East.
Its derailment of Manipur is a red signal. That Madhav thinks this owes to historical ethnic ‘faultlines’ begs the question what then has been Hindutva about. He admits that, ‘(O)ver the last several decades, the cadre of Hindu organisations like the RSS, Vivekananda Kendra and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram strove relentlessly in that direction (educational and economic development) through schools, hospitals and other social development activities.’
Hindutva cannot be exonerated. As the fount of Hindutva, the role of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) needs a probe, quite like the role of Muslim extremist organisations – such as the Popular Front of India - is scrutinised elsewhere. In a telling slip of tongue, Madhav writes of when, ‘we were establishing the first-ever BJP government in the state in 2017 (emphasis added).’ What its ideological penetration has wrought amidst the Meiteis must be put under the scanner. Even if Meiteis had pre-existing and long-standing differences with their neighbours in the hills, the extent to which Hindutva’s inroads account for the violent turn in the relationship should not be elided.
To Ram Madhav, the issue is about land. Madhav rationalises that the Meiteis wish for ST status in order to be hold property in the hill tracts. The Hindutvised national security discourse has been at pains to highlight illegal immigration of kin-groups from Myanmar and a spill over of the conflict economy there, manifest in poppy cultivation. To recall, Hindutva security minders have been complicit with the Myanmar regime, dating to the visit of Narendra Modi, in the immediate wake of which Myanmar cracked down on the Rohingya, that in due course unhinged that country. As is the case for demographic change in Kashmir, to control the fallout of their policies, national security decision makers assume that a suitable garnishing of an area inhabited by Christians with Hindus would help.
Noting that, ‘(T)he two communities Meiteis and Kukis have become great enemies...’, Madhav says, that we, ‘don't know how long will it take to get things back in place.’ This provides the RSS an opening, the lesson, put by Madhav, as requiring, ‘the Hindutva campaign become(s) more inclusive, clean and development centric.’ Though Shah on departing Manipur called on civil society organisations to play their part, it can also be read as a carte blanche to the RSS to up its act. Quite like the well organised Jamaat in Pakistan takes advantage of societal disruptions to make its organisational presence felt and advance its aims, the RSS can be expected to step up. Leading figures of other non-governmental organisations are persona-non-grata for the government, so it is unlikely the spiel will be countered.
Back to Doungel
The focus on ethnic conflict as the root cause – by the CDS and the home minister – removes the spotlight from Hindutva as proximate cause. Theory has it that though there may be differences between social groups, the instrumental use of these differences is what facilitates violent conflict. Since Hindutva was a principal driver in Manipur - given the conflation between the pseudo-cultural organisation, the RSS, and its political front, the ruling party – it cannot be absolved of responsibility.
Madhav’s notion that tribes have been fighting for ages is colonial and patronising. Crimes against humanity and against international humanitarian law have been witnessed in Manipur, as were witnessed on a larger scale in Gujarat once. It would be naïve to expect Amit Shah’s Committee to go about answering as would Poirot and Holmes: Who had the motive? Doungel’s unceremonious removal has the answer. Don’t expect the Committee to report on that.