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How even a small misstep can lead to disaster in this sub-region
If there is an ongoing object lesson in how not to deal with indigenous folk, one need only look at Manipur, with its record of conflict since the late-1960s. It’s the other fractious M after Myanmar in this region.
Myanmar’s horrors to dominate millions of its own citizens are now a matter of local and global record. Manipur, a tiny and volatile state in India’s far-east — and just to the east of Bangladesh — is less considered. In great part, as it’s a state of 3 million or so in a country of more than 1.4 billion. And, also, because it’s tucked away from the bulk of Mainland India, abutting Myanmar, with which this state shares a significant, near 400km border.
Moreh, a border town in southeast Manipur, is a major Indian gateway to Myanmar. It’s a town through which both Asian Highway 1 and 2 (the same as these traverse Bangladesh) pass, with an ambition to link the bulk of the sub-continent to the bulk of Southeast Asia. Manipur is also India’s overland lynchpin for its so-called Act East Policy.
And for the past month, Manipur has literally been on fire, with indigenous ethnic groups, primarily the majoritarian Meitei and the minority Kuki, warring with each other, with numerous incidents of protests, arson and killings. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led administration has rapidly shifted blame for the situation that is an outcome of social engineering onto the endemic narcotics trade.
Here’s a brief sit-rep and its implications, even lessons, for Eastern South Asia.
Manipur, a kingdom that formally merged with India in 1949, has a volatile ethnic mix. Of its 23,000-odd square kilometres, Imphal Valley accounts for 1,810 square kilometres. The remaining 92 or so percent comprises hilly terrain.
The majority Meitei community comprises about 60% of the population, and lives mainly in Imphal Valley — with its eponymous capital. The valley is surrounded by hills where live tribes, mainly Naga, and the Kuki-Chin-Mizo groups — the two largest non-Meitei collectives in Manipur.
On account of this demographic heft, the plains have 40 seats in Manipur’s Assembly, compared to 20 for the hills. Development, and development funds, and appointments and employment in government agencies and institutions have also followed this demographic pole star. This has for long been a cause of resentment among the non-Meitei, often over-riding the collective resentment in Manipur towards what is seen as India’s political dominance administered from Delhi without considering local needs and aspirations.
In parallel, rebellion against India has festered for decades, traversing the twilight of outright conflict and shadowy ceasefires. Manipur has spawned several dozen rebel groups across all ethnicities, sometimes to fight India, and sometimes as a defence against other ethnicities. Blood has spilled copiously on both counts. A stretched fabric of democratic and federal intent has sometimes enabled a tenuous peace.
Here, government overreach is well documented. So is rebel reach. Manipur’s rebels, like many rebel groups in far-eastern India, earlier found sanctuary across Eastern South Asia but that is today mostly contained in northwest Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, which lies across much of India’s border with Myanmar.
It’s a world of smoke and mirrors in which officials of Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s army superstructure) play their quid pro quos with both India’s government and its rebels.
Manipur is also a weapons and narcotics delicatessen. Ageing M-15s and M-16s rifles retail alongside Kalashnikov variants and modern handguns — the last two species are also available in brand new “packing.” Myanmar’s territory is part of the supply chain.
Manipur is a source of marijuana. It’s a transhipment route for opium and pseudoephedrine from India to Myanmar. Opium “jelly” returns as grades of heroin, and the other as methamphetamine — a brand, WY (for the World is Yours) is popular. Every significant aspect of command and control, rebel and not, feed off these food chains.
There’s another layer. From about 2015, hydrocarbon and mineral-rich Manipur has also firmly been in the sights of India’s ultra-right Hindu nationalist conglomerate. The state flipped from Congress-led to BJP-led in early 2017 even though Congress won most seats in those elections. A former Congressman, Nongthombam Biren Singh, became chief minister. BJP, and Biren, won again in 2022.
Like his colleagues in Assam and Tripura, Biren accepted advisors with close links to ultra-right organizations and think tanks. Like his colleagues in Assam and Tripura, Biren also went the sloganeering distance. In early 2018, he announced at a political rally in Gujarat that, in the time of Lord Krishna, North-East India was a single entity. And that Lord Krishna “made them part of India” by marrying the princess Rukmini, whom he alluded was from Arunachal Pradesh.
Northeast India remains a feverish project in this ultra-right imagination and reconstruction.
This fed into the relatively fresh aspect of a demand by the Meitei, many of whom have practiced Vaishnavism and adopted Brahmanical traditions since a royal diktat in the early 18th century, to demand inclusion as part of India’s “Scheduled Tribes.” This would bring the Meitei benefits now available to, say, the indigenous tribals of Manipur. There was also a move by Biren’s government to conduct a population survey of forest areas — seen by many tribals, and especially the Kuki-Chin-Mizo groups, as targeting them with a view to eviction.
It all came to a head in late-April and early-May — in great part triggered by pro-Meitei directives of a seemingly pliant court. Ever since, besides inter-ethnic killings, there have also been cases of mass looting of weapons both from state security forces and, equally alarmingly, a licensed gun shop in the southern Manipur town of Churachandpur. Despite internet bans, massive infusion of central government forces, and optics that has pinned the whole mess as a reaction to attempts by Biren’s government to stanch the narcotics pipeline, Manipur remains on edge.
This ethnic cauldron on the boil also affects in various degrees three other far-eastern Indian states — Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura — on account of being homes to Naga, Kuki-Chin-Mizo, and Meitei peoples. It has amped up emotions in the ethnic borderlands in Myanmar which is home to Naga and Kuki-Chin-Mizo ethnicities; as it has in the ethnic borderlands in Bangladesh. This is a multi-ethnic tri-junction which predates the cartography of Partition, and it is seething.
Alongside raw emotions, there is also the danger of more weapons sloshing around an already charged neighbourhood. All this may seem like micro-regionalization when compared to the mega-globalization of, say, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, but for Eastern South Asia, a misstep in one seemingly contained geography can spill over several borders of mind and matter.
Sudeep Chakravarti is Director, Center for South Asian Studies at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He has authored several books on history, ethnography, conflict resolution, and Eastern South Asia. His most recent book is ‘The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East’ (Simon and Schuster).