Kham Khan Suan Hausing on Why Manipur Is up in Flames

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Kham Khan Suan Hausing on Why Manipur Is up in Flames

“The state prepared the institutional ecosystem for these riots by aggressively pushing its integrationist and majoritarian agenda.”

Kham Khan Suan Hausing on Why Manipur Is up in Flames

Members of the Kuki tribe protesting against the killing of tribals in their northeastern home state of Manipur, hold Indian flags and placards during a sit in protest in New Delhi, India, Monday, May 29, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Since May 3, the northeast Indian state of Manipur has been convulsed in violence, with the majority Meitei ethnic group, which lives in the Imphal valley, clashing with the Kuki-Zomi indigenous people, who mainly reside in the hills. The immediate spark for the violence was the Manipur High Court directive to the Biren Singh-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to take a call on granting the largely Hindu Meiteis affirmative action benefits under the Scheduled Tribe grouping, which will give them greater access to education, jobs, and land rights.

While the violence erupted suddenly, it was preceded by a systematic majoritarian and integrationist campaign by Chief Minister Biren Singh’s government for short-term electoral gains. In his interview with The Diplomat’s South Asia Editor Sudha Ramachandran, Professor Kham Khan Suan Hausing, a noted political analyst and head of the department of political science at the University of Hyderabad, India, said that “far from being unpredictable, spontaneous and unpreventable,” the violence “followed a clearly established pattern.” The state prepared the intuitional ecosystem for riots. Not only did the state prepare, activate and sustain the conflict in collusion with majoritarian-minded groups but also, it is providing “explanatory justification” for the violence, he argued.

Read the full interview below.

Could you provide us with a brief overview of the conflict underlying the recent violence in Manipur?

The immediate spark to the ethnopolitical conflicts that we have seen since May 3, and which transformed large parts of Manipur into killing fields, was provided by violent counter-blockade rallies organized by various Meitei Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) against the peaceful protest rallies organized by the All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur (ATSUM) — comprising of Kuki, Naga, Hmar, and Zomi tribal groups. The ATSUM rallies sought to protect tribal land rights and the extant sub-state constitutional asymmetrical institutions, which have been either routinely sidestepped or sought to be dissolved by the aggressive integrationist and majoritarian policies of the state, with the active support of majoritarian-minded Meitei CSOs.

Once violence erupted, the conflicts transformed into Meitei and Kuki-Zomi (hereafter, Zo people) ethnopolitical conflicts even as the Naga groups remain largely unaffected as bystanders. The conflicts have followed a clearly established pattern of organized orgies of ethnic cleansing and genocidal attacks on the Zo people largely executed by Meitei ragtag mobs and radical groups Meitei Leepun, and Arambam Tenggol either with the complicity of the state or active involvement of its police. The retaliatory attacks launched by Zo mobs on the Meiteis also bear the imprint of ethnic cleansing of the latter in the hills, albeit with asymmetrical outcomes.

Tell us about the Manipur government’s majoritarian-integrationist project in the state, which preceded the violence.

The recent wave of violence between the Meitei and the Zo people in Manipur, which started on May 3, is a culmination of an aggressive majoritarian and integrationist project that the Biren Singh-led BJP government has undertaken since coming to power in March 2017 for short-term electoral gains. This project skillfully mixes a radical neo-Meitei indigenous religion (Sanamahi) and majoritarian appeal with developmentalist politics to either sidestep or dissolve extant sub-state constitutional asymmetry that the hill tribal people enjoy under Article 371C, the district councils and land rights. It leverages a series of sacralization projects in the hills to appeal to the sizable majoritarian-minded Meitei electoral constituency in the valley, while simultaneously co-opting pliable hill tribal leaders by selling them development dreams.

In October 2022, for example, Chief Minister Singh inaugurated the Chandrakirti Memorial Park in Chivu, located on the Indo-Myanmar border. This is the site where the Zo chief Go Khaw Thang was “treacherously” captured before being killed in Imphal in 1872 while in the custody of the Meitei monarch Chandrakirti. Despite a strong undercurrent of popular opposition among the Zo people (Kuki-Chin-Lushai), Singh co-opted pliant tribal leaders to go ahead with the memorial park to consolidate his electoral appeal among the Meitei.

To project himself as an “inclusive leader” and consolidate his leadership position against factional challenge within the BJP, Singh forged a broader social and political coalition through his pet political project, “Go to the Hills.” His political rhetoric was initially useful in co-opting pliant tribal leaders and projecting his intent to bridge the hills-valley divide. Towards this end, several customized centrally-sponsored developmental projects were inaugurated and cabinet meetings were held in the hills.

However, the real intent of this project began unraveling soon enough.

Using a 1990 government order, which declared the state-acquired tribal land around the Chivu salt lake in the Indo-Myanmar border not only as a “protected” site but also as a place where Thangjing, a Meitei god, is intermittently sighted, Chief Minister Singh got a stone monolith erected inside the park as part of his sacralization project. Similar sacralization projects were implemented in the Koubru hills in Kangpokpi district by invoking Koubru hills as a laipham (the seat of Lainingtho, the Meitei principal god) and aggressively promoting religious pilgrimage to this site under the auspices of Meitei Leepun, a radical group. These are seen as calibrated attempts by the Meitei-dominated State to snatch tribal lands.

The BJP government followed up with “land surveys” in the hill areas, which culminated in tribals being targeted and evicted as “encroachers,” “illegal immigrants,” and “poppy cultivators.” Clearly, the state was bypassing the Hill Areas Committee (HAC), a constitutional body mandated to vet matters pertaining to Scheduled Tribe areas. It also sought to dilute the HAC’s composition by including non-tribals. Such moves have deepened the sense of powerlessness of the tribal people.

Then, on the night of April 11 this year, three tribal churches in Imphal were demolished, despite the fact that they have legal documents. Under the Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorized Occupants) Act, 1971, no building may be demolished after sunset and before sunrise, that too without giving prior notification and sufficient time of appeal.

The state’s one-sided law enforcement brings its integrationist and majoritarian project into sharper relief if we compare its refusal to regularize even a single tribal church against the 188 Meitei Hindu temples that were regularized after the Supreme Court directed all Indian states to review public buildings vide the State of Gujarat vs Union of India case, 2009.

So, what set off the violence? 

The last straw that broke the camel’s back came when the Manipur High Court directed the government to make its stand clear on the Meitei demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status within four weeks. Several protest rallies were organized under the auspices of All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur on May 3 in various hill towns to impress upon governments in Imphal and New Delhi that the tribals see in the Meitei demand an attempt to secure ST status over and above the three affirmative action benefits they already secured under other categorizations as yet another means to snatch tribal lands.

These protest rallies were peaceful. Yet they were met with counter-blockades by various Meitei civil society organizations in various parts of the valley. Meitei miscreants burned down the Anglo-Kuki War (1917-19) Centenary Memorial Gate at Leisang village and beat up Kuki boys returning from a protest rally. Such incidents escalated into mob fighting. As the Meitei mobs burned down some Vaiphei-speaking houses in Kangvai village later, the ethnopolitical conflict spread like wildfire and transformed large parts of the state into killing fields.

A burnt car stands in the compound of a vandalized home in Imphal, capital of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, May 14, 2023. Credit: AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur

In your writings on the riots in Manipur, you have drawn attention to American political scientist Paul Brass’ concept of “the institutionalized riot system.” How does this concept apply to Manipur?

Far from being unpredictable, spontaneous, and unpreventable, the recent wave of violence in Manipur followed a clearly established pattern, which Paul Brass described as an “institutionalized riot system,” where the state prepared the institutional ecosystem for riots by aggressively pushing its integrationist and majoritarian agenda described above.

This agenda not only overlaps with but also gets reinforced by similar agendas undertaken by majoritarian-minded Meitei CSOs and radical Meitei groups like the Meitei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol, which aim to restore the past glory of Kangleipak (the Meitei indigenous term for the state) before the kingdom of Manipur merged with India in 1949. Although these groups inherit a radical project and work as marionettes of proscribed valley-based militant organizations that promote anti-India, anti-Hindi, and anti-Hindu agendas and oppose the Hinduization of Meitei society, Singh and the BJP are patronizing them for short-term electoral gains. He is playing with fire.

In a Facebook post of April 28, 2023, Pramot Singh, a prominent leader of the Meitei Leepun, instigated his followers to “annihilate our traditional rival on the hills,” i.e., the Kuki-Zomi people. A longitudinal comparison of the social media posts of Chief Minister Singh with that of these organizations is almost indistinguishable in terms of the communal expletives used to target the Kukis as “foreigners,” “illegal immigrants,” “encroachers,” and “poppy cultivators.” Similar communal expletives abound in the social media posts of various hill-based organizations. Evidently, both are in dialogical relations with one another over time.

Singh’s government prepared the stage for the violence by collecting licensed guns from people in the hills from February-March 2023 on the pretext of “re-verification” of licenses. That the riots started with active state complicity became apparent as it imposed shoot-at-sight orders at the rioting mobs only in the latter half of the second day of the violence. In effect, the ragtag mobs were given a full night and another day’s time to accomplish their ethnic cleansing drive and genocidal attacks against the Zo people in areas of the Imphal valley. Similar counter-ethnic cleansing drives were made by mobs in the hill areas despite the fact that the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 has been in place for quite some time. Interestingly, this busted the myth that the Meiteis do not have land ownership rights in the hills.

The state and majoritarian-minded Meitei intellectuals and CSO leaders are now providing explanatory justifications for the violence. They claim the conflict is an outcome of an organized political project that armed ethnonationalist movements in the hills unleashed to cover up their alleged poppy plantation. Such allegations are plausible, yet they conveniently gloss over the fact that most of the drug lords hail from the valley areas and function with the tacit support and connivance of the state and valley-based proscribed armed insurgent groups. On the contrary, the Zo tribal groups contend that these conflicts have indelible marks of the sttate, which prepared, activated, and sustained the conflicts in collusion with majoritarian-minded Meitei CSOs and valley-based armed groups to further deepen its integrationist and majoritarian agenda.

Clearly, the current wave of conflicts in Manipur presents a classic textbook case of “institutionalized riot system.”

While Manipur’s majority Meitei are Hindus, the Kukis who bore the brunt of mob violence are Christians. What role did religious communalism play in the violence? Have Hindutva groups been mobilizing the Meitei?

Evidently, the burning of over a dozen tribal churches in Imphal on the first night of the riots itself was a deliberate strategy to send out a favorable signal to New Delhi that it was a Hindu-Christian conflagration. But on close scrutiny, it became apparent that Meitei Leepun, a radicalized Sanamahi (indigenous religion) oriented Meitei organization, and other CSOs were mobilized over time to prepare the ground for and execute the state’s integrationist and majoritarian agenda with the active support of people in power. The aggressive religious pilgrimage Meitei Leepun organized in Koubru hills and the various ching kaba (mountain/hill climbing) initiatives these organizations launched to sacralize Thangjing hills and others in the hill areas were carefully calibrated in ways that promote this agenda.  A similar drive to radicalize Arambam Tenggol through carefully crafted arms training under the patronage of Sanajaoba, the incumbent Rajya Sabha MP of the state, became particularly handy in the recent conflagrations.

This period also marked the expansion of Sangh Parivar networks in the state, although their impact on electorally mobilizing the Meiteis remains to be seen.

In his book “Ethnic Conflict and Civil Society,” Ashutosh Varshney had argued that intercommunal networks prevent ethnic violence. Manipur has a strong civil society. What role has it played to prevent ethnic violence?

Unfortunately, civil society groups in Manipur are far too communalized to play the kind of conflict-preventing role that Varshney outlined in his book.

Manipur has dozens of militant groups. Are they involved in the current violence?

Credible reports in both the hills and valley areas suggest that armed groups are playing an active role in the violence. The fact that both sides of the divide have asymmetrical access to police ammunition depots early on made these conflicts much more lethal.

Manipur is located in a restive region. Could the recent violence spill over to other states?

That the conflict is likely to set ablaze the tinder box of fragile inter-communal relations became apparent a day after violence erupted in Manipur, when skirmishes between Meitei and Zo groups in Shillong Meghalaya state were reported on May 4. Given that both these groups are spread out across various other Northeastern states and metropolitan cities of India, the chances of the outbreak of similar conflicts is likely especially since mutual hate and suspicion are running deep.