By Rajkumar Bobichand
It is in the nature of human beings that when the structural violence systematically denies the individual or the group their basic human needs (Burton, 1990), they try to address it by deploying any means available to them. Gilligan (1982) asserts that all violence is an effort to do justice or to undo injustice. This applies to the Manipur-India conflict as well as to the ethnic conflicts in Manipur.
It is to the credit of the non-state armed groups struggling for Manipur’s “national liberation” that they all endeavour to be inclusive in their membership and they even attempt to address in their own ways the basic human needs of the “tribes” in remote hill areas. However, the failure of governance after the coerced merger of Manipur in 1949 has been so stark and prolonged that the people of Manipur, the ethnic groups in the hills in particular, have begun deploying ‘any means’ available to them for fulfilment of their basic human needs. In recent years, the issue of “tribal” identity with concomitant demand for exclusive ethnic territories in the hills is becoming more prominent.
In these matters and on many other issues, the “tribal” elites exercise a powerful influence on the respective “tribal” public, which is disproportionate to the smallness of their numbers. They are the main beneficiaries of the constitutional privileges given to “Scheduled Tribes” concerning education and employment. Most of them are comfortably settled in the valley but they can sway the opinion of their brethren in the hills as if through “remote control”. They articulate the tribal identity, raise issues and demands, or change them often according to their personal interests.
However, they can hardly escape from the traditionally narrow outlook in analysing problems and issues. Therefore, their common refrain is to blame the Meiteis, the majority ethnic group, for all the hardships and problems that the hill tribes are facing. The reality, of course, is that the “tribal” elites are part and parcel of the coterie sucking the blood of all the people in Manipur under the patronage of their masters.
The natural dichotomy between the hills and the plains of Manipur and the corresponding differences in life styles have been there from times immemorial but did not translate into ethnic conflict in the past due to the sagacity of Meitei kings who ruled the kingdom and the inclusive nature of the Meitei society. However, the factors conducive to harmonious coexistence began to erode, first, when the Meiteis adopted Vaishnavite Hindu religion in the 18th century, when they consequently became inward looking and lost much of their inclusive outlook. Next, after British conquest in 1891, animist tribes gradually converted to Christianity when proselytizing Christian missionaries followed the Union Jack into the Manipur hills where they exercised exclusive administrative authority. Thus, the geographical dichotomy was reinforced by the cultural and administrative dichotomy between the tribes in the hills and the Meiteis in the valley during the British colonial rule. Even after the coerced merger of Manipur to
Dominion India, various systems and structures and absence of democratic governance in the hill areas create more mistrust between the Hills and the Valley.
The assertion of distinctive “tribal” identities and even claims of exclusive ethnic territories are normal human aspirations. After all, ideas and events sweeping across the world percolate to the people in Manipur eventually. They become causes for violent ethnic conflict only when ethnic armed groups try to enforce them forcibly. One such violent conflict occurred between the Naga and Kuki tribes of Manipur during 1992-97. It resulted in more than one thousand deaths among the Kukis mostly innocent women and children rooting out hundreds of villages and displacements.
The conflict came out in the open when the National Socialist Council of Nagaland