In 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party in Manipur cobbled up a majority and formed a National Democratic Alliance government for the first time.
Then, Chief Minister N. Biren Singh proved his political acumen by mustering sufficient support in the face of strong attempts by the Congress to win the Rajya Sabha MP seat, and succeeded in sending Maharaja Sanajaoba Leishemba to the Rajya Sabha as a BJP MP.
Looking back, one can say that CM Biren had made significant compromises when it came to showing his true character in the first term.
The BJP returned to power in 2022 with a resounding single-party majority. They formed the government with participation of other parties even though they did not need their support in the assembly. CM Biren inducted a few not-so-tall yet youthful elected representatives as ministers. They owed their allegiance to the CM, who ignored more experienced and qualified MLAs.
In the course of a year in his second term, CM Biren gradually began wielding enormous power through ministers loyal to him. The CM and the Rajya Sabha MP Leishemba are understood to have heavily promoted the Meitei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol respectively, with the stated objective of promoting Meitei culture and traditions, including the traditional martial arts.
With no one to challenge Biren’s authority, the state government slipped into what is called a kakistocracy, a government formed by the least suitable or competent citizens of a state. There were no opposing voices in the council of ministers and young cadre under the Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun were loyal to Biren.
The first disquiet occurred in Churachandpur district leading to the bold eviction of allegedly illegal settlements of immigrants from Myanmar in the protected forest. The wound was raw when out of the blue the Manipur high court passed on order in April 2023 directing the Manipur government to send the Meitei demand for Scheduled Tribe status to the Union government.
The order of the Manipur HC provoked a strong reaction from the Hill Areas Committee as custodian of all matters that would affect the welfare of the tribes in the Hill Areas.
It also triggered a peaceful protest by the tribal students on May 3 in all hill district headquarters except in Churachandpur where the post-protest disbursement of students turned violent. The people in Churachandpur district were already unhappy with the state government over the eviction. Among them, resentment had grown against the Meiteis, who were seen as powerful and enjoying the government’s attention. The Meiteis are already an advanced community according to the Kaka Kalekar Report of 1956. They also wield political power by virtue of holding 40 seats out of 60 in the state assembly and dominates the administration.
It was felt that the Meiteis now proposed formally subjugate the tribes of Manipur by becoming ST and grab all reserved posts and tribal lands and forcibly reduce tribal population through use of administrative machinery dominated by Meiteis. The tribal youth, already faced with lack of development of the hill areas, neglect, deprivation and unemployment, felt they have been pushed against the wall. In this modern world of internet technology nothing can be hidden from people and the youth are more aware of discrimination than ever before.
The violence started in Churachandpur district in the afternoon of May 3, but the most surprising thing was the short response time for retaliation to it in Imphal. By the afternoon of May 3, violence and killings started in the streets of Imphal city with Kuki houses set aflame and people killed. These continued unabated for weeks.
Many wondered at how the reaction of the Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun had had military precision. Meitei youth attired in black uniform perpetrated violence and arson in Imphal city from the night of May 3 itself. The mob knew exactly which houses to target. As mobs ruled the streets, looted and burned down Kuki houses and the police watched the mayhem, the government of Manipur sunk to a new low of mobocracy. This is a government ruled by mob or mass of people and the intimidation of legitimate authorities.
The state government did not even try to stop the mobs, according to many who have written first-person accounts.
Now, women have been identified as leading some mobs and blocking roads. The women, popularly known as Meira Paibis, are believed to have given support to the radical elements that raided police armouries and looted more than 4,000 guns, supported the village volunteer armed youths, snatched 12 armed militants from the army, blocked and prevented action by army that resulted in the deaths of two village volunteers and on June 30, blocked Biren’s convoy while he was on his way to submit his resignation.
If this is not a mobocracy, what is?
It was only on arrival of the central security forces that a modicum of normalcy returned in Imphal city for a few hours but the looting, arson and killing continued, unabated, everywhere. Mobs accosted people in the street and asked if they were “Kukis or Nagas”.
All Kukis have fled Imphal city now and their houses have been razed to the ground. The Meitei and Kuki villages in the periphery of the hill slope and Imphal valley are deserted and houses were burned down on both sides. Monsoon has arrived and there is no cultivation in either sides of the valley adjoining the hill slopes. The poor people will become poorer.
The Union home minister stayed for three days from May 29 to June 1 and announced a slew of measures for relief, security and peace overtures but there was nothing concrete. The Peace Committee under the Governor became a non-starter mainly on account of the Kukis objecting to the presence of Biren.
Many complain that authorities are going easy on those who have stolen arms. Police personnel guarding the armouries are reported to have retained Aadhaar cards while giving away guns. No action has been taken by the state government against erring policemen. No action has been taken against the Meira Paibis who, among other things, got the Army to free 12 miscreants. These are clear cases fit for filing FIRs.
What is the role of the CM in the current crisis? Why is the Union government and the ruling party not removing him to facilitate reconciliation?
Kuki government employees cannot come back to their jobs in Imphal and yet the government has issued orders of “no work, no pay”. How can they return when they have no houses to return to? Even their government-allotted quarters have been burned or damaged. There is an unspoken advisory among the Meiteis that accommodations should not be rented to Kukis. This advisory also applies to landlords of other communities.
The Kukis are still refusing to be part of any committee where CM Biren is present. No headway has been made on peace efforts. There have been no official peace talks between the two feuding communities.
An alternative is to allow Biren to remain as CM and give him the concrete responsibility of bringing peace. Stern action has to be taken against the known perpetrators of violence, from both feuding communities.
He should be tasked to oversee the restoration of all looted and illegal guns.
Exemplary treatment should be meted out uniformly to both the feuding communities without bias and in fairness.
He should be also tasked to open up the national highway from Imphal to Dimapur block at Kangpokpi area.
If these three big tickets are delivered, perhaps victims will be open to peace talks.
And the state will not suffer under a CM who has allowed mobs to dictate terms to his government.
Ngaranmi Shimray is a New Delhi-based social activist.