Manipur and Mewat: On Reading Two Landscapes of Social Suffering

India was defined during the freedom struggle as a ‘land of communities’. But the violence in Manipur and Mewat makes us question whether this fabric is breaking apart.

The pain of this beautiful land is widespread and seemingly unending. It touches us closely. Two members of our family are from Imphal and my niece is named after its river, Iril. In the past decade, I travelled several times through the state, always surprised at the levels of under development. Imphal did not even have a decent cafe or a book shop. As a historian-anthropologist of Mewat, I have also travelled in the villages and towns inhabited by the Indian Meos since 1985 and seen closely the backwardness of the region.

In the seven states of the northeast, a corrupt elite has constantly been siphoning off Central funds. Development continues to mean largely “infrastructure.” In Mewat, likewise, a Mewat Development Agency/Board was set up but during my fieldwork I heard numerous complaints that instead of focusing on the entrenched backwardness of the Meo community, its funds were utilised largely for building roads, which ought to have been the task of the Public Works Department (PWD).

The roots of the problem run deep. Colonialism in areas such as Mizoram simultaneously introduced writing, the state and the modern idea of religion. Ethnology sought to map racial distinctions and Christian missionaries converted peoples whom colonial knowledge had classified as “tribals” and people without religion. Among the Nagas, the British created an aspiration for a Greater Nagaland, thinking of this as a continuing foothold for themselves even as the rest of the Indian subcontinent would be decolonised. The latest missionaries are those attempting to spread a packaged Hinduism, as in Arunachal Pradesh. Missionaries also appear in secular guise as in the case of the Ulfa-Maoist alliance responsible for the killing of Sanjoy Ghose in 1997.

In Manipur, nationalism was particularly strong and rallied around the figure of the king. Its backbone was the major community of the Meitei, which had come under the influence of Vaishnava Hindu practice and created a culture richly endowed with music and dance, literature and theatre. It is supremely ironic that this community came to spawn a large number of terror organisations in postcolonial India. Why this came to be so is a question that should have been asked by all Indians. Both in Kashmir and Manipur, the footprint of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was the largest and spawned the spiral of violence and counter-violence fostered also by the supply of arms  from China and Burma to terror groups.

I had closely followed the story of women’s protest against the Indian army and read during a long stay in Imphal Teresa Rehman’s The Mothers of Manipur: The Twelve Women who Made History based on her moving interviews of how women responded to the rape of Manorama in July 2004. At a tense meeting held in a closed room in the Ima Keithel women’s market, a dozen women agreed to strip naked and hold up a banner with the words, ‘Indian Army rape us’. The protest was kept absolutely secret even from their husbands and families and some even fainted in the aftermath of the protest held outside the gate of the Kangla Fort. The Army commander eventually came out and bowed before the women. On November 20, 2004, the fort – a symbol of Manipuri nationalism – was handed back to the people of Manipur. King Khagemba (1597-1652) had built this fort where the universe is said to have been centred.

It was hard to digest that in 2023 women used themselves as human shields in the pitched battles between Kuki and Meitei gangs. There are many factors that have created this round of violence. The Meitei demand is for Scheduled Tribe status that seeks for the community the benefits of affirmative action and the right to buy land in the hill areas. Currently, Kukis can buy land in the valley but the Meitei do not have the reciprocal right and feel that the valley is getting crowded. The land in the hills is mineral rich. Finally, there is the role of the drug lords in collaboration with actors at various levels and in the larger region known as the Golden Triangle.

The current Nuh conflict likewise has two centuries of colonial rule behind it, particularly the play of the categories of caste and religion, which continue to colonise contemporary India. In the census you could be either Hindu or Muslim, not both simultaneously, which would have been the closest approximation to Meo practice, as indeed, they venerated both Sufi saints and Shiva/Mahadeva. Over a period, the number of “Hindu Mewatis” shrunk and then disappeared altogether.

Nuh, Taoru, Nagina, Punhana and Ferozepur Jhirka, the five blocks of Haryana’s district of Nuh (created in 2013) have been among the poorest areas of the erstwhile state of Punjab. These were the drylands of low productivity exacerbated by cycles of famine and stringent colonial revenue collection. Little wonder that anti-colonial feeling was particularly high among the Meos. Insurgency affected both the Rajasthan and Punjab areas of Mewat in 1857 and the British made the Meos pay for it. Subsequent state investment in canals was largely in areas inhabited by the Jats, seen as the stolid Victorian peasants, but rendered both Meo and Gujjar villages significantly impoverished.

Some media reports highlight the high fertility rate of the Meos of Nuh and also their backwardness in terms of female literacy but ignore the other components of backwardness such as the declining political representation of the Meos compared with other backward caste groups such as the Jats and Yadavs. This was a result partly of the partition exodus of the Meos in the face of the genocidal violence of the princely states of Alwar and Bharatpur in alliance with a new social formation, a notorious intercaste coalition called AJGAR, its constituents being Ahirs, Jats and Gujars who had for centuries lived peacefully with the Meos.

The hunger for land was tremendous among these peasant groups and what better excuse to decimate the Meos and cause them to migrate than the Muslim League movement for Pakistan. It did not matter that the Meo leadership was largely pro-Congress and against Jinnah’s Muslim League and the movement for Pakistan. They could and were accused of creating a Meoistan analogous to Pakistan!

In the decades before Partition, a new, hyper-nationalist popular history had been created that constructed the Meos as exclusively Muslim. This new history is postulated on forgetting, an erasure of the past. The Meos had been regarded by the British as half-Hindu; they shared in the practices of pastoral-agrarian culture such as the jajmani patronage of dependent castes; a kinship system in which cross-cousin marriage (what they call kaka-tau mein nikah) was anathema; the seasonal cycles of festivals and pilgrimages to Krishna’s Govardhan Yatra – after all, Krishna was the progenitor of the Meo Jadu clans, as Rama was of the Meo Badgujar clans – and to the Mahadeva shrine in the hills for it was always Shiva who came to assist them at moments of crisis and in their struggle with the state.

This new history of the Meos as cow killers also ignores the massive effort at cow protection by the Meo panchayats; that many Meos kept cows and that many Meo women would craft stacks of cowdung cakes with floral designs. In the Mewati Mahabharata the five Pandava brothers graze cows while their shared wife, Draupadi, is an incarnation of the goddess, capable of the curse of great destruction that will be wrought on the Kaurava army after she is publicly disrobed in Duryodhana’s court!

In the last decade, Mewat has been whiplashed by violence again and again. The most recent phase began in the 1990s and has been fuelled by the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. Acharya Dharmendra, one of the founders of the Dharma Sansad, once told me that Mewat is a “cold” area (read: where inter-communal violence has been relatively less). Cow killing became the cry against the Meos as the VHP intensified the heat, creating crisis after crisis in the Bharatpur, Alwar districts of Rajasthan and then in Haryana’s Mewat area.

Both Nuh and Gurgaon/Gurugram have been host to cow vigilante groups and episodes of lynching, the public executions carried out by vigilante groups in the name of cow protection. Asif Khan of Khalilpur Kheda was lynched by a mob in 2021 when he was returning from buying medicine; Nasir and Junaid were allegedly attacked and abducted in February 2023. According to the chargesheet of the Rajasthan police, the Haryana police refused to register a case against them, after which their bodies were set ablaze by a gang said to have been involved with Bajrang Dal leader, Mohit Yadav known as Monu Manesar.

The preparation for the latest round of violence can be seen from the creation of a new procession devised three years ago to a temple. Videos were circulated, announcing the presence of gangsters Monu Manesar and Bijju Bajrangi. According to press reports, an intelligence report was sent to the chief minister but not passed on to the home minister and likewise no action was taken by the police following an alert by the Nuh Peace Committee. A deliberately circulated rumour of the arrival of Monu Manesar in a vehicle led to stone pelting by Meos.

Later, all shops and businesses in Gurgaon were asked to remove Muslims from the premises else they would be treated as traitors. Within days Muslims including cobblers, tailors and labour fled from four districts of the Haryana State. The only exception were the Bengalis as without them Gurgaon’s services would collapse. The bulldozer then began its work, razing the homes of Nuh residents  until it was called to a halt by the high court.

India was defined during the freedom struggle as a land of communities. Living together, rural and urban socialites have been at the heart of its civilisation for several millennia. Is this fabric coming asunder is a question all Indians must ask themselves today. If so, there is a need to recognise the sources of violence through deep readings of the past as a prelude to action. The present scenario looks bleak with only institutions such as the Supreme Court as a bulwark for Manipur and the inter-communal mobilisation of the Kisan Movement as a ray of hope in Mewat and beyond.

Shail Mayaram is the author of the book The Secret Life of Another Indian Nationalism: Transitions from the Pax Britannica to the Pax Americana, published by Cambridge University Press. She is an honorary fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. She is chairperson of the Academic Advisory Board at the Käte Hamburger Centre for the Study of Apocalyptic and Postapocalyptic Studies at the University of Heidelberg.