With new events unfolding every day – Manipur at the core of national and international focus with Meiteis and Kukis fleeing to Assam, and other bordering states, while new violence erupting in Meghalaya owing to a long-standing demand for a new winter capital in Tura – Northeast India has finally grabbed national attention but for all the wrong reasons.
Since May 2023, Manipur has been witnessing escalating ethnic violence, with no indication of the flame abating anytime soon. The recently lifted internet blockade has exposed several horrific atrocities, more so against women and children who are always the immediate and most vulnerable victims of any conflict.
The current situation in Manipur has brought several inadequacies to light not just of the political class and failure of the political apparatus but also of media reportage, of the sudden mainland gaze on the frontier, the problem of perspective, and the larger discourse that has been shaped in the process.
The media narrative that has emerged in recent months has largely been shaped by a section of the mainstream media, some international publications, and social media influencers who became experts on the subject overnight, doing more harm than good.
People from the Northeast can attest to the fact that accompanied by historical marginalisation and the failure of the Union to give the region its long-due share of attention. The region has largely been understood from the lens of conflict, violence, insurgency, and militarisation. It is only in the last few years that the narrative had begun shifting, not necessarily for the right reasons, towards promoting tourism and developmental projects that often came at the cost of indigenous and minority rights.
The conflict in Manipur is incredibly intricate and multifaceted – to the extent that scholars from and outside the region who have years of expertise in conducting research on ethnic violence are finding it hard to fathom the extent to which it has escalated in Manipur.
Unfortunately, the perception of Manipur, its politics, and its people is once again largely being shaped by state-influenced media giants, who had little knowledge of Manipur before, and even now hardly care to bring in a nuanced perspective.
The question of perspective is often exacerbated by the relative ignorance of a section of the media about the frontier regions of India. Barring very few media portals, mostly in the digital space – some who have done commendable reporting and discussion on the matter relentlessly – both international and national media have largely reduced the issue to simplistic labels of tribal vs non-tribals or a religious conflict between ‘Hindu Meiteis’ and ‘Christian Kukis’ –the latter being the lens for most of the international media.
Popular international media houses have made sensational headlines, such as “Christian women paraded naked in India“ (Telegraph UK) or “Violence Against Tribal Christians in Manipur, India” (USCIRF), “How India’s northeast is turning into an ethnoreligious tinderbox,” (TRT World) further perpetuating a reductionist approach that is simplistic and narrow.
One also cannot ignore the biased undertones of some panelists and anchors who completely lose objectivity and lean onto a one-sided narrative, dehumanising one group over the other, and reinforcing divisive politics. By doing so, one tends to overlook the deeper histories rooted in topographic demarcation set by colonial powers, erasing the socio-cultural similarities between the people of Hill and Valley, the discourse around land and territoriality and economic opportunities which are key to building the perspective on the current Manipur crisis.
Shifting this lens of media echo-chambers would have helped people outside the Northeast to understand the complexities of the region beyond religious and ethnic fault lines, insurgency, and drug trade – the unfortunate default label for the region as a whole.
The mainstream narrative that portrays Kukis as terrorists, poppy cultivators, and aggressors, while presenting Meiteis as victims of terror and drug cartels, is a highly simplistic and biased perspective on the complex conflict in Manipur.
This narrative fails to acknowledge the historical context of the conflict, which dates back to colonial times when Manipur was integrated into British India. The boundaries imposed by colonial powers and subsequent political decisions have played a significant role in shaping the tensions between different ethnic groups in Manipur.
The Kuki and Meitei communities both have legitimate historical grievances and claims to land and resources in the region. Additionally, attributing terrorism and poppy cultivation solely to one ethnic group oversimplifies the sources of violence and instability in the region. The conflict in Manipur involves a complex interplay of factors that cannot be reduced to a single group’s actions. Such a one-sided narrative perpetuates stereotypes, deepens divisions, and hinders efforts to find lasting and just solutions to the conflict.
It is important to note that media reporting has significant consequences in conflict zones and during mass atrocities. It carries the responsibility of presenting the truth and unravelling the intricacies of the situation, enabling every citizen to grasp the complexities and engage in informed discussions.
We have ample examples from history that go on to show the aftermath of irresponsible media reporting. The Rwandan genocide serves as a tragic reminder of how biased media coverage can contribute to violence and human rights abuses.
One also needs to realise that the narrative built in the aftermath of the Manipur crisis would also have a severe cascading effect on other volatile northeastern states that already have a lot going on as far as assertion of minority rights, demand for autonomy, conflict around land and territoriality is concerned.
A region that has had a history of militarisation, both state as well as non-state, it is only recently that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was lifted from several parts of the Northeast. There is a high possibility that the state could use the current crisis to legitimise the imposition of draconian laws that violate human rights.
When international and national media can be misled by bias and misinformation, it raises concerns about how they may misguide millions of individuals lacking the capacity to make an informed opinion. The situation in Manipur serves as a clear example of media that feeds into false narratives rather than providing a more objective and well-rounded perspective.
The Manipur crisis needs to shift from a polarised and highly simplistic media narrative that is churned out by a section of media to fuel a larger political agenda. With only two parliamentary seats, perhaps the importance of Manipur in the larger national political algorithm is insignificant as compared to a mighty UP or West Bengal.
With almost no sign of immediate mitigation and peace-building being a distant dream, it is high time that the political class in power – both at the state and at the centre – wake up and make an urgent appeal through a consultative and participatory multi-stakeholder approach from both communities and area experts.
Manipur is more than a state that ought to transcend its reputation as a region marred by conflict. How that can be achieved in the midst and the magnitude of the conflict and violence that we have witnessed is a bigger and more important question that one needs to ponder over, for the solution wouldn’t be a simple one. Manipur cannot be the state that is just remembered only when it earns India its Olympic accolades. Beyond the headlines of strife, Manipur is a testament to diversity, a place of profound stories and human connections.
Minakshi Bujarbaruah and Rituparna Kaushik Bhattacharyya are researchers from Assam, currently based out of Mumbai and Pune respectively.