In Manipur CM’s Stoking of Ethnic Tensions, a Lesson From the Northeast’s History

Biren Singh may not resign yet, despite the demand from the BJP's national leaders, because it could mean the end of his political career. But his actions over the past few years are reminiscent of Golap Borbora's in the late 1970s in Assam.

This is the second of a two-part series on how disturbances in countries that India shares a border with contribute to internal violence. The first part reflects on how upheavals in countries bordering the Northeast lead to internal disturbances in the region from time to time. The second part cites examples of prominent leaders from across the political spectrum trying to build their electoral future from these disturbances.

New Delhi: On Friday morning, news was abuzz in Imphal that the BJP’s top brass has finally asked Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh to step down. While news reports speculated that Singh was to hand over his resignation to the governor on Friday afternoon, he decided not to do so after his supporters gathered near his home and asked him not to do so.

While there may be more twists to this story, the fact that it came to this point indicates that the Narendra Modi government has run out of options in the strife-torn state.

Clearly, Modi and other top BJP leaders need not have waited so long to take this call, had it not been to manage the optics of a BJP-ruled state being brought under the President’s rule for the breakdown of the law and order situation. After all, unlike in 2017, the second Biren Singh regime is a full-fledged BJP government in Manipur. The onus of bad governance in the northeastern state will rest wholly on the party and its chief minister – something that the national leadership must have wanted to avoid, especially after the Karnataka debacle.

The pressure on Biren Singh to resign – after helplessly watching rampant violence that killed many and displaced thousands in the last two months – must, however, be placed in the context of northeastern political history.

Violence and ethnic skirmishes displacing thousands have been an ugly reality of the post-independence history of the Northeast as a whole. Even if you take only Manipur into account, the ongoing community versus community clash is but an echo of its socio-political history, hinged on the victim-perpetrator fear – a phenomenon oft-sighted across the communities of the region. But what has remained a constant is this: pointing of fingers, particularly by a majority community at a minority group, has spiralled into a mass movement of sorts whenever a state chief minister has played with fire to counter a challenge to his leadership from within his party.

Biren Singh. In the background is a photo of Manipur tweeted by MC Mary Kom.

There is at least one prominent example that proves that if a weak chief minister, in a bid to gain popular support, plays with public sentiment, the situation can spiral to a point where it becomes difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.

To understand this, you will have to flip back to the Assam of the late 1970s, the challenges to the leadership of the incumbent chief minister, and its connection with the first sparks of the anti-foreigner agitation in that state. The parallels between what is unfolding in Manipur today under N. Biren Singh and in the late 1970s in Assam under Golap Borbora are rather uncanny.

In the ongoing clash, Manipur’s majority community, the Meiteis, claims that the Kukis, a minority, have been harbouring “illegal immigrants” from a disturbed Myanmar. In the 1970s, Assam’s majority community, the Assamese, were also accusing the Muslims and Hindus of East Bengal origin, a minority, of sheltering “illegal immigrants” from war-torn East Pakistan.

These two prominent examples, from different eras, underline that conflicts across the international borders of a northeastern state that displace ordinary people can trigger public unrest over the arrival of refugees and cause an internal disturbance. But another facet that needs to be highlighted is that the weak leadership of a chief minister can be lethal in such cases if New Delhi doesn’t act quickly.

Back in 1978, Assam had got its first non-Congress government, a Janata Party regime under the chief ministership of Golap Borbora. However, in early 1979, a dissident group within the Janata Party sprung up under the leadership of a formidable Assamese leader, Tarini Mohan Barua. Thus, chief minister Borbora’s leadership was challenged. He came under tremendous pressure to find ways to remain in the chair. It was also the time when the Jan Sangh was trying to replace Borbora with their nominee, Renuka Devi Barkataki, a minister of state in the then Morarji Desai government. The Jan Sangh sought Borbora’s removal because he was “too secular”. A reason for that ‘secular’ tag by was because Borbora was accused by the Jan Sangh of being silent on the alleged immigration of Muslims from Bangladesh through the open border.

Come March 16, 1979, Borbora made a tactical statement in the Assam assembly, seemingly to gain public support and remain in power. He claimed that the influx from Bangladesh and Nepal “was assuming alarming proportion and that his government has taken a firm stand on the matter”. By doing so, he at once sided with powerful sub-nationalist forces like the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and Asom Sahitya Sabha, which were then unhappy with the arrival of bohiragoto (outsiders).

Days later, the Election Commission of India (ECI) announced the dates for the bye-election to a parliamentary seat in Assam which included a sizeable population of Bengali-origin Muslims. A Janata member, Hiralal Patowary, had passed away, necessitating the bye-election in Mangaldoi. Borbora, on June 7, 1979, had a long meeting with Prime Minister Desai in Delhi. Soon after, the ECI decided to extend the dates for the completion of the bye-election. The rest is history as Borbora famously facilitated the AASU’s demand to the ECI for the suspension of the bye-election until the electoral rolls in Mangaldoi were reviewed and the names of ‘illegal immigrants’ were weeded out. Those were the first sparks of the anti-foreigner agitation. The fall of the Desai government ensured the end of the Borbora government too – but the sparks soon became an inferno that spread uncontrollably.

A rally in the Assam anti-foreigners movement. Photo: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 4.0

Cut to Manipur 2023. Since the time Biren Singh was made the chief minister in 2017, there has been minor bickering within the BJP about the national leadership’s decision to hand the top job to a former Congressman. That minor rebellion, led by a CM hopeful, Thongam Biswajit Singh, gradually gained heft among several other BJP MLAs. In mid-2020, a coup of sorts was launched against Biren Singh by his own party colleagues and some allied parties. New Delhi intervened and ensured that status quo was maintained.

However, when Biren Singh was picked as the Manipur CM once again after the 2022 assembly polls, dissent raised its head. Once again, there was a rush of groups of party MLAs to the BJP headquarters in Delhi seeking a leadership change ensued.

With New Delhi looking the other way, Biren Singh became more and more autocratic. He perceived the national leaders’ nonchalance as a license to go after any MLA he chose to. However, his domineering approach to governance and to intra-party affairs was not lost on the common public, particularly the majority community of Meiteis, who have a say in 40 of the state’s 60 assembly segments.

It is here that one will have to place the chief minister’s sudden swerve from ‘go to the hills’ policy to propping up a few Meitei groups influenced by Hindutva and ultra sub-nationalism to flog the bogey of the hills (the Kukis) harbouring “illegal immigrants” from Myanmar. The 1970s Assam template is instructive to comprehend who could benefit politically from an agenda pivoted on public sentiments.

Still, even after the BJP national leaders’ directive, Biren Singh will leave no stones unturned to remain in the CM’s chair – primarily because his resignation may warrant the end of his political career. This bout of violence under his watch will not be forgotten anytime soon, not by the public nor by the rebels within his party and the opposition. Even if the BJP returns to power in the state, his return as chief minister may not be so smooth if he vacates the chair now.

Also Read: Despite Delhi Ignoring It, Upheavals in Countries Bordering the Northeast Have Always Led to Turmoil

Yet another Northeast example

In Mizoram too, the sentiments of the majority community, firmed up by a conflict unfolding across its international border, is being used for political ends by the chief minister. If you go by the state’s political observers, chief minister Zoramthanga is hoping to return to power at the end of 2023 by banking on such a phenomenon.

The Zoramthanga government has openly refused New Delhi’s directive to hand over refugees from Myanmar to the military junta, not so much on humanitarian grounds but because the Chins share ancestry with the Mizos. Many refugees have been welcomed by the ordinary Mizos. Several Myanmarese political leaders and security officials have also reportedly taken refuge in Mizoram. That lot, residing in rented accommodations in Aizawl, are said to be under the protection and watchful eye of the Assam Rifles.

Add to it the Manipur skirmish across the state’s border. The Kukis also have a close bond with the Chins, evoking similar public sentiments in the local population. The arrival area of the Lengpui airport in Aizawl, for some weeks now has an exclusive police desk for passengers arriving from strife-torn Manipur to record their migration. As per media reports, nearly 9,000 people of Kuki-Zo-Chin families of Manipur have taken shelter in Mizoram due to the ongoing conflict.

Zoramthanga. Photo: PTI

That desk is not only a marker of internally displaced Kuki-Zo people but also a dubious first: people from one northeastern state fleeing to another due to a local conflict are no longer dependent only on the land route. None could have thought that better air connectivity between the Northeastern states would also serve such a purpose.

With Mizoram heading to polls later this year, the outreach efforts of the Mizo National Front (MNF) government towards refugees from Myanmar, so also the Kukis of Manipur, must also be viewed from the electoral lens, particularly when the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Zoramthanga regime is on the rise lately. The sweep of the civic body polls by a new regional party, Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) this past April, was seen by the state’s political observers as signalling the beginning of the end for the MNF.