“Imagine if a collection of civil society groups had set up a truth commission in the Northeast,” academic and public intellectual Shiv Visvanathan wrote in the New Indian Express last month, adding: “The recent crises in Manipur would have been reported differently. We need new harbingers of peace.”
Though Visvanathan’s thought-provoking meditation on imagining wider new possibilities through civil society only touches upon the ongoing crisis in Manipur, it calls to mind some other instances where cosmopolitan elite discourse has pinned a lot of hope on civil society in the state.
Their one-stop solution to the ethnic cleansing we have seen since May 2023 seems to be that civil society should be allowed to come out and take the political centre stage in Manipur – which has been hijacked, of late, by militant organisations. Civil society, in the elite imagination in India, is this significant section of the population who are modern, educated, cosmopolitan, liberal and rational, who keep a distance from electoral politics and supposedly form the ‘real soul’ of a modern liberal polity.
However, the situation unfolding in Manipur begs the question of whether there really is a civil society – as opposed to politicians and members of militant organisations – left outside the ecology of violence and antagonism, who can decisively intervene in the conflagration.
As an observer from afar – and with credible information finding it hard to make its way out – it is difficult to take a well-informed stance on it. Moreover, my endeavour here is not to provide comprehensive answers, as much as it is to analyse the elite condescension and naïveté involved in prescribing solutions for Manipur.
Much of the national media discourse about Manipur attributes the conflict to pre-modern communal/tribal allegiances of the people there. As a result, the solution is almost always a call to summon the imaginary civil society and double down on modernist values, including appeals to the people of Manipur to see themselves as citizens of a republic, rather than as subjects of subnational community identities.
My point is: After more than 70 years of implementing prescriptions hinged on modern political principles, it is high time to question these normative notions and investigate whether the so-called solution has itself become part of the problem.
A divide so complete
Many have pointed out that communal violence of this scale and magnitude has been unprecedented in Manipur. It seems that unlike before, this violence is more decentralised, pervasive and people-to-people, rather than one driven by exclusive or fringe groups of militants fighting each other.
In other words, it is now mostly the civilian public who constitute this ecology of intense antagonism and bloodshed, and who have taken up arms, either as the aggressor or the resistor. The pervasive nature of this current instance of communal violence leaves no space for an apolitical, modern, and liberal ‘silent majority’ to exist outside of its ecology.
By saying this, I don’t imply that there is absolutely no one outside the ecology of violence. My argument is also not that all the men and women in Manipur have armed themselves and are on the streets attacking or resisting. Rather, my argument is that at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be a discernible group capable of acting as legitimate political agents to effect a third-party intervention.
The complete failure of the institutions of the state to legitimately intervene in a situation like this is telling. The state government led by BJP’s Biren Singh – a Meitei himself – is accused of openly siding with the Meitei community and aiding the Kuki minority‘s alienation, both in the violent culmination and in the antagonistic build-up to it.
It also seems like the state administration and law enforcement agencies were themselves split on communal lines. This episode is also unprecedented as the violence is being fuelled by advanced weaponry and ammunition that were stolen or handed over to the public from the police stations and armouries of the state government.
Further, it is so-called volunteers from among the communities themselves, who have been guarding their own villages or attacking others. There are several harrowing testimonies from victims in the media about how the violence is being perpetrated by common people (neighbours in some cases) rather than any armed militant organisations. The Meira Paibis (‘women torchbearers’), a well-known grassroots, and predominantly Meitei, women’s organisation was at the forefront of blocking the central forces from reaching violence-hit areas on many occasions.
The all-pervasive nature of the antagonism is also evident in the way religion has come to be imbricated in it. Unlike before, the primarily ethnic conflagrations have also attained a strong anti-Christian hue, making the antagonism deep on several levels and not just on perceived ethnic lines.
At the same time, I don’t want to claim that the antagonism is totally formless. There are civilian groups which call themselves cultural organisations, like the Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun, who have played a significant role in shaping and fanning the age-old distrust between the communities and bringing it to a head. In that sense, a closer look will make it clear that while the ecology of violence and antagonism is grassroots and decentralised, there has been a method to it, and there are self-proclaimed cultural organisations playing a vanguard role.
As a panellist on a TV discussion pointed out, “The divide is so complete!” Moreover, there are hardly any Kuki-Zo people left in the valleys and any Meitei left in the hills. As such, the way in which the issue is being framed on national TV – that a few militant organisations, detached from the larger society are fighting each other – seems to be false and misleading. When the government and the public sphere are so divided on ethnic lines, there doesn’t seem to be any space for a civil society to exist.
Is modernist rhetoric aiding majoritarianism?
Bimol Akoijam, a sociologist at JNU, in a recent interview for The Wire, objected to Karan Thapar’s use of the term “indigenous”, and insisted that the only category applicable to the Kukis or anyone else in Manipur should be that of “citizen”.
It should be noted here that as far as the state is concerned, there is no official category that recognises a tribe as “indigenous”. But the grant of Scheduled Tribe status prioritises demographically smaller communities, whereas the category of ‘citizen’ foregrounds the individual, and not their community, as the rights-bearing subject. Throughout the world, and in Indian constitutional practice, individual and group rights can and do coexist. Doing away with the distinctive category of ‘indigenous’ or Scheduled Tribe (used interchangeably in this context) and imposing a homogenising term like ‘citizen’ as the only bearer of rights is violent on two primary counts here.
One, it falsely assumes that every individual is equally privileged by the state and its institutions – which negates the history and reality of community-based discrimination. Two, it serves to delegitimise affirmative provisions for social groups that are aimed at addressing historical inequalities and protecting minority cultures from being obscured by the majority.
In this sense, insistence upon using ‘citizen’, and more broadly, the rhetoric of modernism seems to be an attempt to legitimise a majoritarian project in Manipur. If anything, a just solution to the Manipur crisis will have to go beyond the prescriptions of normative modernist politics. Such a stance will have to acknowledge the social reality that people’s lives are still circumscribed and defined by their community locations in India. Especially in situations like in Manipur, where the state is apparently part of the majoritarian project, it is no surprise that people hark back to their traditional community affiliations as a means of survival and resistance.
Bipin Sebastian is a PhD student in the programme of Rhetoric and Public Culture at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.