Erstwhile two narratives were predominant in narrating the discourses in Manipur. One, the nationalist or rather the sub-national discourse that is characterised by the Indian state as insurgency. Two, the ethno narrative takes into account the various ethos, tensions, and conflicts between the different ethnic groups. Often these two discourses are studied in tandem, and solutions as preachy as the need for coexistence are offered as if the people have never tried and failed. It appears to me that two new narratives have emerged following the recent Meitei-Kuki May 2023 ethnic conflict. One is the narrative of ethnic cleansing. Two, the religious violence narrative. Here, I want to make it unequivocally clear that whatever is articulate is my personal opinion, and it should not be judged along ethnic lines or orientation. And in illustrating the two narratives, I am maybe pitching the narratives in the body of literature on Manipur.
Manipur is a hotbed of ethnicity and it has witnessed many conflicts. The 1992 Kuki-Naga ethnic conflict, the 1993 Manipur riot between Hindu and Muslim, and the Kuki-Paite ethnic conflict of 1997 are some of the conflicts the state has witnessed, and thus far these conflicts have been narrated as instances of ethnic violence. Despite the many conflicts, the various ethnic groups have managed to forge negative solidarity wherein opposing communities come together for a common good albeit with some ethnic prejudices. And though these conflicts continue to have a lasting impression on the groups involved today, these conflicts were not narrativized as ethnic cleansing or as communal violence resulting from religious bigotry. History tells us that ethnic cleansing and religious violence do not happen in a vacuum. Society is complicit in these acts. Language, narrative and rhetoric that create prejudice along with uneven power dynamics exist before these acts can happen. The narrative and rhetoric advance a certain way of thinking that criminalize, dehumanize or demonize a community within the state. These are coupled with an assumed if not imagined fear that a certain community is in danger. These blame frames have been subscribed to before and after the Kuki-Meitei conflict to gain certain political millage if not to justify the violence. The characterization of certain communities as illegal immigrants, refugees, and drug lords, and others as dominating, oppressive, and wolf in sheep fur have been repeatedly advanced that these perceptions are permanently entrenched in the people's minds.
On the 5th of May, The Economic Times reported a group of Meiteis under the banner Manipur Co-ordination Committee, Guwahati, condemned the attacks on Meiteis in Churachandpur by the Kukis as barbaric acts of ethnic cleansing. They demanded the indigenous Meitei population be saved from the illegal immigrants and refugees. On the 9th of May, The Wire reported that a state legislator, Paolienlal Haokip, who belongs to the Kuki community, condemned the attacks on the Kukis in Imphal as a targeted ethnic cleansing. He also alleged that the state forces dominated by the majority Meitei community aided the mob in carrying out the violence and arson against the Kukis. He further alleged the chief minister of the state Biren Singh, who belongs to the majority community, had made repeatedly maligned the entire Kuki community as illegal immigrants and reserved forest land encroachers. Both these instances demonstrate the use of rhetoric and narrative to narrate the Kuki-Meitei conflict as ethnic cleansing. The post-event narratives have all the characteristics of ethnic cleansing that include criminalization and uneven power dynamics.
Parallel to the narrative of ethnic cleansing is that of religious communal violence. On the 8th of May, Biren Singh reported about 1700 homes including worship places were destroyed. The Meiteis who are Hindu and Kukis who are Christians claimed that their temples and churches were destroyed and torched by mobs and rioters. But quite ironically, the narrative that was weaved was that Hindu Meiteis were in danger. On 5th May, The Wire reported that a certain Bangalore Manipur Students Association asserted that Hindu villages were burnt down by the Kukis. Similarly, the protest organized Manipur Co-ordination Committee in Guwahati displayed placards wherein “Save Meitei Hindu” was written. Such a narrative is alarming like the Hindu nationalist claim that Hinduism is in danger and must be protected against the aggressive force, thus giving a religious communal tone. Such a narrative regardless of its ideological leaning is dangerous to turn a nation against its people. On the same lines, a news piece by Christianity Today on 4th May reported that Kuki church leaders perceived the violence as a systematic pogrom backed by religious extremist forces to annihilate the Christians. It is true that religious institutions belonging to either of the communities were destroyed during the conflict, but is it out of religious bigotry, that’s the question that has to be asked and answered. Regardless the narrative frame has been pitched, and only time will tell if this frame is the framework through which Manipur history can be narrated. Such narratives have shrouded the Scheduled Tribe status demand issue that triggered the violence in the state and let the information machinery manoeuvre the narrative to a certain religion in danger and of narcos. And in the midst of these bewildering narratives, the people have failed to address the indifference and the lack of political will on the part of the central government to resolve the long-standing issues. It has always approached the issue with military intervention like the frontier people never understand anything apart from the language violence and it has reserved the carrot and stick approach to be used once the spectacle of violence has settled.
The rise of these two narratives is largely due to confirmation bias. This biasness advanced by social media and media houses has transfixed the people into a state of mass hysteria. This hysteria wafted like an epidemic as people lapsed into a psychotic belief for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth And why won’t they lapse, when national media houses either willfully or carelessly failed to distinguish between mobs and protesters, when conscience keepers of the society are forced to stay indoors, and the mobs were given the freedom to riot freely in the streets. With these narratives doing rounds in the towns, can we still believe in Manipur?
Boniface G Kamei belongs to the Rongmei Naga tribe of Manipur, India. He completed his PhD at the University of Hyderabad and is currently teaching English literature at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University.