The clashes on Monday in the wake of the bandh called by the Joint Action Committee (JAC) against the death of two youths who succumbed to their injuries in hospital after being mauled by a mob on April 7 for allegedly trying to steal a vehicle parked at Sagaisabi under Mayang Imphal Police station, leaving seven houses gutted and more than 30 injured, is unfortunate to say the least. The ugly incident however can hardly be said to have been fired by communal venom between Hindus and Muslims of the kind the rest of India has come to understand, although the fight coincidentally was between the predominantly Hindu Meiteis and the Pangals. Even more unfortunate and condemnable is the loss of life of the two young men who were among three brutally thrashed by the mob at Mayang Imphal. Lynching people for alleged theft, and indeed for whatever other crime anybody is accused of, cannot be acceptable under any circumstance. This incident and many more before it, tells of the increasing resort to mob justice in Manipur, reflecting on the depleting faith the public place on the corrupt and ineffective justice delivery system, prompting them to take the law into their hands in such cases in the belief only this can ensure justice.
Making this incident look like a part of a bigger pattern, two weeks earlier on March 25, six other Pangals boys had been brutally beaten up at a Yaoshang Thabal Chongba site at Lilong by another mob, again allegedly for trying to steal two wheelers. Though badly injured, all six fortunately came away alive. Condemnable as this incident too is, the two however are unconnected. They were just two similar mob crimes. In both the cases, the violence could have been targeted at anybody else suspected of similar audacious thefts, but the only element of communalism here could be, had the victims not been from the Pangal community, they may not have been beaten as badly. Quite unfortunately, the Pangal community in Manipur has come be stigmatized as habitual offenders given to petty crimes like vehicle theft, shop lifting etc., so that in the Lilong mob frenzy, once the victims came to be known to be Pangals, there was likely to have been an extra kick from some, extra hurt packed in some punches, aggregating the injuries caused to each victim much more grievous.
It is now clear in both cases the police did little to reassure the affected public that the law has taken cognizance of the crime and the guilty would be brought to book. Had this not been so, Monday’s rioting may have been avoided altogether. In the Lilong case, where the incident happened at a Thabal Chongba, identifying the attackers would have been understandably more difficult as the boy participants are predominantly from localities other than the same locality as the girls. Adding to the difficulty would be that the proceedings continue into the wee hours. Another thing certain is it would have been a very young crowd, with little or no moderation of elders. There can be no dispute that Meiteis and Pangals are fraternal communities. They look alike, speak the same language, they are both traditional agriculturists settled in the valley, their settlements literally rub shoulders, they share work sites and traditionally lived together as one community would, despite belonging to different faiths. A popular song from the 1980s by a popular Manipuri singer, Tombisana Sharma, a Meitei Brahmin, says this quite eloquently. The song as many of us know is a paean to the beauty of the Iril River which silently meanders past many different settlements and in one stanza the singer nostalgically recalls the sweet sound of pre-dawn prayer from a distant masjid floating on the simmering river surface and drifting towards him.
This syncretic character of Manipur is again evident in the fact that though Pangals form only about 8 percent of Manipur’s population, the first chief minister after Manipur was made a full-fledged state of India in 1972, was a Pangal, Md. Alimuddin. Furthermore, the chief minister belonged to the Manipur People’s Party, MPP, a regional party which came out of the aggressive agitation against the Centre for Manipur’s statehood. Another revered Naga chief minister, Yangmaso Shaiza, also belonged to the MPP which was once known for its strong stand on espousing an autonomous regional identity for Manipur. Today, divisive politics has destroyed this syncretism that marked ethnic relations in Manipur and the shrinking of the MPP to only a shadow of its former shelf, with its support base confined mostly to the Meiteis, is a pathetic symptom of this disease. In modern times, when the paradigms of the place’s economy began shifting from an agrarian base to a more urban service-centred one which lays a premium on western education, the Pangals found themselves lagging behind for whatever the inhibitions. This inequity has added to the tension the state is seeing now. In the present cases, though what has been done cannot be undone, the immediate step of the government must be to arrange compensations for the losses suffered, the deaths as well as the destructions, after all this tragedy is also on account of its inability establish rule of law. The longer term plan should be to work to remove the hurdles before the reviving the syncretic culture that once was.