Chain Reactions


The spiral of numerous ethnic insurrections in Manipur, often with one literally dove-tailing the other is evidence to the complicated nature of the issue in hand. It is not too rare to read reports by journalists and commentators from outside the state telling the story with patronising bewilderment that Manipur is witness to 30 and odd different insurgencies at one time. The number 30 is never accurately spelled out, giving the impression that they have lost count, and that these dime-a-dozen insurgencies have very little significance left. Often these stories also imply, in the same tone of condescension, that these insurgencies are floated as if they were cottage industries by people who want a little quick buck. A lot of these perceptions are understandable and even may hold some water, but when they are presented as the total picture, it betrays either intellectual dishonesty, or more probably, an abject failure to grasp the picture in its entirety. The broad brush, any painter will testify, is a tool often used to shroud and mystify a subject so as to disguise and give credence to ignorance of the inner dynamics of the subject.

And so, in the portrayal of insurgency in not just Manipur but the entire northeast region, the popular resort has been to rely on images of primitive clannish tribal loyalties, mutual and irreconcilable atavistic hostilities amongst tribal groups, primordial xenophobia reminiscent of the days of savagery, etc. This approach leaves little room for a resolution apart from keeping the warring parties separated from each other (just as the instinctually determined hostility between cats and dogs is resolved by keeping them apart). This approach is quite unlike in the case of other deadly conflicts, such as was seen in Punjab. In these situations, the same analysts would forward economic and political causes and consequently profoundly actionable economic and political solutions. One is reminded of the outburst of one of literature’s most famous characters, Shylock: “If you prick us do we not bleed.” The Jewish blood and the Christian blood are both red, so why different standards in assessing them.

But if the portrayal of the phenomenon of the multiplication of ethnic insurrections as wild assertions of primeval loyalties is to be treated as only a smokescreen to hide abject inability to comprehend the deeper currents, what then are the real issues? What then has led to this phenomenal proliferation of ethnic insurgencies? Observing just the last decade of the multi-pronged conflicts in Manipur should provide some clues. A prominent historical landmark in this regard would be the Naga-Kuki feud in the early 1990s. Before this cataclysmic development, militancy amongst the Kukis was barely heard of. It was only after this period that Kuki militant groups began spawning, and the existing ones began reorganising themselves into much more potent fighting forces than they previously were. But the culprit, rather than the supposed instinctual animosity that so many have, and still rely on, always was in our opinion, aggressive sectarian nationalism against the backdrop of a weak administration, morally de-legitimised by corruption and inefficiency.

Such brands of nationalisms, always manage to alienate those either excluded or else in the margin of it, and the state institution being virtually absent, these marginal groups have nowhere else to look for security or succour than to raise their own militias. And there is no gainsaying that the early 1990s were the heydays of overbearing Naga nationalism with the NSCN(IM) emerging as the predominant Naga insurgent group, pushing the agenda of Nagalim (Greater Nagaland) with unprecedented aggression. But if aggressive Naga nationalism led to the consolidation of militant Kuki nationalism, this in turn made other communities at its fringe insecure. The confounding feud between kindred tribes, the Kukis and the Paites almost in the immediate wake of the Kuki-Naga feuds, may be thus explained. The truce document ultimately signed between these latter tribes spelled out these underlying causes pretty succinctly. The spiral however does not end here. There are also other parallel spirals. As for instance, aggressive Meitei nationalism is also having similar responses. Hence, even the origin of militancy amongst the Meitei-Pangals may be explained within this frame. The vehemence with the Meitei Mayek was opposed in the hill districts etc, may also be part of this same phenomenon. Plenty of lessons here, but who is willing to learn, is the big question.


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