It took 78 days for most of India to wake up.
The northeast Indian state of Manipur has been burning since May 3, following clashes between groups from the Meitei community, which constitutes 53 percent of the state’s population, and those belonging to the Kuki-Zo community, which, along with other tribes, forms about 40 percent of the population.
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Yet it was only after a video of a mob of men parading two women naked, groping them, went viral on July 18 that much of India – and the world – took note. At least one of the women was also gang-raped.
The immediate spark for the clashes came from a court order that suggested extending land rights and other benefits available only to tribal communities like the Kukis to instead cover the Meiteis too. The violence has taken 145 lives and left thousands of tribals homeless while about 60,000 Kuki-Zos are now refugees in Mizoram, Meghalaya, Assam and Tripura. It is a humanitarian crisis and a civil war where women’s bodies have been used as instruments of coercion and subjugation.
But the match had been lit long ago, and the flame has been kept alive by a politics that has alienated generations of Manipuris – and is now tearing the state apart.
Manipur is no stranger to guns and bombs; even rape as an instrument of subjugation was used by the Indian military to crush an uprising from the 1980s until around 2000. There’s an inbuilt dystopia among many in the Meitei community that they have had an unfair deal, ever since the Instrument of Accession signed by Manipur King Bodhchandra Singh with the government of India on August 11, 1947, four days before India was declared an independent nation.
The agreement was that the Meitei king would continue to rule Manipur but would cede the subjects of defence, external affairs and communication to the Indian Union. In reality, by 1972, Manipur became a full-fledged state of India, like any other state.
The Indigenous people of Manipur include the Meiteis, Kukis and Nagas. The British, who were masters of the policy of divide and rule, had fragmented Manipur into the hills and valley. The predominantly Christian tribals (Nagas and Kuki-Zo) were restricted to the hills, and the mostly Hindu Meiteis to the Imphal valley. But while the hills constitute 90 percent of the state’s landmass, the valley represents 10 percent of the territory.
Independent India should have undertaken serious land reforms. It didn’t. Instead, Meiteis were not allowed to buy land in the hills, but tribals could in the valley – deepening Meitei anxiety.
Instead of dismantling colonial legacies that had been found wanting, central governments in New Delhi have perpetuated the divisions sowed by the British. Those fissures have now turned into seemingly unbridgeable chasms between the tribals in the hills and the Meiteis in the valley.
A climate of xenophobia against Kukis has been built up. Though they are Indigenous to Manipur, a new narrative – peddled by no less than Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – has been created, suggesting that there is a constant flow of Kukis from the Chin Hills of Myanmar especially after the military coup there, and that there is consequently more pressure on land and other resources.
Singh is Meitei and is widely seen as biased. If indeed there is a sudden spurt in the Kuki-Zo population, the only way to prove that is through statistics. But the central government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – also of the BJP – has not carried out India’s decadal census, which was scheduled for 2021, and so the allegations of a Kuki influx remain unproven.
In some ways, what Manipur is experiencing mirrors the plight of all of India. Sample how the police in state after state are being used as the ruling party’s police instead of protecting the lives and property of citizens. This is a direct legacy of the Indian Police Act of 1861, a colonial law meant to help the British suppress Indians that is still in force. If the police in Manipur have failed to protect the lives and properties of the Kuki-Zo people in the Imphal valley, it is because they take their orders from the government of the day and are not acting according to the constitution, which says that all citizens are equal.
Yet Manipur and the northeast are fundamentally different from the rest of India – and have been made to feel that way for decades.
India’s northeastern region is populated largely by the Tibeto-Burman and Austroasiatic groups with their distinct cultures, food habits, languages and facial features. Is this what the larger Indian population of Aryan and Dravidian descent finds difficult to reconcile and understand?
Generations of people from the northeast have been victims of unbridled racism – including physical violence and sexualisation – in the rest of India. At the same time, the region’s challenges and cries for help are routinely ignored in the corridors of power and media channels in New Delhi and Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai.
The only time the so-called national media looks towards the northeast is when there is sensational news – such as the recent viral video of the naked women. And it is only after that video triggered outrage that Modi broke more than two months of silence on the crisis in Manipur. Even now, while condemning the horror depicted in the video, the prime minister has not said a word about the conflict that has raged since the start of May.
What are we to make of this? Had Manipur been an opposition-ruled state, Modi would have used the choicest abuses for the government of the day.
This, then, is the state of affairs in the country today. Those who suffer must learn to wipe their own tears, pick up the pieces and start life afresh and stop looking at the state for assistance.
Why blame the people of the northeast if they feel betrayed by India? Why blame them if they are always looking back at the Instruments of Accession they signed more than seven decades ago amid hope and expectations?
The Indian State has failed them. Yet again.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.