Manipur’s crisis needs a proactive government - Hindustan Times
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Manipur’s crisis needs a proactive government

Jul 28, 2023 10:28 PM IST

Ethnic conflict in Manipur, sparked by a court ruling on the inclusion of the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list, must be addressed proactively.

After Independence, the leaders of India had to give serious thought as to how to deal with tribespeople. They were granted autonomy in many areas under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “[Tribal] people should develop along the lines of their own genius.” This was the basic policy framework of the government. Indira Gandhi went a step further to say that the policy aspirations of the tribals must be recognised and some of the states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Manipur, and Mizoram were created irrespective of their size.

Manipur was one of the most insurgency-ridden states with about 15 outfits representing different tribes or communities. PREMIUM
Manipur was one of the most insurgency-ridden states with about 15 outfits representing different tribes or communities.

Manipur was one of the most insurgency-ridden states with about 15 outfits representing different tribes or communities. It was once ruled by Meitei kings, and Meiteis comprise a significant population. Tribals account for around 40% of the state’s population and broadly belong to Naga, Kuki-Chin and Mizo groups.

The situation in Manipur has been complex, fluid and volatile. It has been embroiled in an ethnic conflict since early May, between the majority Meitei community and the minority Kuki tribe. The violence erupted after the high court directed the Manipur government on March 27 to consider the inclusion of the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list. It would entitle them to the same economic benefits and quotas in government jobs and education as the minority Kukis. It would also allow the Meiteis to buy land in the hills, where the Kukis predominately live, fuelling fears among the Kukis that their land, jobs and opportunities would be taken away.

On May 3, thousands of people from tribal groups protested these plans. Even as the violence escalated, the response from the central government was muted. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government was accused of being silent or complicit in the violence against the Kukis. Conspiracy theories further weakened what little trust the people had in the state government. The high court ruling was later stayed by the Supreme Court, which called it “factually wrong”, but by then the conflict had already taken hold. Both the state and the Centre should have stepped in immediately to reassure the tribes that they will not act upon the high court judgment. The laxity on the part of both the Centre and state government fuelled the conflict.

The events clearly indicate a serious lapse on the part of the state administration, especially the state police, and the Centre, which is supposed to be the protector of all the communities in the state. The failure of the law-enforcing agencies further strengthened the belief among the warring communities that their only sources of protection are the armed ethnic insurgents.

The incidents of sexual abuse, molestation and parading of naked tribal women are horrific. They lost everything, their lives were disrupted and in a shambles. Thousands of displaced people are still living in relief camps. Schools and colleges have been disrupted and medical care has collapsed. The internet ban to thwart the spread of fake news seemed to have worsened the situation. The survivors were left with no means to either summon help or seek justice.

The Prime Minister (PM) broke his silence after 77 days and vented his anger and grief, but it was too late. The PM, being the head of the nation, is constitutionally, politically and morally responsible to safeguard the lives and property of her citizens. But no one in the government was able to prevent these atrocities and violence, particularly those perpetrated against women and the vulnerable. Manipur CM N Biren Singh owes an explanation for the proliferation of cultural nationalist organisations that have been accused of fomenting conflict in the state. The inclusion or de-recognition of communities under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category is a very sensitive matter and is administratively detailed. Courts are not constitutionally empowered to adjudicate on this matter until due process has been completed.

In the case of Manipur, in view of Article 371(C) of the Constitution, the state government would be expected to take the consent of the hill areas committees. Only after a clear recommendation of the state can a proposal be examined by the registrar general of India (RGI) and census commissioner.

Only after both the state government and RGI unequivocally recommend a case for inclusion, exclusion or modification, can it be forwarded to the tribal affairs ministry, which sends it to the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes (NCST). Only after NCST agrees with the recommendations of the state government and RGI, can the matter be taken to the cabinet, and then on to the Parliament for approval. The conflict among the different communities in Manipur is a harsh reality, based on demands for better participation in the political process and more control over resources. Such conflicts should be dealt with prudence, skill and time-tested measures. The Manipur incident calls for a political solution which can happen only by way of a conscious process and consensus arrived between the two communities. The court is not the forum to resolve such a complex problem.

It is time for the government, both at the Centre and in the state, to be proactive. The government should prioritise adopting conflict resolution principles to bridge the divide between the warring communities and restore confidence in governance and peace in society. It must not be forgotten that the Manipur crisis can spark similar situations across the Northeast. If not dealt with appropriately, this will spiral into cross-border and inter-state conflicts, especially in the light of insurgent activities across the border with Myanmar and China.

M Veerappa Moily is a former Union minister and senior Congress leader. The views expressed are personal.

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