Manipur’s implosion will hurt the India story
State collapse in Manipur has undermined two key aspects of the India story. Fixing this can’t be driven by narrow electoral calculations
That it took a leaked video of a mob’s brutal sexual assault of two women for Manipur’s implosion to grab national attention should offer us a pause. India’s northeastern states are not socially or politically disconnected from the rest of the country. They aren’t even a site of the odd colonial imagery that pejoratively typecast entire communities as martial or otherwise to advance its divisive cause. Neither has Manipur’s troubled situation been unknown or unreported. But it took over two months, and the force of a gut-wrenching video, for serious political and media attention to be bestowed on this conflict.
There are known reasons for such apathy. One, a sense that the Northeast is geographically peripheral, and state collapse there doesn’t impact the rest of India. Two, the notion that the northeastern state’s political landscape is too complex to grasp. That Manipur houses many armed outfits, with awkwardly sounding acronyms, has been a pet peeve of many trying to make sense of the state. This is reflected in the litany of articles trying to explain the basics about Manipur’s diversity when the state imploded. Three, the idea that this region has always been security-sensitive and is best left to security officials.
These are false notions. Manipur, and the rest of the Northeast, are central to India, and state collapse there is already hurting the India story. Any approach to resolve this cannot be driven by narrow electoral calculations. Though the human tragedy there has been rightfully highlighted and deplored, there is a need to appreciate the full import of Manipur’s situation on India’s being, both in theory and practice.
There are two core aspects of contemporary India that Manipur’s plight undermines. One, the idea(s) that define India and its nation-building project, and two, its strategic ambitions. Let’s unpack them.
No single idea defines India in totality. But the ones that dominate national imagination, for good or evil, include the liberal, secular constitutionalism associated with the Congress, and the conservative Hindu nationalist project of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Both have failed in Manipur. The Congress’s patronage politics privileged certain communities over others for electoral and counter-insurgency purposes for decades. Instead of building bridges, such methods deepened inter-community mistrust. Only after heightened separatist violence in Assam and Nagaland in the late-1980s did the Narasimha Rao-led Congress begin to slowly backpedal on such tactics.
But the Congress never pushed a religious agenda. In contrast, the BJP, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) political and social outreach campaigns across the Northeast, have assimilationist ambitions. While such campaigns may find appeal in Hindu-dominated pockets of Manipur, Tripura, and Assam, they struggle to make an ideological impact in Christian-dominated ethnic-minority areas. Senior RSS leaders understood this well enough in the mid-2010s to not push this line in Manipur’s Zo-Kuki areas. Instead, they promised continuation of pre-existing constitutional protections to these communities that have limited state assembly and no national parliamentary representation. The politics around beef, and the BJP’s compromise to it in the Northeast, starkly illustrated such adaptability. They even offered financial sops to the Kuki underground to join mainstream politics. The strategy worked, till it didn’t.
The BJP’s error has been to confuse electoral dominance emanating from such pragmatic arrangements with ideological and political hegemony. The moment the BJP’s Manipur branch under chief minister N Biren Singh pushed the Meitei agenda of demanding Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to win more resources for this community at the cost of Zo-Kuki interests, the arrangement collapsed. Even in the illicit drug sector, which is connected to regional electoral finance, cross-community cartels began colliding violently to retain monopolies over cross-border routes, products, and suppliers. Such cross-community cartel strife increased after the 2021 Myanmar coup that (re)triggered a civil war in that country.
The current debate, then, around the fact that Meiteis don’t have adequate land in proportion to their population density, or the charge that Zo-Kuki communities are excessively involved in the narco-trade, are symptoms of Manipur’s social breakdown, not its cause. For, it’s common knowledge that the Meiteis enjoy access to Imphal valley’s most fertile tracts and dominate the state legislature and all accruing benefits. And though it is true that certain drug cartels in southern Manipur masquerade as revolutionary armies advocating on behalf of the Kuki-Zos, in truth, these groups represent only their own parochial interests, not that of entire communities.
In the past, the Congress let Manipur down by its divisive tactics and fostering a political economy dominated by dependencies on central grants and cross-border smuggling. The BJP today has failed Manipur by overplaying its assimilationist hand without altering such toxic dependencies. This irony is best captured by the fact that Meitei chauvinist Biren Singh (like his Assamese counterpart), is a former disgruntled Congressman. It is now clear that what he cares mostly, and perhaps only, about is his private ambitions. But his partisan politics raises the question: Can regional ethnic majoritarianism comfortably fit with any idea of India? Meitei nationalism was always a misfit with India’s secular, liberal traditions. The current situation shows that it might be an outlier of a different sort even in a Hindu Rashtra.
This brings us to the second aspect of how Manipur’s implosion is hurting India i.e., in achieving its strategic ambitions. In a reputational sense, the conflict has already done damage. From being debated in the European parliament to being raised by the United States ambassador Eric Garretti, who offered friendly support — of what kind was left unsaid — if New Delhi so wished, Manipur’s situation offers nourishment to India-sceptics the world over. The fact that the conflict is being framed around an attack on Christian minorities could mobilise new constituencies in western capitals. But there are more serious, practical security-strategic concerns too. With an ongoing military standoff with China, New Delhi can ill-afford state collapse and extreme social polarisation in a northeastern border state. This is not just because it ties down limited defence resources in peacekeeping duties, as witnessed in the army and paramilitary forces securing a no-man’s land between the Imphal valley and the hill districts, but also because such societal fracture offers a ripe ground for covert interventionism by India’s regional adversaries.
The possibility of China and Pakistan’s interference to exacerbate India’s domestic faultlines has always lingered in this region. Declassified intelligence documents offer eye-watering details about the staggering scale of China’s support to Northeast insurgencies during the 1960s and 1970s under Mao. It is naïve to expect that Beijing, with or without Islamabad, will forever refrain from fanning the fires that India has lit itself in Manipur. What imparts feasibility to this is India’s inability to offset Chinese influence in Myanmar despite its pragmatic engagement with the junta since the coup.
Instead of employing distraction tactics or engaging in blame-game with the Opposition, the government needs to seriously focus on conflict resolution in Manipur. The 2024 elections will come and go, but the damage to India due to this internal conflict could last a lot longer.
Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS University of London and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) The views expressed are personal