Causes of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur & Suggested Remedies

By Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
The Sangai Express
June 5 2011

As the Northeast Indians are finding out that their ethnicity as Mongoloid Indians has profound consequences for their physical safety, political status and economic prospects in India, this paper looks into the ethnic conflict in the tiny State of Manipur.

Manipur is not the only region where ethnic-conflict is phenomenal. They are world-wide.

There is immigrant Muslim ethnic conflict in the UK while integrating Indians assimilate in the British culture.

One should understand as I do why Manipuri Nagas want to secede and join Nagaland. It’s naught to do with political economy but ethnicity ie to join fellow Nagas and live for ever “without perceived discrimination”.

As there are many violent confrontations along ethnic lines after the end of the Cold war many political scientists have studied ethnic strife and its remedies. There are differing schools of thought. The following are my suggested remedies.

Defining the causes of ethnic strife in Manipur is easy as they do elsewhere, by just cataloguing a cocktail of poverty, misunderstanding, resentment, cultural intolerance and perceived injustices. But finding remedies is very difficult.

Ethnic conflict is caused by ethnicity, which mobilises, structures and manages ethnic organisations. Further, their leaders use ethnic divisive strategies to mobilise political support.

The potential for ethnic conflict is almost universal because there are very few States with only one ethnic group. Manipur is no exception as there are 36 ethnic groups.

Democracy alone cannot ensure ethnic harmony. Instead it allows freer expression of ethnic antagonisms as it does in Manipur.

In theory, in Manipur, leaders of the dominant Meitei group gain office and then use State institutions to distribute economic and political benefits preferentially to the Meiteis and thus discriminate against other minority tribes. That is, the State is ineffective in addressing the concerns of their constituencies.

The minority ethnic groups having endured alleged discrimination for over sixty years felt that their shared deprivation had been long enough and thus mobilised political support on ethnic lines.

In reality, the cause of ethnic conflict is primordial. That is, ethnic conflict exists because there are traditions of belief and actions towards primordial objects such as biological features and especially territorial location and the concept of kinship between members of ethnic groups such as Kabuis, Tangkhuls and Nagas. This kinship makes it possible for ethnic groups to think in terms of family resemblances.

The leaders of the minority ethnic groups in Manipur want accommodation in terms of jobs, economy, security, development, health care and so on. When they are not forth coming from or judged “politically infeasible” by the dominant group, the leaders take recourse to violent protests.

The more radicalised leaders became militant. Underground groups came into existence. This usually causes the birth of ethnonationationalism that can help delineate the geographical, political and cultural relationship with its neighbours.

The territorial integrity of Manipur is now vigorously challenged by the diversity of 36 ethnic groups living in the State. The insurgents of these ethnic Kukis, Nagas, Kacha Nagas (Zemi Nagas now) and smaller units like Hmar, Paite, Gangte etc all demand regional autonomy or independence. Meiteis want an independent Kangleipak while Kukis dream of Zalengam. Nagas prefer to form Nagalim.

However, in Manipur ethnic conflict preceded such a current scenario. Before the Manipur State came into existence in 1947, Athiko Daiho from Mao and a few other prominent leaders from other tribal groups formed the National Naga League in September 1946 for separate Naga inhabited areas.

I have full sympathy for these organisations of ethnic groups; because that was what they thought was the best for them—a State for all the tribal groups outside of the majority Hindu Meiteis, for better living.

The cause of ethnic conflict in Manipur is thus political ethnicity and not economic disparity.

The later is only a vehicle to fight the ethnic war. This makes it very hard to find a tangible remedy short of secession, which is anachronism to the Meiteis who also have survival instincts.

However, for the benefit of the respective parties time and events have changed since 1946. The tribal people have become educated and the Meiteis have become liberalised and more and more willing to accommodate tribal people as fellow Manipuris in equal terms. There have been increasing intermarriages as Christianity has become more acceptable among the Meiteis.

The problem is not endless. It is not like the demands of Mongoloid Nagaland and Manipur to secede from mayang India. Anyone in northeast India must not be deluded that India will part with Nagaland or Manipur. Three wars with Pakistan and dedicated Kashmiri militants failed to dislodge Kashmir from India. However, this is not the point of my article.

My article is about suggestions as to how the different ethnic groups in Manipur could reconcile themselves, not overnight but in time. Time is a good healer.

There are three possible types of ethnic conflict outcomes in Manipur: (1) peaceful reconciliation as advocated by the Meiteis; (2) peaceful separation as demanded by the Nagas; and (3) endless ethnic conflicts.

Looking at the three options, which have been in existence for a number of years and from the security-centric Indian Government, a peaceful ethnic reconciliation is the best option.

The majority Meiteis and minority ethnic groups need to share ideas and devise new mini Constitutional arrangements to address specific concerns of grievances especially more local autonomy and minority rights guarantees such as quota reservations for universities, jobs, and the continuation of the application of Schedule V within a new federal structure with more political, economic, cultural or administrative autonomy within existing institutional arrangements. These arrangements will provide security and promote economic prosperity for the ethnic minorities.

Ethnic diversity is not incompatible with a peaceful existence as is shown by the Swiss model.

According to UN Report on Ethnicity and Development in 2004, accommodating people’s growing demands for their inclusion in society, for respect of their ethnicity, religion, and culture is the mainstay of remedying ethnic conflicts.

The 2004 Report builds on that analysis, by carefully examining and rejecting claims that cultural differences necessarily lead to social, economic and political conflict or that inherent cultural rights should supersede political and economic ones.

The UN Report makes a case for respecting diversity and building more inclusive societies by adopting policies that explicitly recognise cultural differences—multicultural policies:

(1) Cultural liberty is a vital part of human development because being able to choose one’s identity is important in leading a full life;

(2) Cultural liberty allows people to live the lives they value without being excluded from other choices important to them such as education, health or job opportunities;

(3) Several emerging models of multicultural democracy provide effective mechanisms for power sharing between culturally diverse groups;

(4) Power sharing arrangements have broadly proven to be critical in resolving tensions;

(5) Multicultural policies that recognize differences between groups are needed to address injustices historically rooted and socially entrenched.

These are good theories but the practical application is quite another kettle of fish but not impossible.

In Manipur for a start, because of hierarchal form of unitary Government we need a body of policy makers representing all the tribal groups that can influence the State Government policy-making power.

The writer is based in the UK

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