An FIR has been filed against three journalists who represented the Editors Guild of India (EGI) to document the ground situation in Manipur, including the role of the media, as the state has been ravaged by a relentless spiral of vicious violence. The EGI members were Bharat Bhushan, former editor of Mail Today, Sanjay Kapoor, editor of Hardnews, and Seema Guha, senior journalist based in Delhi.
The Press Club of India has categorically condemned the registration of an FIR: “It is a case of shooting the messenger rather than taking measures to restore peace in the state. We demand that the FIR against the Editors Guild of India (EGI) president, Seema Mustafa, and the three members, be withdrawn immediately.”
The Manipur Police has alleged that they visited Manipur to create more clashes in the state rocked by ethnic strife since the last four months. This position has been backed by the chief minister of the state. The Press Club of India has claimed that the Manipur police invoked Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act, even though the provision has been struck down by the Supreme Court. “This is a strong-arm tactic by the state government which amounts to intimidation of the apex media body of the country,” it said.
Indeed, the Editors Guild had earlier received several representations that the media in Manipur was playing a biased role in the ethnic conflict between the majority Meitei community in the valley around the capital, Imphal, and the Kuki-Chin minority, in the forests and the hills. On July 12, 2023, when the conflict had already been going on for over two months, the EGI also received a written complaint from the Indian Army’s 3rd Corps Headquarters, citing specific examples of the media in Manipur, suggesting that it may be playing “a major role in arousing passion and not letting sustainable peace to come in”.
According to the comprehensive and meticulously documented report of the Editors Guild, Manipur’s tribal tensions, especially between the Meiteis and Kuki-Chin-Zo community, had already reached a saturation limit. An overtly partisan state government, led by the BJP, seems to have facilitated the Meiteis’ anger against the Kukis through apparent prejudiced statements and policies. “For example, the leadership of the state labelled the entire community of Kuki-Zo tribals as ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘foreigners’ without any reliable data or evidence. This is despite the fact that the decadal census from 1901 to 2011 has not shown any unusual growth of the non-Naga (the other minority tribal community) tribal population…
“The fact is that there was a military coup in Myanmar which led to an inflow of about 40,000 refugees to Mizoram and reportedly about 4,000 to Manipur. This was used to brand all Kuki-Zo members as illegal immigrants. This was presented as a pressure on resources but was also a war for political space, with the Meitei leadership of the government using the fear of the outsiders to consolidate its political position.”
In addition, the report says, without following proper procedure as laid down in the Hills Area Committee Act of 1972, the N. Biren Singh government declared parts of the hills as “reserved” and “protected” forests and “wetland reserves”. All land ownership documents within these areas were cancelled and a drive was started to evict them in December 2022. This is led to violent confrontation between the authorities and the Kuki-Zo community which has been living in these villages since decades
Two weeks later, on March 24, the government removed the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) selectively and that too only from the Imphal valley, even though the Kuki insurgent groups were in peace talks with the Centre. Ironically, the brazenly aggressive Meitei insurgents, active in the Imphal valley, had been outside any peace-talks.
This was perceived by the tribal community as a partisan move, as if organized violence is being prepared against them. Indeed, their perception was proved right a few weeks later.
“Simultaneously, a state government committee headed by the chief secretary on April 3, 2023, cancelled all land/property deeds and recognition of villages within the designated reserved and protected forest areas. All this was done without any rehabilitation plan for the evicted tribal population. On April 19, it was revealed that in an unusual order, the Manipur High Court had ordered on March 27 that the state government recommends the inclusion of the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes List to the Centre.”
The Editors Guild has marked a serious question which has stalked this sensitive border state since a long time now. This involves the organized network of drugs, drug cartels, and their alleged links across the powerfully connected interlinks in the state, which, there have been unconfirmed allegations, runs across the top brass of the establishment.
“Yet another layer to the complex issue was Biren Singh’s so-called ‘war on drugs’. In this, the Kuki-Zos were painted as villains who indulged in illegal poppy cultivation in the hills. Manipur borders Myanmar and is a major route for drug-smuggling through its border town of Moreh. Experts claim that the ‘Golden Triangle’ of yore has shifted from the Myanmar-Thailand-Laos trijunction to the borders of Myanmar, India and Bangladesh. the trafficked drugs of choice are: heroin, brown sugar, prescription painkillers, cough syrups and Yaba or WIY (‘World is Yours’) pills…
“Biren Singh government’s focus has targeted poppy-growing to the detriment of the other components of the drug trade, the smuggling of synthetics to Myanmar, and the smuggling-in of drugs and their distribution through Manipur. Poppy-growing, done by the poorest farmers with financial advances for fertilisers and pesticides given by the drug mafia, has also shifted towards Manipur from Myanmar because of extensive satellite observation… Illegal poppy cultivation is done by all, Kuki-Zos, Nagas, as well as Meiteis. Yet, Biren Singh popularised the epithets ‘poppy-cultivators’ and ‘narco-terrorists’ only for the Kuki-Zos.”
The Editors Guild notes with concern that the decorated IPS officer, Thounaojam Brinda, had filed an affidavit in the court stating that the CM and the top police brass in the state had forced her to let of a person from whose premises drugs worth Rs 27 crore had been recovered by her team. Civil society activists claim that the annual revenue from the drug business in Manipur is estimated to be to the tune of Rs 50,000 crore, while the state’s annual budget is only about Rs 30,000 crore.
Thounaojam Brinda had earlier resigned in 2021, on the drugs issue. She had openly accused Biren Singh and his regime of protecting the drug mafia. She is a highly-respected and brave young officer in Manipur who was the first to get a gallantry award in the narcotics division. The award was given to her by the CM in 2018. Significantly, Brinda had returned the award in protest following the release of certain accused persons in a drug case which had acquired immense notoriety.
In a conversation with Newslaundry (August 3, 2023), the former officer, commenting on the violence in her state, said, “It is a result of bad government policies for the last many decades…we haven’t known peace in the last 70 years. Since we merged with the union of India, we don’t know what is real peace…forced peace may seem to be there, but that is not peace.”
In a dark irony, before the assembly polls in 2017, the BJP had chosen to attack the incumbent Congress government for its lackadaisical attitude towards the drug mafia. The CM had thereby declared a ‘war on drugs’ after he won the elections. In this context, Brinda was patronized and was much appreciated by the BJP government.
As for the bloody violence which rocked the state, the Editors Guild says: “Much as people in the valley pointed fingers at the surrendered Kuki militant groups brought in to join the mobs that went on rampage in Churachandpur and other places against the Meites, people in the hills said that former militant groups like the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the PrePak, and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) insurgents, armed with sophisticated weapons, led the frenzied Meitei mob attacks in Imphal. Manipur police and commando units of the state were also partisan and allegedly openly sided with the civilians and raided Kuki villages in the outskirts of Imphal…
“It is well-known that the mobs did not loot the police armouries, the weapons were given to them by the police on orders of the state government,’’ a senior member of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum in Kangpokpi told the EGI team. Two other Meitei groups, the Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun have also been leading the violence.
Reporters from Churachandpur told the EGI team that the Meitei Leepun, an organisation committed to preserving Meitei culture and tradition, took active part in attacking Kuki homes and killing tribals. Many civil society representatives as well as tribal journalists are of the opinion that it is patronised by Biren Singh.
In meetings with journalists and media-practitioners, the Editors Guild notes that in “Manipur’s post-truth world it is very difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Competing and diametrically opposite narratives were spun out by the two sides. There is extreme pressure on journalists, whether Meitei or tribal, to reproduce the dominant view of their ethnic societies.
At least one reporter from the hills confided to the EGI team that even when he was able to send in his reports, they were “used selectively” by his Imphal-based newspaper. For these reasons, ground reporting from the districts in Churachandpur, Kangpokpi and Tengnoupal disappeared.
This applied to All India Radio and Doordarshan as well. “Newspersons informed me that their correspondents in the hill districts had even stopped answering phone calls from around mid-May,” a senior civil society leader in Imphal said. The executive editor of a local English daily said that the hill reporters were “mostly untrained”, and even before the violence, their copies had to be heavily edited and rewritten. Whether this became an excuse not to use the version of the tribals, or reports from the hill districts, was unclear.”
According to the report: “While the early days of killings and the role of social media has been well-documented, it is now visible that the ethnic divide deepened progressively through fake news, which finds space only in the Imphal media. The Kuki side has begun to put together publications, but they are far too spartan to get any visibility.”
Some instances of fake news, and these are by no means exhaustive, are given below:
￭ July 14: The Sangai Express carried comments of the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (Cocomi) saying that “visibly, the presence of Assam Rifles rankles the majority Meitei community and they want it to be removed at all costs.” It is fed into public perception that Assam Rifles was opposed to the Meiteis.
￭ July 8: An edit page article written by one T. Biren Singh in The Sangai Express claimed that whatever was playing out in Manipur was pre-planned and part of a long-term conspiracy to create a separate home land (for the Kukis). The article is granular in detail about how the drug trade linked Kuki village chiefs hoped to achieve this objective.
The author wants the Assam Rifles posted in Manipur to be replaced by battalions posted in some other North-eastern states like Nagaland. The rebuttal of the Assam Rifles made it clear that its recruitment took place from different backgrounds and ethnicities from all over the country.
June 4: In a shameful incident in the Iroisemba locality of Imphal, a seven-year-old Kuki boy, being taken to hospital in an ambulance with his Meitei mother and another woman relative, were attacked by a Meitei mob. As the father of the boy was Kuki, all of them were branded as a Kuki family and burnt alive inside the ambulance. The Manipur media blacked out the incident as it showed the Meitei community in poor light. Thee national media picked up the story but even there an attempt was made to suggest that a Kuki mob had set fire to the ambulance.
￭ July 11: There was a report in the Imphal Free Press which claimed that Myanmar nationals had been treated at the district hospital of Churachandpu — a Kuki stronghold. The implication of this report was that those treated in the hospital were infiltrators from Myanmar who had been injured in the violence with Meiteis.
￭ June 13: There was an attack on Kuki villages of Khamenlok and adjoining areas on June 12, supported by Meitei womenfolk in the mob. Some members of both sides, without any intervention of the security forces, were blocked by the Meitei womenfolk from reaching the burning villages. Few among those who got killed were not locals and had been killed elsewhere in the counter-attacks the following day by the Kukis.
Amit Sengupta is a senior journalist