Hashtag Manipur: Big Brother is (not) watching you!

A Commentary on Shooting the Sun: Why Manipur Was Engulfed by Violence and the Government Remained Silent

Nandita Haksar, New Delhi, Speaking Tiger, 2023, pages – 260.

Among many facets of experiences of living under totalitarian regimes like Nazism in Germany or Mussolini’s Italy during the 1930s, an overwhelming social psychology prevailed that of total control of the state in almost all aspects of social life. In that sense, “totalitarian” forms of state power acts as an “exception” to liberal principle of rule of law and preservation of political dissent and individual freedom. Under totalitarianism, as explicit in Orwellian dystopia of 1984 novel, it could be argued that human beings are secured under the eye of the “big brother”, notwithstanding the ultimate control such a state exercised on the lives of human beings. But what if humans are left in a condition of ultimate “freedom” (anarchy?) no less than a Hobbesian “state of nature” where the “big brother” ceases to remain at the backdrop of any threat to the very survival of humans? In other words, what if the state ceases to exist at its most fundamental level: that of its exercise of “monopoly of violence” for “security” in the social order? Such a condition where violence is the new normal and the only logic of prudence that could rescue such condition is the coming back of the state with all its might to further avoid the destruction of life and the very security of humans. The prevailing conditions in Manipur could be an equivalent to fit such a description where the government is not only silent but also impotent.

Shooting The Sun Why Manipur Was Engulfed by Violence and the Government Remained Silent

Communal violence and riots between two armed religious groups could be another instance of such “exceptional” condition. Mahatma Gandhi, known for his principle of “non-violence” as a means of resistance and his staunch anti-statist position towards the end of his life had ironically argued for state’s intervention as the last resort in containing the prevailing religious civil war and brutal communal violence between Hindus and Muslims at the eve of India’s independence and partition. After having exhausted all means of peace-making at Gandhi’s disposal particularly in Bengal, Punjab, and Bihar he had to call upon the “punishment” of those guilty of violence as the “responsibility” of governments of Bihar and Bengal. Gandhi identified himself with the modern state’s coercive crackdown on the agents of communal violence in the society. In his “Discussion with Relief Committee Members” of Bihar, one of the worst hit by communal bloodbath after Noakhali in Bengal is remarkable. Dated 15th March 1947 interview with Relief Committee, posthumously published in Harijan, Gandhi was asked about his advice to the Bihar government on punishing those involved in murder, rape, arson and other heinous crimes that if they should receive appropriate punishment. Let us quote Gandhi’s response verbatim:

Of course, those responsible for devilish deeds must be punished. The Government of Bihar has not abjured the principle of punishment. There is no such government anywhere in the world today. When such a government comes into being, I shall listen to their argument. But a government which believes in the theory of crime and punishment but does not punish the criminal has no right to call itself a government…”     

We find quite a different Gandhi contrary to what we are used to Gandhi of Hind-Swaraj written in the year 1909, who viewed the modern state as a source of evil and “corruption of soul”, including its governmental apparatus like parliament, armed forces or the judicial system. Here one should stand with Gandhi of 1947 bidding for state on a moment of crisis and emergency like communal-religious violence. It is a classic lesson from history, how political ideas and principles cease to be dogmas when it progressively adapts to the concrete reality of social conditions.

Contrast that with what is happening in Manipur. Is this not what is required in the context of ongoing violence in Manipur – Gandhi’s pointed gesture towards the governmental inaction in containing violence and bloodshed of innocents and the active intervention of the state in quelling violence and securing lives of thousands of innocents, mostly women and children? Manipur is a living example which poses such a challenge. While it is a moment of active intervention to find a solution to the ongoing crisis at the same time it also demands a rethinking and reflection on basic political questions of state’s role in society and new challenges for posing an alternative vision of politics.

Hastag (#)Manipur: Nandita Haksar’s book “Shooting the Sun” is a historical account that sheds light on the complexity of the ongoing violence in Manipur between Kuki-Zo and Meiteis. What we find intriguing in this book is that how the government and the state machinery has been a party that actively contributed leading to a condition of “statelessness” in Manipur. A situation where one encounters a state without a state? In Manipur it’s a paradoxical situation where the state and governmental machinery is rooted in its political existence but has been absent from its effective functioning of “conflict-resolution” and curtailment of violence.

“Northeast” has been the experimental ground for the Indian state in few decades. Implementing National Register of Citizens (NRC), the peace process that has been initiated with most of the armed groups, the development oriented engineering of “autonomous councils”, and the stratagem of co-option of “indigenous” groups into the Hindtuva fold being the latest one.

About the author: Nandita Haksar is a human rights activist. Thoroughly familiar with “northeast”, she had been part of the civil society organizations vocal against the human rights violations taken place under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 in Nagaland, Manipur, Kashmir and elsewhere in the country. AFSPA a draconian law has been criticized by many civil society organizations in India and the most telling struggle against the repeal of AFSPA has been by Irom Sharmila from Manipur for more than a decade long hunger strike.

Northeast has seen many doldrums requiring civil rights and human rights organizations to defend the people from state forces and its excesses. Nandita Haksar has been part of all these movements and organizations. Along with it the author is a well acclaimed lawyer and penned numerous accounts on political issues that have haunted India over the years. Nandita is the author of multiple books like the acclaimed “The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism”. This new book on Manipur has many anecdotes which connect with her decades old experience of human rights issues in Manipur and adjoining states. Many details are corroborated with her own similar experiences earlier. Shooting the Sun comes as an immediate intervention to crystalize the ongoing chaotic scenario of Manipur crisis. Where did it emerge, who are the main agents involved in this turmoil, and what are the underlying causes behind the brutality which appears to the muddle the lenses of the world outside this abyss.     

Shooting the Sun: The title Shooting the Sun (p. 26) is taken from one of the oldest Meitei epics: Numit Kappa. In this book Nandita Haksar delves into the historical genesis of the months of prolonged (ethnic?) violence in Manipur. The violence in Manipur started in May 2023 triggered by the High Court’s judgment to review ST status of Meitei community.  Many have characterized it as communal violence since many Churches were prime targets. As the violence snowballed, increasingly shaping into a religious/communal color against Christians, mainly Kukis, formed the substantial target population in Manipur. But later it came to light that Nagas and other non-Kuki Christians were left untouched. The violence in Manipur has taken a form of civil war with both Meiteis and Kukis armed involving sophisticated weapons. In Manipur, mostly women have been at the receiving end of this abyss of violence.

In the initial chapters Haksar provides a historical perspective which mainly revolves around how the dominant Meitei identity was formed. The first chapter is on the construction of Meitei Identity. It unearths the genealogy of the ongoing ethnic conflict between Meiteis and Kuki-Zo in Manipur.

Tribals/Nontribals dichotomy: The main axis of Haksar’s narrative of history revolves around the identities of tribals and non-tribals shaped in Manipur over the centuries. Non-tribal Meiteis converted from Sanamahism to hindus and started seeing other tribal groups like Nagas, Kukis, Zo, Mizo etc. as “untouchables”. Now in contemporary times, the Meiteis want to go back to their “roots” of Sanamahism and therefore their demand for being included into ST category. The Tribal/Nontribal dichotomy is the dominant discourse of Manipuri politics which is at the heart of the ongoing crisis in Manipur.

According to Haksar, Meiteis converted to Hinduism from Sanamahism during 17th century under the king. Therefore now, Meiteis want to go back to their roots, that is, sanamahism. That’s why they demand for ST status. Meiteis are considered to be in the Kshatriya status in the hindu fold. They consider other non-hindu tribal Kuki-Zo and other tribes like Nagas as “untouchables”. This restricts the everyday life of the dominant Meiteis as they have to confront other untouchables in their daily interaction. Moreover, apart from this identity and cultural issues, the conflict over socio-economic resources, mainly land, forms another important axis.

Land and natural resources: Huge part of hilly areas of Manipur’s land is in the control of tribal areas and it is s restricted solely to the tribals. The “outsiders” including the Meiteis cannot access land in the large parts of the hilly tracts outside of Imphal valley. These are exclusively controlled by the Kuki-Zo tribes. On top of this the migration of people in these areas from Myanmar has fueled suspicion of taking over Meiteis by the Kuki population in Manipur. The distrust and struggle for limited resources is real that has led to this situation.

Identity politics and Violence: In this book ethic identity remains a central focal point and Haksar’s account of events and issues are guided by this perspective and preoccupation on prevailing contestation over identities. This is also an example of how far matters could go worse, the pitfalls and limitations of identity politics. Both Meitei and Kukis have compelling arguments at their prima facie levels. Each wants to preserve their identity from a perceived threat as surrounded by “others” and each community wants their share over resources – education, land, employment, infrastructure, etc. Hindutva and Meitei aggressive identity assertion is clearly demonstrated in the early sections of the book particularly the links between Aramba Tengol, Meitei Lippun and BJP. But how did other erstwhile militant Meitei factions like PLA etc. become party to the spiraling ethnic violence remains unclear.

Narco-Terrorism: The chapter on poppy and drugs menace in Manipur forms another vital account, through which Haksar reveals how the “war on drugs” declared by the government of Manipur formed another reason for triggering the ongoing violence. “Biren Singh’s ‘war on drugs’ undoubtedly widened ethnic fault lines in the state”, claims Haksar (p. 126). “The Kuki-Zo community have criticized Biren Singh’s war on drugs ‘as having selectively targeted’ the community” (p. 127). The author reveals how drugs and poppy cultivation is at the heart of this conflict. Drug-trafficking forms the biggest cartel and works as a parallel economy with profiteers and producers involved in Manipur. Profiteers from drugs are at all levels, political parties, administration, police and even central security forces like Assam Rifles as claimed by many local civil society organizations and activists. Haksar argues that drugs mafia is present in all the political parties, including the government. It is a phenomenon that grips across ethnic lines. Therefore, the rhetoric of “narco-terrorism” cornering the Kuki-Zo population mainly in the villages of the hills in Manipur comes as a ploy to solely single out Kukis for the drug menace in Manipur remains unfair according to the Kuki tribal leaders.

Hindutva and Indigenous: What is happening in Manipur could be understood by first stating what it is not. Sanjib Baruah a renowned political scientist in his essay, “Politics of Subnationalism: Society Versus State in Assam” (Chatterjee, Partha, (Ed.) State and Politics in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998) makes an important distinction between nationality and ethnicity in the context of Assamese nationalism during the 1980s. For Baruah, there are “subnationalisms” under the larger rubric of Indian nationalism, for e.g. Assamese nationality, or Khalistan in Punjab or others. But what is happening in Manipur in the ongoing spiral of violence is not an assertion of “nationality question”. Nationality at its core is a product of collective imagining of a “homeland” with its own poetics and emotional bond with it, this meaning of an emotional bonding with the poetic emotion of homeland is what constitutes “subnationalism”, according to Baruah. Secondly, the articulation of such a theme of politics of nationality has its root outside of the state, political parties, and largely political society. Such an articulation of nationality is rooted in the civil society – cultural organizations, individuals, intellectuals, artists etc. with a progressive flair of politics much associated with democratic claims and appeals. In contrast, the ongoing ethnic conflict between Kukis and Meiteis in Manipur has a completely opposite tendency with involvement of all forms of vested interests, from political to economic and military.

Sanjib Baruah argues that an overarching “Pan Indian nationalism” could be the only antidote to the crisis and challenges posed by sub-nationalisms of Assamese or Khalistan or Kashmir since 1980s. It was during the heyday of the rise of Hindutva or Hindu Nationalism, of early-1990s, Baruah saw the rise of Hindu nationalism in India as a force that seemed to “be an effort to fill the Pan-Indian National project… with a more charged poetics” (Ibid. p. 519) to undercut the subnationality claims that amounted even to violent repression of such movements of which Khalistan is a historical example. Baruah asserted vying for what was later on to be Hindutva, almost like its proponent: “If Muslims can have Pakistan, Jews can have Israel, why cannot India be more of Hindu homeland?” (Ibid, p. 519) Atleast at the prima facie level, what holds true of Baruah’s claim made back in the early 1990s is that Hindutva has over the decades proved to be that political project to form what Gramsci called “national popular” as a pan-Indian national ideology slowly replacing India’s “secular nationalism”. On connecting the dots from the facts provided by Hakasar, it leads to Hindutva experiment of cooption of “indigenous” identities in Northeast into the sangh’s project. But whether this project could be successful is still a wait and watch game. 

Approach and Perspective: Haksar’s human rights approach is largely empirical in nature. It treats violence only in its crude physical form. Questions of structural violence – racism and discrimination of people from Northeast in the “mainland”, socio economic deprivation, the exploitation of the people and the nature in Manipur – remain largely untouched. For instance, migration in the metropolitan cities of India has been one of the harsh realities especially among youths from Manipur and Northeast in general. The significant section of the “precariat” labour-force in the informal service sector or most popularly known as “gig economy” in metropolitan cities in India are fed by young professionals from Manipur or Nagaland or Assam etc. It is to be noted that while the Meitei-Kuki violence was at its peak from July to October 2023, the menace of ethnic animosity among these groups eclipsed them even in the metro cities like Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai, that had to be exorcised by the respective police and administrative invisible hands in these metro cities.

Conclusion: The book provides an exhaustive account of facts about events, references etc. Interestingly, what Haksar is successful in employing otherwise boring details of crude facts and references in a chain of arguments which at the last instance beautifully provides a perspective on the ongoing crisis. While reading through, one comes across many personalities speaking out in the author: a lawyer advocating a position with cold reason, sometimes an activist deeply moved by the injustice and at other times and quite frequently like a narrative journalist deeply delving into archives and official records and all sources available. But what remains constant in the background over these switching letters of the author is the spirit of compassion. Her account reads like a story of thriller attentive to each and every detail. Rigorously researched and well organized the book unsettles many of the established notions.      

One will not find footnotes, but there are endnotes, not of each chapter, but of the book as a whole. All the facts are authenticated and supported with facts and proofs, endnotes running colossal 250 out of total 236 pages of book forms an exhaustive account worthy of a serious intervention, every detail, all the claims are substantiated with proofs and evidences, exposing the larger politics behind the veil of “truths”.    

Is the Manipur trail a prelude to a dangerous turn in Indian politics, will we see more such episodes of “stateless” violence where “statecraft” will be replaced by solitary and mundane agents of violence as the new normal? Will Manipur be a new experimental laboratory for furthering vested interests of big capital, comprador elites and the political class? Manipur has only opened the eyes of the world on how only substantive and democratic politics can counter these tendencies.    

Dr. Chepal Sherpa is a political theorist; he writes on various contemporary sociopolitical issues.

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