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Ethno-cultural ties hold cues for Manipur turmoil

Hindustan Times logo Hindustan Times 4 days ago Sanjib Baruah

On May 11, even as Manipur was convulsed by ethnic clashes and violence, the lone Rajya Sabha member from neighbouring Mizoram wrote a telling tweet. “Different tribes of Mizo ethnic community in Manipur may think that they don’t have any Member of Parliament (MP) of their own. I want to let them know that I am their MP,” said K Vanlalvena of the Mizo National Front (MNF).

His tweet pointed to the strong ethno-cultural affinity between the Kukis and Mizos. The two groups are part of the large and loose assemblage of peoples often awkwardly referred to as Kuki-Mizo-Chin. However, the collective name Zo has won some acceptance. They live in large parts of the hills of Northeast India, the Chin Hills of Myanmar, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. This imagination of transnational commonality — and the bonds that it fosters — is not unlike what Samuel Huntington in his famous The Clash of Civilizations termed the commonality of civilisation that in times of war can lead to rallying behind a kin-country. This cultural contiguity and how it has historically manifested itself are important to unpack in order to understand the simmering tensions that linger in Manipur, stoking periodic episodes of violence as seen in Imphal earlier this week.

The small states of Northeast India are known for their tiny one or two-member parliamentary delegations. Currently, there is no Kuki MP from Manipur in either House of Parliament. Vanlalvena’s words seemed to hold the message that the Kukis of Manipur may not have an elected MP, but they have in him a representative in the national halls of power. The Kukis — his ethnic kinsfolk in Manipur — seemed heartened by this gesture. The overwhelming response to his tweet was one of gratitude, with some even asking for a so-called Greater Mizoram.

This sentiment — dovetailing with recent demands for a Kuki administration separate from Manipur state — holds important cues to understand the current crisis. The Kukis of Manipur were active participants in the Mizo uprising of the 1960s and 1970s. The integration of Mizo-inhabited areas was one of the key demands of the MNF, and it had deadlocked the talks between the MNF and the Indian government till the last minute. That the memorandum of settlement finally signed was officially called the Mizoram Accord — and not the Mizo Accord — is significant. The Kukis were greatly disappointed by this outcome.

In recent years, Mizoram and Manipur have been affected by events in neighbouring Myanmar and Bangladesh. The refugees that crossed over into India are from communities that are ethnic affiliates of the Kukis and Mizos. The two states, however, responded to the refugees very differently.

Mizoram warmly welcomed them. In 2021, chief minister Zoramthanga famously objected to the Union government’s description of those caught in the crossfire between armed resistance fighters and the military regime as “illegal immigrants” and to the Union home ministry’s directive to expeditiously deport Myanmar nationals.

While there may be “certain foreign policy issues where India needs to proceed cautiously,” he said, “India cannot turn a blind eye to this humanitarian crisis unfolding right in front of us in our own backyard.” Civil society organisations such as the Young Mizo Association (YMA) and church groups became actively involved in providing food and shelter to Chin refugees. A local effort to raise funds for their assistance — Raitian Relief — was started. The Mizo word raitian translates as brothers, not refugees.

Late last year, Mizoram responded the same way to a few hundred Bangladeshi nationals who entered the state from the Chittagong Hill Tracts. They were fleeing the fighting between Bangladeshi security forces and the Kuki-Chin National Army (KNA). The latter is seen as representing groups such as Bawm, Pungkhua, Lushai, Khumi, Mro, and Khyang – all ethnic affiliates of the Kukis and Mizos. A meeting of the Mizoram cabinet resolved to give them “temporary shelter, food and other relief.” An unnamed government official was quoted in the press as saying that it was local villagers “who hail from similar communities” who provided relief and accommodation.

This is a reminder of an aspect of the history of the Mizo armed struggle that is not widely recognised. Not only did Mizo guerrilla fighters seek refuge in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of what was then East Pakistan, they did so among their cross-border ethnic kinsfolk. Indeed, the MNF headquarters was in Mahmuam, a Lushai (or Mizo) village in the Sajek region of the Rangamati district of present-day Bangladesh.

The reception of Chin refugees in Manipur, however, couldn’t be more different. The Manipur Police arrested a few of them. Chief minister ( CM) N Biren Singh said that they were arrested because they could not produce any citizenship and identity documents. The sheltering of “illegal immigrants”, according to CM Singh, is the “biggest threat” facing his state.

What complicated things further was the foreigner label that was hurled at the Kukis in the past as an invective. Even the state government’s campaign against poppy cultivation and drug abuse used the language of “foreigners” and “outsiders.” The Kukis bore the brunt of this campaign because poppy in Manipur is mostly grown in villages inhabited by the Kukis. Statements made by the CM linking the presence of foreigners to the illegal cultivation of poppy further inflamed tempers.

The fact that the refugees are cross-border ethnic kin of the Kukis and Mizos, and were warmly welcomed in Mizoram and treated with hostility in Manipur, is a remarkable study in contrast. Seen from a Zo perspective, the relative power of the community in the two states made the difference. In Mizoram, they are at the helm of power at the state level. But in Manipur’s Meitei-dominated political dispensation, they lack influence. This is why Vanlalvena’s tweet, and the response to it, was instructive.

Sanjib Baruah is professor of political studies at Bard College, New York The views expressed are personal

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