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Opinion | Ethnic Violence in Manipur: Hill-Valley Divide Remains a Challenge to India’s Act East Policy

News18 12-05-2023 Lt Gen Balbir Singh Sandhu (Retd)
Opinion | Ethnic Violence in Manipur: Hill-Valley Divide Remains a Challenge to India’s Act East Policy © Provided by News18 Opinion | Ethnic Violence in Manipur: Hill-Valley Divide Remains a Challenge to India’s Act East Policy

Northeast India is — geographically and strategically — an extremely important region of the country which has been rightly called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi the “launch pad for India’s Act East Policy.” Likewise, within the Northeast, the state of Manipur is the gateway to Southeast Asia, making it pivotal to the success of India’s ‘Look/Act East Policy’. Manipur links other Northeastern states of Nagaland, Assam and Mizoram to Myanmar and onward to Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, completing the linkages of India’s ‘Act East Policy’.

The countryside of Manipur is beautiful comprising of a large valley interspersed with lakes and surrounded by low hills on all sides. Rich heritage, favourable terrain and pleasant weather throughout the year make it an ideal destination for tourism, hospitality and adventure sports. It has immensely talented human resources because of which the state contributes a substantial number of athletes and sportspersons — both men and women — to the national teams despite its small size and limited population.

Unfortunately, Manipur has been the hotbed of insurgency for almost three decades. There are numerous insurgent groups fighting against each other and against the Union of India. The identity of the insurgent groups is based on their geographical location like hills or valleys or tribal affiliations like Naga, Kuki or Meiteis. Similarly, the ideologies and demands of these groups vary from secession to a separate state within the Indian Union. Many of them have adopted ‘extortion’ as their modus operandi which they have institutionalised in some sections of the society and administration. Easy availability of weapons and drugs from the neighbouring countries through porous borders leading to narco-terrorism makes the situation even more complex to handle. It has been experienced that political patronage — which is available to a varying degree — further gives the militants the oxygen to sustain themselves. These factors have been detrimental to the development of Manipur despite all the positive attributes. Having served in that state, it is opined that unlike Nagaland, the insurgency in Manipur can easily be tackled and normalcy restored by a synergised approach combining intense anti-militant operations, anti-drug drive and development initiatives without corruption to wean the masses away from supporting the insurgents.

Northeast India is home to more than 250 ethnic groups and as many languages are spoken in the region which makes ethnic affiliations central to people’s existence and behaviour. The demographic composition and ethnic settlements of people in Manipur have an immense impact on the security situation in the state. Ethnic rivalries between various tribes, as also the tribals and the valley inhabitants, are prevalent in the state. While Meiteis who comprise more than 56 percent of the population live in the valley which includes Imphal (capital city), the hill areas are inhabited by Nagas and Kukis who are tribals and are thus entitled to reservations in academic institutions and jobs under the scheduled tribes quota. Meiteis have been demanding reservations for some time. Another point of conflict involves land ownership. The tribals can buy land in the valley which forms a fraction of the total area of the state whereas the Meiteis cannot buy land in the hill areas which covers the majority of the land holding of the state.

Manipur High Court recently passed an order asking the state government to take necessary action with the Centre on the demand of Meiteis for reservation in jobs and academic institutions. This order has apparently been one of the reasons to trigger the violence between the tribals and the Meiteis though there are many other reasons like the eviction drive by the state government which was the cause of simmering discomfort. Consequent to this court order, the tribal organisations — both Naga and Kuki — who are otherwise divided amongst themselves came together to take out a protest march against the high court order which was followed by incidents of violence, resulting in loss of lives and property. Surprisingly, amongst the tribals, only the Kukis were selectively targeted by the mobs and not the Nagas, which gives rise to the suspicion that the violence may have been planned with vested political interests at play. The Central government had to intervene and impose Article 355 and also issue ‘shoot at sight’ orders to bring the situation under control.

A peaceful security situation and respect for the law are prerequisites for the economic development of any country or region. In the existing national security environment, when the country is locked in LAC tension with China and proxy war with Pakistan, the leadership and the administration must never take peace in any Indian border state for granted, least of all in Northeastern states which are connected to rest of India through just 23 km wide Siliguri Corridor.

A vicious cycle of insurgency, corruption and lack of development has ensured that the people of Northeast never reap the benefits of India’s growth story. Violence in these states not only instils fear in the minds of locals but also keeps the investors away. The recent announcement of substantial investments by Japan in India’s Northeast and Bangladesh further highlights the economic potential of this region which can only fructify in an environment of peace.

To tackle the above issues and make Manipur and the entire Northeast a developed region, firstly, the administration must be watchful to anticipate potential trouble spots and take preventive action before the occurrence of any untoward incident. In this aspect, control of the drug trade needs special attention. Secondly, the politicisation of local issues must be avoided in these sensitive states because national interests must be placed above individual party interests. Economic development must be the cornerstone of all discussions and relationships, making people economically interdependent to a level which restricts ethnic affiliations only to a social level. Thirdly, integration of the Northeast with the rest of India and economic integration with the neighbouring countries must be given the highest priority so that it becomes an engine of India’s growth rather than being an isolated economy dependent on the rest of India. Fourthly, to attain all the above, the region needs world-class infrastructure and connectivity.

The leadership, both Central and regional, must realise the importance of the Northeast to the national security of our country and continue to give it the required priority to make the region vibrant. A lot has been done during the last few years but a lot more needs to be done.

Lt Gen Balbir Singh Sandhu (Retd) was head of Army Service Corps. He is a distinguished fellow at United Service Institution of India. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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