The author and commentator on the politics of Northeast explored questions of ethnicity, democracy and borderlands in his last book.
Amid extensive coverage of the violence in Manipur, there has been speculation about a communal angle to the standoff between Kukis and Meiteis in the state. While some have tried to draw a link between Meitei mobilisation and Hindutva elements, there have also been murmurs about a China role. But is there any truth to such claims?
In this interview, Sanjib Baruah, an author and commentator on the politics of Northeast India, talks about the ethnic and communal fault lines in Manipur, their political ramifications, the speculation about external forces, as well as the role played by the BJP, Sangh Parivar and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. A former professor of political studies at Bard College in New York, Baruah explored questions of ethnicity, resources, politics and democracy in the northeastern states in his book – titled In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast.
After a Manipur High Court judge directed the state government to recommend the union tribal affairs ministry to grant ST status to the Meitei community, which is under the OBC category, the state is in turmoil…How far is the communal dimension prevalent in the standoff between the two groups, and what will be its far-fetched political repercussion?
The Manipur High Court did not direct the state government to recommend the granting of Scheduled Tribe status to Meiteis. Our courts don’t have that authority…the Meitei Tribe Union petitioned the court to stop the state government from dragging its feet on a 10-year-old request from the central tribal affairs ministry for material on the subject. The ministry had written to the state government in 2013, asking “for specific recommendation along with the latest socio-economic survey and ethnographic report”. The court directed the state government to submit the material within a reasonable time, preferably within four weeks.
State governments have a role in adding communities to the list of Scheduled Tribes, but that role is quite limited. A proposal made by a state government to extend ST status to a community in that state – backed by supporting material based on survey research and ethnographic evidence – initiates the process of consideration. But the entire process can take years…Eventually the scheduling of a community happens only after Parliament passes a Bill…
There are two things we need to know to understand this conflagration. First, that while the Constitution provides significant safeguards for the hill tribes of Northeast India in the form of the Sixth Schedule, they do not apply to Manipur. This has to do with Manipur’s history as a princely state. Second, controversies on the issue of extending ST status to Meiteis, and the related issue of amending land laws to remove restrictions on land transfer to non-tribals in hill areas, had been brewing in Manipur for many years. The High Court’s April 19 order brought these issues to a head.
The attacks on Christians and the alleged targeting of churches belonging to a number of Christian denominations in Manipur stirred discomfort within the community. Is this a setback to the proposed church-BJP alliance in Kerala?
The news of violence against Christians and the vandalisation of churches in Manipur has caused distress among many people in India and abroad – people of all faith communities and not just Christians. I have read reports that, in Kerala, it has halted the warming of political ties between the BJP and the state’s Christian communities. It is too early to say what the long-term impact of these events would be on the BJP’s relations with Christian communities in Kerala and elsewhere. But for the immediate task of finding a path to peace in Manipur, it is important that we don’t look at the events only through pan-Indian lenses, ignoring the nuances of local history. Simply put, it is not the familiar form of South Asian “communalism”, that is conflicts between two faith communities.
What was the peculiarity of the Sangh Parivar’s political functioning in Manipur where the Christian community is a dominant faction? What was the general approach of the Sangh Parivar towards the Christians of the Northeast?
The Sangh Parivar has certainly made inroads among Christians in Manipur and in other parts of Northeast India. Many Christians, including Kukis, have won elections as BJP candidates from predominantly Christian constituencies. Organisations affiliated to the Sangh Parivar run a large network of free schools in rural areas aimed at inculcating Hindutva values among children. The BJP’s electoral success, according to some Sangh Parivar activists, is because of the trust and respect that these schools – part of their “welfare programmes” – have gained among tribal communities of all faiths. But that seems unlikely.
Leaders of political and social organisations representing Northeast India’s numerically small ethnic communities, irrespective of their faith, have made their peace with the BJP and its affiliates primarily because the BJP is the party in power…This unequal balance has created political relations that are transactional and not the product of ideological persuasion.
Whichever way Christians may have voted in recent elections, one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that resisting the spread of Christianity remains a major motivation behind the Sangh Parivar’s work in Northeast India. Their leaders and activists are acutely aware that the large concentration of Christians makes the region inhospitable to the message of Hindutva. Efforts to reconvert Christians by the RSS and the VHP in the 1990s were met with fierce opposition. Since then, according to Arkotong Longkumer, who has studied the subject closely, the major focus of Sangh Parivar organisations has shifted to non-Christian peoples of indigenous faith traditions. That’s where the story of Meitei revivalism fits in.
Recounting narratives of India’s geographical unity as a sacred landscape has provided an orienting point to this work. Sangh Parivar activists are fond of retelling stories from the Mahabharata that revolve around female characters, supposedly from a place that is now part of Northeast India and matrimonially related to Hindu gods and heroes according to certain myths. Ulupi and Chitrangada, two women married to Arjuna, were supposedly Naga and Manipuri princesses; Krishna’s consort Rukmini was a Mishimi girl from Arunachal Pradesh; and Bhima’s wife Hidimba was a Dimasa woman from Assam. Since these are peoples of indigenous faith traditions, the stories, says Longkumer, serve “to emphasise the composite territorial integrity of Bharat since time immemorial.” These stories also help push back against the narratives of autonomy and self-determination that dominated Northeast Indian politics during the time of insurgency. Mohan Bhagwat – the chief of the RSS – tells us frankly that “while these may be myths, the role of Dharma is to turn them into articles of faith, and to get people to believe in them.”
The Chinese are accused of fomenting trouble in Manipur and other Northeast regions even before the current stalemate in the state. What are your views over aspersions that China may have aided the emergence of trouble in Manipur?
Even if there was a foreign adversary wanting to create trouble for India in this border state, I doubt that it could create the kind of crisis we have in Manipur today. The crisis is entirely of our own making. But fishing in the waters of your adversary when they are troubled is a staple of international intrigues and power politics. If any foreign development has a bearing on these events, it is the February 2021 coup in Myanmar. The Chin state in western Myanmar that has become a significant battleground between the junta and the forces of opposition borders the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram.
The brutal military campaigns launched by the junta in the Chin state includes airstrikes that have displaced thousands of people. Many civilians have sought refuge across the border in India. Most of these refugees are Chins whom Mizos and Kukis regard as their ethnic kin. Their imagination of transnational commonality is perhaps similar to 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. According to a May 2023 report of the UNHCR, approximately 53,500 people have arrived in India from Myanmar since February 2021. More than 40,000 of them are in Mizoram and about 8,000 in Manipur. In addition, 5,000 individuals have approached the UNHCR office in New Delhi for registration as refugees.
Mizoram’s warm welcome to these refugees in defiance of New Delhi’s wishes have drawn considerable attention. Because of the very different history of ethnic relations in Manipur, the refugees have faced hostility there. Even before this episode, the Kukis were often shunned as “foreigners” in Manipur.
That we don’t have a humanitarian policy towards refugees fleeing Myanmar has contributed to the making of the Manipur crisis…Were the Indian government to run its own department of refugee relief, or to allow UN agencies to operate in the Northeast, those fleeing the fighting in Myanmar would have been able to register as refugees. That would have removed a significant source of information manipulation in Manipur.
How far has the militarisation and official mismanagement alienated the Northeast population…?
A lot can be said on how Northeasterners have been racialised in India. But in the interest of space let me put that issue aside. Since you mention the region’s militarisation, let’s talk about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. These days we don’t hear much about AFSPA as we did during Manipur’s “Iron Lady” Irom Sharmila’s 16-year hunger strike against it. But AFSPA remains in effect in large parts of the region…AFSPA has been in Northeast India for almost as long as we have been a republic. Yet it is a law designed for exceptional circumstances to be used only for the purpose of restoring democratic order.
Now let’s fast forward to what’s happening in Manipur today. The Indian Army and the Assam Rifles played a major role in evacuating civilians from their homes and providing them safe passage to areas where they felt safe. An article by a retired army general had the title “Army is the only thing standing between Manipur and chaos”. Does it mean that the armed forces and AFSPA are destined to become a permanent part of the law and order machinery in Manipur?
It is hard to imagine an Irom Sharmila in Manipur today. But it is important to remember her remarkable act of ‘communicative suffering’...Let’s remember what the Supreme Court said in 2016 on this matter. The practice of deploying the armed forces to assist civil power, it said, is premised on the assumption that “normalcy would be restored within a reasonable period.” If the civil administration and the armed forces fail to achieve this, that “cannot be a fig leaf for prolonged, permanent or indefinite deployment of the armed forces”...
Even in these trying times it is important not to lose sight of that constitutional vision. The most urgent challenge facing Manipur today is to create the conditions that would allow that vision to become a reality.
What do you think is the fundamental change in Manipur society since the ascension of the BJP to power in the state?
Before addressing the question of changes that have occurred in “Manipur society”, it should be noted that the phrase is more problematic than it would appear. Prominent scholars of Manipur have raised questions on whether the peoples of the plains and the hills constitute a community of common destiny. Sociologist L Lam Khan Piang has said that the hill tribes of Manipur and the people of the Imphal Valley have been “living together separately”. Thongkolal Haokip of the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at JNU uses the model of “deeply divided societies” to examine the political dynamics of the hill-valley divide in Manipur. Writing soon after the outbreak of the recent riots, political scientist Kham Khan Suan Hausing wondered whether “the idea and the reality of Manipur” can be salvaged.
Despite such contestation, it should be recognised that Manipur was an ancient kingdom, and that this history is an important piece of the conflict raging in the state. It was an indirectly ruled native state or princely state under British colonial rule and the circumstances of its merger with India are controversial. Unfortunately, the rest of India has little awareness of this history.
In September 1949 – two years after India’s independence – Maharaja Bodhchandra signed the instrument of accession under duress. He was virtually imprisoned in his Shillong home...
Manipur’s controversial merger with India features prominently in the narratives of all valley-based insurgent organisations. When Manipur became a Chief Commissioner’s Province – a Part C state – after the merger, the ancient kingdom of Manipur, writes the highly respected Manipuri intellectual Lokendra Arambam, was reduced to “an obscure and backward part of the Indian Union”. That the Kangla Palace – a hallowed symbol of Manipuri glory and pride – remained under the control of the Assam Rifles became a sour point in Manipur’s recent history. It was turned over to the Manipur government only in 2004 when a wave of anger against the armed forces had spilled onto the streets in an unprecedented manner.
The Kangla Palace at the center of the capital city of Imphal has now become a heritage and recreational site. But significantly, it has also recovered some of its importance as a ritual center. The Kangla complex, according to British anthropologist Edward Moon-Little, “is home to numerous shrines dedicated to the deity Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, the divine ancestor of the Meitei rajas and one of the most important gods of the Meitei pantheon”. Since the Meitei religious revivalism of the late 20th century, Pakhangba, which is usually represented as a python or dragon – and displayed on the royal flag – has become “a defining symbol of Meitei political life”.
In the light of these events, the most significant political change that has occurred in Manipur under the BJP regime may have been the election in 2020 of Manipur’s titular king Maharaja Sanajaoba Leishemba as a BJP member of the Rajya Sabha. Since we don’t have maharajas any more, his name appears in the official list of Rajya Sabha members as Shri Maharaja Leishemba Sanajaoba. The titular king took his oath as a member of Parliament in Manipuri in the name of Pakhangba, Sanamahi (another Meitei deity) and Govindajee (a name for Krishna) – an exemplification of the Hindu nationalist idea that all indigenous faith traditions of Punyabhumi Bharat (the sacred land of India) are Hindu. In Northeast India, where the votaries of Hindutva believe that “foreign religions”...present a major challenge, the revival of indigenous faith traditions, such as Meitei revivalism, can only be their ally.
Two things are significant about Meitei religious revivalism and the current conflict…
First, since revivalists talk of restoring Manipur’s “indigenous traditions”– reworking the global discourse of indigeneity – there is only a short leap from that project and the demand for recognition of Meiteis as a Scheduled Tribe or “indigenous people” since the two terms are used as equivalents in Indian usage…As I have said before in the context of Assam, the word “indigenous” or its equivalent in Meiteilon or Assamese “carries folk meanings and associations that resonate powerfully among locals, but they may not have much to do with the international category’s intended meaning”. In an India where Hindu nationalism dominates political life the idea of a Hindu community not deserving recognition as a Scheduled Tribe will soon seem scandalous.
Second, many Meitei revivalists believe in the millenarian idea of the return of Pakhangba. They hope that a leader with the charisma of Pakhangba will emerge one day to unite the hills and plains…This has turned the question of the territorial integrity of Manipur into a highly charged issue, which makes a demand for “separate arrangements” for Kukis, or the Naga demand for Nagalim, much harder to achieve. The crisis in Manipur reminds us that even the road to Naga peace may run through Imphal.
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.