Ancient frictions find an echo in Manipur crisis

Land plays the main role in the conflict. The friction between the tribes in the northeastern state has a lot to do with how each community views the possession of land.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

It is despairing to watch Manipur continue to spiral deeper into the heart of darkness, almost completely out of the administration’s control. After the initial frenzied week of mob violence that exploded on May 3 at Torbung village and then spread to other parts of the state like a tsunami, the pattern has been brief spells of calm that held the promise of peace broken rudely and periodically by fresh outbreaks of violence and scandal in some corner or the other of the state. Even as the universal outrage over the video from May 4 of two Kuki women being paraded naked by a Meitei mob that surfaced on July 19 began cooling, another one erupted when pictures of a cold-blooded execution of two teenagers—abducted on July 6 and missing since—surfaced on social media on September 25.

The identities of the killers in the latter case are now official, though they were known much earlier as they apparently were using the dead teens’ phones after changing SIM cards; their movements were therefore registered digitally. Four of them were arrested on October 1, and two children, probably dependents of a couple among the arrested, were also picked up. In the earlier case, seven identified culprits have been arrested and prior to that, some of them faced the wrath of mobs. Both these sensitive cases are being handled by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The day after the photos of the teens became public, school and college students in uniforms flocked to the streets of Imphal in outrage. To everybody’s utter surprise and anger, riot control police inexplicably responded with extreme violence, breaking up the rallies not just with tear gas but pellet guns, injuring several grievously. A seventeen-year-old boy was shot point-blank on his shoulders, and his arm was nearly blown off; over ninety metal pellets were lodged in his body.

As the conflict drags on and gets entrenched, just as scholars have predicted, what is being demonstrated is the difficulty of capturing the complete essence of any bitter conflict even by honest chroniclers. History writing, it seems, can never be completely free of the question: “Whose history?” There are many reasons for this, but consider one that has relevance to the ongoing feud between the Kuki-Zo tribes and Meiteis.

One of the causes for this faceoff is the alleged continuous illegal immigration of Kuki-aligned Chin tribes from across the border in Myanmar and the related issues of encroachment into reserved forests and poppy cultivation. Kuki villages tend to proliferate because of a peculiar landholding custom where the village chief owns all the land and villagers are landless tenants; so, some of them tend to leave and set up their villages. Indeed, in the wake of the current crisis, Kuki leaders have repeatedly admitted this in high-profile interviews to the media, saying that this is nothing unnatural and that it is their tradition to roam and settle anywhere in their land.

The key word here is land. The conflict that we are witnessing today is very much about how different tribes and communities see land and its possession. Without any value judgement, consider this: For the nomads, anywhere they pitch their tents is their land, but this is not so for the settled agriculturists or the feudal principality, and indeed the modern state. When all these tribes and communities live in the same geographical region and era, conflicts are only to be expected.

This essential friction between peoples with different outlooks to land is beautifully brought out by Anthony Sattin in his book Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World. He sees metaphors to this effect in mythologies, such as of Seth and Osiris of the Egyptians, or the characters in Homer’s Odyssey, but most interestingly in the first murder in the Bible where Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, kills his younger brother Abel. Cain, interestingly, is a tiller of the soil, and Abel a wandering shepherd. These metaphors are also there in practically every old religion or culture, pointing to the primal nature of this friction in human history. Depending on who gets to tell the story—the sedentary or the wandering population—the other would be the monster or demon.

This conflict is as ancient as the agricultural revolution that started 10,000 years ago after the last Ice Age receded, and after humans began domesticating crops to become food-secure—or as Yuval Noah Harari, in jest, puts it in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, after crops domesticated humans. While there is no divinely ordained code of rectitude to decide which of these outlooks to land is most just, the reality is that the modern state is premised on a sedentary and enumerable population. Democracy itself would become ineffective if its population were to be constantly shifting and unenumerated. Good administration, too, would become impossible, with state infrastructure like roads, public health and education facilities constantly having to chase their wandering, proliferating villages.

In short, there can be no alternative to halting this wandering custom among some tribes. They must come to terms with the new reality of sedentary lifestyle, which must necessarily predicate any modern state. This will transform the endemic land tussles Kukis, for instance, face with their neighbouring communities—Nagas and Meiteis. This will also end their confrontations with the state on issues such as encroachments into reserved forests.

This can begin with an overhaul of the Kukis’ landholding norms where villagers are landless tenants or serfs. Neighbouring Mizoram, home to the kindred tribes of the Kukis, is a shining example of this. ‘Commoner or slave’ tribes here, empowered by modern education brought by Christian missionaries—at the crucial juncture when a modern self-governance mechanism under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution was being introduced—unitedly demanded change. Consequently, the autocratic rights of 259 chiefs were curtailed in 1953 and then abolished in 1954. Village administration power thereafter passed on to elected village councils constituted under the Sixth Schedule, giving the villages a sense of permanence.

Pradip Phanjoubam

Imphal Review of Arts and PoliticsEditor,

(phanjoubam@gmail.com)

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