Manipur’s lost year shows no sign of ending

The mood has changed among the tens of thousands of displaced Manipuris. From anger and melancholia, they have turned to utter despair. Therein lies a Freudian warning
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.Express illustration | Sourav Roy

The latest cycle of ethnic strife between the Meiteis and Kuki-Zos in Manipur will be a year old this May 3. The violence has already claimed more than 200 lives and displaced more than 60,000 people, yet there is no sign of a conclusion. Sporadic exchanges of gunfire at the foothills continue between armed volunteers, at times adding to the toll. The state government is seemingly as clueless as ever; the Centre too still does not seem to see the matter as being urgent enough to step in and use its might to bring the situation back into the hands of the law.

The reality is that there has been ethnic cleansing on both sides. There are no Kuki-Zo tribes left in the central Imphal valley, and similarly, there are no Meiteis left in the townships of the Kuki-Zo-dominated foothills. The mountains beyond the foothills are where the Nagas are. Other than these broad categories of ethnicities and their geographical locations, there are also several other communities domiciled in the state, and all are adversely affected by the conflict.

The Imphal valley is under the modern land revenue law introduced in 1960, when Manipur was still a Union territory. It is open to settlement by every Indian and therefore always had a mixed population, though dominated by its original inhabitants, the Meiteis. The hills were left outside the purview of modern land laws and generally considered exclusive to its hillmen inhabitants, though no law explicitly spells this out.

The number of Kuki-Zo people displaced as well as property losses among them is greater than the Meiteis displaced from foothill townships. The death toll, too, is about three to two,  with Kuki-Zos taking more casualties, especially in the initial days of the bloody feud. There are also hundreds of villages along the foothills belonging to both communities, and many are today wrecked and barren.

These numbers aside, the crimes in the mindless explosion of communal frenzy and consequent human tragedies visited on either side remain indistinguishable. If what has happened is unthinkable, what is still happening is equally dreadful and must be addressed urgently. This has to do with the darkness 60,000 and more souls forced to flee and take shelter in numerous community-run relief camps would be staring at every time they imagine a future for themselves and their children.

Those who have been visiting at least some of these camps periodically would know, and it should also not be difficult even for those who have not seen any of them to imagine, that there has been a gradual mood change within these shelters in the months gone by. In the initial weeks, it was anger and outrage towards those who destroyed their homes and made them flee, and at the government for allowing this to happen. In the months that followed, as the harsh reality began sinking in, the predominant longing was for a return of peace and normalcy so they could return home and rebuild their lives. Today, a year on, with nothing much improving, the atmosphere in these camps is increasingly tinged with despair.

Health workers who have been making consultative visits to these camps are already noticing signs of mental health deterioration. As hope for the future gets thinner and dimmer, depression in varying degrees is already showing up, and they fear more severe manifestations of mental health issues in the near future, including suicidal tendencies and violently deviant behaviours amongst their youth. If unheeded and unchecked, these conditions could reach epidemic proportions, they fear.

The continuance of the conflict and the absence of the strong arms of the law has also ensured the emergence of several armed civil militias, mostly of young men, taking on the responsibility of defending their villages and communities. Without realising it, they are completely changing the course of their own lives. When they should ideally have been pursuing their studies or careers, they are now compelled to wield weapons to fight and kill.

This is the immense human catastrophe Manipur is having to live with, and generally out of sight of the rest of the nation, except for grossly skewed pictures sketched and spread by ambulance-sniffing hordes of moralists far away, jumping to conclusions that suit their religious and ideological affiliations.

The first and foremost requirement for the return of peace is for the state—either the provincial state of Manipur or the Indian state, if the former is incapable—to step in and take control. In the spirit Max Weber underscored, the state must hold monopoly over legitimate violence and everybody other than the law-keeping organs of the state must be disarmed. Only then can dialogue between the civil population begin meaningfully to put to rest whatever misunderstandings there were that caused the conflict in the first place.

But even after peace is won, for many, it is not going to be easy to reconcile with the new reality. All losses can be compensated or rebuilt, but not the loss of loved ones. Sigmund Freud’s essay Mourning and Melancholia may have some lessons. Mourning is about the living bidding goodbye to the dead, but in Freud’s melancholia, the distinction between the living and dead worlds collapses and the living gets trapped in the agony of loss. The sense of victimhood that comes along also acquires a perverse legitimacy and gratification, thereby perpetuating this condition further.

There have been several cinematic explorations of this Freudian theory. Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie is one. But Christopher Nolan’s Inception is more illustrative. In this science fiction, a husband is burdened with guilt that he may have induced his wife’s suicide, and comes to be haunted by her. The man gets to travel into his own unconscious mind several layers deep even at the risk of not waking up again, and confronts his wife there. He confesses to her his faults in her suicide and that he loves her and will never forsake her memory, but now that she is dead and he is living, he must move on, and does so to find peace. Agonising as it may be, the living must have to bid farewell to the dead and move on in life.

(Views are personal)


Pradip Phanjoubam | Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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