Fault lines exposed in Manipur


By Jan Arden

On 3rd May violent riots broke out in the northeast Indian state of Manipur, bordering Myanmar (former Burma), in what to outsiders was a relatively quiescent, mountainous state of 3.5 million, mostly tribal and we have since been fed continuous coverage both of some shocking episodes, a BJP-run state lethargic reaction to stem such violence and a raucous storm from Opposition forces in New Delhi Parliament, demanding a full debate and querying PM Modi’s stance.

Manipur Riots. What went wrong. Pic – CNN

It would seem that several fault lines that were always simmering between different ethnicities had suddenly erupted through the impact of separate measures that affected minority, generally poorer hill tribes in a predominantly Meiti-run state and policing authorities. Valley-dwelling Meitis form 53% of the total population and occupy 10% of the lands. Hill tribals Nagas and Kukis constitute some 40% of the population and control 90% of the hilly and mountainous regions, with remote access and minimal facilities, but to which they are deeply attached.

The Central government is reported to have acted swiftly. On 4th May, the Central government, invoking Article 355 of the Constitution, took over the security situation of Manipur and almost immediately deployed 10,000 army, para-military and airlifted 5 companies of the Rapid Action Force to the region. By 5 May, about 20,000 Kuki and other hill people had been relocated to safer locations under military supervision. As of 14 May, the total military build-up in Manipur stood at 126 army columns and 62 companies of paramilitary forces.

An internet blackout and curfew was imposed to avoid disinformation-fuelled violence (such as reports of shocking women molestations), yet episodic violence and mobs continued for a while and Manipur is still simmering in an uneasy truce, despite a visit by Home Minister Amit Shah and his as yet unsuccessful attempt to stage a multi-tribal peace forum.

By 25th May the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk had issued a statement that the violence in Manipur “revealed the underlying tensions between different ethnic and indigenous groups”, urging the authorities to “respond to the situation quickly, including by investigating and addressing root causes of the violence in line with their international human rights obligations”.

There did not seem a manifest lack of vigorous action by the Central Government to stem the horrors and violence but clearly there was some ground to be mystified why the reasons for rising discontent of hills tribes were not picked up earlier and prevented from degenerating into outright violence. The root factors and their combined impact are now generally known and have to be addressed by New Delhi working closely with the BJP-run state government.

Among those factors of fear and resentment of the 1 million or so hill tribes are land, ethnic differences in government posts and resources in majority allocated to the Meitis, a long border with Myanmar (former Burma) with regular infiltrations increasing the fear of hillsmen being alienated by immigrants, and the ever-present poppy cultivation and trade in the hilly regions placed at risk. Matters came to a head with the Meiti request for similar Scheduled Tribe status as the hill tribes (which would be unfounded and illogical), approved by a single-judge local high court at the end of March but, as per previous Indian Supreme Court rulings, such a status and its privileges can only be granted by the Centre and Parliament.

Another major friction point came when hill tribe protesters gathered to hold a rally against “encroachment of tribal land in the name of reserved forests, protected forests and wildlife sanctuary”. This raised fears of hill lands being acquired by non-tribesmen and a potential threat to the poppy cultivation activities in the region’s mountainous lands.

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Unequal societies and simmering resentment

There may be no direct relevance of such tragic events as happened in Manipur for the Mauritian polity to dwell on, but we should bear in mind that multi-ethnic situations with perceived disparities inside unequal societies can be a recipe for simmering resentment.

Hate and venom disinformation and personal attacks spewed by manipulative forces abusing the Internet have to be clamped down rapidly and without fear that many of them emanate regularly from different channels including those that espouse government policies. Neither can unchecked policing resort to unacceptable tactics in what may look like a targeting approach that could turn ugly to smear opponents and harass their activities and even their families.

Mauritius has, we believe, evolved to a stage of maturity and tolerance that should normally preclude its peace and harmony being put at risk by well-connected apprentice fire-breathers, particularly as electoral times dawn closer.

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Dubai and Singapore: poster boys of reference for our development narratives

Most old-timers would recall that our previous multi-cultural poster boy of reference for our development narratives used to be Singapore, the city state that gained independence and with similar GDP/head as ourselves. It still ranks today as one of the cleanest, least corrupt and resolutely transparent administrations with one of the most reputed world passports. It has however over the recent past been largely overshadowed by glitzy Dubai, its gilded tower properties, its thriving gold and jewellery markets and its secretive banks. It’s now the in-place where world Expos or other Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions (MICE) events will attract a full posse of our Ministers unabashedly riding there in first-class Emirati flights, generous per-diems and posh hotels we pay for in every ounce of VAT extracted from even the poorest at gas stations and supermarkets.

One wonders what our ruling political class and our Attorney-General would make of news emerging from the city-state where a senior minister, Subramaniam Iswaran, Singapore’s minister for Trade and Industry, was forced to resign after being arrested and charged last week in a corruption probe, the first in four decades to be implicated in such an investigation. And, heaven forbid, that on this Monday, two lawmakers – one of them once tipped as a potential prime minister and current Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, 54, and fellow lawmaker Cheng Li Hui, 47, resigned from the party and the legislature over their “inappropriate relationship” after it was revealed they were involved in an extramarital affair!

“We will be upfront and transparent,” Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong responded quickly. “We will not sweep anything under the carpet, even if they are potentially embarrassing or damaging.” The island is scheduled to hold a general election by 2025, though polls could be held earlier. Dr Michael Barr, an Australia-based international relations professor who has written several books on Singapore’s politics pointed out to the BBC : “Without extraordinary levels of public trust, the Singaporean government must rely on one of two things to win elections: either repression and other measures that subvert democracy, or a high level of performance-based legitimacy. Their record in recent years is such that we can forget about performance legitimacy.”

As possible co-participants in some future international event, maybe PM Pravind Kumar Jugnauth could share some valuable snippets with Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Loong on how to tackle that tricky election or for that matter, how his MSM government treats blatant corruption, nepotism, incompetence, governance under our shores…

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 28 July 2023

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