For the most battle-hardened, specialised and successful counter-insurgency army in the world, this is an unfamiliar, first-time experience of dealing with the north east’s deepest complexities, observes Shekhar Gupta.
The answer to the question, ‘Which is the most challenging state to govern in India?’ is easy. One look at the map of the country and we’d know it is tiny Manipur.
For more than two months now, nobody’s writ has run in the tiny border state except that of the rival mobs, or armed bands, currently at war with each other.
The ruling party at the Centre, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is also the party in power in the state.
It’s also a high command-run party as much as the Congress was at its Indira-era peak.
Does the writ of this omnipotent high command run in Manipur? Evidence suggests it doesn’t.
Take a close look at the tamasha playing out in Imphal as this column was being written.
The failed chief minister, N Biren Singh, who has seen the state burn under his watch and who wouldn’t dare visit his tribal hill districts even to accompany his party stalwart and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, finally let word spread that he was resigning.
After letting the world know of his ‘intention’, he walked to Raj Bhavan, resignation in hand.
By this time, a large and noisy mob of women from his Meitei community had gathered there, beseeching him not to resign.
In what has been packaged as high drama, one of the women snatched the resignation letter from one of his staff members and tore it.
Pictures of the torn resignation were widely circulated on social media after it had been ritually trampled under the protesting women’s feet.
Mr Singh followed this up by tweeting that he wasn’t resigning.
How could he, when his people loved him so much?
The act of the snatching, tearing, trampling and withdrawal of his non-resignation was as much of a fake, a choreographed act, as his supposed ‘offer’ to resign and the march to Raj Bhavan.
At the end of the day, the BJP chief minister remained in his job. Never mind that his writ hasn’t run in his state for two months.
What does it say for the BJP high command’s authority? If indeed it was the party high command that wanted him to resign, he has conjured up the power of the mob to defy it.
If it wasn’t, then did he threaten to resign in defiance of the party bosses and then collect the mob to show how powerful he is?
Either way, it makes his party high command look powerless, and short of ideas.
Manipur remains where it has been these bloodied weeks: Burning, violent, broken and angry.
Mr Singh was not drawn from any ideological upbringing or training.
He was a footballer, and good enough as a defender to be recruited by the BSF, where he served and played for 14 years.
He co-founded the so-called Democratic Revolutionary People’s Party, was one of the two MLAs elected on its ticket in 2002, and merged his party with the Congress soon afterwards.
Later, with the Congress losing power at the Centre and the BJP’s ‘human resources’ department out on the hunt for talent, he had no compunctions walking across.
Not for him, any ideological commitments or hesitations. Now, however, he has bared another side to his leadership: Ethnic loyalty in a violently divided state.
In the process, he has posed two important questions for his party.
One, is it at peace having just the loyalty and affection of the Meiteis on the grounds of them being predominantly Hindu, and leaving the Christian tribals angry?
That’s the conspiracy theory the tribals believe in.
That it is no more than a ploy to polarise the state on Hindu-Christian lines.
The second question, for how long are they willing to carry round their necks the albatross of this governance failure in one of their own states?
Especially when they take such pride in claiming their rise in the North East to be a great success story.
The politics of identity, or more specifically Hindu-Muslim polarisation, enabled the BJP to sweep Assam and Tripura twice in a row.
The other states were ‘acquired’, either through the political equivalent of a leveraged buy-out of former Congress people in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, or through the old fashioned big power-small power alliances, as in Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim.
Local/regional autonomy may be a strong urge in the smaller, tribal North Eastern states, but each is too small to be at odds with the Centre.
This arrangement had worked quite neatly so far, and the party was enjoying the fulfilment of the dream of governing the Northeast it had specially cherished.
The underlying idea was also that the region had been locked in a perpetual cycle of instability because of ‘cynical and corrupt’ Congress politics.
The BJP’s political success in the North East was a remarkable shift in Indian politics. That success is now deeply threatened in Manipur.
While the BJP blamed the chronic crises of the North East on two ‘Cs’ — the Congress’s ‘cynicism’ and ‘corruption’ — it overlooked two things.
One, if the Congress was so corrupt, how come all of the BJP’s own new leadership in the region had been borrowed from there?
And second, it lazily forgot the third ‘C’. It is called complexity.
Compared to what you confront in the North East, the familiar formulae of Hindu-Muslim or caste combinations of the Hindi heartland do not work in the tribal North East.
No state exemplifies it more starkly than Manipur. That is why Manipur is the most difficult state to govern in all of India.
To understand the challenge of governing Manipur, you can begin with history, geography or demography.
Let’s begin from the here and now because it encompasses all these factors.
Broadly, we have three ethnic groups in Manipur, the Meiteis, the Kuki group and the Naga tribes. Check out what the three groups want:
- Meiteis only want Scheduled Tribe status while retaining political pre-eminence in their own state, which they want intact.
- Kukis want an autonomous region. Even a semi-state so they are no longer under a Meitei-dominated administration.
- And the Nagas might be keen to break away but only from Manipur, not India any longer, to join a larger Nagaland or Nagalim, as the negotiators of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland are seeking from the Centre.
To sum up, none of the three groups wants to secede from India. Yet, each of the three is bristling with automatic firearms.
Even if the security forces were to somehow capture or confiscate some — of which intention so far there is no evidence — there is an endless supply available.
For the Kukis, it comes from across the border in Myanmar, and the Meiteis can just visit any police armoury in the Imphal valley and pick what they want.
They are the ones who often leave their Aadhaar cards behind as if to say, ‘If they ask you who did it, tell them I was here.’
The biggest challenge for the security forces comes from the simple fact that none of the groups is seeking secession.
How does the army treat them as enemies of the State, or hostile, even anti-national and open fire at them? This is a sizeable complexity.
This is a predicament unprecedented in Indian history.
Large contingents of the army’s specialised counter-insurgency corps, the 3rd, or the ‘Spear Corps’, based in Dimapur, are now deployed in Manipur, supported by several battalions of the CRPF and Assam Rifles. But they can’t fight.
In Manipur now, with no forces designated as ‘hostile’, they are reduced to playing the role of, say for simplicity, UN peacekeepers in a conflict zone.
They clear safe zones and neutral corridors and ensure the free movement of goods and supplies, but avoid all combat.
They do not fire at people flashing their weapons at them, forget disarming them.
For the most battle-hardened, specialised and successful counter-insurgency army in the world, this is an unfamiliar, first-time experience of dealing with the north east’s deepest complexities.
Just as it is for the BJP politically.
By Special Arrangement with The Print
- Manipur’s Tragedy
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com
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