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On Saturday, in the lesser-known town of Kangpokpi in Manipur, MLAs belonging to the Kuki-Zo community, including those from the ruling BJP, once again emphasized their request for an “independent administration” for the hilly regions of the northeastern state. This expression subtly implies a desire for either a distinct state or union territory status.
In reaction to what they labelled as recent assaults on their villages amid a persisting nine-month-long ethnic conflict between Kuki tribals and Meiteis residing in the plains of the state, these politicians addressed the emergence of a mysterious Meitei “cultural” group known as Arambai Tenggol.
A unique circumstance unfolded a day following this year’s Republic Day when Mallikarjun Kharge, the chief of the Congress party, penned a letter to Home Minister Amit Shah. In the letter, he claimed that the Manipur Congress party chief had been subjected to severe assault and torture during a gathering attended by all Meitei MLAs and MPs in the state, a meeting ostensibly “summoned” by the enigmatic group Arambai Tenggol.
The list of demands presented encompassed several key points: the termination of the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with Kuki militants, under which former rebels surrendered their weapons and were confined to camps overseen by the Assam Rifles; the execution of the National Register of Citizens; the installation of a border fence with Myanmar, ostensibly aimed at curbing the movement of Kuki-Chin people across the border; the substitution of the highly decorated peacekeeping force of the Northeast, the Assam Rifles, from the state; and the exclusion of Kuki “illegal immigrants” from the Scheduled Tribes list.
In his letter, Kharge asserts that “numerous attendees at the gathering on January 24 were forced and pressured to participate.” If proven to be accurate, this would signify a startling and unparalleled occurrence in India’s history. It highlights a situation where a purported cultural group from a specific ethnic community has succeeded in compelling the majority of lawmakers in a state not only to attend its meeting but also to endorse its demands through their signatures.
The Meitei organisation, Arambai Tenggol, which emerged four years ago under the guise of a cultural entity, is purportedly at the forefront of the ongoing ethnic turmoil that has gripped the state of Manipur for the past nine months.
According to eyewitnesses, Tenggol volunteers armed with guns openly traverse the Imphal valley in vehicles, donning black shirts reminiscent of Benito Mussolini’s Squadre d’Azione. This organised force, estimated to be nearly 50,000 strong, poses a significant and formidable presence.
Arambai Tenggol aims to guide the Meitei community, predominantly composed of Vaishnavite Hindus, back to a clan-based worship system known as Sanamahism. Reportedly, this movement is led by a descendant of the Manipur royalty.
The fact that Arambai Tenggol, translated as’spear-wielding cavalry,’ successfully convened a meeting at Kangla Fort, a location constantly monitored by security and intelligence personnel, is an accomplishment in itself. The participation of MPs and MLAs in its gathering underscores the considerable influence wielded by the outfit in the state. The gathering and the unabashed exhibition of weaponry by Arambai Tenggol emphasize the diminishing authority of the established state and its capacity to withstand the influences exerted by fringe elements on its functionality.
The surge in narrow-minded parochialism has impacted others as well. According to various reports, the requests put forth by Kuki-Zo tribal organizations in the hills to political parties in the state cannot be dismissed lightly either.
In essence, all these lawmakers, whether Meitei or Kuki-Zo, have acquiesced to the demands of alternative centres of influence. In the future, these may shape the agenda for a constituent state within the Indian Union, a state of critical significance and delicate geopolitical positioning along India’s border with a neighbouring country. These decisions seem to be made by entities other than duly elected representatives of the people.
The conflict in the previously tranquil state has already resulted in a stark division among ethnic communities, with the Meiteis now dominant in the Imphal Valley and Kuki tribals restricted to the hill districts. Any endeavours by either faction to traverse the imperceptible boundary between the productive plains and wooded hills risk encountering gunfire or even graver consequences.
The rise of influential parallel power centres formed along narrow ethnic lines suggests that the prospects of reconciling the differences between the conflicting communities are diminishing as time progresses.
Given the circumstances, it is imperative for the state to re-enter the arena, assert its authority, and transcend mere parochial politics. Failure to do so could allow the wounds afflicting Manipur to evolve into a malignancy that may extend its impact to other regions in the vicinity.
The Kuki-Zo community resides in various states, notably Mizoram, where they constitute a majority, and Meghalaya, where they form a significant portion of the population. They are also present in Assam and Tripura. It’s widely acknowledged that these regions have experienced unrest since the outbreak of violence in Manipur last May.
It’s essential to recall that the Union government at the time displayed a delayed response to the food crisis in the Mizo hills during the 1950s. This crisis sparked a rebellion that endured for several decades and proved challenging to contain. The situation was only brought under control with considerable difficulty, involving Indian Air Force sorties conducted within our own territories.
A repetition of errors in managing the ongoing crisis in Manipur might result in the state, known for its historical militancy, spiralling out of control. This could potentially place it in the hands of radical elements who might become pawns for foreign powers seeking to exploit the turmoil afflicting the ‘Jewel of the Northeast.’