Manipur CM N Biren Singh
Manipur CM N Biren Singh addresses a press conference, appealing to the people for peace in the strife ridden state, at the Chief Minister’s Secretariat in Imphal on Monday. (ANI Photo) Image Credit: ANI

A violent conflict between two communities has been raging in Manipur for a month and a half now, leaving nearly 100 people dead. This did not prevent a Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson from claiming his party’s policies have resulted in “lasting” peace in India’s north-east. It is like enjoying sunlight at night.

Everyone makes mistakes. The BJP government in Manipur has made far too many of them. It is the BJP’s denial of these mistakes that surprises — and rankles. How much longer must this conflict last, how many more must die before the BJP begins to acknowledge the political mistakes it has made in Manipur?

Reigniting an old feud

The tensions between the mainstream Valley-based Meiteis and the hill-based Kuki tribals are hardly new. The animosity goes back centuries, often made worse with bouts of violence and policy changes. Such a state needs to be handled with great care.

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Instead, the BJP government there, led by chief minister Biren Singh, only widened the chasm, failed to read the discontentment its policies were causing among the Kuki tribals.

Even if Biren Singh and BJP say that disinformation or criminal elements have played a role, we have to acknowledge that perception matters. The perception that the Biren Singh government is inimical to the interests of the Kuki tribals can only be addressed by nudging Mr Singh to resign. That would be the first step.

The central government is all but admitting that Biren Singh’s position is untenable by forming a peace committee headed by the state’s Governor. The government clearly needs to walk farther and formally remove a chief minister that the government itself does not trust with peace-making.

The peace committee, sending in the army, a visit by the union Home Minister — nothing is really working because there is a lack of a political approach.

Urgent attention

The situation is so bad that a retired army officer, Lt Gen Nishikanta Singh, has described the state as “stateless”. He tweeted: “Life and property can be destroyed anytime by anyone just like in Libya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria, etc. It appears Manipur has been left to stew in its own juice. Is anyone listening?”

What has made the violence look like a civil war is that two communities, armed with weapons, seem to be in no mood to relent. 

Manipur imphal
Violence in Manipur initially broke out during a protest march on Tuesday by thousands of tribal people opposing a demand by a non-tribal group for the constitutionally defined status of a scheduled tribe. Image Credit: Twitter

Maintaining law and order

Adding weight to his voice, former Indian army chief General VP Malik has said the situation needs urgent attention. It should be a matter of concern if celebrated veterans of the army have to ask the politicians to pay attention to a conflict.

Further proof that the BJP needs to put on a more pro-active political hat in Manipur is that attacks on the houses of the BJP leaders. This is not simply a case of two communities fighting with each other; at least one community sees the BJP as being partisan.

When arsonists torched the house of Union minister Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, one of the state’s two Lok Sabha MPs, he openly criticised his own party’s government in the state. He said the Biren Singh government in the state had failed to maintain law and order even with the help of central security forces.

When a current minister of state for external affairs says his own party’s government has failed, do we need further persuasion that Biren Singh can’t go on?

National interest over political calculations

What is the BJP waiting for? It doesn’t need to dismiss the government, although veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta has reminded us that Indira Gandhi did not hesitate to dismiss her own party’s government in Punjab when insurgency reared its ugly head.

The BJP doesn’t even need to do that. They just have to make a call to CM Biren Singh asking him to put in his papers. They could even voluntarily dissolve the assembly, putting the state under president’s rule. This should open up the space for dialogue.

What is alarming presently is the breakdown of the writ of the state, the mobs clashing with each other with guns. One fears that this could be the beginning of a long, new conflict lasting years. Which is why we need to look at the situation in Manipur from a national interest prism.

If the BJP can change its chief ministers in Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Karnataka, what is stopping them from doing so in Manipur?

So even if removing Biren Singh may look like the BJP eating humble pie, so be it. The BJP’s obsession with not wanting to look weak is probably the reason why Biren Singh still has a job. But not removing him makes them look indecisive and frankly, even clueless.

Manipur needs a political intervention and it needs it now.