Charred remains of a car is seen in the violence-hit area of Manipur Image Credit: ANI

It is a sad fact India remains a land of stark contrasts and contradictory realities. While a grand and historic new parliament building was being inaugurated in Delhi, on the borders of the country, in distant Manipur, a conflagration claimed dozens of lives.

While I was among the first to write about the former, I deliberately refrained from covering the latter, even though the conflict is over three weeks old.

The reason for my reticence was that issue was too sensitive to be aired prematurely in the media. But the reported carnage of over 30 people over the last couple of days makes it impossible to turn one’s gaze away from our borders however dazzling the display of pageantry in the national capital.

No doubt, the inauguration of the new Parliament House in Delhi symbolises the aspirations and progress of a rapidly developing nation. The majestic structure stands lofty and impressive, a testament to India's democratic principles and its commitment to governance.

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A different reality

The event captured the attention of the entire nation, showcasing unity and the democratic values that underpin the country's foundation. The new Parliament House represents a beacon of hope and progress, fostering a sense of pride and national identity among its citizens. Even if a number of opposition parties boycotted the inauguration, cynics were quick brush that aside by saying that it was “politics as usual.”

But, while a splendid inauguration takes place in the capital of the nation, Manipur, a region situated on India's borders in the distant Northeast, faces a different reality. It is plagued by deep-rooted conflicts and political instability.

The people of Manipur have been grappling with issues like ethnic tensions, insurgency, and demands for autonomy. The region often witnesses protests, violence, and a constant state of unrest. Plus an endemic drug problem, so common to another of India’s border states, Punjab.

The flames of discontent continue to burn, reminding us of the challenges that persist in this forgotten corner of the country. What is happening in Manipur is not politics as usual. Rather it is a deadly civil war right on India’s porous borders with Myanmar.

How serious this situation is can be gauged not just by the high casualties or huge number of people displaced because their homes or places of worship were torched. But also by the fact that India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, widely considered as number two in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, establishment, has rushed to the conflict zone trying to take stock and meet all the stakeholders.

A signal to Delhi?

But the ethnic violence between armed ethnic groups in Manipur has long been a cause for concern. One wonders if the government was caught napping. Was the flare-up timed to coincide with the new Parliament House’s opening meant to send a signal to Delhi?

Weeks ago, I wrote about the need for a grand strategy for India if it is to be a great nation in FirstPost. I also underscored, in a follow-up column, the need to take Maoist insurgency movements across the country much more seriously.

Are proxy wars being waged against India on its own soil, exploiting ethnic, religious, or linguistic fault lines? Surely, the powers that be ought to be aware of such tactics in the hybrid wars that have dominated the landscape of international conflict for the last several decades.

Even a rudimentary survey should reveal the ideological inclinations or support base of the separatist movements in the state. The first of these was United National Liberation Front (UNLF), founded way back in November 1964, just six months after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.

In 1977, just after the end of the Emergency imposed by his daughter, prime minister Indira Gandhi, another revolutionary group, calling itself People's Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA), was formed. People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), two other militia followed suit, joining an armed struggle.

From neighbouring Nagaland, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) has also been active in Manipur, fuelling further instability in the region. Nagas form the second largest community in Manipur; the demand for greater Nagaland includes large portions of territory in Manipur.

The third community, the largely Christian Kukis, form another bleeding angle to this deadly communal triangle in the state. Their own militant groups include the Kuki National Organization (KNO) and the United People's Front (UPF).

The result is that the whole state was declared a disturbed area in September 1980, with the dreaded and draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 imposed on the region. Though covering far fewer areas, the act still remains in force, despite an elected government led by N. Biren Singh of the BJP being in place.

Historically, during colonial times, Manipur consisted of a small princely state ruled by a Hindu raja, with his kingdom made up of the ethnic Meitis confined largely to the lower lying areas and valleys. The hilly regions, called “Zomia,” were inhabited by tribal communities, including the Nagas and Kukis, under direct British rule.

The concept of “Zomia” was popularised by James C. Scott, an anthropologist, in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Zomia refers to a vast, mountainous region encompassing parts of Southeast Asia, including areas in Burma, China, India, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

It is characterised by its highland geography, rugged terrain, and the presence of various ethnic minority groups who have historically resisted state control and authority.

According to Scott, Zomia people are often characterized by their mobility, terrace cut farming practices, linguistic diversity, and resistance to assimilation.

When I first read this book, I wondered why Tibet, the highest plateau in the world, was not included in the so-called ungovernable “Zomia” topos. The answer should be obvious to the political astute. At any rate, the result of such analysis is that conflict zones in the North East are inevitable, a conclusion we cannot agree with.

(To be concluded)