An innocent woman killed at the main market in Imphal when police fired at a suspected insurgent

An innocent woman killed at the main market in Imphal when
police fired at a suspected insurgent

Manipur sanaleimayol

Chingna koina panshaba lam Haona koina panngakpa lam

Manipur sana leibakna Matau asumna pallami,

Maong asumna leirami.

Friends, Manipuris and countrymen; I’ve come to bury ethnic-strife, not to praise it.

Gone are the days of lying between the sheets all charred with mendacious happiness, with head over the pillows tainted with romantic dreams. A lesson on a formula of a composite Manipur should be bedtime reading for those who have no time to read.

Gone with the wind are the stories of Meitei/Naga chivalry that no longer fit into the lean, callous Indian news machine. In the existing tumultuous political and social disorder in Manipur where gun-toting youths dictate the community’s life, we should begin bemoaning with flickers of angst, the existing ethnic divide.

Manipur is the most unsafe state in India, unlike Kashmir where its insurgents do not harm their own people. Everybody in Manipur can expect a bullet or a hand grenade any day from any of the various groups of insurgents, particularly KCP.

Manipur has been standing with one foot in hell for a long time with anarchy and seasons of ethnic discontent. It’s time for all the players in the theatre of war, to come to the negotiating table to work out the issue of ethnicity and inequality.

All Manipuris are familiar with the above ballad. It means something to anyone who looks back at the history of Manipur. It’s time for the young and old folks of Manipur to familiarise themselves with its core meaning.

The lyricism of this narrative song is a sentimental explication that the chingmees and tammees lived together in and defended Manipur in historical times.

I have been writing to chagrin of many to sink home with empirical and some archaeological evidence that Manipur belongs to both the hill and plane people and that Manipuri language is not a Tibeto-Burman language.

They are preamble to my conviction that Manipur will remain as it is, unchanged by forces of nihilism, as will Kashmir. Who will dare ask the Chinese to hand back the part of Kashmir in their occupation?

India promised plebiscite in Kashmir and Junagard, and then it reneged. The UN is helpless as India says it is an internal matter, which is cogent in International law. India has yet to agree to a plebiscite in Manipur ie a proposal to secede Manipur from India.

In the meantime, all of us in Manipur should join hands to build a strong Manipuri identity and sing “Auld Lang Syne”. Why? Without it we will lose our cultural and ethnic identity and we will remain forever just as “Northeasterners”. Manipur will continue to live under military occupation, curtailing our freedom – not having the same rights as other Indians. Further, the inherent neglect by Delhi will turn into a legitimate excuse for not developing Manipur.

Time changes and with it human nature changes with culture and religion, which have an intense effect on human behaviour. Because they determine how people react to others and

express their feeling to others.

Manipuris are at a crisis situation, at a point of time when a critical decision must be made. Ethnic discontent and internecine fighting are hampering our progress.

We must have a certain future and a progressive goal as the Americans have – known as ‘American dream’. We need a dream – a ‘Manipuri dream’ and a plan for our posterity. We cannot leave their destiny in the lap of gods.

A few school children from Manipur sent me emails asking for guidance as ‘they are confused’ about their future. A Naga doctor from Dimapur sent me an email, equally confused about his origin.

The scenario I am proposing is not predictions or depictions of a desirable future, which I wish to promote. It is designed to help people understand the major trends that would shape our Manipuri identity. The aim is to challenge, inspire and excite so that people feel motivated to plan for a better, more sustainable future for Manipuris.

We need to form a “federal” Manipur, based on the Swiss Federation. The word “federation” is loosely used here, in the sense that all the ethnic communities resolve to build a prosperous Manipur despite the variance in culture, language and religion.

Evidence as the foundation of history will show the chances of an independent Manipur vis-à-vis the Government of India and the possibility of forming a greater Nagaland vis-à-vis the Meiteis. But good luck to those who are still struggling for an independent Manipur or wanting to integrate parts of Manipur with Nagaland.

The insurgency is quiet on the northern front (Nagaland) and inside Manipur. Even the anti-AFSPA movement is as quiet as a mouse. Everyday a few insurgent cadres are getting “nabbed” by the security forces, and a few surrender intermittently. In view of the total number of insurgent cadres, the fighting force will soon decimate to only a few effete Kalashnikov holders.

In the case of the ‘Nagas’ of Manipur (not an eponym I would like to use for Manipuri tribal peoples who have different respectable names), they should now look into their conscience and reformulate the old plan for building a ‘Naga nation’ for better prospects that might accrue from joining Nagaland. The grass is always greener on the other side.

It is not clear who are the “Nagas” and who are not in Manipur. Generally, by Nagas it seems to mean Tangkhuls, Mao-Maram and Kabuis. What is the future for the rest of the 36 different tribal groups in Manipur?

Mixing theory with practice is not always compatible. Theory gives us framework for analysing a problem while practice gives us experience. Theoretically, the Nagas must, by now realise that in Manipur they are Manipuris but in Nagaland they are outsiders and will always be treated as such.

The NSCN(K) faction openly says that Muivah is a Tangkhul not a Naga and Tangkhuls are not Nagas.


The leader of the NSCN (IM) at the moment is Muivah – a Tangkhul and there are many Tangkhuls in this faction. It’s a matter of worry what the outcome would be when Muivah is no longer the leader.

As an advance notice, some NSCN (IM)) killed many Tangkhuls at Dimapur on May 5 2008. This sort of events does not occur in Manipur – their state.

On March 5 2011 NSCN (IM) killed a cadre of the Zeliangrong United Front in a gun battle at Khoupum Tampak.

There is also disillusionment among the Phungyar Tangkhuls as they see the reality. They are demanding the creation of a Manipuri district of their own by dividing the present Ukhrul district into haves, pouring cold water on the UNC’s separatist policy.


Large numbers of Kabuis live in the Imphal plane scattered in fifty odd villages. They have undergone microevolution differing from their counterpart Zeliangrongs in the hills, in looks, culture and habits. They have already expressed their views of staying put in Manipur, as they feel closer with the Meiteis.

History will imitate itself. We know the plight of Bihari Muslim immigrants to Muslim East Pakistan in 1947, and the atrocities they suffer since 1971 when they were forced to go to Pakistan from Bangla Desh. They are contemptuously treated as mhajir (immigrants). They now wish they never left India where fellow Muslims enjoy equal rights and opportunities of any Indian.

During the Calcutta Hindu-Muslim riots in 1947, some Meitei Pangals took shelter with Meitei students. They are descendants of Meitei mothers ie blood relations.

I am aware how ATSUM and ANSAM feel about the Meiteis and that the main cause of their ethnic strife is ethnicity and not economic disparity. I have full sympathy with them. On the other side of the coin, the Meitei youths are far from happy that all the top jobs are given to tribal people because of the quota system and that they pay no taxes for their large remunerations.

They object that they are denied settlement in the hills because of “protective racism” while every community is welcome to the Imphal valley. They claim that post-modern and liberalised Meiteis believe that there is no institutional discrimination against any ‘tribe’ in Manipur.

Having posited a dismal future for all of us, my thesis is aimed at finding an amicable solution for all the Manipuri communities. That’s where our prosperous future lies. It’s time for all ethnic groups to resolve ethnic conflicts to live together in relative harmony while maximising equality in the distribution of political and economic resources.

Manipuris are marching to an unheard drum in an arid political clime. It’s time for mothballing the old history of Manipur; it’s time for burying the hatchet; it’s time for the creation and reinforcement of a collective identity for Manipuris.

We need an increased share of a common language of Manipuri and an equal share of our economy, and willingness to celebrate a plural and secular society. We have to forge ahead in the larger interest of Manipur for Manipuris.

We have a common language that does not affect the right of ethnic minorities of other languages to use their native languages. Speaking the same language makes one feel belonging to the same community.


Political legitimacy is indeed central to the sustenance of Manipuri identity. But the existence of secessionist movements reflects a lack of legitimacy. The lack of state legitimacy relates to the rise of ethnic conflict and competing ethnonationalism. Repressive policies to deal with ethnic dissent are counterproductive. In the absence of other feasible solutions, all of us in Manipur need to find a solution. I have a solution aimed at challenging the existing political disorder in Manipur.

At the risk of highfalutin, a strong sense of belonging to Manipur should be founded on a common language of Manipuri, a common historical background, shared values and Manipuri symbolism of “Chingna koina pan saba…”

As examples, during our student days in Darjeeling, Shibo Mao, Shonkhhao Kipgen, Waikhom Damodor and I conversed in Manipuri and we felt Manipuris separate from the Nagas, who we regarded as some other people.

I grew up with Kabuis in the Imphal town and my father had a Kabui Chakprasi called Yaima whom we treated as if he was a Meitei, calling him Tayaima. I had many Tangkhul friends, and even a girlfriend.

So I have a proposition for all those like-minded people of Manipur that it would far better for all of us – Manipuris to create a distinct Manipuri civic identity among the population and to differentiate it from neighbouring states, often akin in tribalism, language and/or religion, following the example of the Swiss nation, which took 50 years on the road towards a more united Swiss State with the formation of a Federal Constitution in 1948.

Switzerland was built mainly because of political reasons by different ethnic communities. It is not a homogenous nation. It has been allowing ethnic groups to retain their cultural identities and institutions. It was exclusively German in the beginning. The confederation was formed by the alliance of valleys and cities.

Switzerland is an example of a successful ‘multinational’ and ‘multicultural’ state. The Swiss ‘nation’ worked for a “national spirit” and the “conscience of working for a nation” that fostered the nation building process, without transforming into linguistic or cultural homogenisation.

The Swiss confederation is rightly seen as an outstanding example of the successful political integration of differing ethnic affinities. Switzerland is ‘a nation by the consent’ of its differing parts. It is described as a multilingual “nation by will” or multicultural polity. It entered an age of political upheavals as in Manipur, which was to last for fifty years.

The Swiss “model” to settle violent nationality-conflicts has been a recurrent phenomenon since 1948 – most recently, for example, in the proposals of bringing peace to Cyprus and Bosnia.

There are specific conditions out of which Switzerland developed along with complex institutional apparatus and political culture of the modern federal state.

Switzerland is a landlocked country like Manipur (- definitely not Switzerland of the East), geographically divided between the Alps, the Central Plateau and the Jura, spanning an area of 41,285 km². The Alps occupy the greater part of the country. The Swiss population is approximately 7.9 million people mostly on the Plateau with the largest and global cities and economic centres of Zurich and Geneva.

The Swiss nation consists of four ethnically different people: German (bordering Germany, French (bordering France), Italian (bordering Italy) and a minority – Rumantsch in Southeastern Switzerland.

In Switzerland there are four official languages, but in everyday public life, only one or two of the official languages will be spoken depending on the region.

The solution to a ‘Swiss nation building’ consisted in a form of ‘personal’ and not ‘territorial’ federalism that would make each citizen of the Empire ‘at home’ in any part of the country. In such a political system all the four nations take part equally in the common polity.

The personal (non-territorial) federalism consists in giving to individuals a statute allowing them to depend on the rules edited by a federal entity. Federalism protects personal liberty of any individual of any community.

Like Switzerland, Manipur needs to transform itself into a multi-ethnic state of Manipur with a sense of a collective national identity, each community taking part in common institutions and practices, separated from a ‘culturalist’ and ethnic perspective. The question is undoubtedly, how to formulate?

We need an intellectual circle representing all the communities to participate in an intellectual nation-building process. We need people with confidence that there are sufficient common grounds for the union to succeed with underlying ideologies of a free and progressive liberalisation, and there is nothing to worry about than the ethnic diversities of its members.

We need a few like-minded people from each ethnic group to begin with, and form a leveraging nucleus with tentacles. Once agreed and formed, such a circle should devise how to build a composite Manipuri identity based on parity of facilities and equal distribution of “wealth” – annual handouts from Delhi (at the moment), on which our subsistence depends.

Politicians with such broader aims in their manifestoes should be chosen to form a ‘unitary’ democratic government in Imphal, that can handle issues of ethnicity and inequality. This will then be a ‘federal government’. The term “federacy” is loosely used here in the context of participation of all communities in Manipur for the purpose of solving mutual problems.

The Federation of Switzerland consists of sovereign states, each capable of functioning as an independent state. Manipur is a mini ‘unitary state’ in which administrative district units exercise only those powers granted to them from the state government in Imphal, as in the UK, before devolution.

To allow room for local democracy and accountability, a miniature of political system at the district level could be established for spending the funds financed by the Central government, through the State Government. A political strength has a substantial impact on budget responsibility at the local level. The trouble is the districts with a weak political leadership will tend to have large budget deficits. But this is not insurmountable.

The big hurdle will come from demands from the Meiteis to stop application of Schedule V and VI to hill areas, allowing them to purchase land in the hill ranges, which consists of 90% of total area of Manipur, keeping particular safeguards.

They claim that there is no prohibition to the tribal people buying land and settling anywhere in the Imphal plane. On the other hand, the purported advantages of the Meitei majority is now getting neutralised by the advantageous rights of the minority tribal people. Agreeably, the abolition of the above safeguards for the time being will be inappropriate as the tribal people need special protection due to disadvantageous conditions. But they question – how long?

In the eyes of the law, everybody is equal in Manipur as well as in India. Disparity in social status, economy and education exists everywhere in India. There is nothing like a perfect system of government. But there must be a fair attempt to narrow down the disparity.

Manipur is a state in democratic India. There will be disparity in some form or the other. That is why we have a representative democratic government in Imphal. Any grievance should be aired through the medium of elected members of the Manipur Legislative Assembly.

Manipuris need a think tank or a policy institute ie a non-profit organisation that conducts research and engage in advocacy in areas such as economy, social policy or political strategy that will be fair to all ethnic groups, big or small. There must be ‘give and take’ approach, better than ‘take and give’ policy.

The growing civilisation in Manipur as against the savage needs forethought ie the willingness to endure present pains for the sake of the future pleasures, even though the future pleasures are very distant as was the case in Switzerland. We should check our impulses through law, custom and religion. We should be less instinctive as among the savage and more systematic as among the civilised.

As the purposes of the community are enforced upon the individual, the purposes of such a ‘federalised’ state should be enforced on the communities.

As a counter to the power of ethno-nationalism, which has been mushrooming in Manipur, attempts should be made to portray the political “Manipur by will”, transcending language culture and ethnicity, as an antithesis, or even to recast the lack of “objective Manipur” as a virtue, as a specifically civilisatory mission entrusted to Manipur.

What has always been the most problematic of Manipur’s linguistic-cum-ethnic differences is the contrast between the Majority Meitei and the minority tribals. This can be solved by attempts made to portray the political “nation by will” by pressure groups in each community on the motto that what you expect from others shall be performed to others.

As the Northeast Indians are finding out that their ethnicity as Mongoloid Indians has profound consequences for their physical safety, political status and economic prospects in India, this paper looks into the ethnic conflict in the tiny state of Manipur.

Manipur is not the only region where ethnic-conflict is phenomenal. They are world-wide.

There is immigrant Muslim ethnic conflict in the UK while integrating Indians assimilate in the British culture.

One should understand as I do why Manipuri Nagas want to secede and join Nagaland. It’s naught to do with political economy but ethnicity ie to join fellow Nagas and live for ever “without perceived discrimination”.

As there are many violent confrontations along ethnic lines after the end of the Cold war many political scientists have studied ethnic strife and its remedies. There are differing schools of thought. The following are my suggested remedies.

Defining the causes of ethnic strife in Manipur is easy as they do elsewhere, by just cataloguing a cocktail of poverty, misunderstanding, resentment, cultural intolerance and perceived injustices. But finding remedies is very difficult.

Ethnic conflict is caused by ethnicity, which mobilises, structures and manages ethnic organisations. Further, their leaders use ethnic divisive strategies to mobilise political support.

The potential for ethnic conflict is almost universal because there are very few states with only one ethnic group. Manipur is no exception as there are 36 ethnic groups.

Democracy alone cannot ensure ethnic harmony. Instead it allows freer expression of ethnic antagonisms as it does in Manipur.

In theory, in Manipur, leaders of the dominant Meitei group gain office and then use state institutions to distribute economic and political benefits preferentially to the Meiteis and thus discriminate against other minority tribes. That is, the state is ineffective in addressing the concerns of their constituencies.

The minority ethnic groups having endured alleged discrimination for over sixty years felt that their shared deprivation has been long enough and thus mobilised political support on ethnic lines.

In reality, the cause of ethnic conflict is primordial. That is, ethnic conflict exists because there are traditions of belief and actions towards primordial objects such as biological features and especially territorial location and the concept of kinship between members of ethnic groups such as Kabuis, Tangkhuls and Nagas. This kinship makes it possible for ethnic groups to think in terms of family resemblances.

The leaders of the minority ethnic groups in Manipur want accommodation in terms of jobs, economy, security, development, health care and so on. When they are not forth coming from or judged “politically infeasible” by the dominant group, the leaders take recourse to violent protests.

The more radicalised leaders became militant. Underground groups came into existence. This usually causes the birth of ethnonationationalism that can help delineate the geographical, political and cultural relationship with its neighbours.

The territorial integrity of Manipur is now vigorously challenged by the diversity of 36 ethnic groups living in the state. The insurgents of these ethnic Kukis, Nagas, Kacha Nagas (Zemi Nagas now) and smaller units like Hmar, Paite. Gangte etc all demand regional autonomy or independence. Meiteis want an independent Kangleipak while Kukis dream of Zalengam. Nagas prefer to form Nagalim.

However, in Manipur ethnic conflict preceded such a current scenario. Before the Manipur state came into existence in 1947, Athiko Daiho from Mao and a few other prominent leaders from other tribal groups formed the National Naga League in September 1946 for separate Naga inhabited areas.

I have full sympathy for these organisations of ethnic groups; because that was what they thought was the best for them – a state for all the tribal groups outside of the majority Hindu Meiteis, for better living.

The cause of ethnic conflict in Manipur is thus political ethnicity and not economic disparity.

The later is only a vehicle to fight the ethnic war. This makes it very hard to find a tangible remedy short of secession, which is anachronism to the Meiteis who also have survival instincts.

However, for the benefit of the respective parties time and events have changed since 1946. The tribal people have become educated and the Meiteis have become liberalised and more and more willing to accommodate tribal people as fellow Manipuris in equal terms. There have been increasing intermarriages as Christianity has become more acceptable among the Meiteis.

The problem is not endless. It is not like the demands of Mongoloid Nagaland and Manipur to secede form mayang India. Anyone in northeast India must not be deluded that India will part with Nagaland or Manipur. Three wars with Pakistan and dedicated Kashmiri militants failed to dislodge Kashmir from India. However, this is not the point of my article.

My article is about suggestions as to how the different ethnic groups in Manipur could reconcile themselves, not overnight but in time. Time is a good healer.

There are three possible types of ethnic conflict outcomes in Manipur: (1) peaceful reconciliation as advocated by the Meiteis; (2) peaceful separation as demanded by the Nagas; and (3) endless ethnic conflicts.

Looking at the three options, which have been in existence for a number of years and from the security-centric Indian Government, a peaceful ethnic reconciliation is the best option.

The majority Meiteis and minority ethnic groups need to share ideas and devise new mini constitutional arrangements to address specific concerns of grievances especially more local autonomy and minority rights guarantees such as quota reservations for universities, jobs, and the continuation of the application of Schedule V within a new federal structure with more political, economic, cultural or administrative autonomy within existing institutional arrangements.

These arrangements will provide security and promote economic prosperity for the ethnic minorities.

According to UN Report on Ethnicity and Development in 2004, accommodating people’s growing demands for their inclusion in society, for respect of their ethnicity, religion, and culture is the mainstay of remedying ethnic conflicts.

The 2004 Report builds on that analysis, by carefully examining and rejecting claims that cultural differences necessarily lead to social, economic and political conflict or that inherent cultural rights should supersede political and economic ones.

The UN Report makes a case for respecting diversity and building more inclusive societies by adopting policies that explicitly recognize cultural differences – multicultural policies:

(1) Cultural liberty is a vital part of human development because being able to choose one’s identity is important in leading a full life;

(2) Cultural liberty allows people to live the lives they value without being excluded from other choices important to them such as education, health or job opportunities;

(3) Several emerging models of multicultural democracy provide effective mechanisms for power sharing between culturally diverse groups;

(4) Power sharing arrangements have broadly proven to be critical in resolving tensions; and

(5) Multicultural policies that recognize differences between groups are needed to address injustices historically rooted and socially entrenched.

These are good theories but the practical application is quite another kettle of fish but not impossible.

In Manipur for a start, because of hierarchal form of unitary government, we need a body of policy makers representing all the tribal groups that can influence the state government policy-making power.