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Hindutva Is A ‘Friend’ That Manipur’s Meiteis Would Be Better Without

Hindutva campaign targeting Kukis for their Christian faith is leading to global perception of the Manipur situation as a religious conflict, diverting focus from the real issues.

A young woman of Meitei community is seen at relief camp in Moirang village, Imphal
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When the European Parliament on July 10 listed a motion on Manipur to be discussed during its plenary session two days later, it made a section of Manipur’s riot-torn people hopeful that the global attention would finally result in the desired actions from New Delhi that Imphal has been crying for. 

The actual discussion, however, elicited different responses from the two warring communities in Manipur. The European Parliament saw it as part of the “Hindu majoritarianism” that the BJP-ruled India has become known for. “Intolerance towards religious and belief minorities has contributed to the current violence,” the resolution noted, and called for the protection of “all religious minorities, such as Manipur’s Christian community.” 

The motion brought some relief to Manipur’s tribal-Christian Kuki-Chin population, as their issues were highlighted. But it upset the Meiteis, Manipur’s majority population who are mostly Hindus, as they thought the whole issue had been misunderstood by the European Union parliamentarians.    

Journalist Rinku Khumukcham, editor of Imphal Times, an Imphal-based English-language evening daily, was one of those to be initially hopeful but later upset. He wrote it was “unfortunate” that the EP parliamentarians were “ill-informed” and were “given a distorted narrative” showing the ongoing conflict as “mere religious persecution of minority Christians.” 

Persecution of religious minorities under Hindu majoritarian BJP’s rule has increasingly made global news and the international watchers perhaps thought the developments in Manipur fell in the same pattern. Even senior politicians and academics from other parts of India have described the Manipur violence as a case of religious conflict, in which Metei Hindus were targetting Kuki Christians. 

For example, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor tweeted in June saying that there was mounting disquiet among Christians in Kerala about the Prime Minister’s silence on the violence in Manipur. He, obviously, took it to be a case of religious conflict. 

One of the main reasons why a large number of people outside Manipur are perceiving the ongoing violence as a case of persecution of religious minorities – which would actually be a wrong way to describe the conflict – is the overzealous online campaign by Hindutva activists vilifying Kukis for their Christian identity. 

Soon after the beginning of the conflict on May 3 started a flood of social media posts targeting Kukis as ‘Christian terrorists.’ While tweets from handles belonging to Meiteis mostly blamed ‘Kuki terrorists’ or ‘Kuki militants’ or ‘Kuki drug mafias’ and ‘Kuki narco terrorists’, the profiles belonging to Hindutva activists, operated mostly by people outside Manipur, started vilifying ‘Kuki Christian terrorists.’ 

A look at how social media campaigns peddled different narratives reveal that the handles operated by Kukis initially described it as an attack on tribals, and blamed Meiteis, but did not refer to them as ‘Meitei Hindus’. However, the emergence of the ‘Save Meitei Hindus’ or ‘Save Hindus in Manipur’ campaigns coincided with their strategy of highlighting the Christian identity of the Kukis. 

Visuals of the burning and destruction of churches added fuel to the campaign on religious lines, and so did the visuals of attacks on temples, though the latter were fewer in number. 

The hateful campaign unleashed by Hindutva activists highlighting the Hindu identity of the Meiteis prompted a large number of people outside Manipur to suspect Hindu majoritarian complicity in the ongoing conflict, leading to the general perception of Manipur conflict as a case of persecution of minority Christians. 

The Perception 

Arambam Luther, a senior sub-editor at the Imphal Free Press, one of Manipur’s highest-circulated English dailies, wrote in mid-June that the timing of the conflict was ‘rather uncanny and unfortunate’. 

“This conflict erupted while the rest of the Indian nation is witnessing a widespread menace of Hindu supremacists making hate speeches, attacking Muslims and Adivasis, etc., making life a literal hell for those who are not Hindus, while the face who is said to be behind this whole RSS brigade and Hindutva ideology is sitting at the Centre,” he wrote while castigating ‘Left-liberals’ for spreading a distorted narrative of the Manipur conflict. 

“This created a perfect atmosphere for the left-leaning mainland media houses, which are up against Modi and his far-right politics, to happily interpret the prevailing conflict as another instance of Hindu supremacists over minorities, though the particular issue has nothing to do with religion,” he wrote. 

In many ways, Luther is right, but let us have a peek into the campaign of the Hindu right, who have taken upon themselves the task to defend the Meiteis.   

Multiple Hindutva handles, such as SK (@pahadanldki_SK), Ritu #जिष्णु (@RituRathaur), Manoj (@facet9949), Naren Mukherjee (@NMukherjee6), and Vladimir Adityanath (@VLDMIRADITYNATH) highlighted the conflict as an attack on Hindus soon after the violence broke out, trying to implicate Christian missionaries for the mayhem. They started popularising the hashtag #justiceforManipuriHindus. 

For example, on May 17, Vladimir Adityanath first wrote in a tweet that “The #Meiteis betrayed by Nehru and restricted to 10% of their land is facing a systematic church controlled ethnic cleansing for decades” and then followed it up with another tweet, “First govt. MLA,  now #SupremeCourt denies justice to the Hindu majority #Meitei in Manipur. The only country where the state and judiciary denies basic rights to Hindus, discriminating against their own native culture.”

Manoj wrote on May 20, “They set fire to the churches themselves so that they can claim a hefty compensation from the Government, raise huge amounts of money from former colonial powers and pretend to play victims while being perpetrators of violence. Stop supremacist church.” In a following tweet, he wrote, “Present violence unleashed against Meites is connected to the hatred spread by proselytising church in Manipur, very similar to how they target local customs, religion, and practices everywhere.” 

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However, most pro-Meitei handles did not refer to the religious identity of either side for most of May. This started changing ahead of the June 4 ‘peace rally’ by Meitei at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, an event for the success of which the Hindutva camp visibly made significant efforts.  

Therefore, the handle of Homer (Arsenal_Homer), which was describing Kukis as ‘militants’, ‘terrorists’, ‘illegal immigrants', and ‘drug lords’ all along but never mentioned religion, started referring to their Christian identity. By June 4, the account had started posting tweets like: “Save the indigenous Meitei Hindu Population in Manipur.  They are the only remaining Hindu stronghold in the Northeast. Once they are gone, Hindus are gone from the Northeast of India.” 

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Noting this change, Deikim, a pro-Kuki handle, wrote, “The Sanamahi fanatics have now attempted to promulgate the situation as a religious clash in order to gain sympathy from the Hindu population.”

In fact, it would not be right to describe the entire Meitei population as Hindus, not the least in the sense that Hindu societies in ‘mainland India’ are. While most of the Meitei practice Vaishnavite Hinduism and have their temples, there also are followers of the traditional Sanamahism, which centres on nature worship. Sanamahis may not necessarily have religious structures like temples but treat the southwest corner of their home as their place of worship. Sanamahism is the link to the past Meitei status as a tribe. 

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Nevertheless, for nearly a decade now, India and the world have become quite well familiar with the plot of ‘Hindu Khatre Mein Hain’ or Hindus are in danger – a perceived victimhood that Hindu majoritarianism plays as part of their strategy – even as India has continued to record an increasing number of atrocities on Muslims and Christians. Every time these Hindu supremacists cry ‘Hindu khatre mein hain’, a large number of people suspect foul play. 

People do get judged by their friends, by their associations, even if it may not always be the right thing in every case. In the case of the Manipur conflict, the allegations of ‘Hindu genocide’ and ‘Hindu exodus’ spread by Hindutva handles known for systematically spreading hatred against Muslims and Christians have, in many ways, harmed the interests of the Meiteis, at least when it comes to public perception outside Manipur.  

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For, it would be wrong to identify any particular side as ‘the perpetrator.’

The Problem 

Union home minister Amit Shah, during his visit to Manipur, had blamed the Manipur high court ruling on granting Scheduled Tribes (ST) status to the Meiteis for the entire chaos – a ruling that has faced the Supreme Court’s ire as well. It was against this order that protests were organised in different parts of the Kuki-dominated hill areas of the state on May 3. 

The state’s two major tribal groups, both Nagas and Kukis, opposed the valley-based Meiteis’ demand for ST status, as it would enable them to buy land in the hill areas, which they are currently not allowed. But the reason why trouble broke out only in the Kuki-dominated areas and not the Naga-inhabited hills lies in how a campaign targeting the Kukis were intensifying over the preceding months. 

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The valley-based Meiteis, who make up the state’s majority population, blame ‘Kuki narco-terrorism' involving Myanmar-based drug lords operating in Manipur through Kuki militants and illegal Myanmarese immigrants for the entire chaos. They allege that the Biren Singh government’s drive against the drug economy – poppy cultivation and opium trade to be precise – is the real reason.  

But these are all administrative issues that could have been tackled by administrative measures – identifying and arresting kingpins of drug rackets, burning of poppy fields, and increasing vigilance on the international border to monitor movements of people displaced from Myanmar and the armed militants. 

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But the state government turned it into a political issue and carried out a campaign in a manner that vilified the entire Kuki community, whereas it has been seen time and again that such rackets operate in collaboration with a section of security forces and politicians and many of them are not Kukis. A rise in Meitei majoritarianism engineered by Meitei extremist groups like Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun added fuel to the fire. 

Just like ‘Bangladeshi’ became a term used for the otherisation of all Bengalis in Assam, and Bengali Muslims in particular in West Bengal, ‘Myanmarese illegal immigrants’ served to ‘otherise’ the entire Kuki community, who have their ethnic kins from Myanmar, facing military attack under the army rule there, sneaking in India’s Manipur and Mizoram states since Myanmar’s February 2021 coup. 

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This growing anxiety over linking the community with Myanmar-connected drug rackets and armed groups got amplified by the Meitei demand to be allowed to settle in the hill areas. 

If we look at United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)’s recent data, the infiltration from Kuki-Chin dominated Chin state and Sagaing region of Myanmar stands at a little over 8,000 in Manipur and over 40,000 in Mizoram. Since the Kuki-Chin-Mizo group of people form the overwhelming majority of the population in Mizoram, the infiltration from Myanmar has not yet created any social tension there. 

But if we look at the UNHCR figure, is the number in Manipur at all warranting a campaign like demanding a citizenship screening exercise? Of course, Meiteis say the actual numbers are higher and that many have already got themselves enrolled as voters in India. But couldn’t the government of India step in to deal with a problem arising out of international developments? 

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The demand for a citizenship screening exercise in Manipur in line with Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) triggered anxieties among the Kuki population because they are the newest settlers. While the Meiteis are living in the valley and the Nagas in the northern hills for many centuries, Kuki habitations in the southern hills are recorded since the 18th century only. That too makes it more than two centuries but the Kukis also have a history of migration in post-Independence years, not only from Myanmar but also from Mizoram. 

Of course, Kuki militants with Myanmar connections and cross-border drug rackets have a major role to play in this conflict. It is undeniable that poppy cultivation in recent years has remained predominant in the hill areas inhabited by the Kukis and that such cultivation has also resulted in a loss of forest cover. 

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But it can be missed that the chief minister who tried to play an environmental crusader with regard to the Kuki-dominated hill areas played a totally opposite role when it came to protecting the Loktak Lake, the mirror and crown of Manipur, where he has been hard-pushing a luxury tourism project that can endanger the natural ecosystem of this Ramsar Site - a wetland of global importance – and the livelihood of people traditionally dependent on the lake. 

It is also worth remembering that ahead of the 2022 assembly election, there were widespread allegations of Kuki militants batting for BJP candidates in exchange for promised leeways. Seven of the state’s 10 Kuki MLAs belong to the BJP and several of them have various degrees of connections with Kuki militant groups. 

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At the same time, the Kuki politicians’ rather irresponsible call for a separate administration only worsened the scenario. Manipur’s territorial integrity has been a highly sensitive issue and its integration with India in 1951 itself has been challenged by a section of Meitei militant groups. There has been intense opposition to Naga militants’ demand of including Manipur’s Naga-dominated areas in their proposed ‘Nagalim’ or greater Nagaland. No wonder the Meiteis are seeing the Kuki politician’s demand as part of the Kuki militants’ larger demand for Zalengam, the greater Kuki nation.

A set of local and cross-border political and economic interests, clubbed with old nationhood ideas of every ethnic group, led to the present crisis in Manipur and it will be in the best interest of the state to stop highlighting religion, which is not at all at the centre of the problem. Hindutva campaigners from ‘mainland India’ would continue to try to exploit the situation to further their own agenda outside Manipur but it would do neither Manipur nor the Meiteis any good. The more the Meiteis fall into this trap, the more Manipur will be known as a case of ‘religious conflict.’ 

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