“Doesn't a tree's greatest strength lie in its roots, not its branches?” I quote a headline from a news report published by a national media outlet which quoted BJP’s Manipur MLA Letpao Haokip demanding separate administration for the hill districts. "Will die of hunger but won't return to the valley,” he said.
However, I am among those cohorts who believe otherwise, as I envision a progressive and inclusive Manipur. In recent times, social media echo chambers have played a significant role in enabling radical groups to spread hate speech, misinformation, propaganda, and conspiracy theories, ultimately leading to the incitement of violence.
The world has already witnessed violent incidents resulting from these echo chambers, such as the 2021 US Capitol riot, the 2021 military coup in Myanmar, the 2020 communal riots in Delhi, and the 2017 Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, among others. These online spaces allow individuals to surround themselves with like-minded people who share similar opinions, beliefs, and values. Within these echo chambers, people are exposed to information and ideas that reinforce their existing views, making them less receptive to alternative perspectives. This contributes to the incitement of violence by creating polarized and hostile environments, while also facilitating the spread of false information and radical content.
This is likely the exact reason behind the present crisis in Manipur, with troublemakers dragging the entire Meitei and Kuki community into an ugly ethnic clash, that erupted on 3rd May 2023, Manipur, killing over 72, over 230 injured, displacing over 70,000 people and thousands of properties were arsoned and vandalized.
It is crucial to recognize the dangers of echo chamber platforms currently operating in Manipur, as their sole mission is to serve their own community. A greater sense of accountability should be directed towards the larger civilian population on both sides who have nothing to do with these issues but simply desire basic necessities like food and a peaceful night's sleep. Therefore, it is important to promote critical thinking and dialogue across ideological divides to reduce the risk of violence, especially considering that a financially struggling state like Manipur cannot afford such conflicts. Furthermore, these platforms should be strictly monitored, and crackdowns should be carried out by the state. If found guilty, they should be legally charged.
Generally, media outlets often adhere to the notion that sensationalism sells, following the motto "if it bleeds, it leads." However, solely focusing on conflicts and problems and leaving it to the audience to reason for themselves can be misleading. Media outlets possess the power not only to mirror society but also to shape and influence it.
By featuring headlines highlighting efforts, resilience and actions of ordinary people for example “Kuki women form human chain to protect Meitei people from mob”, “Human touch: How Meitei women protected Kuki women in Imphal”, “ In Manipur, a long friendship defies community enmity and strife” The story of two young Manipuris, one Meitei, the other Kuki, - that not only convey the problem but also highlight potential solutions, a human touch, media outlets can demonstrate a commitment to constructive journalism. This approach plays a crucial role in promoting a more nuanced understanding of situations, fostering empathy, and encouraging peaceful resolution.
By shifting the narrative away from polarization and towards recognizing the shared humanity of all those affected by violence, media outlets can contribute to creating a more harmonious society. However, the implementation of such an approach seems to be less apparent of late, particularly in Manipur. This is not to undermine the efforts of those who are striving hard. Given the significance of these approaches for peaceful coexistence in a diverse society, it should be a priority for the state to invest in constructive journalism and provide training opportunities for human resources in Manipur through professional courses and coaching from experts around the world. The overwhelming influx of biased information from social media, traditional media, and personal experiences of violence, conflict, and communal riots often fosters the development of negative emotions. In the ongoing crisis in Manipur, negative emotions are pervasive among the two communities and may leave lasting scars that hinder reconciliation, unless approached with sensitivity.
However, it is important to recognize that negative emotions are learned through experiences, observations, and socialization. Consequently, it is also possible to learn positive emotions and psychology, as emphasized by renowned American psychologist Martin Seligman. Both positive and negative emotions can be learned, unlearned, relearned, or modified with the right support and resources.
This process takes time and may require persistence and dedication. While this may seem unrealistic, it is crucial if we envision a progressive Manipur and seek the well-being of ourselves and our beloved children. It is imperative that we focus on cultivating positive emotions that strive for greater equality, fairness, and justice for all individuals. However, the larger questions remain: How can we achieve this? Are there common grounds for reconciliation? Despite the current crisis stemming from years of mistrust and paranoia, we must explore if any such common grounds still exist.
During my observation from the reporting of the current crisis in Manipur, I noticed a trend of queries by the troublemaker targeting individuals' ethnicity, either through Aadhar or Icard verification or direct questioning such as "Are you a Meitei or a Kuki?" This raises the question of why such information is required and highlights the irony that we all share a striking resemblance. In fact, a research article by Kshatriya et al., 2016, titled "Genetic structure of Zeme and Kuki tribes," illustrates how closely related the Kuki and Meitei communities are in terms of genetic lineage. This closeness likely extends to other tribes and indigenous groups in Manipur as well such as Tangkhuls, Thangal, Mao, Maram, or the Koirengs (just shared an example for illustration). Such scientific studies provide valuable evidence of our shared ancestry, highlighting the futility and division caused by emphasizing ethnic differences. With advancements in genome sequencing, it is now even possible to delve into the single nucleotide level for more scientific evidence of our common origin. Such scientific evidence reinforces the notion that our roots and shared ancestry should be a unifying factor rather than a cause for division or discrimination.
As we are now bound together under the Indian constitution, it is essential that we respect and acknowledge this unity and address all internal issues or demands through appropriate forum or court based on merits and justification. We must also draw the attention of the central government to address the rehabilitation and humane treatment of those less fortunate who are compelled to migrate across the imaginary line of the international border. However, accurate data recording and representation are crucial. Firstly, there is a lack of uniform international refugee policies, secondly, despite our strong ethnic ties, Manipur remains a resource-intensive state with a significant population struggling to make ends meet. To seek external assistance and support, it is crucial to have accurate data, which is currently lacking. Moreover, the delimitation exercise in Manipur is under embargo, largely due to mistrust surrounding the census data from 2001 and 2011. These are sensitive issues but can be resolved if all parties involved come to a common ground and appoint an unbiased third party to execute the process. Such an exercise has the potential to address many ongoing internal problems in Manipur. The Indian government has invested significant resources in implementing Aadhaar, a unique identification number that contains individuals' biometric and demographic data primarily for service-related purposes. However, extending its use to collect census data, subject to necessary corrections, would be an efficient use of public funds.
Currently, Aadhaar has not been officially designated as a tool for conducting the census in India, as it was created for a different purpose and has some flaws that may affect its effectiveness in recording certain data. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that policies and regulations regarding data usage and privacy can evolve over time, especially if the need for such data is strongly felt. Manipur is a state struggling with poverty, as nearly 40% of its population falls below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest states in India. This is evident from the first figure below, where Manipur ranks among the bottom three states in terms of poverty, particularly in comparison to the higher-ranking states like Sikkim and Mizoram in Northeast India. The second figure below provides just one example of the living standards within the capital city of Imphal, with numerous similar slum-like dwellings found throughout the city. These dwellings are inhabited by extremely poor individuals who are below the poverty line. Unfortunately, exact data on the urban poor and their specific circumstances are not readily available. The problems faced by Manipur are complex, stemming from its diverse population and a deep-rooted divide between the hill and valley regions within this hilly state. This artificial hillvalley divide exacerbates the state's challenges and contributes to a range of serious issues. These include a lack of government transparency, poor socio-economic conditions, inadequate healthcare facilities, education, drug-related issues, and insufficient enforcement of law and order. Consequently, Manipur experiences an imbalanced society, with the poor becoming increasingly impoverished while the rich continue to prosper.
Achieving lasting peace in Manipur also requires addressing the limited role of women in governance, journalism and decision-making. In Manipur, women have historically faced barriers when it comes to political participation, and such low representation of women in key decision-making bodies, perpetuates a skewed power dynamic. Empowering women in politics fosters a more representative democracy, ensuring that diverse voices are heard, and the concerns of all citizens are adequately addressed. Again, journalism as a catalyst for change, diverse representation in the media helps challenge biases, break stereotypes, and foster a more informed and inclusive society. By empowering women as agents of change, Manipur can harness their potential to bridge divides, mediate conflicts, and promote social cohesion. Additionally, campaigns promoting gender equality and challenging stereotypes can help shift societal perceptions and attitudes. By amplifying their voices, Manipur can unlock the transformative potential of its female citizens and foster inclusive policies, bridge divides, and work towards a peaceful future that represents the aspirations and needs of all its people. Thus, addressing women issue can be a common ground to reconcile in this current crisis of Manipur. Therefore, all these problems and issues should serve as common unification grounds for the diverse society in Manipur. Everyone should actively contribute to and fight for the equitable distribution of wealth and assets. In order to uplift the poorest of the poor in Manipur, regardless of their societal divisions such as hill-valley or tribal vs. non-tribal, it is high time to shift the focus towards income or assets-based divisions. The attention should be given to those who genuinely require special support, irrespective of their ethnicity.
To illustrate this point, let's refer to the figure below from Gapminder's webpage, which categorizes the world into four levels of income. The figure demonstrates a commonality across these income categories, as improved income levels are often accompanied by an improvement in lifestyle. This phenomenon can be observed not only in Manipur but also across the globe.
For instance, the basic necessities of a poor person in India, Africa, or even developed countries are often similar or almost identical. Likewise, for the rich, there are similarities in the lifestyles of individuals like Ambani or Gates. Therefore, it is essential for the state of Manipur to prioritize this approach across different ethnicities, as it has the potential to bring about a positive change. The state should consider either outsourcing or utilizing government machinery to map the socio-economic status of individuals to effectively implement targeted measures.
Our current state of affairs and the humanitarian crisis we are facing are indicative of a collective failure. The government, law enforcement, civil society organizations, leaders, influencers, and civilians, among others, have all played a role in this. However, there seems to be a lack of accountability as no one is taking responsibility for the crisis. Miscreants and civilians have taken the law into their own hands, while leaders have remained silent and law enforcement has appeared spineless. The mob has shown a ruthless and bloodthirsty nature. Even in war, there are rules and ethics that dictate conduct, such as fighting one-on-one and avoiding harm to innocents. In contrast, opportunists have taken advantage of the chaos. Furthermore, there is a growing divide among people, with a sense of "my people" versus "your people." This is not a sustainable approach for the future generation. Unravelling our problems will only reveal more issues, like opening a can of worms. We are living in a time when there is widespread concern about the potential job replacement by AI bots worldwide, so it is crucial that we look forward and focus on innovation, progress, new ideas, and technologies that can improve the quality of life for everyone.
We need to create a futureproof generation. Now is the time to establish strong policies to address income inequality, strikes or protests, corruption, land reforms, immigration, data recording and protection, and the creation of a diverse and inclusive society. We must also prioritize environmental sustainability. Achieving a progressive Manipur requires collective efforts from a committed government with a strong political will, as well as law-abiding civil societies with a progressive mindset that are ready to take collective accountability. This means valuing diversity, individual liberty, and collective responsibility, and working towards improving the lives of marginalized individuals. A profound change is necessary, and it can only be accomplished by working together. By joining forces, we can build a progressive society in Manipur that is just, inclusive, and beneficial to all.
While this article had focused primarily on long-term solutions that may sound utopian, it's important to acknowledge the need of immediate measures to control the crisis and brings tranquillity. Measures such as deployment of security forces, imposing curfews or restrictions, rapid response, and intervention, are on-going but measures such as communication and coordination, investigation and accountability, mediation and dialogue and community engagement and outreach needs to be strengthened. Additionally, effective communication and coordination between various stakeholders, including law enforcement agencies, community leaders, and local administration, play a crucial role.
Timely information sharing, coordination of efforts, and collaboration with community stakeholders can help address grievances, diffuse tensions, and restore peace. Conducting impartial investigations into the causes of this ethnic clash and holding perpetrators accountable are vital steps in maintaining justice and restoring faith in the legal system. On a final note, let us draw inspiration from Nelson Mandela, who said, 'No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.'
(Dr Sanjukta Raj Kumari is a senior scientist, working on Animal Health, DEFRA, Government of UK Ex-Senior Scientist, ICAR RC NEH, Meghalaya, Government of India. Views expressed are personal.)