Six months after a violent conflagration set in motion an ethnic conflict in Manipur, little has changed in bridging the divide between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities and in reducing the hostility. Every few days there is a violent occurrence or a provocative move from partisans on either side of the conflict, which heightens tensions and widens the divide even further with nothing being done to reverse the course and bring back normalcy to areas most prone to violence. The announcement, on Wednesday, by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF), which represents Kuki-Zo groups, that it is pursuing “self-rule” with a separate “chief minister” in districts dominated by the tribal community, points to yet another hardening of stances that has prolonged the conflict. Such a move, which has no legal basis, is also bound to enrage Meiteis, especially those whose key grievances include the special land ownership rights to tribals in the State’s hill districts. That the announcement came just a week after an Intelligence Bureau team and Ministry of Home Affairs officials held meetings in Churachandpur is an indication that the Union government is losing the plot in Manipur. The government has tried to keep a tenuous peace going by not enacting any change in the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led State government even after its failures in maintaining law and order. A leadership change has been a key demand by the Kuki-Zo community representatives besides others. The Union government has meanwhile relied upon paramilitary forces to quell the violence in areas adjoining the Imphal valley and the hill areas. It has taken a recourse to provisions of Article 355 to maintain peace, despite denying its imposition in the State.
This ploy has ostensibly been undertaken to retain the support of Meitei partisans who have refused to allow any change of leadership in the State government and also to address the Kuki-Zo people’s distrust of the State police. Yet, the outcome has been a sharpening of the divide with partisans on either side raging against these half-measures. In the absence of a clear détente and the beginning of a dialogue process to rebuild an enduring peace and fraternal relations between the communities that would facilitate the return of people, even sporadic incidents have exacerbated the situation, making peace-building daunting. Unless the BJP’s central leadership changes its stubborn strategy of maintaining a discreet silence while using administrative ploys to contain the conflict, the festering in Manipur is bound to continue.