The demand for new districts whether it is the Sadar Hills or Jiribam or Tengnoupal are all tinged with communal overtones. Nevertheless, all these are not either fully devoid of rationale or political wisdom. As far as the claim goes that the demand for creation of new districts is for administrative convenience and public welfare, it is also equally reflective of the tribal possessiveness and assertion over their land. But the saddest part is, a current of ethno exclusivity runs beneath the politics of district demand.
The present day conflict, confrontation and contest over land as witnessed in Manipur and elsewhere in the so-called North East India can be traced back to the colonial system of administration under which the plains and hills were administered separately. The legacy of this dual system of administration goes on in the post-independent era and India did little to amend the flawed system. The faith accompli committed by the British imperialist and inherited by independent India is now haunting the collective psyche of Manipuri people who believe in pluralism. As opposed to the idea of a united, pluralistic Manipur, some people are clinging fast to the idea of fragmentation built up on the outdated concept of ethno exclusive nationalism. The champions of these ethno exclusive politics are conveniently overlooking the fact that the Nagas and Kukis are living side by side in many villages and that both the Kukis and Nagas are settled together with Meiteis in different pockets of the valley. Much to the peril of communal harmony, the advocates of ethno-exclusivity have been scheming to sharpen the line of division among the communities as well as to demarcate geographical territories on the basis of ethnic boundaries. This amounts to laying the foundation for exclusive domains. Already, about two decades back, the hills in Manipur had witnessed a bloody ethnic cleansing pogrom unleashed by NSCN (Isaak-Muivah) with a sinister design to drive out Kukis from areas which they considered should be exclusive domains of the Nagas. This was followed by a bloody clash between Kukis and Paites in Churachandpur District, again for control of domain and resources. Given this history of parochial communal politics, we cannot see the district demand as such. Already what we feared has been proven true by the strong opposition raised by several Naga organisations against the demand for Sadar Hills District.
Here, one should not underestimate the destructive power and far reaching consequences of ethno-nationalism and ethno exclusivity. We need only to look at the former USSR and Yugoslavia to understand its potential. It is crucial for all those who believe in pluralism whether they are Nagas or Kukis or Meiteis, to struggle collectively to understand and address distrust, conflicts and conflagrations arising out of ethno exclusive politics. Only by collective action, can the society have any durable chance of effectively deterring ethnic conflicts without permitting them to tear the social fabric asunder. Mind you, this responsibility cannot be left to a single community. Rather than focusing on creating exclusive domains and holding on to it, each and every community should be frank and sincere enough to express and understand the economic strife and unfulfilled expectations, fears and insecurities of each and every community. One should rather be accommodative instead of working for creation of water-tight compartments based on ethnicity. This is not only insane but will surely lead to perpetual conflicts without getting any desirable result.
Understanding Ethnic Conflict
Ethnic conflicts are generally understood to be “identity driven”. And, such conflicts result from a “fear of extinction” that grows out of the experience of being a vulnerable ethnic group living with memories of persecution and massacre. Furthermore, these fears are not reserved for ethnic minorities alone, but may also be felt, and acted upon, by ethnic pluralities, and even majority groups. These fears have the potential to set into motion several processes which can eventually lead to complete breakdown of public order, sometimes irrevocably.
The first process arises when one ethnic group dominates society by seizing control of the institutions that ensure its future dominance and identity. These dominant institutions tend to conduct themselves in the manner of “coercive regimes”, which enjoy high compliance but low support. Since these key institutions are dominated by the ruling ethnic group, they are ill-prepared – other than by coercion – to deal with the second process common to ethnic conflict: social and political mobilization by non-dominant ethnic groups. Such a mobilization places great strain on institutions never designed to absorb such change so rapidly, and normally leads to countermobilization by conservative members of the dominant ethnic group. This in turn only fans the flames of ethnic conflict. The violence that both the dominant and non-dominant ethnic groups direct against one another only serves to fuel the initial “fear of extinction” that both experienced in the first place, and can eventually lead to the complete breakdown of public order.
This model offers several general conclusions.
1. Protracted ethnic conflict is more likely to occur if the fear of extinction is deeply and widely shared within an ethnic populace
2. In societies with a hierarchical order of ethnic relations, the various ethnic groups are more apt to experience some fear of extinction. These societies will be more likely to become involved in ethnic conflict
3. If the dominant ethnic group in a given state is, however, a minority regionally, than its fear of extinction will be greater. This fear is exacerbated if the regionally dominant group(s) have a proclivity towards irredentism
4. The greater a non-dominant ethnic group mobilizes its population, the more insecure, and consequently repressive, the dominant group will become. This, in turn, increases the probability of ethnic conflict
Another way of understanding ethnic conflict is the concern of ethnic groups – small and large – over their independence, individual and group rights, and the need to find “someone” to protect them. If a new security order transcending tribalism is not found, then the much-vaunted “New World Order” will differ little from those of the past. If individuals are to resist the emotional tug for security that nationalism – and other ideologies – provide, a new system must be developed that allows them to feel secure individually, outside of any particular nationalist pack. Consequently, just as law enforcement officers in our streets help citizens feel secure as individuals, (which is exactly not happening in this part of the world) without needing to rely on groups for their physical security, so too must a system be developed that provides a similar sense of security in the multi-ethnic social realm. A credible system of collective security that serves to deter – and if necessary oppose – ethno-nationalist aggression of any type, will contribute significantly to individual security and regional peace.
In the final analysis, the resolution of protracted ethnic conflicts must address the security needs of both non-dominant and dominant groups at both the local and regional levels. Sometimes, it needs intervention from the international community. The role the international community must play is to insure that these needs are pursued without resorting to force, and/or that they are not repressed by the armed opposition of a locally- or regionally-dominant group. Thus, it is incumbent upon the international community to establish some system for evaluating the legitimacy of these nationalist agendas in order to facilitate their non-violent achievement. Evaluating legitimacy will ultimately require the international community to determine who is right and who is wrong; who the community should support, and who it should oppose.
The Present Impasse
Coming back to the present crisis resulting from the unbelievable indefinite general strike on the National Highways over Sadar Hills District demand and the outrageous indefinite counter blockade, one cannot miss the communal overtones and the impending breakdown of public order. If the demand for Sadar Hills District can be justified in the name of better and more effective administration, the indefinite general strike is a complete let down. As for the counter blockade, we can only say this is an inhuman, misdirected response, formulated purely on communal line. The rhetoric of “saving ancestral land” cannot justify any paralysing blockade. The fear of losing ancestral land, or for that matter, any wish to create new domains cannot be solved by resorting to mindless general strikes and blockades. It would be much more rational and politically wise to hold dialogue and negotiate at people to people level on the fears, insecurities and aspirations of each community, not necessarily within the Constitution of India or its volumes of statutes. If we are looking up to the Government to fulfill the diverse aspirations of the different communities, we are only befooling ourselves. As much as the Government is irresponsible, the blockade/general strike sponsors and their supporters have earned the distinction of being notoriously insensitive to the hardships being endured by the general public. Will you ever open your eyes and see that you are bleeding the mass dry? And mind you, the general mass has little interest in your ethno-centric exclusive domains. Regarding creation and re-organisation of districts, we are of the firm opinion that it should be done based on geographical features and contiguity, not on ethnic lines.
This article was published in The Sangai Express on Sunday, August 28, 2011