Communal tension flares up in Manipur

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On 25 March, a shocking incident happened at Iramshiphai, Wangoi in Imphal West district. Six Manipuri Muslim youths were brutally beaten up. They were class 9 students of Slopeland Public School, Khongjom and Five Star English School, Lilong, in Thoubal district. Reason: They were watching celebrations of Thabal Chongba (Holi festival).

For the mere crime of being onlookers, students Md Altaf Hussain, Iqbal Hussain, Shoaib Akhter, Shazad Aalam, Thani Alam and Farid Khan were so badly injured, three are still undergoing treatment at Rahamani Hospital in Guhawati. One shudders to think what would have happened if they had actually participated in the festivities.

There has been no response from the government regarding the incident. The culprits, identified as Sanasam Thoi Singh, Sorokhaibam Romen Singh, S Modhu Singh, Gunamani Singh (Thang Saba) along with many others have not been booked or arrested. The two local MLAs from both communities have done nothing in this regard.

A Joint Action Committee was formed but has brought no significant resolution. Where was the police in all this? Is there any hidden political agenda and ideology behind this incident? Why has the media not offered any credible investigation of the incident?

On the heels of this incident, on 7 April, two Muslim youths were killed. They were Md Farooque, 16, and Md Saddam, 14, from Lilong Turel Ahanbi. Another 19-year-old youth Md Zamir of Lilong Awang Leikai and three others were accused of being bike lifters, leading to communal feelings running high between the two communities at Mayang Imphal Konchak, Imphal West and nearby areas.

Despite protests at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar by three organisations — Delhi Association of
Manipur Muslim Students (DAMMS), Manipur Student’s Association Delhi (MSAD) and North-East Forum for International Solidarity (NEFIS) — there is no fruitful and productive consequence. There is still an atmosphere of fear, insecurity and shakiness among the minority community, though the government of Manipur deployed state forces in the conflict areas. Normalcy has not yet been restored.

In some local newspapers like The Sangai Express, there was hate-mongering by alleging connection of Manipuri Muslims with terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda. Such news seems to have been disseminated to suit the interests of the local community.

Manipur, a state in the easternmost corner of India, had a secular democratic fabric at one point of time. This fabric has been rendered threadbare over time due to some sections of mainstream society who can only be called ‘bigoted’. Earlier, the many communities namely Meiteis, Muslims (locally known as Pangals), tribes (Kukis and Nagas) and Mayangs (non-Manipuris residing in the state) were living together peacefully.

Historically speaking, Muslims started settling in the state in the beginning of the 17th century during the reign of King Khagemba (1597-1652 AD). They have continued to maintain their bond of closeness with the local community culturally, socially, politically and economically.

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the first chief minister of Manipur Md Alimuddin was a Muslim. He ushered significant changes in Manipuri society by establishing institutions like Manipur University at Canchipur, Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) at Lamphel, Manipur Public Service Commission (MPSC) for conducting higher educational examinations, Board of Secondary Education in 1972, Khandsari Sugar Mill Factory in 1973, and others.

Going back further in time to 1606 AD, commander-in-chief of Muslim forces Muhammad Sani and his troops saved the king from tribal onslaughts through military tactics and technology. Muslims have been playing very crucial roles in the development of the state politically, socially, economically and culturally. This means that Muslims have been maintaining the syncretic culture of Manipur since Khagemba’s reign.

In today’s context, religious identities are being constructed and used by political leaders to mobilise economic, political and social interests. Is the majority community using religious identity as a tool for ethnic cleansing? Do they think that the Muslim community is the ‘other’? Who defines the elements of being indigenous in Manipur? Communal violence changes inter-community relations, so it is important to understand the interaction of Meitei and Muslim communities.

Mob justice or ‘popular justice’ happens outside formal legitimate processes. Punitive action by non-state actors challenges criminal justice systems. A group of people or a crowd become public witness to the act of punishment, shaping the event as both a grand pageant and moral ‘education’. In other cultures, this is called lynching or vigilantism. It is wrong to regard ‘mob justice’ as a spontaneous and irrational response to crime. We must look at the socio-historical and socio-religious roots of ‘mob justice’ so that we can work consistently towards lessening such brutality.

Different meanings have been given to communalism by different scholars, historians, ethnologists, anthropologists and sociologists. What causes communalism must be critically examined. Major causes of communalism as defined by essentialists, constructivists and instrumentalists are older animosities between inter-religious identities and symbols, unemployment, the superiority of religions, intolerance, vote bank politics, distribution of economic resources, class and caste divisions, disrespect toward religious places, the power of smugglers and gangs, local rivalries, etc. Among the variety of factors for communalism, some factors like religious differences along with political and economic factors play a crucial role in the present scenario of the conflict between the communities in Manipur.

History is witness to the fact that feelings of communalism between the Muslims and Meiteis were absent since the beginning of their settlements in the 17th century till the May 1993 riots, which are considered an unfortunate, dark event in the history of Manipur. The age-long close relationship between the Meiteis and Muslims has become strained. The ideologies of ‘self’ and ‘other’ have been seen in Manipuri society continuously after this riot. Official records gave the rough figure that more than a hundred Muslim and four Meitei lives were lost. It hindered the co-existence between the two communities and produced many militant organisations like Peoples United Liberation Front (PULF).

Not only the local media but also the national media made ill-founded and baseless allegations of links between Manipuri Muslims and al Qaeda. Muslims’ agricultural land was acquired in the name of constructing the National Sports University. A headmaster was killed on the ground that he had stolen a cow. Then there was the killing of Professor Islamuddin in Manipur University, and many other related sensitive cases. Even in the Manipur Times Facebook wall, many right-wing groups asked: Is there any country in the whole world where Muslims stay co-existentially with the other communities? Are they Bangladeshi? In this way, they try to tarnish Muslims’ image and project us negatively.

All these communal tendencies which are growing in both the communities should be stopped at any cost. This is possible only when the government takes immediate measures at the state level. Why are the state, media, civil organisations and other social bodies’ mere spectators? The need of the hour is to tackle the communal virus effectively with immediate action.

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