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BJP-led Govt’s Mishandling of Manipur Situation is to Blame for Deaths, Displacement: K Santa

In an interview, Kshetrimayum Santa, state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Manipur, talks about the circumstances that have led to the recent spate of violence in the Northeastern state.
Violence in Manipur

File Photo. Image Courtesy: PTI

As the Centre attempts to take over the security arrangements in Manipur amid raging ethnic violence – that has claimed 54 lives (unofficial figures put the death toll much higher) so far – NewsClick spoke with Kshetrimayum Santa, state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Manipur over the phone. He spoke about the circumstances that have led to the recent spate of violence and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government’s role in it. Edited transcript.

Pranita Kulkarni: For those who may not have followed the developments closely, can you briefly talk about what has been happening in Manipur in the past week?

Kshetrimayum Santa: There has been a law & order breakdown in Manipur. It is because of the misunderstanding between the valley people and the people of the hills. There has been a mishandling of the situation by the BJP-led state government in Manipur. Because of this, more than 50 people have died and about 50,000 people are in relief camps. That is 1.6% of our population; it's a very big number in Manipur. Members from both communities are in relief camps.

PK: Are these official figures for deaths and the number of displaced people?

KS: Yes, this is what the DGP himself has said. Yesterday (Friday), the DGP met the press and he said that 50,000 people are in the relief camps. That is the official number. And thousands of houses have been burnt down in the hill districts as well as the valley. It's been almost four days and the situation has been quite grim in Manipur. It has spread to other states also -- Assam and Meghalaya. These states also have these communities – Meiteis and Kukis. The situation is very grave, not for just Manipur, but for the whole nation.

PK: The backdrop of this recent violence is quite multi-layered. What factors do you think have contributed the most to the recent spate of violence?

KS: Before the Assembly election, the chief minister (N Biren Singh) called a meeting of some Manipuri people, mainly the Meitei. He apparently asked them not to share their land with Muslims, tribals, and outsiders. This sent the wrong message. He was trying to play majoritarian politics.

Further, it has been alleged that one of the most prominent leaders of the BJP has made huge payments to Kuki militants. This was done during the Assembly elections (Feb-March 2022) – to be able to achieve a majority.

Another issue has been the demand for the inclusion of Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list. This has been a longstanding demand. And the Manipur High Court asked the state government last month to send a recommendation to the Centre within four weeks.

Apart from this, the land issue has been simmering. The government has evicted the tribal population, particularly the Kukis, from the forests. Without the consent of forest dwellers and the hill population, they were evicted forcefully. There was no consultation.

One of the problems is that our neighbour, Myanmar, is under a military junta. So, there are people who have entered India through Manipur. They have been forced to flee because of the political situation in Myanmar and the persecution they have had to face there.

There are around 3,000 of them (people from Myanmar) in Manipur. Most of them are Kukis and live around the border areas. We have demanded that they be recognised as refugees. Then they may get some funds from the United Nations. But the government has not supported the refugees. We got to know that it is a Union minister’s instruction to the state government not to help those who have crossed the border because of the junta.

On the other hand, the Mizoram government has given shelter to the people who have crossed the border. But Manipur, under the BJP government, has refused to help. We, with the help of a few NGOs, have collected funds to help the refugees. Those in the government have also helped us with the fund collection, but they refuse to do it on record – as it would go against the Union minister s instruction.

Also, there has been organised rumour-mongering. They would say Kukis are entering Manipur in large numbers; they want to dominate Manipur. All such things. This has helped pit the valley people against the Kukis – especially the youths.

PK: What could have the state government done differently to prevent this?

KS: It has been alleged that guns and ammunition have been distributed among youths by the police themselves. The DGP has now said that the case might be handed over to the NIA for investigation. And this is necessary. So, this has been said officially, but unofficially, we know that police personnel have had a role in distribution of weapons. This needs to be investigated by an SIT or NIA.

On the other hand, the Kuki militants are armed; they need to be disarmed. Now, there is no Suspension of Operations agreement. So, they can use weapons. They have destroyed Meiteis' houses in the Churachandpur district and some parts of Imphal district. Many Kuki villages have also been burnt down. We are looking at a huge loss of property and lives. The police and the state government have not acted on time. Therefore, we demanded that the Centre should take over the security arrangements in the state. Now, around 50,000 Army personnel have been brought into the state.

PK: The pro-government groups have claimed that some tribal groups with vested interests are trying to scuttle the anti-drug crusade of the state government. How do you see this allegation?

KS: The government has been claiming that it has waged a war on drugs. But the chief minister's relatives have been arrested and have been to jail [for drug-related cases]. We know of some people, who are known to be close to the CM, have been caught too. So, they may say a 'war on drugs', but they do not take action against drug lords. Instead, they have been destroying the poppy cultivation. Now, poppy is not a drug; you can manufacture drugs from poppy.

They have been targeting poppy growers, most of whom are Kukis. But poppy is grown in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and some other states, too. You can't say poppy growers in Manipur are criminals. They are poor people. Poppy seeds, in fact, are a delicacy for Bengalis, isn't it? So, I suggest that the government should give licenses to poppy growers. There must be do’s and don'ts, of course. But a wrong message is being sent out by equating poppy growers with criminals. The intention behind this is not good.

PK: Kukis are predominantly Christians. Is that correct?

KS: Yes, more than 90%.

PK: Do you think this is a factor in shaping the attitude of the BJP-ruled state government?

KS: Exactly 30 years ago, on May 3 again, there was a Hindu-Muslim riot. The date coincides, strangely. We have seen attacks on Muslims being organised in markets. These days, right-wing organisations organise their private armies. These private armies collect weapons and ammunition from police stations without much hesitation.

PK: The state government withdrew from the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement earlier this year. Do you think this has worsened the situation?

KS: I think the government did not do the right thing. They must have unarmed the Kuki militants now, but the government allowed them (a free run) before the election. After the election, the government wants to unarm them. This is very difficult. They used the armed militants to threaten the electorate to vote for BJP. This is very wrong. Now, the Kuki militants are infuriated.

PK: Did the exit (from SoO) mark a breakdown of communication as well?

KS: Yes, definitely.

PK: So, what is the way out of this crisis?

KS: Well, the Manipur Legislative Assembly must be kept suspended for the time being. We do not trust this government; it protects the drug lords and on the other hand, destroys poppy. We know that some BJP MLAs have even quit because of the CM's high-handedness. He is very autocratic and dictatorial. And the only way out of the rest of the issues passes through consultations.

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