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Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: Manipur crisis reveals the limits of BJP’s politics in the Northeast

The continuing violence in Manipur ought to be shocking for many reasons. But its sheer scale, endurance and brutality is still not getting national attention. As is typical, the prime minister who is never shy of taking leadership credit, is completely absent when there is an actual crisis that goes to the heart of both constitutional values and national security. In this instance, it seems like the double-engine sarkar, even after invoking Article 355, is unable to control the violence.

It takes nothing away from the culpability of the present dispensation to acknowledge the long-standing and irresolvable contradictions of Manipur politics. Whenever the central organising axis of politics is a distributive conflict between identity-based groups, there is a high chance of violence. This is particularly the case where the conflict inherently has the character of a zero-sum game. In Manipur, the politics of distribution between Kukis and Meiteis turns on four goods whose inherent logic is zero-sum.

The first is inclusion in the ST quota which is the proximate background to the current conflict. By its very nature, the inclusion of more groups in the ST quota will be a threat to existing beneficiaries. The second is land, and the tension between the valley and the hills. This is also a zero-sum resource, where protecting the land rights of Kukis is seen as foreclosing the opportunities for other groups. The third is political representation, where historically Kukis have felt dominated by the Meiteis. The fourth is patronage by the state in the informal economy, in which groups compete against one another for control of informal trade. Each state intervention in regulating trade becomes a locus of conflict.

Place on top of that a default demand that the boundaries of ethnicity and territorial governance should, as much as possible, coincide. In principle, these demands could be negotiated through building inclusive democratic institutions. But this is easier said than done, when every policy instrument in contention — quotas, land, representation, and the state-economy nexus — are defined in terms of zero-sum games. The tragedy of Manipur was that, in part, there was no other game in town, one that could prise politics away from this zero-sum alignment of distribution and ethnicity.

Dealing with such a situation requires at least three things. It requires a capable state impartially enforcing constitutional values. It requires a political culture that respects identity but does not politicise it. It requires a development narrative that all sections of society can potentially participate in.

Instead, the Indian state made Manipur a charnel house of human rights violations, abetted violence and militarisation to unprecedented levels. It opportunistically used ethnicity both for electoral alliances and divide and rule. In some ways, under colonial divide and rule, the state pretended to hover above the various contending groups. The point of divide and rule was to present the state as neutral and shore up its legitimacy. But in democratic India divide and rule has meant the state itself getting implicated with one group or the other. The result was a weakening of the state’s capacity to govern. We can see the long-term effects of this even in the present crisis, where there is widespread agreement that the state security forces and police cannot be trusted to be neutral and impartial. This creates a vicious cycle where all ethnic groups feel the need to preemptively protect themselves. And finally, the state was not a neutral actor in the economy.

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It is worth remembering this structural contradiction when we diagnose the present moment. The politics of majoritarianism in Manipur was always more complicated. It was this history that had first given the BJP an opening, where the Congress was seen as an instrument of the Valley, so much so that the Kukis called for supporting the BJP. But the current dispensation, rather than seizing the opportunity to create a new politics, has made the same mistakes. Only this time, the consequences are even more tragic and irrevocable.

The violence has given a lie to the BJP’s project in three senses. The first is that the BJP can build a capable law and order state. In this instance, that state has proven to be both deeply incompetent and partisan. The ease with which literally thousands of weapons have been looted would shame any half capable state. But more disturbingly, the pattern that the state is seen to be a partisan actor in the violence continues unabated. Second, it exposes the ideological dangers of the BJP’s project.

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The BJP tried for a brief moment to run with the hare and hunt with the hound. It tried to capitalise on Kuki construal of Congress in Manipur as majoritarian at the same time as it politicised and promoted Meitei identity. Now that contradiction has burst open: A visible demonstration of the limits of Hindutva accommodation. Contingently convenient alliances will, in the end, be overrun by the ideological juggernaut. And third, it has shown that the BJP’s political instincts can be overrated: Its capacity to negotiate complicated social fissures in the North-east has been overestimated. What the BJP had touted as the moment of its greatest ideological triumph, winning in the North-east, is turning out to also expose the limitations of its politics.

It is not going to be easy for Manipur to recover from this violence. There are no credible public institutions that can hold perpetrators of violence to account, impartially. The nature of the violence is such that both the Kukis and Meiteis will be left with a deep sense of victimhood. But there is a deeper question: Is there any political force left in the state that can do the job of political mediation? In a situation where, singly, all parties are considered partisan, the only possibility would be an all-party mediation, one that tries to lift Manipur out of a fatal combination of zero-sum identity politics. But such imaginative gestures are now beyond our ruling establishment.

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When I first read journalist Sudeep Chakravarti’s book, “The Eastern Gate”, one line stood out. He recounts a visit to Churachandpur, ground zero of the current violence, where he sees a sign by a church: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but it ends in death.” Alas, these words seem all too prophetic at the moment, when no one is prepared to break the mould of politics in Manipur. Nero will, of course, continue to fiddle, while Manipur burns.

The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express

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