If peace is the goal, Biren Singh must go: Patricia Mukhim

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Patricia Mukhim, N Biren SIngh | Photos: ANI, Special Arrangement

"The prime minister's words sound hollow in the absence of any concrete action to address the burning issues of Manipur," says Patricia Mukhim, a social activist and the editor of Shillong Times, in an exclusive conversation with mathrubhumi.com.

Excerpts from the interview:

You have concluded your article on Manipur in The Quint with these words: “The violence in Manipur is neither sudden nor ill-conceived. It is a well laid plan that's executed with precision. No wonder the Modi govt is an apathetic onlooker.” You are making it crystal clear that there is a method behind the madness. Could you elaborate on that?

You see, the fact is that you can't sustain a violence of this kind for 80 days now unless it is carefully planned. Otherwise where do you go for the ammunition? They were allowed to loot the police station. How can you go to a police station and take away the weapons without any kind of resistance? So, it appears that the state has allowed this to happen. I learnt from the Kuki intellectuals that the central government was about to sign an accord with two Kuki outfits on May 7, which would have given them greater autonomy. It is suspected that the riot was engineered to disrupt this accord.

There seems to be an apparent contradiction in what you say. Because the BJP always claims that a double engine government (the same party rule both at the centre and the state) works wonders for the people. But here, you are accusing the BJP state government in Manipur of trying to undermine an initiative by the BJP government at the centre?

We don't know the strategy. Because politics is often a brutal game where you don't know how the plots and subplots are schemed.

Women belonging to the 'Meira Paibis', a group of women representing Meitei society,
hold torches during a demonstation demanding for the restoration of peace in India's north-eastern Manipur | Photo: AFP

Yeah. It also makes sense because we know that under Modi, almost all the state governments ruled by BJP are remotely controlled from Delhi?

Exactly! One more thing we have to remember is that even today when the Kukis are demanding a separate administration, the constant reply is that it can't be granted. What is wrong in granting them the 6th schedule status so that they learn to be accountable to their own people. As of now, the hill areas are underdeveloped. The MLAs representing the hill areas complain that the government in Imphal is denying them funds. Why don't you have a mechanism like the Bodoland territorial council that could facilitate more funding to the hill areas? That can lead to better educational and health care facilities which are not there at the moment.

There is a strong feeling that the state government is abetting the riots and therefore the Biren Singh government must go if the central government is serious about bringing Manipur back to Normalcy. Do you think this is the need of the hour?

It is a feeling not just among the Kukis. It is a feeling across the board. Many civil society groups feel that they can't have peace under his regime. How can a man who is overtly partisan to the Meiteis can deliver justice? He is heading the peace committee. It is sarcasm of the highest order. Look at the irony of it. How can a man, who is seen as part of a group that perpetuates violence (there are two extremist groups which swear by Biren Singh) can talk about peace? These anti-social elements draw their inspiration and strength from the chief minister. It is indeed a question why the President's rule is not implemented even after this kind of lawlessness in the state. Right now the police are compromised. The police comprises more Meiteis. Remember, it is the police who handed over the two women to the rioters to be brutally assaulted.

The PM broke his silence after 79 days but do you think that his words sound hollow in the context where he is allowing the Biren Singh government to continue in power?

Absolutely! He could have in fact continued his silence rather than uttering these words. The only reason he spoke was because the Chief Justice of India had taken suo moto notice of the situation. The PM mentioned only this particular case. He has not spoken anything about the larger violence. Around 160 people have been killed, more than 60,000 people have been displaced. Hundreds of houses and places of worship have been destroyed. But not a word on that.

Women burn the house of one of the men accused of parading two women naked
in front of a mob during ongoing ethnic violence in India's northeastern Manipur | Photo: AFP

Why is the PM still unmoved? Why is there no concrete action to bring in peace? Why does the administration allow the riot to continue?

I am not a mind reader. And it is really difficult to know why they are allowing this. Biren Singh is the poster boy of the BJP. He won the state twice for the BJP. They don't have anyone now who can do this job better than him. The other reason is that the Meiteis are seen as Hindus. There is an ideological proximity.

There have been some reports that the real motive is to grab the hill areas for the corporations because of the huge reserves of the rare earth metals. Is there any substance in this?

That is what we are hearing. But I have not got anything to substantiate this so far. One thing that I heard was that quarrying is going to be allowed. There is huge demand for boulders and sand. Truck loads of boulders are going to Bangladesh from Meghalaya everyday. Also Biren Singh wanted to clear the hills of poppy plantations. There is also a scheme to regularise these plantations so that the state gets more revenue. There could be many such intentions. The post colonial governments failed to undo the practices of the British government, which pursued the policy of divide and rule.

My understanding is that till 1960, the Meiteis could buy land anywhere in the state. But this was altered when the new land reforms act was implemented.

Yes. Because the Meiteis are not Scheduled Tribes. And they have been living in the valley. But let us not play politics with these issues. Land reforms is an urgent need of the hour. It forms part of the solution. because 53 per cent of the population can't be living in 10 per cent of the geographical area. This must be addressed.

You have also pointed towards a disturbing reality in your article. It is about the fact that the women become complicit in the crimes against women. You are worried that women are being deprived of empathy?

The divide is so deep that they have been brainwashed to believe that they are sworn enemies. The Meitei women are being told every moment that the Kukis are behind the drug business and they are destroying their young generations. And the women are being used as human shields to prevent the army from taking action against the culprits.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the media on the first day of the Monsoon Session of Parliament,
in New Delhi, Thursday, July 20, 2023 | Photo: PTI

So, what can be the way out?

First of all Biren Singh must step down. We have to find people from both sides of the divide to start societal conversions. But at this point of time it is very difficult to spot such people. Let the central govt take charge of Manipur. The armed groups must be disbanded. The guns and ammunition looted from police stations must be retrieved. There can be no peace as long as people are allowed to carry weapons and unleash violence.

You mean to say that a committee consisting of members from different political parties, civil society groups must be formed to initiate the peace process?

I don't think we should use political parties now. They bring with them the polarisation of ideology. It is not needed at this point of time. We need only civil societies actually.

There are reports that the house of one of the suspects who assaulted the women has been burnt by the villagers. Does that mean that there is a spontaneous outrage against the brutal crime from even the Meiteis?

You see, there is a lot of scheming. There could be plots to create optics for the outside world. There could be an urge to tell the world that we are also human . So you don't know what reality is. It could very well be optics. The central government has been very ambiguous. First there were reports that Article 355 would be imposed. But it is not clear if it has been really done. Article 355 means that the law and order management can be taken away from the state government without dismissing them. Biren Singh continues to be in charge. And when he remains as the head of the executive in the state it is impossible to talk about peace initiatives.

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