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Manipur - a Muslim perspective

By Our Special Correspondent

The North-East is another India, the most diverse part of a most diverse country’ (B.G. Verghese, 1996). This sums up the diverse nature of the North-East. Manipur, a state in India’s North-East, is so diverse a society that there are as many as 30 ethnic groups and adherents of many religions found in the world. It is an ancient state with an area of 22,327 sq.kms. The Imphal Valley, which accounts for only one tenth of the total land area, is home to 70 percent of the total population. Hills are inhabited by Nagas to the North and Kuki-Mizo-Chin tribes to the South. Majority Meitei and Muslims with other tribes live in Imphal Valley.

Majority Meitei and Muslims are not allowed to settle in the hills of Manipur. The hills are fully reserved for the tribes - Nagas, Kukis, Paites etc. At the same time tribals are at liberty to settle anywhere in the state, Imphal valley included.

Meiteis are of the Tibeto-Burman origin and the Valley seems to have been occupied by various tribes coming from different directions. After the decline of the Moirang tribe, Meiteis rose to supremacy and formed the Meitei confederacy. The name Manipur was adopted in the 18th century under King Pamheiba, and his reign saw the arrival of Vaishnavism in the state. With the approval of the king Vaishnavism spread among the Meitei and with its advent their earlier tribal religion, known as Sanamahi faith, was discarded . Accordingly a class of Brahmin was created which latter proved to be a decisive factor in creating a distance between ‘Pure’ Meitei and ‘Unpure’ others, including Muslims.

In 1891 Manipur was defeated and occupied by the British. and on 15 October 1949 the state was ‘ merged’ into India.

Muslims in History
Muslims started coming to the state in the middle of the 16th century ( T.C.Hudson, The Meitheis). But it was at the advent of the 17th century during the reign of King Khagemba (1597-1652) that a large number of Muslims from Sylhet (Singh & Khan ,1973) entered Manipur to invade the state at the invitation of Prince Sadongba who revolted against his king brother. At the time of the battle the king witnessed the skills and efficiency of the Muslims and asked them to stay on in Manipur. They married Meitei women and settled in Manipur. Early Muslim settlements have been recorded in the east of Imphal (R. Brown 1873).

Since their settlement in Manipur they have played crucial roles in protecting and preserving the the territorial integrity of Manipur. During the reign of Pamheiba in the 18th century Manipur was facing simultaneous attacks from Burma and Tripura. The combined attack was pushed back with the skills of Muslims soldiers. In the war of 1758 Manipur suffered massive losses at the hands of the Burmese, and may Muslims lost their lives. From 1819 to 1826, known as ‘seven-year-devastation’ in the history of Manipur, during the Burmese occupation of Manipur, Muslims had to run away to escape annihilation to parts of present-day Assam and Bangladesh, while some of them were carried away to Burma where their descendants still live. In 1891 Manipur was defeated by the British, many Muslims were killed in the battle and some were deported to Andamans.

Identity formation
The complexities and structural intricacies of the relationship between various ethnic groups in the North East has led B.G. Verghese to say that ‘ North-East is still to know itself.’ After Manipur merged with India there started among the Meiteis an ‘awakening’ that they had been neglected and that the then King of Manipur was ‘forced’ to sign the merger agreement in 1949 in Shillong. This feeling of ‘forced merger’ is complicated by what they saw as Jawaharlal Nehru’s giving away of Kubaw Valley (which was possessed on and off by Burma and Manipur) to Burma. From early 1960 there begun a strong Meitei revival movement which opposed Indian ‘occupation’ and with it a strong campaign was launched to define what they saw as Meitei ‘nationhood’. This Meitei effort to define themselves as a completely distinct group from mainland India has led to reject the Vaishnavism culture and began to draw on Pre-Hinduism Sanamahi faith (named after local deity Sanamahi). Many militant organisations emerged which appeared threatening to other non-Meitei communties of the state.

Almost in parallel to this development, the Naga movement has gained momentum after independence. Seen as different and distinct from others the term ‘Naga’ encloses within its fold 32 tribes, each tribe having its own ‘language’. Despite the lack of a common language the Naga movement proves to be successful in that these 32 tribes see themselves as ‘Nagas.’ Since Nagas talk about ‘Naga Nation’ and Meiteis about ‘Meitei Nation,’ a conflict situation was bound to erupt sooner or later. At the same time Kuki-Chin-Mizo group is trying to forge a common identity for themselves. Only Muslims remain immune to this narrow definition of a ‘people.’

Current Imbroglio
In 1997 the Government of India declared ceasefire with the strongest insurgency group, National Socialist Council of Nagalim (I-M), in a bid to discuss the 50- year-old ‘ Naga-Question’ in a peaceful environment . Once that was announced an impression was created in Manipur that the Government might end up creating the so-called ‘Greater Nagaland’ which had been one the demands of the NSCN (I-M) so as to be able to allow the Nagas to live under ‘one single administration.’ To register their opposition to any carving out of Manipur territory, people of Manipur marched in a rally on 4 August 1997. About six lakh people attended the rally. The Government assured that it would do nothing which might lead to the dismemberment of Manipur.

Early this year NSCN (I-M) threatened to walk out of the ceasefire agreement unless the area coverage was extended to Naga-inhabited parts of Manipur. The Govt. of India conceded the demand of the insurgency outfit and declared in Bangkok the extension of ceasefire ‘without territorial limit.’ This came as a big shock for the majority people of Manipur and they gave vent to their anger by targeting their representatives and burning the symbol of the Indian polity - state legislative assembly building, on 18 June 2001. Security forces killed 14 of the agitators. That day Imphal wore the scene of Gaza Strip with furious people shouting against India Government’s decision to ‘appease’ an insurgent group at the expense of the will of Manipuri people.

This conflict situation is the inevitable result of the long process of identity search especially by Meitei and Nagas with each looking at opposite directions. Lack of accommodative spirit and identification of a people exclusively on ethnic lineshave produced the current fiasco. Govt. of India should study the reasons with a cool head to solve the problem. While the state is on the boil home minister’s foreign trip is taken as an insult. The sooner the Government knows this, the better.

Meitei revivalism has generated a lot a hatred for minorities - especially Muslims. Muslims suffer a lot of disadvantage in the state. The hatred for Muslims betrayed itself in the form of a pogrom on 3 May 1993 when more than 100 Muslims were hacked to death in Imphal itself. Meitei consolidation on the lines similar to Hindutva consolidation: Meitei - Meiteilon - Meitrabak (Meitei - Meitei Language - Meteiland ) theme naturally repulsed others who are not Meiteis. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why tribals find it difficult to closely identify with Meiteis.

Despite an ethnically divided society it is always in the interest of Muslims (who form about 10 percent of the population ) to try to preserve an integrated plural Manipuri society. In Manipur there is no alternative to a plural and tolerant set -up simply because every family can’t be a nation.

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