The New York Times on May 8 carried a report on the Manipur violence, which has engulfed the state in an inferno not seen since the kingdom's merger with India in 1949. The report said Christian minorities in Manipur have been allegedly persecuted by the majority Hindu Meiteis.
It was appalling to see the speed and ferocity of social media campaigns that damaged the image of India as an emerging power and defamed the northeast region - the Ashta Lakshmi, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it in February 2022, referring to the eight forms of the goddess of wealth in the context of development in the long-neglected northeast.
Allegations and counter-allegations of all kinds went viral as the violence spread. 'Experts' who read up on Manipur for the first time made the crisis a "tribal vs non-tribal" issue on national TV. Some even went to the extent of calling it ethnic cleansing by a particular group. This, given the fact that the Christian denomination in Manipur, including Meitei Christians, is actually the majority in the state, since only a little over half of the approximately 16 lakh Meiteis follow Hinduism today, while the Christian population is likely to be over 11 lakh.
In the recent clashes, no tribe other than the Kukis were involved in any manner, effectively exposing the tribal vs non-tribal narrative as a lie.
The Manipur High Court's order telling the state government to check if the Meiteis can be categorised under the Scheduled Tribes (ST) may have been one of the triggers, but not by any stretch of imagination was it the cause of the violence that started on May 3. The Central Bureau of Investigation is looking into it. But the larger question is, how do we proceed from here?
The loss of lives and properties of both the Kukis and Meiteis is extremely sad. Violence of all kinds should be condemned. The violence persisting for over a month also proves it is no longer a matter of "communal clashes".
The level of violence now is a full-fledged exchange of fire with modern automatic weapons involving well-trained insurgents and so-called "village defence volunteers" from both sides. They use mortars, drones, sniper rifles, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), walkie-talkie sets and bulletproof jackets, and coordinate well with social media campaigns.
In short, it is a situation where many heavily armed people trained to wage a war against the government are deeply involved.
It is a textbook case of a thin line between a law and order issue, counter-terrorism operations, and operations against anti-national elements. We in the military often face such grey zones. It can be found in many nations too.
The presence of a few hundred weapons and even fewer terrorists in Kashmir valley kept the security forces on full alert for years. Here in Manipur, we have a situation where thousands of weapons and ammunition looted from police armouries, and a few thousands more already in the hands of "peace talk groups", are in circulation. Add to this mix weapons with insurgent groups that have signed the "Suspension of Operations" (SoO) agreement and those who haven't signed it.
In a highly fractured society near an unstable neighbourhood, the presence of such a massive quantity of lethal weapons, mostly in the hands of anti-national elements, is extremely dangerous and a serious national security threat.
Over 25 Kuki insurgent groups have signed the Suspension of Operations" (SoO) agreement, under which they are to be confined to designated camps identified by the government and the weapons kept in locked storage, regularly monitored.
The drug lords in the region, terror groups, other anti-social elements and those inimical to India both within and outside must be having the last laugh.
The lingering effects of the current conflict will be felt for many years, if not for a few decades. Apart from lives lost and properties damaged, the cost in terms of its effect on the psyche of the young generation and children will be incalculable. Will gun culture dominate their fragile minds? Education of displaced students, healthcare, and other essential human development activities will take time to recover. The less said the better in terms of socio-economic costs.
The long internet ban has already affected thousands of students who have been preparing to continue higher education outside Manipur. What will the future of these students look like?
The pillars of governance will take time to be repaired, let alone working for a holistic and better future for the people of Manipur. It will take genuine leadership to refashion an entity as the Manipur Police as an effective instrument of good governance. The animosity, the suspicion among the affected communities will take time to heal.
Colonel James Johnstone, who was the Manipur political agent of the British Empire, in his book "Manipur and Naga Hills" in 1896 described the inhabitants of the kingdom like this: "All natives of India are suspicious by nature, but this remark applies ten-fold force to the Manipuris."
Suspicion breeds rumours, particularly in a crisis. Claims and counter-claims over security forces allegedly taking sides will need careful handling. The central security forces were the first and only responders in the first week since violence broke out. They rescued, fed and took care of over 35,000 internally displaced people and ensured that the situation was reasonably stabilised before the second round of violence started in May third week, just before Home Minister Amit Shah landed in Imphal.
All forms of brutalities, real and imagined, have seeped into the psyche of the people. There are, however, peace-loving citizens on both sides, who are working for the welfare of the internally displaced population and taking care of their needs, helping the weak and the elderly. Many in and outside the government are making efforts to bring peace.
But many more are involved directly or indirectly in perpetrating the violence, instigating people to outdo the other, subdue the other physically and mentally, or even take revenge - as we have seen in the waves of violence in recent days. Some do it for their personal agenda, hoping the situation will stabilise on its own soon. Some are involved in strategising for their goals of land and territory.
In this context, it is important for people to check if there are efforts to change history, geography and social fabric. We have reached the rock bottom of distrust.
The only way to bring peace is through dialogue, sanity, forgiveness and the will of the silent majority - the majority in the valley and the majority in the hills - who want peace.
Home Minister Amit Shah announced several steps to ensure peace after talking to the state authorities and civil society groups. These include formation of a peace committee, judicial investigation, unified command of security forces, rehabilitation measures, combing operations, actions to be taken for violating SoO agreement, and so on. These were meant to achieve the short-term objective of cooling down public anger.
The rumour mill, however, has started spreading lies and false narratives to derail a well-intentioned beginning of the healing process. They can be countered with actions on the ground to bring peace. For example, the conditional opening of National Highway-2 - Manipur's lifeline - on June 5 was an improvement.
The complex situation in Manipur is baggage from 1826, and it can't be solved in a day. The Home Minister, after having assessed the ground situation, is expected to announce mid- and long-term policy measures to bring normalcy. Balancing the aspirations of all communities is the key to this effort. The issues involved are far too many. A Zero Sum approach is unlikely to work; instead, flexibility of ideas will be the key.
The people have to be reasonable to accept issues without compromising on the idea of Manipur, and suggestions in keeping with changing times and state and national interests. All the ethnic groups - big or small - are destined to live together under the law of the land. History and geography have kept us together.
The effort to exert illegitimate authority and pressure, control resources with illegal money and weapons under the garb of identity and self-protection or preservation will miserably fail in the long run.
Issues such as illegal immigrants, drug trafficking, poppy cultivation, SoO activity, land ownership and development will have to be addressed and action taken against those who break the law.
In this Sana Leibak (golden land), everyone can prosper, but not at the cost of the other. We all have a stake in bringing peace, for an eye for an eye makes all of us blind.
(Lieutenant General Konsam Himalay Singh (retired) served in the Indian Army and commanded the 27th Battalion, Rajput Regiment, in Siachen during the Kargil War.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.