In the movie Chak De India, there is a scene where two hockey players from Manipur report for registration. At the desk, the clerk, a North Indian man by the name of Sukhram, welcomes them to India. Affronted by the fact that they are treated as foreigners in their country, they proceed to take Sukhram to school, at least figuratively speaking and give him a much-needed lesson in empathy. Empathy is an alien word nowadays and so is compassion. And these are two character traits that the democratically elected rulers of India lack sorely, especially when it comes to issues surrounding the seven sister states of the northeast. For the mandarins in South <g data-gr-id="36">Block</g> all issues related to the North East are square holes. Unfortunately what is needed to bridge the gap in governance in the North East are a large number of round pegs. This is, however, not about the Central dispensation’s follies alone, although their distinct lack of coordination with the State government in managing the protests has been poor.
As has been apparent in recent times, the interests of various tribes in Manipur are not at all homogeneous. In a bid to control the unrest among a section of the tribal population and its apprehension against the passing of the Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, 2015, the state government has acted like an ostrich with its head in the sand. This was like the hill district of Churachandpur, which burned with violent protests against the new legislation, believed to favour valley dwellers. It is amply clear that the Hill residents are at a distinct disadvantage due to these recent amendments.
The events of this week promise to become another official misadventure with the indigenous, with the idea and experience of how ethnic conflicts over land and resources are handled. Two related amendment bills later, the State government has announced that the MLR&LR amendment bill will not harm the interest of those residing in the hills. This, of course, is a tenuous claim at best. Concerned by the growing unrest, the State cabinet under the leadership of Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh had called an emergency meeting and discussed the bandh called by the Kuki Students Organisation General, All Naga Students Association Manipur and the two factions of All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur against the passing of the three bills.
Though some of the fears of the locals during these violent protests were unfounded, they were based on an often-expressed and often-ignored reality in Manipur: governance typically favours the <g data-gr-id="38">plains</g> and ignores the hills. It is far easier to deliver something as common as a bucket of water in the valley as compared to the hills. As a result governance mechanisms and the Indian state have not been able to deliver the network effects of governance they can provide at the plains with typical gusto. However the way the State government has approached the problem is what is appalling.
Instead of assuaging the fears of the hill residents, what it has shown is ineptness and a stoic indifference. Nero, the Roman emperor, played the harp as Rome burnt. The events of Manipur are no different. Or so it seems. The fact that Manipur is burning in chaos at present is as much a residual stain of our colonial past where the British grossly neglected the North Eastern states as it is a sign of the present when the symptom is being treated instead of the disease.