The setting up of a three-member panel by the Union government to probe the ethnic violence in Manipur, that has claimed nearly 100 lives and displaced over 35,000 people, must be welcomed. Its terms of reference are clear — an inquiry into the causes and the spread of the violence and whether there was any dereliction of duty by the authorities. This has the potential to set a process of truth-telling in motion that could nudge the possibility of reconciliation between the wounded ethnic communities. Riots and ethnic violence in particular rarely occur without driving forces — the fact that this occurred in Manipur with the help of looted weapons from police armouries only underlines this. Affixing responsibility for the violent actions to key actors and holding them accountable are the first steps in building trust in those responsible for governance. That arson and violence continue in the State even after the Union Home Minister visited affected areas and only 18% of the looted weapons returned to the armouries suggest that distrust among the two ethnic communities, the Meiteis and Kukis, remains intact, besides indicating the inability of the State government to act as a catalyst for a return to lasting peace.
The paramilitary forces that have created a security grid and are patrolling “buffer areas” between the Imphal valley and adjoining hill areas, where the Kuki people live, to prevent any violence, can only be of limited help. The political representatives of the two communities — MLAs in particular who share party affiliations but differ in their ethnicities — must act as the bearers of peace and reconciliation. The underlying differences between the groups require a longer political dialogue and rumination as they are not easy to solve. Many among the Kukis (and the Nagas) claim that the demand for Scheduled Tribe status for Meiteis — opposed by a section among them — is unjustified, while Meitei sections resent the benefits of affirmative action for “hill-tribes”. The Meiteis also have the grievance that they lack the explicit privilege of owning land in hill areas, unlike the rights that anyone can have in the Imphal valley. Historical patterns of land ownership and dwelling by the Kukis have also made them susceptible to claims that they have encroached on reserved forests, and the steps taken by the government to clear such areas have created an impression of siege mentality among them. A process of reconciliation cannot succeed unless these knotty issues are tackled; for this to happen, representatives of these communities must rise above their narrow sectarianism and look for constitutional solutions. A beginning has to be made to tamp down on the violence, return the displaced to their homes, secure their lives, and isolate those responsible for wanton violence and bring them to justice. Thus, much depends on the commission’s work in this regard.