People burned out of their homes in hundreds. Refugee camps raked with gunfire. Cities reduced to shards.
Such headlines colour only the global pages of our newspapers, decisively ignorant to similar carnage much closer to home. The months of violence ravaging Manipur have been grossly underreported, with continually dwindling sources occupying small corners of far-tucked pages. This naturally reflects in our collective consciousness; our conversations and activism neglect extending to the Manipuri cause.
The conflict arises from animosity between the Kuki-Zo tribe (16% of the population) and the state’s Meitei majority. The latter are predominantly Hindu and live largely in the state capital Imphal and the prosperous value around it. The Kuki-Zo community are mainly Christians, living generally in scattered settlements in the state’s hills. The longstanding tension, revolving around competition for jobs and land, came to a head in May over government plans to recognize the Meitei as an ST, a status conferred upon the Kuki. The ST status would grant the Meitei affirmative action through the guarantee of government job and college admission quotas. The Kuki-Zo groups staged protests over fear that the plans could reduce their privileges, with rallies spiraling into violence quickly.
The following interview provides personal insight into the politics of identity in the context of the Manipur violence.
Lamkhogin Haokip is a student of UG24 and a member of the Kuki community.
How are members of your community [who are currently not in Manipur] keeping in contact with those in the region and remaining informed?
“Since major media coverage is lax and it is physically difficult for journalists to enter the state, we have had to find our own ways to keep informed and connected. The Kuki Student Organization (KSO) has taken up reporting via the circulation of infographics and statistics. Hornbill Cable Network and other channels run by Kuki bodies such as Thingkho Le Malcha provide direct insight into the voice of the community and real on-ground reports combined. There are various social media pages like Being Kuki. All these initiatives were taken up by the community.”
How are students affected by the conflict?
“Students are impacted harshly by the conflict and then further neglected by the government. My brother for example is at RIMS Imphal and is not getting permission to transfer his schooling anywhere else. Additionally, it is rumoured that many have received zeroes on their exams and assignments with no care for their trajectory. Students, particularly of the Kuki community, are entirely unseen.”
What are people not paying attention to given the conflict?
“Not only is there a lack of attention to the conflict, but there is a lack of understanding of the conflict. Forget our ideological histories, but there is an unnecessary focus on the ‘drug problem’. As an easy peg to rattle your heads in pity towards, Manipuri poppy cultivation is not well understood. The question to ask is ‘Why would people turn to such means?’ There are some poppy cultivators within the Kuki community, especially in recent years but this is not the whole picture. The actual drug lords are the valley people. The KSO has been working hard to discourage such activity. I think in contexts of conflict, people look to find easy labels to box stories that are much more complicated and rooted. Mass media labeling us militants or narcoterrorists is distinctly judgmental and lacks humanity. That is the problem.”
How has your relationship with your identity and collective identity been affected?
“I feel like a stranger to my own identity, the place where I am from. We build who we are majorly on where we are from. One of the first questions you are asked as you meet a new person here is ‘Where are you from?’. I no longer want to say I am from Manipur. I have been stripped of that right and dignity. I have had to grapple quite deeply with what I attribute my identity to in the face of the conflict. Once a tag of pride, my home is scarred by violence, hate, and stereotypes. I see rifts in myself but also within my friendships as we all retreat into what is ‘right’. I can no longer be Manipuri. I am Kuki.”
How has the issue been treated at Ashoka?
Nobody stands with us. It’s painful. We have a student government, a paper, and so many other pathways at this renowned liberal institution, where is the attention? The student government is currently collaborating with the North-East Collective to create a series of panels surrounding the conflict. Yet the student body is jarringly ignorant. Where were the feminists when women were paraded naked? Where were the liberals to all the threats to our government? Where were you when children were burned, people decapitated? Lost “in solidarity”, where are you?”