Enough has been written on the origin and progress of the ethnic conflict in Manipur so I will not dwell on it further, or repeat that it was well planned, funded and implemented or that communalism has been inserted into an ethnic conflict for political reasons. I will limit myself to recent events, particularly the video on women being paraded naked.

Many have found a parallel between this event and the Nirbhaya case of 2012. It is true that both are cases of abuse of women but what happened in Manipur is much more than that.

It is not women’s abuse alone. It is weaponisation of women as a tool of what in reality is a civil war. In such use of abuse as a mode of punishing the defeated enemy, the fact of being a woman is combined with the fact of being a tribal.

Nowhere in India has one heard of an ‘upper’ caste Hindu woman being paraded naked. But every now and then one hears of Dalit or tribal or Muslim women being raped and paraded naked during a pogrom.

They are the ‘inferior’ race and gender is combined with their ‘other’ ethnic or religious status. Thus race and gender go hand in hand. Addition of the communal issue to it is parallel to the Bilkis Bano case of 2002 in which the ‘other’ religion coincided with the ‘other’ gender.

In Manipur communalisation of an ethnic issue is combined with gender. The Kuki belong to the ‘other’ community and ‘other’ religion so their women could be weaponised to claim victory over their ‘inferior’ race.

The second issue specific to this conflict is hatred combined with criminalisation. For decades Manipur and the rest of the Northeast have lived with ethnic conflicts linked to tension around land and identity. All through the decades it has remained a civilian conflict fought through civil disobedience tools such as blockades of highways, strikes and bandhs.

Violence was rare in ethnic conflicts. It was to a great extent limited to nationalist struggles. For the first time an ethnic conflict has been criminalised and armed gangs of youth are leading it thus turning it into a de facto civil war without giving it that name.

What was ‘tension’ is being turned into hatred between communities. Thus racism seems to overtake ethnic differences and turn what was tension into hatred between communities. Its result is a total breakdown of communication between the ethnic communities.

The ethnic conflict is being used and controlled by people not necessarily belonging to the region. Thus the conflict today is not between all the Meitei and Kuki. Not a few Meitei leaders and thinkers oppose what has happened but are forced to be silent for fear of reprisals.

The criminal groups have taken over and those who have armed them seem to use local issues for their own objective. This process of twisting local issues to suit other needs is visible in the rest of the Northeast too.

For example, the Assam agitation 1979-85 was to protect the Assamese identity and land. All the original inhabitants of the state joined it. Slowly it became a Hindu Assamese movement and step by step it has been turned into a Hindu Assamese indigenous identity in which even indigenous Muslims do not find a place easily.

That reality of the new face of the conflict, has to be accepted while trying to initiate steps towards reconciliation between the ethnic communities in Manipur and in the rest of the Northeast. Forces with a vested interest in division seem to have taken control of the situation.

Till now people organisations and individuals working for peace with justice began with confidence-building measures that could bring the leaders of communities in conflict around a table for dialogue. That was the first of many slow steps towards trust that is required for negotiations on various areas of tension and division.

In many cases such negotiations began at the local level and went beyond the local community to others, with very positive results.

Such steps and processes that could lead to eventual peace and reconciliation have become next to impossible today because hatred has taken the place of tension. Dialogue has become difficult as visible in the Kuki stand on a separate administration and in the fact of some Meitei women encouraging the naked parading and rape of Kuki women.

Such women and the criminals committing the heinous crimes do not represent the whole community. They only show that the leaders who conducted the non-violent civil disobedience movements and civil society groups that took initiatives for dialogue between the ethnic communities have been sidelined and the criminal elements have taken their place.

That makes peace initiatives difficult today. Amid these signs of apparent despair the only option left to persons working for peace and reconciliation is to search for the few signs of hope that exist.

For example, the Naga leaders in Manipur did not support the Kuki openly but they refused to join the conflict against them. After seeing the video parading women, a few of them like the Poumai Association of Delhi and the Tangkhul Scholars Association (both of them Manipur based Naga tribes) came out openly in support of the Kuki.

Though the Manipur based Naga outfits did not support the Kuki openly, the Nagaland based Naga tribes showed solidarity with them from the early days of the conflict. Some of them visited their relief camps with massive relief supplies. Not surprisingly the Mizo showed solidarity with the Kuki since they belong to the Kuki-Chin-Mizo family.

Today one has to work on such straws of hope. The first step is for the civil society groups of Nagaland and Mizoram to come together and dialogue with the Naga and Kuki groups in Manipur.

Because of historical reasons that have been discussed elsewhere the Naga do not recognise Kuki land rights and many of the latter have not yet got over the division caused by the Naga-Kuki conflict of the 1990s. The Naga and Mizo civil society groups can take steps to facilitate dialogue between the Naga and Kuki of Manipur and take them towards some compromises.

The Naga and Mizo civil society groups can simultaneously be in touch with the Meitei civil society groups and individuals who have in the past facilitated dialogue between communities but have been sidelined during the last few years.

The next step is for the Naga and Kuki together to use these contacts to establish a dialogue with the open minded Meitei leaders and civil society groups. They can also encourage the chief ministers of Nagaland and Mizoram to join hands to dialogue with the chief minister of Manipur.

These are not easy steps and will not happen overnight. They may take many years but the only alternative seems to be to make use of the present crisis to make such a new beginning.

Dr Walter Fernandes is Director, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati. Views expressed are the writer’s own.