It is now close to two months since Manipur has been in an unrelenting state of violence. The hostilities have assumed cruel forms involving ferocious ethnic fires. Angry masses have seemingly lost their humanity and have indulged in killing sprees replete with reprisals. In one village alone, nine people were killed in gunfire. Other examples are equally gory or even worse.

The Kuki Tribals and the Meitei people have always had competing claims. However, never before in their history, did vengeance reach the current levels of violence. The severity of the ongoing violence is new in the Kuki-Meitei lectionary.

As always in times of conflict, the strong prevail, and the weak are submerged into timidity when assaults on them intensify. In this case, the victims are the minority Kukis, and they endure the worst.

The Meitei who make up 57% of the population are escalating their claims for scheduled tribe (ST) status. The Kuki’s and the relatively slighter number of Nagas in the hills are unprepared to concede that claim. There is a valid fear that if this is granted in any form, the Meitei identity will override the Kuki identity. There are apprehensions that the Kukis would also lose land and cultural particularity to an overbearing number of Metiis inhabiting Kuki spaces.

A political dimension further complicates this calculus. Meitei votes are crucial to swing fortunes in the 40 seats in Imphal Valley and to reshape the character of government. Kuki’s infer that the Meitei’s single reason for claiming tribal status in Manipur is to alter the demographics of the Hill areas and enhance their own economic privileges.

They argue that the Manipur High Court’s suo moto ruling which unilaterally accords Meiteis an ethnic identity has no roots or justification. The Apex Court concurs with this argumentation of the Kukis and has asserted that it alone can assign Tribal status to any group of peoples.

Meitei Hindus or Manipuri Hindus are native to the Manipur kingdom and the South East Asian regions. Meitei Hindus speak the Meitei language (Manipuri language), are rooted in the Sino-Tibetan language family and adhere to the Vaishnava section of Hinduism.

By contrast, about 99% of Mizo-Kuki tribes are now Christian. Conversion to Christianity transformed their ideas, mentality and social practices and replaced their tribal traditions and customs. Traditionally they were animist and worshipped different deities and spirits. Traditionally, the ethnic pluralism has held but has torn apart at the seams in a peculiar way.

One thing is clear. The Central and the State government seem clueless about what they must do to douse the fires. They are, in fact, complicit and have chosen sides rather than being honest arbitrators.

Money cannot easily buy integrity when it is tied to ethnic identity. In Manipur, it is all falling apart for the BJP in the State and the Centre. The BJP has lost any real semblance of trust and support. Chief Minister Biren Singh was reportedly on the verge of quitting.

The Meiteis have always been the more privileged group in Manipur. Having lived under privileged kingdoms, their economic lot has always tended to be superior to that of the Kukis. This explains why, in the Valley, where the Meiteis live, economic progress is far more visible than in the Kuki areas. It is where educational avenues have expanded and economic fronts have opened up.

Not so with the Kukis, whose lands are not particularly economically viable. Their areas represent bio-diversity that is rich and pristine, but it is not enough for economic advancement.

Unio[n Home Minister Amit Shah’s all-party meet in Delhi on Manipur also yielded nothing tangible and received a cynical refutation. Shah is alleged to have reneged on the promises proffered on his visit. Manipur needs more than mere optics. It requires profound political thinking, broadmindedness, and an inclusive mind.

Independent groups of prominent citizens who recently visited the area tend to unearth constructive solutions and bring up counter-claims towards conflict transformation have generally been stunned by a turnaround of the consensus they arrived at only hours earlier with their intermediaries. They deduced that there are counter-forces who will rebuff a peace paradigm working from the shadows.

Elsewhere in the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off five new trains in a location far, far away from Manipur. A political observer stated, somewhat cynically: “The flagging of the train could have been done at the hands of a simple Station Master”. Manipur needed him.

The PM returned from his trip to the US and Egypt and asked his BJP political honchos at the airport: ‘How are things in India’? After all, the political condition in Manipur was global knowledge.

Of course, he knew Manipur was up in flames. He deftly adopted the attitude of political ‘ostrich-ism’! Over 300 have died and at least 50,000 displaced people live in 349 make-shift relief camps characterised by squalor. People slept on each other’s shoulders for want of space.

Basic facilities, water, toilets, and privacy for women, were non-existent. Worse, those who lived in these camps were left to live in fear. When would the next assault by well-armed militants of the other side arrive and resort to killings and torture?

Two months on, the situation has reached horrific proportions. The Prime Minister has not uttered a word. At the least, he could have constituted an empowered group of Ministers to explore a final solution. He did not even show up at the All-Party meeting convened by Amit Shah which is tantamount to contemptuous disregard for Manipur. Little wonder, an ever widening mass of people around the country smell a conspiracy as displayed in indifference.

The warring factions in Manipur are armed to the teeth. Unless all armed groups are neutralised militarily, the chances of a process that inculcates trust, harmony and reconciliation are bleak. Besides, there are validated suspicions that powerful elements from the Meitei community with the support of armed forces have raided police stations, and captured huge caches of armaments.

In the underworld of politics that Manipur has turned out to be, justice is a victim. Pluralism is the other casualty. The Meiteis have the edge and political patronage.

Quite clearly, the ongoing conflict and resultant bloodshed in Manipur has roots that were concealed for a long time. It erupted because all it needed was a spark. The BJP has played a clandestine role as part of its wider agenda to gain a firm foothold in the North-East.

In the context of the political uncertainties it has created, this may now be an idea that may not live to tell the tale. Subtle, and tacit as it may have been, the BJP must acknowledge that its brand of politics and its discontents have shaped the ongoing crisis. The BJP’s arrival on the stage of Manipuri politics has injected a new and divisive dynamic into the political arena of Manipur.

By playing out an old colonial tactic of divide-and-rule, BJP has engineered antagonisms between the majority Meitei people and the Kuki’s. Political disorder has reached a crescendo. Even though there were issues simmering among the Manipuri people, they remained fluid.

Rahul Gandhi visited Manipur to interact with the affected people and civil society leaders. He sought to play his now-signature role, advocate for peace, co-existence, and to combat hate. Through this Gandhi is indicating what authentic political leadership must resemble in crisis situations, be it peace building; generating conversation and dialogue, and mounting structures of consensus where differences are dangerously sharp.

Rahul Gandhi recognises that by taking the risks for peace, the options of war and conflict could recede. His grim determination is evident from the fact that he completed his journey although his convoy was stopped and he had to take a chopper to reach Manipur. Such is determination and political will that punctuates ideas of a just peace.

The thousands waiting on both sides of the road to see and hear him were disappointed. The police were under strict margins to curtail Rahul Gandhi. The people desperately wished to hear a sane voice in the midst of murderous conflict. They wanted his arm around their shoulders and to hold him and cry. The rumour that hand grenades were ready to be thrown at him may have just been a rumour designed to deter his padayatra. He used a chopper to complete his journey.

All along, it should have been the PM who should have been in Manipur to talk peace. Amit Shah should have taken tough measures such as ridding the State of a CM whose incompetence is high up on public display. An interim period of President’s Rule during may just be what the doctor ordered.

This is an opportune time to act decisively and with eyes wide open. The country cannot afford to play ‘blind person’s buff’ when people are dying, being displaced, and under the very real danger of ethnic cleansing under a subtle Hindutva adventure. The BJP at the centre risks instability in the whole, of what the people in the entire region, are increasingly calling the “North East of India”.

Our borders on that front are anything but secure. To pussy foot under such circumstances is to probe for uncalled-for mishaps. To incorporate the people of the region through inclusive policies ought to be the first step.

It must make political common sense to the BJP by now that identity politics brings with it formulas of community dissection that, once unleashed, are hard to pull back. Manipur now needs emergency and comprehensive economic packages chosen by the people in the region accompanied by an authentic democratic process that fulfils their aspirations.

Finally, the centre must find new political methods which allow for cultural autonomy in politics, economics, and social identities. A militaristic solution is no way out because peace does not come from the barrel of a gun.

It requires dialogue that enables justice and justice alone built around the notion of common humanity- not ethnic rivalries. This is the only sort of deliverance that remains.

Ranjan Solomon is a political commentator and a human rights activist. Views expressed are the writer’s own.