Much has been written about the violence in Manipur that erupted on May 4, 2023 claiming some 60 lives and displacing thousands. It all began with the Manipur High Court directing the State Government to recommend to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs grant of Scheduled Tribe status to Meiteis; in accordance with the demand from the Meiteis Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee. The All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur took out a protest rally on May 3 and the violence erupted the next day.

Meiteis, representing around 53 percent of the population of Manipur, are primarily located in the Imphal Valley, while the Naga and Kuki tribes occupy the surrounding hills. Naga ethnic groups are 24 percent of the population and various Kuki/Zomi tribes (also known as Chin-Kuki-Mizo people) are 16 percent. But the Meiteis genuinely fear that they would be outnumbered by the Nagas and Kukis in the not so distant future.

Some of the Meitei communities are already included in the SC or OBC lists. The demand for all Meiteis to be granted ST status means practically the entire population of Manipur would be included in reserved lists; implying preference in availing of public sector jobs, university seats and the like. Presently, Meiteis dominate the state legislature; in the 60-member Assembly, 40 MLAs are from the Imphal Valley while 20 are elected from the hills. Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh is a Meitei.

The Imphal Valley, though only 10 percent geographical area of the Manipur State, accommodates the majority population and is more fertile and prosperous compared to the surrounding hills. It takes no intelligence to deduce from the above that the tussle between the Meiteis and non-Meiteis is about government jobs, benefits of being ST/SC/OBC, land, forest resources and other socio-economic issues.

The important issue to note is that the demand for grant of ST status by the Meiteis is more than a decade old. So why did the Centre and the State not hold talks with both sides to resolve the issue amicably all these years? Talks are now being contemplated.

Additionally, were the intelligence agencies of the State and the Centre sleeping in not anticipating violence of this scale? Alternatively, were they aware but the macabre happenings were allowed in order to extract political benefits from the rioting in this sensitive state bordering Myanmar?

No doubt the entire focus of the Centre was on the Karnataka assembly elections and the Union Home Minister Amit Shah did not find time to visit Manipur. He probably feared for his own safety, but the accountability of the State and Central intelligence agencies and their masters needs to be investigated for this serious lapse.

It is being said that problems in Manipur are because of the twin Nehruvian follies of outsourcing the northeast to missionaries and allowing the Nagas to settle down in the hills of Manipur. No doubt missionaries spread Christianity but they ventured into areas where other organisations did not and successive Indian governments never bothered.

Why is it that even today only the Ramakrishna Mission has reached out in remote areas of the Maoist insurgency belt, including inside the Dandakaranya Forest? Are we aware of how many villages, say in a state like Jharkhand, there are no water pipelines and no toilets?

As for Nagas settling in Manipur, which state in India does not have settlers from outside or other states? Are we aware that the State of Nagaland was formed in November 1963, 16 years after Independence?

Surprisingly, no one talks of the pivotal bane of India, including in Manipur, which is “reservations”. The Election Commission announced in September 2021 that we have 2,858 political parties in India (sic); including eight national, 54 state-level and the rest unregistered.

Multiple political parties claim lien over B. R. Ambedkar and garland his statue periodically. If Ambedkar was alive, politicians would not hesitate to wash his feet and drink the water for the sake of votes.

But not one of these damn politicians follow Ambedkar’s dictum that reservations should have ceased within 10 years of promulgation of the Constitution. To top this, criteria for the “reserved” category in government jobs and admission into educational institutions has been lowered drastically.

A sinister development during the Manipur riots is the emergence of videos alleging that the Army was helping the Kuki Nagas. A video was also circulating against the Assam Rifles battalion deployed in the Imphal Valley.

According to inside sources, these were State-sponsored propaganda. The fingers were pointed to Biren Singh, accusing him of inciting the Meiteis and to secure his own political career.

As a former footballer and policeman turned politician, Biren Singh perhaps wanted to try his hand at ‘political football’. Inciting the mobs with these videos also brought in the communal angle, which may have been the aim as well.

Whether this was done in conjunction with the Centre, particularly the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), remains ambiguous. However, in recent years, news reports revealed that the government wants to merge the Assam Rifles with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and bring them under the MHA – salivating over the narcotics from the Golden Triangle flowing into India from the East and other smuggling activities.

Incidentally, no Indian governments, including the present one, have bothered to fully settle our border with Myanmar.

Biren Singh’s political football reportedly led to Meiteis burning some churches and Kukis burning Meitei worship places. The ‘double-engine’ polarisation was achieved in the process.

But Biren Singh perhaps did not know that concurrently Prime Minister Narendra Modi was wooing Christian leaders in Karnataka and assuring them of full protection. What effect Biren Singh’s actions had on the Karnataka elections would perhaps be analysed by the BJP.

It is well known that politicians want insurgencies to continue notwithstanding the political announcements and platitudes, incite rioting and polarise communities to extract political power any which way. Before the rioting in May 2023, Biren Singh was facing accusations of expelling tribes from their villages, demolishing decades-old churches in Imphal, and classifying a majority of tribal settlements as reserved forests, which deems the indigenous inhabitants as illegal immigrants.

Tribal legislators of Manipur have claimed that the Biren Singh led state administration has "polarised" Manipur communities over the last few years, the flashpoint being the recent eviction of villagers from reserve forest land in Churachandpur District.

Biren Singh is well up with the Centre because under his leadership the BJP not only increased its seat share in the Manipur Assembly, from 21 (in 2017) to 32 (in 2022), but he has also managed to keep the minority government led by him together. He recently met Amit Shah at Delhi and the latter has said that justice would be done.

What will happen in the future remains to be seen but the heat of the fires that have been lit in Manipur are unlikely to cool down anytime soon.

Finally, one clown tweeted that Israel is helping the Kuki Nagas, which indicates his brain is dislocated and lodged in his backside. But China would certainly love to exploit the situation since it has been supporting and arming Naga and Manipur insurgents over the past several decades.

Not that the United States would be lagging behind, given recent reports that Washington has been using organisations to destabilise India.

Lt General PRAKASH KATOCH is a veteran of the Indian Army. Views expressed are personal.