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Contested Narrative: The Language of Manipur Crisis


Narratives from the past continue to rekindle narratives from the present. This prevents state residents from recognizing and seeking the common good.

By Gaituang Newme

Violence is bloody; violence is hostile; and it overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. It does not merit calm discussion, only negative thought, and some saying, “Going to kill these folks not for what they did but because of who they were.”

When I grew up, I was always told, in statements like, “The land belongs to… not them.” Yes, I was told! I said it! I said it! Taking me into a cushy arm used to tell me that I should also wear extra clothes or something, and if the enemy comes in, I should hit them with it. I was a school kid at that time. Right from the start, I was told this community was an ‘outsider.’ Such a communal narrative dominates the content and topic. I take time to point out how seriously wrong their one-sided narrative is and build an image of someone as an enemy who merely survives as passive recipients of the state’s welfare policies and “live together for many years.” This culture of silence, however, is part of the social norm in society. Reflecting back, I was stunned at this anomalous and concocted narrative that shapes and characterises my creative imagination and vivid memories.

Consequently, the ghosts of the past continue to haunt the present in statements like, “This land is mine. My forefather defended it a thousand years ago.” Such narratives from the past continue to rekindle narratives from the present that prevent state residents from recognizing and seeking common goods. Every new generation on both sides is taught the communal tales by the preacher and the political leader at home and in school, even though many of those narratives may only be myths created by the older generation. It is incredibly challenging to unravel the mechanisms that shape communal memory and narrative, which prevent reconciliation and peaceful coexistence and are one of the largest barriers to moving from conflict to peace. This has made the ethnic conflict that someone cunningly sowed in this area produce the horrific carnage that Manipur has seen. The violence that broke out on May 3, 2023, bears all the hallmarks of artificial killing. Historically, Manipur is no stranger to ethnic conflict.

What is striking about the recent episode of violence involving two ethnic groups is the slaughter of hundreds of innocents and the displacement of thousands. Why?’’ I asked myself, “Why violence? Who is responsible? For whom do they kill each other, and for what purpose?” Things happened. Now I had to rewind the character, try to recall some memories, put them on paper, and analyse them. To do this, I had to step outside of myself and look at the narratives of the media, academicians, and others. It is critically important for me to try to shift my perspective and look at myself a little differently. While the violence began on May 3, I learned about it on May 5. It was around 3 p.m. at the Central University of Karnataka, Gulbarga. The temperature of the sun had consistently gone up to 41 degrees Celsius, with regular dryness in my throat urging me to drink more water. I took a 15-minute nap in the library and woke up tired. With my eyes half open, I reached out for my phone and laptop to catch up with what’s been happening. As a force of habit, I clicked on the Hindu and indulged in reading it. I long to find some positive news, see people shine, read about oneness, and pursue the common good. But it was par for the course by now to start the day with the depressing news that tension had erupted in Manipur. When I read it, I couldn’t hold myself together. I was grossly unprepared to witness the spectacle of the people being cruelly treated in their homeland, where gunfire is going on. Many commentators, reports, and editorials considered majoritarian Meitei versus minority tribal, sometimes all tribal versus non-tribal, double-engine government, etc.

I was stunned by the press reports and editorial mastery of the socialization agents—the home, school, religious institutions, peers, and the media—through which narratives are created, shaped, and spread in society—producing stereotypical images instead of creating a climate conducive to peace of image making. They paint an image of no place for minorities, whatever the media’s ‘term.’ The media narrative is so effective at creating an image that it portrays both the victim and the culprit as the same person. Let me narrate an experience. I was on the university campus walking around and met some students. They were in their sophomore year and novices at the university. We conversed for about fifteen minutes, and then some students, who had been looking at my face, asked, “Where are you from?” And I said, “I’m from Manipur.” They said, ”Oh my God! Manipur” I said, “Any problem, Manipur?” So, they said, “Manipur?” “Yes.” “Well, how is the situation over there?” How could they commit such atrocities toward…?” I said, “Normal.” So, they were shocked by my calm and composure answer, and then they said, “Scared of visiting Manipur?” And I said, “Why, what’s the matter with Manipur?” And they said, “Manipur is such a violent place.” Well, what is striking is that perhaps they were looking at what social media, the press, and newspapers had created and failed to look at this image-making process. They failed to look at defenceless villages being bombed, and innocent women and children have been slaughtered on both sides. They failed to look at how Manipur was being treated as secondary—only being inserted into their system and allowed to advance a little bit faster because it served their interest. They failed to see how they have been pushed to accept accountability for events that are not their fault. Not merely what we see on television and what is published in print constitutes media production. It also includes everything that occurs in the background. Unfortunately, the ethnic narrative is so deeply entrenched in mainstream media discourse that it has come to define the lexicon of the “Kuki-Meitei conflict.”

In the academic realm too, they happily emulate an unoriginal communal narrative instead of questioning, ‘Why were “we” living under the orders of this invisible system? Why did “we” fail to detect that someone had shrewdly planted the seed of division? Exposure to the same narrative for an extended period creates and shapes people’s values, ideas, views, attitudes, actions, and positions in what Jurgen Habermas called the ‘public sphere”—that  is, ‘the self-interpretation of the function of the bourgeois public sphere crystallized in the idea of “public opinion.” Building upon this logic, the Indian public sphere articulates opinions of dual authority: the state and society. In actuality, the people who define the public sphere are empirically bankrupt. In the absence of a common-sense approach to the issue of narratives, the “communal narrative” dominates the content, demonizing and delegitimizing the other and emphasising the rightness, authenticity, legitimacy, and justice of one’s own claims. It becomes about a “cycle of violence,” even though both sides are enduring heavy casualties. But it is not prudent to get caught up in nostalgic thoughts about the past and ignore the reality of the present. To revive this wounded event at this time, it does not sound good to finger-point, “You did it” or “You killed my people.” The ability to cure this static communal narrative, reconsider our own thinking that brought us to these ruins, and collectively seek a solution in the light of the present realities is fundamental, or we can hold on to these harmful ideas and create more destruction. Otherwise, the Meiteis, Nagas, and Kuki will eventually find themselves alone and demonized, with only their memories of the past and little hope for the future.

(Gaituang Newme is a PhD Scholar (Economics) at the Central University of Karnataka. He can be reached at [email protected])  

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