As Manipur has been engulfed in one of the deadliest ethnic clashes between Meiteis and Kukis for nearly three months, a “cultural” organisation and its head have suddenly burst into the limelight. Meitei Leepun, an organisation committed to preserving Meitei culture and tradition, is many things to many people. Kuki groups claim it’s a vigilante unit actively participating in violence against their tribe. Others say it’s patronised by Chief Minister N. Biren Singh and has a close link with the RSS, BJP’s ideological fountainhead. Pramot Singh, one of its founders and current Thoburen—first among the top council of seven members—has been hitting headlines for his alleged radical comments, particularly against the Kuki community. Based on a complaint lodged by the Kuki Students’ Organisation, he has been booked by police, on charges of criminal conspiracy, promoting enmity between groups, intentional insult with an intent to provoke breach of peace and other offences. A post-graduate in clinical psychology from Gujarat University, Ahmedabad, Singh admits to being influenced by RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad but denies any link of his organisation with the RSS. Ironically, the former NGO activist was influenced by the Young Mizo Association, a Mizoram-based community organisation for Mizo people who share the same ethnicity with Kukis.
In an exclusive interview with India Today NE Editor Kaushik Deka, he denies any deliberate involvement of the cadres in the ongoing violence. For him, it’s a war between Indians and outsiders. Grilled about the arms training that his volunteers go through, Singh says that this is part of the Meitei culture of mandatory military service which was discontinued by the British. Excerpts from the interview.
Q. Why is Manipur burning?
A. The Kukis were brough and settled in the hills of Churachandpur by the British. They were used as mercenaries. After Independence, these Kukis continued bringing in more and more people from outside India. Their numbers kept growing and they started dominating other communities living in Manipur. Soon, they started migrating from Churachandpur to other areas of the state and encroached on the space belonging to the other communities. That’s one reason why they had conflicts with the Nagas. Gradually, they started occupying reserved forest areas and began poppy cultivation. Along with that illegal migration continued. In response, the state government started drives against illegal poppy cultivation and encroachment of forest areas. It also announced that there would be an NRC to detect illegal migrants. The Kukis felt threatened and planned this riot. Since early 1980s they have been demanding a separate homeland. That movement is getting a new momentum now. To achieve their goal, they are using narco-terrorism as a means. The new illegal immigrants also get converted to Christianity. The missionaries are also involved in this. Then politicians use them as vote banks. So, politicians are also involved. It’s a long chain. It has been happening for so many years.
At the same time, there has been a movement going on among the Meiteis. Some Meitei people are demanding ST status, something resented by both Nagas and Kukis. So, the Kukis tried to have support of the Nagas and held that so-called peace rally on May 3 against the Meitei demand for ST status. During the rally, the Kukis started burning Meitei houses in Bishnupur and violence erupted. That’s how this ethnic clash was artificially manufactured.
Q. Why has it been going on for nearly three months? Who is responsible?
A. There were security lapses on the very first day. I sense a deeper design in this ongoing violence. The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) came to Manipur. I was wondering if the CDS would come to Manipur if this was simply a law and order issue. It must have some military implications which perhaps cannot be disclosed in public. I’m sure both the state and Central government must be working to bring peace back to the state. However, the state government has not communicated well enough to the people about what they have been doing. It should improve its communication channels to inspire confidence among people. Of course, the Internet ban has been a handicap.
Q. We see civilians on both sides with weapons firing at each other. Manipur looks like a border between two enemy countries at war. How did that happen?
A. On May 3, when Kukis attacked Meiteis with sophisticated weapons like M16 and AK Rifles, the Meiteis were taken aback. They were unarmed. Some of them had licensed guns but those two barrel guns stood no chance in front of automatic weapons. That’s when loot of the police armoury happened. Even Kukis looted police stations. Now both sides are armed though Kukis are flush with illegal and sophisticated weapons smuggled from across the border.
Q. What’s the role of your organisation during the violence?
A. Manipur is not a geographical area. It’s an idea. The idea of Manipur is characterised by coexistence of different groups and communities, small and big, respecting each other’s identities and space. That idea of oneness is nothing but a reflection of Meitei values. As long as there are Meiteis, there will be Manipur. Meitei Leepun is a cultural movement which has been strengthening and preserving the Meitei values. Every Meitei is born with an undying love for Manipur. This Manipur was not given to us by India. It was given to us by our forefathers. The boundary of Manipur was marked by the blood of our forefathers. Now it’s our duty to protect our land so that we can hand it over to our future generations the way it was given to us by our forefathers. Meitei Leepun is committed to protecting Manipur.
Q. Protecting Manipur with arms? The Kukis say that Meitei Leepun is involved in violence against them. You said in an interview that you would annihilate the Kukis.
A. The Kukis always make false allegations. I don’t bother about these. They should prove their allegations in a court of law.
Q. So your organisation was not involved in violence.
A. Kukis have been attacking Meitei villages with weapons. Meiteis have been defending their land. It’s a war. Many of our cadres are from the districts bordering Kuki areas. We already anticipated that someday they would attack us. So we knew they had been planning something. We were alert.
Q. And that’s why you give arms training to your cadres.
A. No. That’s part of our culture. Before the British came in, every male Meitei had to mandatorily serve as a soldier and for this no remuneration was paid. The British abolished this system calling it bonded labour though they actually feared rebellion. We want to revive our culture. That’s why we give arms training.
Q. What, according to you, is the way forward?
A. The two sides are fighting. The government can send security forces and stop the fight. But that’s not peace. That’s just stopping the fight. The moment the government will lose the control, fight will start again. If we are really serious and honest in pursuing peace, those Kukis, who are already citizens of India and have been living here for a long time, must come forward and say that no more illegal immigrants would be allowed in Manipur. The dialogue can start from that point. Based on a cut-off year, the identification of the illegal immigrants and their deportation must start.
Q. But Kukis say they would stop at nothing less than a separate state or Union Territory.
A. The Kukis were brought in by British and sheltered by the original inhabitants of Manipur. They have no right to demand anything out of Manipur. For us, it is not a fight between two communities. It’s an external aggression. We are protecting India’s land from foreign aggressor.
Q. Many say the first step towards a solution is sacking Chief Minister N. Biren Singh. Others say President’s Rule should be imposed.
A. I don’t think so. Sacking Biren Singh will send a message to the Meiteis that Indian government has backed the Kukis to defeat Meiteis. The reactions from the Meiteis will be very strong. That will be unwise. Kukis have demanded the President’s Rule. It has become their demand. So the Meiteis will protest.
Q. What’s your view on the viral video of the two Kuki girls paraded naked and sexually assaulted?
A. Meiteis always respect women. As a Meitei, I’m ashamed that this happened in Manipur. I, along with all the people of the state, condemn this. At the same time, this is a war. So many rumours are floating everywhere. People kept saying that Meitei women were also paraded naked. So, these incidents could also be emotional reactions to such narratives. This is by no means a justification of that heinous crime. However, we should also examine why the video was leaked just a day before Parliament session. Those who leaked it with ulterior motive should be given exemplary punishment.
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