The sense of insecurity, palpable among minorities across the country, was absent, till recently, among Manipuri Muslims (known locally as Pangals). While there has been a slow communalisation in Manipur over the last three decades, there has been a rapid increase in the phenomenon since the BJP-led coalition took office in the state last year. The security concerns of the Pangals can no longer be ignored.
Due to outward migration from time to time, Pangals can also be found in parts of Assam, Myanmar and Bangladesh. In Manipur, Pangal-inhabited areas have been targeted by the government on the pretext of searching for insurgents, illegal immigrants and anti-social elements (mainly drug pedllers). Should these government actions be viewed through the prism of a politics of displacement? Or are they about targeting a socio-cultural and religious substratum? Or, is it a bid to use a minority community in order to saffronise Manipur, like other parts of India?
Some recent government actions can help throw light on the issue: The government of Manipur has been attempting to acquire the urbanised and patta areas of Mantripukhri in Imphal West by demolishing houses belonging to the Pangal community using the Paddy Conservation Act 2014. Using the Forest Conservation Act as a pretext, a show cause notice has been served exclusively to Pangal villagers settled (since the 1970s) at Kshetri Bengoon Awang, Ching Makhong, but not to other communities, such as the Meiteis and the tribals, staying there. There has been a needless conflict because of encroachment on bonafide masjid areas in Ukhrul to construct the Secretariat complex and MLA Ashab Uddin (Jiribam constituency of Imphal East District) has been targeted for being a non-Manipuri. These are just some examples of a new political idiom taking shape in the state.
Muslims began settling in Manipur in the early 17th century during the reign of King Khagemba (1597-1652 AD). They have maintained close bonds with the “local” community and represent the state’s syncretism. Muslims constitute 8.4 per cent of the population as per the 2011 census. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that when Manipur became a full-fledged state, its first chief minister, Mohammad Alimuddin, was a Pangal — he ushered in significant changes by establishing institutions like the Manipur University at Canchipur, the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) at Lamphel, the Manipur Public Service Commission (MPSC), the Board of Secondary Education in 1972 etc.
As far back as 1606 AD, the commander-in-chief of the Muslim forces, Muhammad Sani, and his troops saved the king from tribal onslaughts using military tactics and technology. The Pangal community helped fight invading Burmese forces at Kabaw. Forty-six Manipuri Muslims took part in the 1891 Khongjom War against the British. Manipuri Muslim women also took part in the “Nupi Lan” conflict of 1939 to preserve the territorial integrity of Manipur. Pangals also contributed to areas such as language, paddy transplantation, revenue, weaving, carpentry, etc.
Last month, the AMMOCOC (All Manipur Muslim Organisations’ Coordinating Committee) along with other Pangal civil society organisations called for a 36-hour shutdown in various parts of the state to protest the recent incidents of alleged persecution. A strong reaction was issued by Chief Minister Biren Singh to this mass silent protest: “Firstly, this apex body [AMMOCOC] has tried to communalise the circumstantial event and this is illegal. No one is above the law and everyone should abide by the law. Don’t play communal politics.” He further said that in the case of Mantripukhri, what happened was not done by his government but was a fallout of the previous government’s policies in the area.
The current issue highlights a simple principle that governments must follow: The construction of infrastructure should be carried out without any hidden agenda and must ensure that projects and government action do not divide people on the basis of minority, majority or ethnicity.
The AMMOCOC and other civil society organisations representing Muslims (Pangals) in Manipur had only protested peacefully. Before the protest, they had sent multiple memorandums to the chief minister’s office. On the very first day of the state-wide bandh, many protesters were seriously injured by the police. After the violence, the CM called AMMOCOC President SM Jalal and others for a discussion. As a result of this understanding and agreement between the two parties, the protest was called off with immediate effect, with hopes of an amicable compromise soon.
There is a growing perception among the Muslim community in Manipur that the current government sees them as second-class citizens in view of the seeming bias in implementing projects and the law. In a sense, it creates a feeling of “forced insecurity” within the community. The state government thus needs to reflect on the manner in which it implements policy.