July 30, 2023

An Unaccountable Prime Minister

THE events in Manipur, which dominated the national political situation over the past nearly three months, have brought out a startling feature of governance under Narendra Modi. The authoritarian regime is accountable to no one.

Manipur has been in the grip of ethnic violence resulting in the deaths of over 150 persons, displacement of tens of thousands of people and horrific crimes against women.  The whole country was watching these events with growing concern and had expected the central government to take firm steps to end the violence and restore peace.  But what actually happened was totally unexpected.  The prime minister of the country refused to speak anything about the unfolding tragedy in this sensitive North-eastern state.  As the prime minister of a double engine government (both the centre and the state have BJP governments), there was no accountability whatsoever for the mayhem in Manipur. 

It was only when the chilling video showing two women being paraded naked by armed Meitei men became viral on social media on the eve of the parliament session that Narendra Modi was compelled to speak.  He did so outside parliament on the opening day expressing shock and sorrow at what was done to the two women.  But he immediately sought to divert and trivialise the issue by talking about how such crimes against women must be firmly put down in states like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Manipur.  This was the cue for BJP leaders and the party’s IT cell to take up the refrain of how women are being abused and assaulted in states run by the opposition parties like Rajasthan, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh.

This stance of the prime minister and the BJP is a cynical manoeuvre to deny the gravity of the situation which has developed in Manipur. Attacks on women in any other state are specific incidents of crimes against women.  Manipur is unlike all of them.  Here, women of a particular ethnic community are being targeted for violence simply because they belong to that community.  The violence against Kuki women was premeditated and part of a process of ethnic cleansing.  It is to deny this reality that the prime minister and the BJP seek to establish a false equivalence between what has happened in Manipur with incidents in other states. 

In parliament, Prime Minister Modi was asked to make a statement on the Manipur situation.  This was a natural demand of the opposition, since as prime minister, he is bound to come before parliament and make statement on a vital national issue, Manipur.   It flows from an elementary principle that the prime minister is accountable to parliament.  Yet the prime minister and the ruling party have doggedly refused to make such a statement, which could then be the basis for a discussion in both houses.  It is this obstinate refusal which has led to parliament being deadlocked ever since the opening day of the monsoon session.

One cannot understand the refusal of the prime minister to speak and to be accountable on Manipur unless one grasps the nature of the Hindutva-authoritarian regime. In Manipur, Chief Minister Biren Singh has been whipping up Meitei chauvinism and targeting the Kuki tribal minority.  He has been openly speaking out against the Kuki community branding them as ‘foreigners’ and ‘poppy cultivators’. Just a month before the May incidents, he had told the RSS paper, Organiser, that, “The indigenous  people of the state have been reduced to the status of second class citizens after the foreigner Kuki immigrants took control of the social, political and economic affairs”. Here he echoes a longstanding propaganda of the RSS about illegal immigrants flooding Assam and the North East. 

Biren Singh also patronises the Arambai Tenggol, a Meitei extremist outfit whose men were reported to be directly involved in the attacks on Kuki women and houses in the valley.  The attacks and retaliatory attacks led to people of both Meitei and Kuki communities being the victims.

It is the culpability of Biren Singh in brewing the ethnic violence, which Narendra Modi and the BJP want to conceal.  Despite knowing that the chief minister and the state administration are compromised and are unable to act in a neutral fashion, the central government has carried on, as if the state administration can tackle the situation. 

In many ways, Biren Singh has behaved in the same manner that Narendra Modi did as the chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 violence.  Modi knows very well what is the root cause of the current travails in Manipur – divisive Hindutva politics in an ethnically diverse and sensitive state.  Modi also as an authoritarian leader does not think he is accountable to anyone, least of all parliament.

The opposition parties have moved a no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha against the government. This, they feel, is the only way that the situation in Manipur can be highlighted through a debate and Modi will be compelled to respond to that debate. 

(July 26, 2023)