Of the two suns that were there, one was killed and the other hid itself in a cave, plunging the entire land into darkness. Then the people pleaded fervently to the sun, to come out of its hiding, and it did, shining over the land again. So goes one of the oldest Meitei epics, Numit Kappa. But, as in the epic, will the sun come out and shine again in Manipur? Upon all its people equally?

It is with these questions that Nandita Haksar, the indefatigable human rights lawyer, campaigner and writer, begins her new book, Shooting the Sun: Why Manipur was Englufed in Violence and the Government Remained Silent. Drawing on details made available by journalists who have reported on the recent events as well as the author’s personal experiences as a human rights lawyer who has campaigned and fought cases in Manipur, the book is indeed a finely crafted testament of our times. It not only lays bare the nuances of the political crisis in Manipur but also what becomes of us when our political imagination is reduced to an identity.

Since May 2023, Manipur has been ablaze. Horrific acts have been committed, vilest things have been said, and the basest instincts of humankind have been on display. Yet, the Union Government has remained silent, failing to reign in an errant state government. As the fire continues to burn, with no sight of it being doused anytime soon, the book seeks explanations for what has unfolded, taking the reader through the violent and hate-filled political labyrinth that Manipur has become, where the sounds of war cry are far louder than voices of reason.

An ethnic explosion

The book identifies identity politics to be at the heart of the mayhem. Identity politics based on ethnicity has been endemic to the Indo-Myanmar borderland and Manipur is no exception. The historical antecedents of colonial policies, militarist measures assimilationist tendencies of post-colonial states, ethno-religious movements, and ethno-nationalist assertions borne out of contested claims over land and resources have all contributed to the making of identity politics in the region.

Scholars, journalists and activists who have come to know the region have at some point or the other, knowingly or unknowingly, been sympathetic to such identity-based assertions. The author herself pleads guilty to it. Such assertions were often seen as bulwarks against the threat that state and capital posed to the customary rights of various communities over their land, resources and culture.

However, as the book brilliantly illustrates, in Manipur, identity politics has now become the draught board on which governments, military, armed insurgents, corporations, drug mafia and politico-religious fanatics of various hues play a very dangerous game. It has left entire populations displaced and dispossessed, in suspicion and fear of the other; with each ethnic group zealously guarding and arming itself, to defend if attacked and to attack if empowered. The book aptly evokes the late journalist, Nibedon Biswas, who in the early 1980s, writing about the north-east, had warned of “an ethnic explosion”.

Over the last several months, the state, media and civil society, either consciously or carelessly, have provided various explanations for the violence that was unleashed. The book makes a sincere attempt to unpack each of them. Was it a communal campaign against religious minorities, especially Christians? The book illustrates that while it is true that an overwhelming number of churches and Christian homes across ethnic divides were vandalised and destroyed, and there were forces at work eager to polarise the conflict on religious lines, questions of ethnicity seemed to have precedence over religion. For instance, how does one explain the attempts made by Meitei Christians to disassociate themselves from the stance taken by Kuki Christians or the general absence of any concerted attack against Naga churches?

Long-standing neglect

An explanation that the Union and State governments continue to air is the influx of “illegal migrants”, “outsiders”, across the border with Myanmar. The author has consistently argued elsewhere as well as in the book that those fleeing from a military junta and its repressive measures in Myanmar are not “illegal migrants”, but “refugees” who are looking for a temporary transit to resettle in other parts of the world. As per the existing national and international laws, they are entitled to legal protection. Most of them are also not “outsiders” as they belong to the same ethnic stock as the Kuki-Zo-Mizos in India, who otherwise live a shared life across national borders. When nation-states construct “smart borders” and build walls around themselves, why is it that they are oblivious to living bonds of relationship that exist across national borders? Isn’t it going to further alienate the ethnic communities residing in the borderlands?

Another explanation provided for the violence unleashed against the Kuki-Zo communities is that it is a “war on drugs”. The book illustrates the paradox of such an explanation. Decades of neglect, under-development and abject poverty that the hills have been subjected to have compelled many poor farmers to take up poppy cultivation, as an income generator during off-season. It is against them that the government has declared war. Ironically, the bigger and more dangerous players are the drug mafias that operate across borders and the state has always remained non-commital towards dismantling their growing influence and power.

None of these factors really explain the intense hatred that one has for the ethnic other or the active involvement of mobs, mothers and vigilante groups in committing acts of violence. In this regard, as the book urges, it may be more appropriate to understand the extent to which ethnic identities in the region, especially those that have greater leverage in the play of power, have become more consolidated and hardened over the years. Fears of losing their ethnic privileges and control over land and resources; the urge to revive their age-old language, religion and culture; the desire for territorially bound homelands of their own; and the urge to zealously protect their “honour” have all contributed towards this process.

It takes immense moral courage to write a book of this nature, especially given the strictures put in place by the state government on publishing anything on the state without its consent. It is indeed her deep affinity for the region and undying faith in its people that has moved the author to write the book.

As in her other writings, the book reminds us once again of the author’s long-standing engagement with the question: how do we live with dignity and respect for each other, acknowledging and finding fulfilment in our differences? As identity politics pervades all spheres of life, not only in Manipur, but across India, the book will hopefully enable us to transcend our parochial borders, prove our humanity by dealing with our differences, and make the sun shine again.

John Thomas is an Assistant Professor of History at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.

Shooting the Sun: Why Manipur Was Engulfed by Violence and the Government Remained Silent, Nandita Haksar, Speaking Tiger Books.