The identity crisis of Manipuri Muslims

The Pangal community, which gave Manipur one of its early chief ministers and has called the region its home for the last 400 years, has had to face the brunt of the aftereffects of the tabling of the Citizens (Amendment) Bill 2016. This has come at a time when it is already educationally backward and unrepresented in public employment and government office

In a country beset with ghar wapsi (the so-called reversion to Hinduism), cow-related violence, racial discrimination, religiosity and questions on citizenship (through the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016) and so on, minorities are bound to feel insecure. The Muslim community in Manipur, locally known as Pangals, too has had to suffer in this charged atmosphere. It has felt the manufactured insecurity under the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition state government. Despite the tall promises and claims in the run-up to the General Elections 2019 by the present government of having contributed to or initiated steps for upliftment of the Pangals in Manipur, there seems to be continuing “marginalization” and “othering” of the community.

Political opportunism

Ashab Uddin

All of this happens behind the scenes, even as the leaders of the ruling party rhetorically commit to giving ministership to MLA Ashab Uddin and, interestingly, to reimbursing all his expenditures during his campaign for his election as independent MLA from the Jiribam constituency. Ashab Uddin had supported the formation of the BJP-led coalition government. By roping in Ashab Uddin, the coalition government looked to make him the Muslim face. Ashab Uddin was subsequently accommodated as parliamentary secretary. He held the post for 117 days and relinquished it when the promised ministership didn’t come about. Meanwhile, a case pertaining to the number of parliamentary secretaries under the government is pending in the court. Ashab Uddin seems to be bypassed even in matters pertaining to his own constituency. In the past, he had been branded as an outsider and hence, an illegal candidate, by the majority community in the State, particularly, by the Democratic Students’ Alliance of Manipur (DESAM). Their comments were politically motivated, illogical and historically incorrect. The deceit and backstabbing he has had to face, plausibly because of the political pressure from a section of the majority community, is worse than what anyone would face in Uttar Pradesh, which at least has a state minister from the Muslim community. It seems that, in Manipur, there is a conscious, political sidelining of the Pangals, and inbreeding of xenophobia. Politically, at present, Pangals have participation, but no representation. The participants are the victims of operant conditioning that the BJP-led governments in the State and the Centre resort to.

A second case of a political snub was the non-inclusion of a representative of Muslims in the State Level Drafting Committee of the Bill for the Protection of Manipuri People, proposed by the State government on 23 May 2018. According to a government spokesperson, the proposed Bill would ban the entry of illegal migrants, especially Rohingyas. A communally charged narrative was created around the issue by blaming the Pangals and their leaders for giving shelterto the Rohingyas. The proposed Bill was seen by the Pangals as a deliberate attempt to decimate the community. Against this background, the absence of the Pangal representative in the drafting committee was undemocratic and smacked of the government giving in to the pressure from the majority community. An outburst followed on social media and all that it yielded was a verbal assurance from the chief minister that a representative of the Pangal community would be included in the drafting committee of the Bill.

Politics of displacement

While this issue was still smouldering, on 2 July 2018, around 400 Pangals were evicted from a reserved forest, Kshetri Bengoon Mamang Awang Ching, citing encroachment. Almost three months earlier, on 10 April, the All Manipur Muslim Organizations’ Coordinating Committee (AMMOCOC) and other representatives of the Pangal civil-society organizations (CSOs) had called a statewide bandh demanding the withdrawal of the show-cause notice issued to the residents who had been residing in the place since the late 1970s and availing a host of civic amenities from the Manipur government that a citizen was entitled to. The government demolished the residential structures despite the High Court having stayed the planned eviction. The eviction also disrespected the agreement signed between the government and the CSOs of the Pangals, particularly under the leadership of AMMOCOC, on 10 April 2018. The affected people are yet to be rehabilitated despite the CSOs’ relentless efforts. Some locals helped the affected people resettle by giving them land in the nearby areasand some of their children are attending schools free of cost.Some of the evicted people are still homeless and staying in rented houses or with relatives.

Then there was the acquisition of homestead patta land belonging to the minority community for the construction of MLA quarters in the Mantripukhri area. On being resisted, the government did a flip-flop by invoking the Manipur Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act 2014 to displace the settlers in the name of protecting the area from non-agricultural uses. However, nothing of this sort happened in certain paddy lands in Ngariyan, Mayai Lambi, Tiddim Road, Babupara, and other areas of Manipur. Now, encouraged by such moves of the government, the locals have joined in. They have asked Pangals living and running businesses in Nagaram and adjoining areas of Khuman Lampak to leave. This is in gross violation of the “right to life” mentioned in the Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Mobocracy

But worse was still to come. The anti-minority sentiment led to a mob-lynching on 13September 2018. There had been many such mob-lynchings, including of Pangals, on the pretext of cattle theft, bicycle-/bike-lifting and so on. In the past few years, such heinous crimes have been more frequent.The most shocking incident was the lynching of Mohammad Farooque Khan from Lilong Mayai Leikai, Thoubal District, Manipur. Immediately after the crime, videos of torture and the brutal death of the victim emerged in social media, leading to spontaneous outrage and protests across the state. The government responded by introducing The Manipur Protection from Mob Violence Bill 2018 in the assembly and ensuring its passage. The government also set up a committee to investigate the incident, but did not publish its report. There is still no explanation for why Mohammed Farooque was lynched, watched on by a crowd. By not releasing the report, hasn’t the government failed to adhere to the law it legislated? The government’s lackadaisical attitude in bringing the culprits to book is dangerous because it boosts the confidence of the perpetrators. It will be crucial to find out the exact reasons for the delay in the release of the report. The government refused to give even Farooque’s family members a copy of the report.

Students protest in Delhi against the ‘othering’ of Pangals

 

Disproportionate representation

The government acknowledged the systematic exclusion of Pangals at various levels in the public sphere and in governance. It tried to rectify the situation by granting 4 per cent reservation to the Manipuri Muslim community in government jobs, and higher education, especially for admission to professional programmes in Manipur.

Much has been said and written about the sub-standard life and backwardness of Indian Muslims, prompting the community to demand reservation in educational institutions and government jobs, as well as in legislative bodies (Parliaments and Assemblies) to Panchayats, similar to the reservation provided to the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes. In Manipur, the state government’s contribution to the improvement of the condition of the Muslim community is dismal if the available data on health, education, employment and other relevant public services are any indication. Among the Class I, Class II and Class III officers, Muslims still make up much less than 8.4 per cent – their percentage in the population – even after 12 years of implementation of the reservation order. Several CSOs have demanded that the government conduct a socio-economic survey to assess the impact of reservation and take appropriate corrective measures, but it has not paid heed. In a pre-poll stunt, the government hurriedly brought together token intellectuals, clearly its supporters, to discuss and conduct a socio-economic survey by sidelining some of the most prominent CSOs of the Pangals, including the AMMOCOC. Those prominent CSOs wereinvited to be a part of the initiative, but theycould sense the hidden plan of suppressing the failure of the government to fulfil promises by merely initiating a survey that would never see the light of day before the elections. The educational backwardness of the Muslim community in Manipur appears to be the negligence of the government in the past four decades, given that the community was politically strong in the early years of Manipur as a state and even sent one of its own as chief minister back in 1972.

Now, the 29 officially recognized tribal groups have 20 seats exclusively reserved for them in the 60-member Manipur state assembly and up to 31 per cent reservation in all government jobs. But, by contrast, Muslims have been forced to recoil in their own ghettos without any kind of help from the government. The irony is that they are plainsmen like the majority community – and unlike the tribes – which hogs most of the benefits meant for the state. For example, from the Pangal community, there are only four people who have cleared the UPSC exam and only a handful of people have been successful in the State PSC exam so far. The number of professors from the Muslim community of Manipur is negligible. At present, Manipur University has only one Muslim assistant professor. Muslim boys and girls who are doing MPhil and PhD in Manipur University and universities outside the state like Delhi University, Aligarh Muslim University and Jawaharlal Nehru University and others are relatively few. The reservation policy could bring about some improvement but undoing the injustice done for decades cannot be reversed by such a half-hearted initiative alone.

Identity crisis

The Pangals are the descendants of children born to Meitei women of Manipur and Muslim soldiers from Taraf in Sylhet (now in Bangladesh). The soldiers were settled in Manipur through a political arrangement (see ‘The Formation of Muslim Community in Manipur during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’, by Md. Chingiz Khan, published in Golden Research Thoughts). They were either born in Manipur or assimilated into the Manipuri way of life four centuries ago. In the early 17thcentury, King Khagemba recognized their skills and enterprising nature and tapped into it. He gifted them land, and gave women in marriage and servants. The Pangal community was assigned clans based on their occupation, or origin, or place of settlement as it was the practice then in the kingdom. Also, the “secular” king allowed the Pangals to profess Islam. Because of the war that has been described as the “Seven-Year Devastation” (1819-1826 CE) many Manipuris, including Pangals, fled from Manipur to present-day Myanmar, Bangladesh and Assam where they are now naturalized citizens.

Pangal women

Today, Manipuris, in general, and the Pangals, in particular, form a diaspora in Southeast Asia. Manipur’s total population in 1951 was 5,77,635, of which 37,197 were Muslims (including non-Pangal migrant Muslims who arrived in the late 19th century or in the early 20th century). According to the 2011 Census, the corresponding figures were 28,55,794 and 2,39,836. In 2011, the Muslim population had decreased by 0.4 per cent in comparison to 2001. The increase of Manipur’s total population by around 4.94 times during 1951-2011 was slightly higher than that of the Hindus (3.4 times), lower than the Muslims (6.45 times), but much lower than the Christians (17.24 times). Since 1901, Manipur’s population has increased 10 times, whereas the Pangals have increased 2.1 times.

The peaceful co-existence of the communities started being disrupted in the 1980s, and Pangals have been marginalized, excluded and subjugated since. The identity politics in the state became competitive, producingsub-nationalist forces and resulting in the mainstreaming of the reactionary elements that until then formed the fringe of the political discourse. Things have gone from bad to worse bythe politics of vilifying the Pangals (such as by linking the “dramatic” increase in the community’s population to the harbouring of migrant workers or Rohingyas, who are also Muslims) over the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 passed by the Lok Sabha a few months ago. This has created a fresh wave of insecurity among certain sections of the Pangals even though they are considered indigenous because of their four-century-old roots in the land. Although there is no empirical data to support the myth of the community providing shelter to outsiders, it has been doing the rounds for some years and, now, this propaganda has been even endorsed by some self-proclaimed social scientists and academics.

To make matters worse, there isn’t a well-represented discussion forum in the state to discuss the emerging challenges and possible solutions. The CSOs are either busy fighting among themselves or campaigning for political parties. The general public no longer trusts their agenda and propaganda. To restore the peaceful coexistence of different communities in Manipur and preserve the melting pot that it is, an academic discourse is the only way forward.

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