Mending the maelstrom
The volatile situation in Manipur, which has eclipsed the growth potential of the state, can only be resolved through a studied response to historical, socio-political, and economic aspects that continue to create a wedge among the communities in conflict
On the early morning of June 20, the traffic route plan was well in place to ensure the smooth passage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cavalcade. He was scheduled to board a special plane for his much-awaited visit to the United States.
The paramilitary forces’ jawans and Delhi Police cops, loaded with the responsibility of making the PM’s route plan foolproof, were on high alert mode to avoid any untoward incident. The PM reached the airport safely and boarded the special plane for the USA. The security personnel felt relaxed and proceeded to their next assignment in the vans/buses specially hired for them.
On the same day (June 20) in violence infested Manipur, discussions were held regarding extending the ban on the Internet for a few more days. Finally, it was decided to continue the Internet ban order until June 25, just a day before PM Modi’s official schedule to return on June 26 after meeting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi on June 25.
On that same day, June 20, a letter written by 10 political parties, including the Congress, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi was made public. In the letter dated June 19, all ten political parties sought the PM’s immediate intervention to resolve the ethnic violence that has claimed over hundred lives and displaced thousands in the state.
The opposition parties blamed the BJP government at the Centre and in the state for the ethnic violence, accusing them of implementing “divide and rule” politics that failed to contain the situation.
They also referred to the Manipur Chief Minister as the “architect of the present ethnic violence,” stating that the clashes could have been prevented if he had taken preventive measures and prompt action.
The reason behind mentioning PM Modi’s US trip while writing on the Manipur violence, which has brought the state to a standstill since May 3, is just to draw the attention of officials sitting at key positions at the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region that addressing the issues of violence-hit Manipur is equally important as strengthening international ties with developed countries like America.
According to experts, a word from the PM for maintaining peace in violence-infested Manipur could have made a significant impact as the people of the state still have a strong belief in the PM.
However, no such “visible” peace-building effort was initiated by the PM.
Though, there are reports that the PM was “actively” monitoring the situation. Home Minister Amit Shah was seen very much active. He also visited the violence hit areas and appealed for peace. Post Shah appeal, the looted weapons were returned to the state armoury.
However, the impact of the Home Minister’s appeal didn’t last for a long time, as violence resumed in the state just after a few days of Shah’s peace-making ‘diktat’. The Centre has taken another move to bring all stakeholders on board by calling an all-party meet on June 24. Hopefully, the outcome of the all-party meet may help in bringing normalcy in the northeastern state, which has been burning since May 3.
The incident in Manipur, which initially began as a tribal versus non-tribal issue, has now escalated into an ethnic conflict between the Meiteis and the Zomi (Kuki) communities. There were also temporary perceptions of the violence as a Hindu versus Christian conflict, but such characterisations quickly diminished as numerous churches, including those of Meitei Christians, were razed to the ground.
Allegations and counter-allegations between both the communities add to the complexity of the situation. Kukis claim that Meiteis are sponsoring opium cultivation in Hills, while Meiteis allege that Kukis are enjoying the patronage of the Assam Rifles. Questions have also been raised on weapons being “looted” from the state armoury and how tribal groups are acquiring sophisticated weapons.
The situation is complex. Income disparities, representation in government, language preferences in competitive examinations and the distribution of seats in the Manipur Assembly have added to the existing tensions between communities.
Now, the violence has reached a different level as the houses of Meiteis are also being burned/razed by Meiteis. The incident of storming and setting the house of Union minister of state for external affairs, RK Ranjan Singh, on fire at Kongba in Imphal on June 15 late night is enough to measure the gravity of violence in the state.
As per a Kuki community leader LS Kipgen, Imphal has now only Meiteis, as all Kukis have left the city after violence started. “So, in a Meiteis dominated city, how come the house of the Meitei minister is being burnt. Ranjan’s house was burnt to give a message to politicians of Meiteis community that if they indulge in any kind of peace-making negotiations with Kukis, they all may have to face the same fate” said LS Kipgen, who is former secretary general of Kuki Inpi Delhi-NCR.
The violence erupted on May 3 after the All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) held a solidarity march in all districts, opposing a recent Manipur High Court order. The court had instructed the Manipur state government to send a recommendation to the Centre regarding the demand to include the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes (STs) list.
As the violence escalated on May 4, the Centre invoked Article 355 of the Constitution, which empowers the Centre to take necessary steps to protect a state against external aggression or internal disturbances.
Despite all the efforts of the Centre to control the violence, the state is simmering, and hundreds of people belonging to both communities — Kuki and Meitei — have been killed in the clashes while thousands have been injured and lakhs of people have been displaced and shifted to relief camps.
The key cause of violence is attributed to the state government’s move to grant SC status to Meitei community and take over the possession of tribal hills through an alleged “forced eviction” of Tribal villages in the garb of Reserved or Protected Forest areas.
The Manipur government’s office memorandum, issued on November 7, 2022, from the office of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests & Head of Forest Force (HoFF), provided a reason to Kuki community to believe that the state government led by Chief Minister N Biren Singh — a Meitei leader — is no more “interested” in protecting the interests of the tribal people living in forest areas for over several decades and totally dependent on government assistance for survival.
The notification had stated that Assistant Settlement Officer (ASO) of the Forest Department, Manipur, was appointed as an Enquiry Officer only in respect of the Protected Forests of Manipur vide Government Notification No 52/11/69-71-for dt.16.08.1971 published in Manipur Gazette dt 25.08.1971. The ASOs, namely Y Saratchandra Singh, FR Khand and A Nodiachand Singh, had disposed of as many as 38 objections/claims from the people of Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest.
The notification stated that the ASOs passed the judgements excluding lands from the PF, solely based on the claims made by the objectors without conducting any inquiry and field survey of the nature and extent of the rights, as required under Section 29 (3) of the IFA 1927, and also without giving opportunity to the Forest Department of being heard in any such case.
However, the notification further stated that the ASOs were not authorised or empowered to exclude the lands from the PF as claimed by the objectors.
The Manipur government, in its Cabinet meeting held on October 13, 2022, decided to cancel the orders issued by ASOs and approved to appoint an authority — chaired by PCCF, Manipur, with powers delegated to co-opt members to recommend measures for rehabilitation/relocation.
Prior to that, all the villages were issued show cause notices in May 2022 to submit relevant documents in support of their claims for ownership of their respective villages so that the particular village may be set aside from the protected forest areas.
The Hill Areas Committee of Manipur Legislative Assembly, in its meeting held on March 11, 2021, adopted a landmark resolution to protect the rights of people living in hill areas. The adopted resolution read that “there is a procedural error in the declaration of Reserved Forest after 1972. Any declaration of Protected Forest, Reserved Forest and Wildlife Sanctuaries on or after June 20, 1971 shall not be enforced by the department until the approval of the Hill Areas Committee as it pertains to Scheduled Matters of Article 371 of the Presidential Order of 1922.”
The rise in population is another big reason for the clashes between the two communities. According to the 2001 Census, the population of Hill areas was 8,82,130 and the total population of Valley areas was 14,11,766. Hill areas are mainly dominated by Nagas and Kukis. The population of Senapati district (Naga-dominated) was 2,83,621 while the population of Kukis-dominated Churachandpur district was 2,27,905.
Contrary to Kukis and Nagas, the growth of population in most of the valley areas, which have a dominance of the Meitei community, has been rational.
The population of Nagas increased by 41 per cent in ten years in the 2011 Census, while the population of Kukis-dominated Churachandpur district witnessed an increase of 17 per cent, as it increased from 2,27,905 in 2001 to 2,74,143 in 2011. The overall population of Hill areas increased by 28 per cent, while the Valley areas’ population rose by 14 per cent.
“The exponential rise in population in the Hill areas has become a cause of concern for the Meitei community as they are of the view that infiltration of tribals from Myanmar is the key reason behind the rise in Hill population,” said NG Roshan Singh, a local trader who has his businesses spread in the areas of Kukis, Nagas and Meiteis.
According to the Directorate of Health & Family Welfare Services, Manipur, the trend of population growth is witnessing a new curve, as the birth rate among Kukis has decreased, while the same has increased among Meiteis. Given the rise in population of Nagas, it would become another major cause of group clashes in Manipur.
In 2013-14, Senapati district recorded 5,389 births, Churachandpur recorded 753 births and Imphal East registered 7,101 births and Imphal West registered 22,338 births in a year.
In 2014-15, Naga’s Senapati district registered 9,307 births, Churachandpur 2,540 births, Imphal East 14,059 and Imphal West 16,134, while in 2015-16, Senapati recorded 6,947 births, Churachandpur 872, Imphal East 14,329 and Imphal West 37,148.
It may be noted here that Kukis married to Meiteis are scared of their lives, while it’s not the case with Meiteis married to Kukis and living in Hills.
“The divide between Kukis and Meiteis is so wide that even Kuki IAS and IPS officers, who are selected through rigorous examination conducted by Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), don’t get a balanced representation in the state bureaucracy,” the Kuki leader said, adding that the DGP, who was from Kuki community, was given no power.
Countering the allegations of the Meitei community that Kukis are involved in opium cultivation and cross-border drug smuggling, Kipgen said, “Poppy cultivation in the Hills is sponsored by Meiteis and a large portion of opium goes to Meiteis as they pump money for its cultivation.”
In a shocking revelation, the Meitei trader said that Kukis enjoy the patronage of Assam Rifles, as the jawans of paramilitary force, which is responsible for border security, counter-insurgency, and maintaining law and order in Northeast India, are mainly deployed in Hill areas so they develop proximity with tribals.
It has also come to notice that some jawans have their “second wives” from the Kuki community, Singh said, adding that Assam Rifles’ jawans facilitate the “seamless transportation” of weapons from bordering areas.
According to Brigadier Sushil Kumar Sharma, who had commanded a Brigade in Manipur, during the merger of Manipur with the Indian Union, the total area
which the Manipur merger agreement covered was his territory of 700 square miles or 26,500 paris/hectare, and not even a single inch of hill areas was covered under this agreement.
Questions are also being raised as to why Nagas are not being targeted despite the fact that they had also participated in the Tribal Solidarity March on May 3, organised by ATSUM in all the Hill districts, including the Naga-dominated areas.
“There was a time when Meiteis used to invite Kuki civil society leaders to organise rallies opposing the Nagas’ political demand for integration of all Naga
inhabited areas. Then Kukis, along with Meiteis, vouched for united Manipur, and now the Kukis are not only sidestepped, but also tagged with all kinds of hate speeches,” said Timothy Chongthu, a law practitioner.
Chongthu further added that there is huge income disparity between Kukis and Meiteis, as the latter comes under the higher per capita income and the former is under the lower per capita income. Meiteis have their own language to choose while appearing for competitive exams, while Kukis have the choice to choose one from English and Hindi. The representation of Meiteis in Manipur Assembly is 40 out of total 60 seats, while only 10 seats are for Kukis and remaining 10 is reserved for Nagas, he said, adding that Meiteis also get the benefits of reservation, while Kukis are restricted to 7.5 percent Scheduled Tribes quota.
The recent violence in Manipur highlights the urgent need for concerted efforts towards sustainable peace. The path to peace can be paved by understanding the historical, socio-political, and economic dimensions of the issue and by actively engaging stakeholders. Manipur has immense potential for growth and prosperity, and it can be achieved only through collective action, empathy, and dialogue.
Views expressed are personal