Since the ethnic conflict in Manipur has the potential to hamper certain development projects and involves foreign hand, the Union government must show more vigour to arrest the issue before it spirals out of control
On May 3, ethnic violence erupted in India’s northeastern state of Manipur. The next day, the authorities issued “shoot-at-sight” orders and called military reinforcement to quell the violence that opened a new faultline in the state with a chequered history of ethnic violence. Internet connection was cut off after violence broke out on Wednesday and a curfew was imposed in nine out of the 16 districts. On Sunday, the army said it had “significantly enhanced” its surveillance in violence-affected areas, including the Imphal Valley, through aerial means such as drones and the deployment of military helicopters. The unrest in Manipur has led to the death of around 60 “innocent” people, injured 231 and burnt down around 1,700 houses, besides affecting 35,655 people of whom around 10,000 are in a shelter or relief camps, chief minister N Biren Singh said on Monday. However, it is alleged that the government has not disclosed the clear picture of the death toll in Manipur.
Ethnic violence broke out between the Hindu Meiteis, who mostly fall under the scheduled caste (SC) and other backward class (OBC) categories and tribes – mostly Kuki and Naga who usually live in hills and make up to 40 percent of the Manipur population. These tribes are mostly Christians. The Meiteis make up 53 percent of the population and live in the Imphal Valley. The fertile valley makes up about a tenth of the total land mass of the state while the hills account for 90 percent. The government in Manipur, regardless of which party comes to power including the present BJP government, has always been dominated by Meiteis. The current chief minister N Biren Singh belongs to the Meitei community. Within two days of violence, over 10,000 tribal people residing in Imphal were shifted to relief camps. A mob burnt down a Kuki Christian church and the theological college in Imphal.
Meiteis, too, have been affected. Four relief camps in Churachandpur town sheltered 5,500 inmates, mostly Meiteis. Churachandpur is a hill district where the Kukis are the majority. Around 3,800 people, mostly Meteis, are lodged in 27 small relief camps in Bishnupur district, about 30km from Imphal. Bishnupur’s border with Churachandpur is said to be the flashpoint of the current unrest.
Though it is claimed that the violence has been brought under control, dispute has spread to neighbouring states. There has been a violent clash between the Meitei and Kuki communities in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. The police have arrested 16 people. On the other hand, after the violence in Manipur, the people of the Meitei community left their homes and reached Assam. This has created a tense situation there as well. In Nagaland too, there is a tense situation among the Kuki community.
Evacuation of citizens
Amid unrest in parts of Manipur, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) has taken various measures to help air passengers while airlines have waived rescheduling and cancellation charges for flights to and from the capital city of Imphal. According to a civil aviation ministry official, the AAI is coordinating with the state government for transportation of stranded passengers from the airport to the city under escort, and a help desk has also been set up with effect from May 4. Air India and IndiGo have waived fees for rescheduling/cancellation for all their flights to and from Imphal from May 4 to 7. There were a total of 10,531 passengers at Imphal airport and the total flight movements handled was 108 till May 6, including 50 defence movements and 6 additional flights, the official added.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Monday said that the Bengal government had received 185 distress calls from Manipur and 25 people could be rescued from the troubled state. Out of 25 people rescued, 18 were students of Central Agriculture University in Imphal.
On May 9, Bihari students, stranded in the violence-hit Manipur, returned to Patna through a special flight arranged by the Bihar government. Altogether 172 students landed at Patna airport, out of which 21 were from Jharkhand. Students from four educational institutions were there in the flight, which included Central Agriculture University (CAU), National Sports University (SPU), National Institute of Technology (NIT), and Indian Institute of Information Technology Senapati at Imphal, Manipur.
A total of 1,229 persons have been evacuated from violence-hit Manipur to Nagaland’s capital Kohima under ‘Operation Kohima Calling’. The Assam Rifles, in coordination with the Nagaland government, evacuated the second batch of 553 stranded citizens safely to Kohima. The first batch of 676 people were evacuated and brought to Kohima on May 7.
Causes of conflict
Manipur is known for its ethnic and cultural diversity. There are around 35 major communities in the state — Meiteis being the majority group followed by 34 tribal groups. It is believed that the immediate cause of the current conflict was the demonstrations by tribal groups against any move to grant the majority Meiteis the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, which the residents of the hills have. Recently, the high court had asked the Manipur government, which has been sitting on such a proposal for a decade, to make its stand clear to the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry. To protest this move, a “Tribal Solidarity March” was organized by the All-Tribal Student Union Manipur on May 3, which led to tension and clashes.
On May 8, the Supreme Court questioned the High Court’s authority in passing the March 27 order, which asked the state government to recommend that the Centre consider granting Scheduled Tribe status to Manipur’s majority Meitei community. It also recorded an undertaking from the solicitor general that the Centre and the state would “move an appropriate forum against the March 27 order of the high court”.
The history of ethnic clashes in Northeast India, home to at least 220 tribes with over 400 dialects and each community having unique cultural identity, has always been about “indigenous communities’ protecting their land from ‘outsiders’”. In fact, in states like Assam, the socio-political history has been altered by violent clashes between indigenous communities and outsiders, the Assamese and the migrants from Bangladesh since the Partition. In the neighbouring Meghalaya, clashes between tribals and non-tribals often turn deadly. In addition to this, the intra-tribe rivalry also has triggered many deadly clashes.
In Manipur, the last violence of this scale occurred in 1992, when there were clashes between the NSCN (IM), representing Naga interests, and the Kukis in Manipur’s Moreh town, located on the Indo-Myanmar border and a trade centre infamous for smuggling — including of drugs, Burmese teak and arms. It quickly turned into ethnic clashes between the two main tribal communities of Manipur and spread across the state like wildfire. Over 100 Kukis are believed to have been killed and over a lakh were displaced from hundreds of villages that were razed to the ground.
Since 1992, there have been other violent protests in Manipur. In 2015, there was a protest by the dominant Meiteis demanding an Inner Line Permit for the state to check “infiltrators”, which resulted in a 10-day curfew. Later, this saw counter-protests in Churachandpur, leaving nine dead in an alleged police firing.
Though the Manipur High Court’s faulty move to grant the majority Meiteis the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status is attributed to the current clash between Hindu Meiteis and indigenous tribes, the seed for this crisis had been sown long back by the dominant Meitei community using its political clout in the present government.
In February this year, the Manipur government declared the forest dwellers as encroachers. It caused alarm and discontent not only among the Kukis, who were directly affected, but also among other tribals who have villages within reserved forest areas. The tribals say they have been inhabitants of the forests even before the forests were notified. Several areas in the hill district have been declared as reserved forests, and protected forests, and hundreds of Kuki tribals have been dislodged from their traditional settlement area. In March, a violent clash occurred at Thomas Ground in Kangpokpi district where protesters tried to hold a rally against “encroachment of tribal land in the name of reserved forests, protected forests, and wildlife sanctuary”. Five persons were injured, following which the state cabinet withdrew the tripartite Suspension of Operations (SoO) talks with two Kuki-based militant outfits — the Kuki National Army and the Zomi Revolutionary Army. The SoO deal is a ceasefire arrangement inked by the Centre, the state government, and Kuki outfits, which began more than a decade ago. Three churches in Imphal’s Tribal Colony area were demolished on April 11 for being “illegal constructions” on government land, leading to more discontent.
The conflict between the hills and the valley population in Manipur has several dimensions. The Nagas are demanding a greater Nagalim carved out of territories from Nagaland, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur, which includes a large portion of the Kuki-inhabited areas of Manipur. The Kukis are also demanding a separate Kukiland, a state within the state of Manipur, which includes territories of the proposed Greater Nagalim. Since the 2000s, the Kukis have been demanding a separate Kukiland carved out of the five hill districts — Churachandpur, Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong, and Ukhrul.
Four north-eastern states — Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram — share an international border with Myanmar which is considered as the gateway to East Asia. Interestingly, it is obligatory for Indian citizens from outside these states to obtain a permit called Inner Line Permit (ILP) which is an official travel document issued by the state government concerned to allow inward travel of an Indian citizen into a protected area for a limited period.
The 1,360 km long trilateral highway connects Moreh in Manipur with Mae Sot, Thailand via Myanmar. And the Kaladan River in the eastern Mizoram State of India, and in Chin State, and the Rakhine State of western Myanmar act as a gateway to the sea for the landlocked states of North East India. Manipur shares a 398-km border with Myanmar to its south and east.
The Chin state, one of the most insurgent-prone states of Myanmar, shares its boundary with Mizoram and Manipur. The Chin are of Sino-Tibetan origin and inhabit a mountain chain that roughly covers western Burma through to Mizoram in north-east India (where they are related to the Mizos, Kuki and others) and small parts of Bangladesh. A mountain people by tradition, around 80 per cent of the Chin are Christians, while most of the remaining population are mainly Buddhists or animists, and according to some, a very small Jewish sect. The Chin languages belong to the Kuki-Chin Subgroup of the Kuki-Naga Group of the Tibeto-Burman family of languages. A military coup in Feb 2021 in Myanmar made thousands of Chin refugees flock into the Northeastern states of Mizoram and Manipur. Various reports suggest the number of Chin refugees living in Manipur to be between 4,000 and 10000. These people are mostly living in Churachandpur, Chandel, and Kangpokpi districts of Kuki-inhabited areas of Manipur.
Impact on Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project
It may be a coincidence that the Meitei-Kuki ethnic violence overlapped with the inauguration of the Kolkata-Sittwe cargo service under the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP). On Thursday, May 4, the Minister of State for Ports, Shipping and Waterways, Shantanu Thakur, flagged off the vessel ‘MV-ITT LION (V-273)’ from Kolkata Port. It carried 20,000 bags containing 1,000 metric tonnes of cement and reached Sittwe Port on May 9, 2023. Sittwe Port connects to Paletwa in Myanmar through an inland waterway, and from Paletwa to Zorinpui in Mizoram through a road component.
On May 9, India and Myanmar inaugurated the Sittwe Port in Rakhine State on Tuesday, marking a significant milestone in enhancing bilateral and regional trade, as well as contributing to the local economy of the state. The Sittwe Port has been developed as a part of the KMTTP-funded grant-in-aid assistance from the Government of India. Once fully operationalised, the waterway and road components of KMTTP will link the East coast of India to the North-eastern states through the Sittwe port. The port’s location makes it strategically important for India’s Act East Policy, which aims to strengthen ties with the Asia-Pacific region.
It is claimed that the operationalization of Sittwe Port will provide greater connectivity, lead to employment opportunities, and enhance growth prospects in the region. According to the ministry, the project was conceptualized to provide alternative connectivity of Mizoram with Haldia/Kolkata/any Indian ports through the Kaladan River in Myanmar. The project envisages highway/road transport from Mizoram to Paletwa in Myanmar, followed by Inland Water Transport (IWT) from Paletwa to Sittwe, and finally maritime shipping from Sittwe to any port in India.
Originally, the project was scheduled to be completed by 2014. However, the route of the project around Paletwa and along the Kaladan River is troubled by the Chin conflict, the Rohingya conflict, and militant groups such as Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Among these, the ARSA was created by Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba and has links with Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen in Bangladesh and the Indian Mujahideen in India. Paletwa is less than 20 km from the Bangladesh border.
China has already completed its Kyaukphyu port project, which will connect the port on the Rakhine coast to Yunnan by a rail-road link and a hydrocarbon pipeline. It is pushing for an agreement on the special economic zone. Both Sittwe and Kyaukphyu are in Rakhine state, the northern part of which is now on fire. The Kaladan multi-modal transport project (the Sittwe port and its inland waterways terminal) will provide access to the sea to the landlocked states of NE India.
The success of the KMTTP will depend on how the Indian and Myanmar governments resolve the long-pending ethnic issues in Mizoram, Manipur, and Chin States.
Ethnic clashes are not new to the region. But earlier, during any ethnic conflict, Manipur’s powerful civil society organizations (CSO) used to reach out to the warring factions to build bridges and restore peace. The absence of credible CSOs and local leaders has aggravated the crisis. It is alleged that the absence of CSOs is the fallout of the larger stifling of civil society groups across the country under the BJP regime. It is reported that in Manipur, that space has been recently filled by a couple of new Meitei civil society organizations, which are accused by both Valley and Hill activists of propagating a more radical brand of Meitei nationalism.
As Manipur’s current ethnic conflict involves insurgents operating from the neighbouring countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh, the Union government should urgently include the Ministry of External Affairs along with the Ministries of Home and Defence to address the crisis in a coordinated manner. Both Manipur and Mizoram are strategically very important states for India’s ‘Act East Policy’. The government cannot afford to allow this conflict to continue unresolved.
In the recent past, the Indian government successfully arranged two evacuation operations for the safe return of its citizens from the war zones of Ukraine (Operation Ganga) and Sudan (Operation Kaveri). But during the Manipur crisis, the Union government has shown no urgency to evacuate its citizens to their home states. Unfortunately, the entire process has been left to the state governments of Nagaland, West Bengal, and Bihar. This apathy of the Union government towards the safety and security of its citizens, residing in the northeastern states, will not only alienate the people of this region from the rest of the country, it will also encourage the separatist forces operating in these border states.
Views expressed are personal