The spectre of ethnic conflicts has once again returned to haunt the northeastern state of Manipur. From the beginning of this year, unrest has been brewing in the state for multiple reasons, but on May 3, violent clashes broke out at various locations during a 'Tribal Solidarity March' by the All Tribal Students' Union of Manipur (ATSUM). The Army and Assam Rifles carried out flag marches to control the violence while the government suspended internet services for five days.
The solidarity march was called to protest against a recent order by the Manipur High Court directing the state government to recommend to the Centre for inclusion of the Meitei community in the state list of Scheduled Tribes (ST) within four weeks. While the court's order, released on April 14, re-ignited the historical tensions between the valley-residing Meitei community and the state's hill tribes, primarily Nagas and Kukis, there is another factor that has triggered the current face-off: the state government's drive against poppy cultivation.
Geographically, Manipur can be divided into two parts—the Imphal valley and the hill areas. Of the 60 assembly constituencies in Manipur, 40 are in the valley areas, which comprise six districts—Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal, Bishnupur, Kakching and Kangpokpi. The remaining 20 seats are spread over the other 10 districts. The valley districts, dominated by Meitei community, who are predominantly Hindus, account for just over 11 per cent of the geographical area but are home to 57 per cent of the total population of 2.8 million (Census, 2011). The hill districts, dominated by Naga and Kuki tribes, who are mostly Christians, are home to 43 per cent of the population.
There is a long history of ethnic rivalry among the three communities. The hill tribes claim that the valley people have cornered all the developmental works in the state as they enjoy political dominance while Meiteis allege that they are increasingly getting marginalised in their ancestral land. Their numbers, which was 59 per cent of the total population of Manipur in 1951, have been reduced to 44 per cent as per the 2011 Census. More importantly, they cannot buy land in the hill areas (where the tribal people have exclusive rights) and are forced to remain confined to the Imphal valley.
That's one reason why several organisations have been demanding tribal status for the Meitei community. The recent plea before the Manipur High Court by the Meitei Tribe Union argued that the Meitei community was recognised as a tribe before the merger of the princely state of Manipur with the Union of India in 1949, but lost its identity as a tribe after the merger. To "preserve" the community, and "and save the ancestral land, tradition, culture and language" of the Meiteis, they want the tribal identity back.
However, tribal bodies in the state see this demand as another attempt by the Meitei community, which has 40 representatives in the 60-member assembly, to take control of the entire state. For the record, chief minister N. Biren Singh is a Meitei. Tribal groups also point out that the Meitei community is already classified under Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and have access to the opportunities associated with that status. Some Meiteis even belong to upper castes.
Another episode to this old ethnic strife—this time between Meiteis and Kukis—was added following N. Biren Singh's drive against drugs and poppy cultivation. In several hill areas of Manipur, poor villagers do illegal poppy cultivation for some extra income. In the past one year, the Biren Singh government has launched a massive drive to wipe out the poppy cultivation and protect the state from drug abuse. Most of the villages affected by this drive are inhabited by the Kuki community, which, as many social observers say, has resulted in racial profiling.
Manipur Against Poppy Cultivation (MAPC), a movement initiated by scholars, social and political thinkers, change agents, youths and legal luminaries, appreciates Biren Singh's drive against poppy cultivation but cautions against targeting any particular community. "While working amongst the Kukis, we tried our utmost to make the common village folks understand that not everything chief minister N. Biren Singh says about poppy has to be interpreted as communal. However, when he chastises the poppy growers, he might as well be conservative in his choice of words so that rumour-mongers do not paint him or his words as communal," reads a statement issued by MAPC. In January, the organisation had warned that if the issue of poppy cultivation was not handled well, it could spin out of control and split the hills and the valley.
Fuelling this conflict are also allegations of illegal immigration. In March, leaders of several students' organisations representing the Meitei community protested outside Biren Singh's home, alleging that "illegal immigrants from Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh" were marginalising "the indigenous people of Manipur". They demanded the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the setting up of a population commission.
The students' groups allege that there has been unnatural population growth in the hills. They point towards the gap in the decadal growth rate of population between the valley and the hills in the 2011 Census—16 per cent in the valley as against 40 per cent in the hills. Kukis have often been attacked as "immigrants" or "foreigners", suggesting they had migrated from Myanmar and are not native to the Manipur Hills, which is strongly disputed by them.
The anti-Kuki sentiment further intensified when many Myanmar refugees belonging to Kuki-Chin-Zomi-Mizo community, sharing ethnic origin with several tribes living in the hills of Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, fled to these states following counterinsurgency operations by the junta in the neighbouring country. The students' groups claim that new villages are emerging in reserved forest lands and poppy plantations are spreading to newer areas because of this influx.
Biren Singh has also said that Myanmar immigrants are responsible for deforestation, poppy cultivation and drug menace in the state. He even formed a cabinet sub-committee to identify illegal immigrants and set up temporary shelters so that they can return to their country again.
One big catalyst to the tension between Meitei and Kuki was the arrest of Mark T. Haokip on May 24 last year on charges of waging war against the state to establish a homeland for Kukis. The 37-year-old heads the Government of the People's Democratic Republic of Kukiland, a separatist outfit, and is also state president of the International Human Rights Association, based in Manipur and Myanmar.
The arrest led to protests in Haokip's native Churachandpur district, a Kuki-dominated area, 65 km from state capital Imphal. In response to the arrest, the Kuki Inpi, the apex tribal body for Kukis in Manipur, issued a statement alleging a "groundswell of Kuki-Chin-Mizo phobia" in the state with some fringe groups indulging in "hate and racial profiling". It also claimed these fringe groups were backed by the administration. On July 1, the body even wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi alleging "outright abhorrence and racial discrimination" by the Biren Singh government against Kukis in Manipur.
The development that angered the tribal communities, particularly Kukis, the most was the state government's notices, issued since August 2022, claiming that 38 villages in the Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest Area (in Churachandpur and Noney districts) were illegal settlements and its residents were encroachers. In 1970s, these 38 villages were excluded from protected forests by the forest settlement officer. Last November, the chief minister cancelled that order. "Around 19 per cent of the area of Manipur is reserve forests and there are illegal settlements in these forest lands and reserve areas. We are evicting these illegal encroachments," said Biren Singh then.
Kuki groups claim that Biren Singh's government declared the Churachandpur-Khoupum Scheduled Hill Area a protected forest without proper notification. They assert that under Article 371C of the Constitution, which is specifically applicable to Manipur, the state government cannot arbitrarily make amends to the scope of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, in the hill areas of the state. Article 371C provides for constitution of a committee of MLAs, including those from the hill areas, for the modifications to be made in the state rules.
Leaders of hills tribes also allege that even the legitimate residents of the state have been evicted. For instance, an eviction drive was conducted in K. Songjang village in Churachandpur on February 20. Kuki National Organisation (KNO) spokesperson Seilen Haokip claims that this village has records dating back to the 1800s and there was no illegal settlement there. Several Kuki outfits allege that the government's eviction drive is a ploy to grab tribal land so that natural resources can be exploited there. State government officials claim that rules were followed and point out that similar eviction drives were conducted in the Imphal valley too.
In March, a protest rally against the government's eviction drives turned violent in Kangpokpi town and five people were injured. Following this, the government withdrew from the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with three underground tribal militant outfits—the Kuki National Army (KNA), Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA) and Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA). The decision was based on the assessment that these outfits were supporting the influx of Myanmar's immigrants from across the border, encouraging illegal poppy cultivation and the drug trade and instigating people against the government's anti-drug drive.
Biren Singh said the KNA and ZRA had been influencing the agitations in the hills, a charge denied by these groups. In December 2022, following the arrest of two village heads, the CM claimed that the arrested village heads had disclosed that some militants, who are under SoO, were involved in poppy cultivation and collecting 'tax' from poppy cultivators.
The last flashpoint in this saga was a public event to be attended by the CM. On April 28, Churachandpur witnessed violence after a mob attacked an open gym that was to be inaugurated by Biren Singh the following day. Since then, Manipur has been on the boil, leading up to the violence of May 3.
Biren Singh's return to power for the second consecutive term last year has often been attributed to, among other things, his outreach programme "Go to Hills" aimed at taking the benefits of welfare schemes to the doorsteps of people in the tribal-dominated hills. Ironically, in less than a year since he got re-elected, he has been at the receiving end of tribal outrage. While his drive against poppy cultivation is much needed to protect the human resources and economy of the state, the most urgent requirement is to create an environment of trust so that the mission becomes inclusive without any ethnic bias.
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