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May 05, 2023

Seven Reasons Why the Violence in Manipur Cannot Be Considered a Sudden Occurrence

Several of these triggers could have been avoided had chief minister N. Biren Singh acted with an iota of caution in a what is widely recognised as a conflict-ridden state.
PM Modi and CM Biren Singh. In the background is a video screengrab of cars burning in Manipur.

New Delhi: Manipur, like most times, has once again hit national headlines for the wrong reasons

There is much to celebrate about the northeastern state. It is a beautiful part of India, with its population spread across hills and valleys. It has a rich culture. And it has given the country some of the best sportspersons who have won international laurels.

Ever so often, violence returns to Manipur – primarily due to internal disturbance triggered by long unresolved inter-community conflict, exacerbated by the lack of political will to iron out the creases, both at the state and central levels. 

The result of this is the widening of the chasm between communities and loss of life and property. At times an ugly clash will break out between Kuki-Zo groups and the Nagas in their neighbourhood, and at another time, it will be the Kuki-Zo group and the Nagas who will be in conflict with the state’s majority community, the Meiteis.

In all cases, peace becomes the first casualty. 

Let’s also not forget here the effect of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which has been imposed on that state for a very long time, triggering Irom Sharmila’s one of a kind fast, leading to Manorama’s tragic death and the stirring protest of women who disrobed themselves against rape by security forces. Manipur had hit national headlines for all of these reasons too.

On May 3, the state once again returned to the national news space for reasons of arson, mob violence and killings stemming from a clash between the Kuki-Zo and Meitei communities, taking several precious lives in its wake. Even as the Union government has intervened to bring things under control and a semblance of law and order on the streets of the capital city Imphal and elsewhere, it is perhaps necessary to pin down some of the reasons why the state ended up in a riot-like situation.

Opposition to granting ‘ST’ status to Meiteis

The May 3 and 4 violence in Manipur is a direct product of the opposition from the state’s tribes to the demand of a section of the Meiteis to include them too in the Scheduled Tribes list. 

With the Manipur high court giving a nod to that demand by the majority community in late April and directing the state government to recommend it to the Union tribal affairs ministry, fear intensified within the small tribal communities of losing their constitutional safeguards to the Meiteis.

As a majority community, Meiteis are certainly better placed in terms of social, political, educational and economic parameters in the state than other tribes, particularly the ones from the Kuki-Zomi group. The majority of the state’s tribal population belongs to this group. Therefore, there is a sense among the smaller tribes that the ST status is the only edge they have over the larger community.

Another reason that contributed to the present imbroglio is the high court’s show cause notices to the president of the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur (ATSUM) and the chairman of the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) of the state assembly for criticising its order. Hill area leaders and student body heads told The Wire that they saw the HC notices as a mark of the court’s support to the Meiteis.

It was ATSUM that organised the tribal solidarity march in all hill districts of the state on May 3 against the granting of ST status to the Meiteis. Violence occurred during one such march in Churachandpur district which escalated into full-blown mob violence in different parts of the state, targeting one community or the other. 

What is also important to note here is that the demand from a section of the Meiteis for the ST status is also hinged on a fear – of losing their primacy in their traditional homeland, the valley area. The right over one’s traditional land is as sacrosanct to the hill tribes as to the valley residents.

Add to this apprehension the demand from within the Meitei community some time ago to implement the inner line permit (ILP) in the entire state – this was granted by the Narendra Modi government – and you get the full picture of Meiteis’ persistent fear despite being a majority community.

Even if the Meities comprise a little over 50% of the state’s population, they are still a small community, and therefore, not free of the fear of being dominated by other communities. A similar fear of losing one’s hegemony over others is harboured by the Assamese, who feel this way in spite of being the majority community in Assam.

A section of the Assamese too have been demanding the ILP from the Modi government and a provision to protect their traditional land holdings. This fear of the other runs across both the majority and minority communities in the Northeast and has proven to be the root of several inter-community clashes and agitations including the students’ agitation of the 1980s in Assam.

An undated photograph (taken prior to 29 February 1980 depicting anti-Bengali graffiti which says ‘Assam is for the Assamese’ and abusing the then chief minister of Bengal, Jyoti Basu. Photo: Wikipedia

Biren govt ending its peace agreement with Kuki-Zomi groups 

Yet another trigger for the May 3-4 violence is the simmering anger within the Kuki-Zomi tribes over the decision of the N Biren Singh government last March to withdraw the suspension of operations (SoO) agreement with their armed umbrella outfits, United People’s Front (UPF) and Kuki National Organisation (KNO). 

The decision was taken by the state’s BJP government at a cabinet meeting on March 10 and the Union government was informed about it. It essentially meant the state government was withdrawing itself from the ongoing tripartite peace talks between these armed groups and the Narendra Modi government through a Centre-appointed interlocutor. These talks were initiated in the run-up to the 2017 assembly elections by the Modi government when the BJP had left no stone unturned to dislodge the three-term-old Congress government in the state.  

However, the Union government soon conveyed its reluctance to back the BJP-led state government’s recent decision, leaving Biren in a rather awkward position.

Since mid-2016, when the Modi government showed interest in talking to the Kuki militant groups, the Kuki-Zo communities have been banking on the Union government to deliver a peace accord, and essentially, to get some form of self-governance akin to what the Bodo community was granted within Assam. So, the Manipur government withdrawing from the talks suddenly sent out the message to the tribal groups that the majority Meitei community (the chief minister is a Meitei) was opposed to granting any self-governance to them.

This was viewed as an immature political decision taken by the BJP chief minister in a state which has a history of communal clashes springing out of mutual distrust between hill and valley areas.   

Eviction drive 

At the same time came, a series of protests took place across the hill districts of Churachandpur and Tengnoupal against the Biren government. The state government felt these were being backed by armed Kuki groups. The protests were organised by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum in response to eviction notices issued by the state government, including some churches, on the basis that they were encroaching upon forest land.

Terming the cause of the protests ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘illegal’, the state government issued show cause notices to the deputy commissioner and superintendent of police in both the districts for allowing the rallies to take place.

This was seen in the Kuki hills as Imphal’s attempt to subjugate them. 

A Manipur-government led eviction drive in Awangching, Imphal East, in 2022. Photo: Twitter/@pyc_manipur

Church attacks

As per news reports, three churches were demolished in an eviction drive by the state government, thus pushing the Christian-majority tribal population to suspect the state’s majority community who are mostly Vaishnavaites, to have conspired against their places of worship. Biren, as noted before, is from the Meitei community.

Current news reports coming from Manipur also mention mob attacks on churches, thus adding a religious dimension to the inter-community conflict in the BJP-ruled state. In the last few years, Hindutva groups have penetrated into the Meitei community.

A statement issued by Bangalore Manipur Students Association in response to the May 3 clashes reveals the ground reality.

The Association supported the Biren government’s “firm drive” to protect the reserved forest areas, stating, “Innocent lives [were] taken as Hindu villages were burnt down” by Kuki militants. The use of the term ‘Hindu villages’ served to add a communal angle to the clash and thereby put pressure on the Modi government to support the Biren government through the crisis.

Politics of number and the Myanmar clash in the neighbourhood 

That statement issued by the students association also said that on May 3, “Kuki militants and illegal Burmese immigrants backed by the drug cartels burned down the entire peaceful Hindu Manipuri settlements in Moreh, Tourbung and Churachandpur.”

It is true that Meitei settlements in these areas were attacked and their houses were burnt, forcing people to flee for safety. But to pose it as a ‘Christian versus Hindu’ fight rather than a ‘majority community versus a minority community’ fight is a mischievous slant to a tragedy where several innocent lives from both sides were lost. 

Other operative phrases must also be underlined – ‘illegal Burmese immigrants’ and ‘drug cartels.’ 

For quite some time now, it is not uncommon to hear suspicions in the valley areas about Kuki-Zomi communities in the hills harbouring Burmese citizens ‘illegally’ – as they share common ancestry – to try to increase their population in the hill areas.

Hill areas have more land than the valley. This and the ST status has meant that Manipur’s non-tribals have looked at the former with a tinge of envy.

That no Meitei can buy land in the hill districts but tribes can do so in the valley area – which is traditionally Meitei homeland – has deepened anxieties.

Recently, with a civil war breaking out in Myanmar, it is no secret that refugees are filtering into some Indian states that border the country including Manipur – thus reviving this fear in a section of the majority community like never before.

The Biren government has lately been amplifying this fear, through moves that include highlighting that one of the chiefs of the armed groups of the Kukis is a Myanmarese citizen and a former politician in that country, and that the Kuki militant groups are ushering in refugees from Myanmar. Paramilitary forces were deployed recently on that international border to stop such a possibility at the behest of the Biren government. 

Onto the ‘drug cartel bit’, the chief minister accused Kuki militants of indulging in poppy cultivation in the forest areas of the hill districts to justify his eviction drive. While there may be a grain of truth there, what is also baffling is that until recently, the Biren government was accused by a former top cop of going slow against drug trafficking and of even supporting drug lords in the hill areas.

Biren as a chief minister 

Several of these triggers could have been avoided had the chief minister acted with an iota of caution in a conflict-ridden state. Instead, his actions came across as divisive and clearly aimed at wooing the majority community for the sake of votes. Most of the assembly seats are in the valley areas. 

Conflict between communities is a reality in most north-eastern states. What the region needs are leaders who can unite people for the sake of peace. Biren seems to have utterly failed in this regard. The Biren of now is a far cry from the Biren who started off in 2017 by holding a cabinet meeting in the hills instead of Imphal, located in the valley.

Also read: Unfettered By Dissent or the Face-Off With Kuki bodies, Manipur CM Has His Way

The recent opposition to Biren’s leadership from within the party also underlines his failure to keep the house together. This is not the first time MLAs within the BJP have risen against the chief minister.

Union government’s failure to close peace talks

A good amount of blame for the simmering uneasiness within the Kuki-Zo tribes must also rest with New Delhi.

The Kuki-Zomi armed groups have been under ceasefire since 2008. While the Modi government was applauded by the community for initiating the peace talks with these groups in 2016, that nothing has come of it in the last seven years only leads to the question – did the BJP initiate the peace talks only to win over the community for the 2017 elections? 

Lack of overall development 

Lack of development in Manipur is also a reason for the rumbling suspicion between the hill and valley areas.

Over the last few years, most development work has taken place only in the valley areas, thus leaving the hill tribes with a lot of resentment towards the majority community, as if a planned  ‘conspiracy’ has been afoot to keep their areas backward. 

Both the Union and the state governments must rectify this at once to help develop better relations between the hill and valley. This is essential for peaceful co-existence.

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