With the Manipur conflict still simmering, heightened anxiety has gripped students who are preparing for Class 10 and 12 board exams, scheduled to be held between mid-February and the first week of April. The situation is precarious for those who were forced to seek refuge in the relief camps even as the ethnic clash between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities enters its 10th month.
The constant shadow of violence and the uncertainties of living in cramped relief camps with meagre access to resources has added to the sense of doom among these youngsters who are preparing for examinations that will determine their future career prospects. When the ethnic conflict erupted in May 2023, the state’s education system was one of the earliest casualties as schools remained shut for extended periods. For the better part of a crucial academic year, these students were left to their own devices to pursue education.
The government’s numbers shine the spotlight on the disastrous impact of the violence on the lives of the youngsters. This year, a total of 38,127 students will be appearing for the Class 10 board exams. Out of this, a total of 28,477 students are from private schools, 8,130 from government schools, and 1,520 from aided schools. According to the Board of Secondary Education, Manipur (BSEM), this is a decrease of 1,637 students compared to the 2022-23 Class 10 board exams. For the Class 12 board exams, a total of 28,000 will write the papers that will mark the culmination of their school education.
The unending violence has not just affected the displaced students, it weighs heavily on all those belonging to the Kuki-Zo communities, spread across the hill areas. The disturbance of civil life has made it hard for students to focus on preparing for the upcoming examinations. The trust deficit in the government runs so deep that they wonder whether their answer papers will be evaluated fairly even if they are able to appear for the examinations.
In December last year, 25 schools from Churachandpur and Kangpokpi districts were de-affiliated by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and three District Zonal Education Officers (ZEOs) in the two districts suspended for issuing No Objection Certificates (NOCs) to schools that applied for switching affiliation from the state board to CBSE without the knowledge of the state government.
The Manipur state education department reacted by stating that the government had not provided any NOC to the schools seeking CBSE affiliation. According to CBSE bylaws, it is a legal requirement for schools affiliated to state boards to obtain an NOC from the state government before applying for CBSE affiliation. The three education department officers embroiled in the controversy are: Churachandpur ZEO Jangkhohao Haokip, Kangpokpi ZEO Lingtinneng, and District Inspector of Schools, Churachandpur, L. TaiTaithul.
The move to suspend 25 schools came after the state government objected to the CBSE granting affiliation to 14 schools in Kangpokpi and Churachandpur amid peak ethnic violence. The affiliation was supposed to come into effect from April 1, 2024.
The upheaval caused to the state’s education system, especially in the tribal-dominated areas, has agitated student and civil society organisations. The Joint Student Body (JSB) in Lamka in Churachandpur district held protest rallies against the cancellation of the CBSE affiliation of schools, terming it “unfair” and “politically motivated”. They demanded reinstating of the suspended officers and revoking of the de-affiliation.
JSB executive member Robinson attributes the preference for the CBSE to the deep suspicion that the state board might not treat tribal students fairly. In Manipur, all state board examination answer papers are sent to Imphal, the state capital, for examining and evaluation. “They may be left unexamined or, at worst, burnt,” says Robinson.
In September 2023, there were reports of tribal students levelling serious allegations against Manipur University for targeting them unfairly when the results of the BA Psychology exam were released. The students at Rayburn College in Lamka—the only college in the state offering the course—alleged that they were victimised in a targeted manner due to their ethnicity—only 10 of the 76 students passed. Many of them were shown to have obtained ‘nil’ marks in one paper— the Major Indian Languages (MIL) paper.
“For months now, many academic certificates are still being held up by the institutes and colleges in Imphal,” says Robinson. “Last year, evaluators in Imphal gave zero marks in MIL, while in some other subjects they just left it blank. That’s why we are worried.”
After the student organisations protested, the results were altered dramatically in a matter of hours. “Within a mere 2-3 hours, a new set of results was released. The number of students who had passed surged from 10 to 41,” reported The Mooknayak.
One of JSB’s demands is that no answer paper should be sent to Imphal for evaluation. They fear that Meitei evaluators might adversely mark and fail them. Kangpokpi Kuki Student Organisation (KKSO) executive member Thangtinlen Haokip points out that some results of last year’s sixth semester examinations of DM University, Imphal, are still withheld.
These incidents have led to apprehension in the student community and the demand by student leaders for seeking central board affiliation because then answer papers would be evaluated outside the state. “We urgently need our schools to be affiliated to the CBSE to ensure that the answer papers are evaluated in an unbiased manner, results declared promptly, and certificates issued on time,” says Haokip.
After ethnic violence erupted on May 3, 2023, a large number of students were forced to relocate from the affected areas and seek admission in schools and colleges in safer areas. The majority of those displaced lost their documents in the mayhem. This compounded the students’ problems, particularly for those who were due to appear in board exams in 2024.
On January 15, 2024, 10 Kuki-Zo MLAs—seven belonging to the ruling BJP—wrote to Home Minister Amit Shah, demanding revocation of suspension of the officers and review of the withdrawal of CBSE affiliation to the 25 schools. They also sent a similar letter to the CBSE chairperson, seeking review of the suspension in the light of the prevailing situation in the state.
The letter highlighted how tribal students are allegedly facing targeted discrimination. “There have been glaring cases of discrimination and injustice meted out to the deserving students in recent months. The blatant downgrading/tampering of marks of many bright students of Rayburn College in Churachandpur by Manipur University recently is a case in point,” it said. The lawmakers also alleged that “thousands of certificates” were burnt, affecting the “future of thousands of students” in the hill districts.
This controversy, however, took a murkier turn on February 6. Several news reports indicated that the three suspended education department officials had allegedly admitted to being coerced into issuing NOCs by the local community.
According to a report on NDTV.com, the three officials allegedly wrote an “apology letter” to the state government for issuing NOCs “without following the due process”.
The report quoted the letter which one of the suspended officials, Jangkhohao Haokip, sent to the Manipur education department. “Then, out of pressure from different angles such as from parents, joint student bodies, CSOs, and even elected representatives, I cannot deny any longer. It’s a do or die situation after receiving duress. Then, I am compelled and forced to issue my signature to two schools i.e. Salt Brook School, and Soikholal High School. Therefore, it is my earnest prayer and request to understand my situation and seek apology and consideration from your end. I will ensure that no such issue will happen again in future,” wrote Jangkhohao. He also enclosed the letters written to him by four Kuki MLAs, urging him to issue NOCs.
Whatever the facts, the issue underlines the extent of the mistrust between the tribal and non-tribal communities, shaping the narratives within and outside the state. That the state’s education system has become the latest battleground of the ethnic rift illustrates how dysfunctional the state administration has become.
No end in sight
Schools and academic institutes reopened after about four months in the Imphal valley, but regular classes have not resumed in the hill districts of Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, and other Kuki-Zo dominant areas. Many school buildings are still being utilised as relief camps, and classes cannot be held.
Though some attempts were made to engage students—either online or in relief camps—it cannot replace classroom teaching. For the students appearing for board exams, it is especially difficult to face these challenges.
Many of the tribals and Kuki-Zo students are also economically disadvantaged. Going for higher education outside the state is not an option. Even for those who can afford it, good schools and colleges remain out of bounds for them since they are located in the Imphal valley.
There is only one college in each of the tribal hill districts, while the two universities are both in Imphal. Not a single professional or technical institute is located in the tribal hill districts.
This controversy not only highlights the extent to which the Manipur administration has broken down under the watch of Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, it also illustrates the haplessness of students who find their future hostage to the brutal conflict that has already claimed more than 200 lives with no end in sight. It also points towards the Centre’s abject failure to normalise the situation in the border state.
Question of standards
No Manipur college or university figures in the top 100 list of the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) 2023, released by the Union Ministry of Education. Manipur’s unemployment rate was at 9% in 2021–22, according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), while the national unemployment rate stood at 4.1%. The problem is far more serious in the tribal rural areas compared to urban areas. Government service is the main source of employment, and agriculture is the primary occupation for a large majority in the state. Though small enterprises have come up in recent years, they have been severely impacted by the ongoing crisis, which raises grave concerns about unemployment in coming years. The future looks bleak for Manipur’s youth.