Tatsat Chronicle Magazine

Manipur In Flames: A Grim Tragedy Is Unfolding In The Border State

The north-eastern state has been in the grip of intense violence unleashed by the majority Meitei community against the predominantly Christian tribals with a distinct imprint of ethnic cleansing. The latest flashpoint is the Meiteis’ demand for Scheduled Tribe status, despite reaping the benefits of reservation in other categories, which the tribal community is opposing
June 5, 2023
No law and order: The marauding mobs unleashed violence of such intensity that hundreds of houses, commercial establishments and churches were destroyed within days

After decades of relative calm, the flames of violence have once again engulfed the north-eastern state of Manipur with the government in New Delhi playing the fiddle. The kind of mayhem that the state has witnessed since May 3 due to violent clashes between the majority Hindu-dominated, non-tribal Meiteis and the tribals—especially the Kuki, Zomi, Hmar communities, who are predominantly Christians—is unprecedented in living memory. For a month, the simmering tension between the Meitei community and the Kuki tribals has turned one of India’s most underdeveloped states into a fragile tinderbox that threatens to explode anytime, yet again, at the hint of a spark.

The violence was so intense that by May 20 more than 70 people were dead, according to official figures, though the unofficial numbers are expected to be much higher, and over 50,000 people, mostly Kuki tribals, have been internally displaced. Hundreds more have suffered serious injuries and bodies are lying unclaimed in hospital mortuaries in Imphal.

In a week of complete law and order breakdown after May 3, marauding Meitei mobs burnt down hundreds of houses and large settlements, 125 churches were set on fire, and targeted killings were carried out. Initially, violence erupted in Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal, Bishenpur and Thoubal districts, and then spread to the remaining parts of the state. It is estimated that tangible losses due to destruction of property run into hundreds of crores of rupees.

For more than three weeks, no senior Central minister had visited the state to assess the situation and there had been no statement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemning the violence and loss of life and property. On May 29—after the Karnataka election got over and the spectacle of the new Parliament building inauguration played out— Home Minister Amit Shah finally landed in Imphal to take stock of the situation and appeal for peace. Violence, however, continued in parts of the state even during his presence in Imphal.

Mobile internet and landline broadband have been shut down and all communication channels blocked, resulting in cutting off inter-district communication. Supply of essential services came to a grinding halt and prices of essential goods skyrocketed with petrol selling for as high as ₹200 per litre, while prices of staple items like rice and dal more than doubled. LPG gas depots witnessed snaking queues with the price of a domestic-use cylinder crossing ₹1,500. Schools were shut and normal social activity came to a grinding halt.

In the midst of the raging violence, the chief minister, N. Biren Singh, who otherwise is quick to jail dissenters, appeared completely out of control as his appeal for peace found no takers. Even lawmakers and government officials bore the brunt of the violence. On May 4, the ruling BJP’s MLA, Vungzagin Valte, was attacked by a mob in Imphal and suffered critical injuries. In another incident on May 5, Indian Revenue Service official Letminthang Haokip, who was posted in Imphal as tax assistant, was dragged out of his official residence and killed.

Manipur_Relief Camp
Hundreds of people from the tribal communities were forced to seek shelter in relief camps run by civil society organisations

Meanwhile, thousands of young and old men, women and children were forced to flee their homes in the affected districts, seeking shelter in security camps in and around Imphal before they were eventually shifted to relief camps in the state and Mizoram. Yet again, the dysfunctional machinery of the Biren Singh government has been highlighted by the fact that the relief camps are run and managed by civil society activists and philanthropic organisations such as the Young Paite Association (YPA), Young Vaiphei Association (YVA), Hmar Youth Association (HYA), Kuki Khanglai Lompi (KKL) and so on with donations from the people, rather than the state government.

Targeted community

Manipur, with a population of a little over 28 lakh — according to the 2011 census —  comprises the Hindu non-tribal Meitei community, making up for around 60% of the total headcount, and the predominantly Christian Kuki, Zomi, Hmar and Naga tribals who constitute the remaining 40%. Out of the multiple tribes that reside in the state, the Kuki population accounts for approximately 16%. In the 60-seat Assembly, 19 MLAs represent the various tribes.

The tribal population is largely settled in the hill regions of the state.These tribes are classified as Scheduled Tribes, under Articles 341 and 342 of the Constitution, which guarantees constitutional protection of their rights and reservation in government jobs and higher education.

The violence carried out by the Meiteis was specifically targeted at the tribal communities settled in the Imphal valley and bears the distinct imprint of ethnic cleansing. The tribal-non-tribal dichotomy has always existed in the state, but a slew of developments over the past few years has heightened the friction between the two communities. Among more recent provocations include unilateral declaration of some parts of tribal land as reserve and protected forests by the state government without consulting the community leaders. This move directly impacted the tribals, as some of them still practise jhum cultivation or shifting agriculture.

Over the past few years, a negative narrative has been built in the state by labelling the people of the Kuki, Zomi and Hmar tribes as “illegal immigrants from Myanmar” who have occupied the forest lands and are “poppy cultivators”, feeding the “drug trade”. It’s a fact that Kukis are spread across the hill tracts of Manipur and the bordering Chin state of Myanmar and share close relations. The existence of Kuki tribals in the hills of Manipur and the bordering region of Myanmar, then known as Burma, is well-documented in records stretching back to British times.

In 2012, the Meiteis started demanding that they too be granted Scheduled Tribe status despite a significant number from the community falling in the Other Backward Castes (OBC) category, who already qualify for reservations meant for Scheduled Castes and OBCs. Over the years, this demand gained momentum with the support of Meitei lawmakers.

On April 19 this year, the single-judge bench of Acting Chief Justice M.V. Muralidharan of Manipur High Court passed an order in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the Meitei Tribe Union, directing the state to include Meitei as a Scheduled Tribe within four weeks and send the recommendation to the Central government. On May 17, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court of Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud and Justices P.S. Narasimha and J.B. Pardiwala stayed the Manipur High Court order and called it “factually wrong”. “We have to stay the order of the Manipur High Court,” said CJI Chandrachud. “We gave time to Muralidharan to remedy his error and he did not. We have to take a strong view against it now. It is clear if High Court judges do not follow constitution bench judgments, then what should we do…it is very clear.”

Widening divide

The All-Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) opposed the April 19 single-judge bench order of Manipur High Court, stating that the HC judgment was against the wishes and aspirations of the tribal people. It asserted that the tribal community in the state had been opposing the demand of the Meiteis for valid reasons because it is a comparatively advanced community and does not merit inclusion as a Scheduled Tribe.

Other tribal bodies stated that granting Scheduled Tribe status to the Meitei community completely negates the objective of scheduling groups of people for constitutional protection against discrimination.

They pointed out that since Meiteis already benefit from reservations under OBC, Scheduled Caste and Economically Weaker Section (EWS) categories, the demand to be recognised as Scheduled Tribe was a ploy to grab tribal land and corner political and constitutional privileges by monopolising available resources at the expense of the indigenous hill tribals.

On May 3, various tribal unions took out rallies in various parts of the hill districts to protest against the judgment of Manipur High Court. As a reaction, influential Meitei groups, including some radical elements, took out counter protest marches in the Imphal valley and other places in the plains. But by evening, the situation spun out of control as the Meitei groups blocked roads and attacked Kuki, Zomi and Hmar settlements in the valley. Houses, commercial establishments and churches were set ablaze by rampaging mobs in Imphal and other parts of the state, and people were murdered.

Reacting to the accusation that the Kuki, Zomi and Hmar are “illegal immigrants” and are “poppy cultivators”, the Zomi Students Federation (ZSF) said that it is not only misguided but also an attempt by the radical sections of the Meitei community to marginalise the tribals and legitimise Meitei claim over tribal lands. They pointed out that Chief Minister Biren Singh, who is a Meitei, is on record calling the tribal people “illegal immigrants”.“We live and have lived in these hills for generations and generations and centuries…it is tribal land, our land,” said ZSF in a statement.

 NRC questioned

In more recent years, Meiteis have demanded implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Manipur, on the same lines as done in neighbouring Assam. The tribal unions feel that making NRC compulsory in Manipur is an attempt to disenfranchise them because the state has not maintained proper and accurate land records of the hill districts due to their remoteness since Manipur attained statehood in 1972.

The Assam NRC exercise does not inspire much confidence in the tribals of Manipur, and for good reason. The contentious NRC exercise in Assam, that required validation of proof of residence in the state and establishing a family tree, resulted in 1.9 million people being relegated to the “Doubtful” or “D” category, which included almost 1.1 million Hindus and approximately 600,000 Muslims.

Under NRC rules, regular identity documents such as an Aadhaar card, passport, PAN and the like were not admissible to claim citizenship. The outcome of the Assam NRC became so fraught that even the BJP-led government in the state rejected its implementation despite making it an election and emotive issue and has demanded a fresh exercise be carried out from scratch.

“Even today many remote villages in the hills are not accessible by road. So, NRC could lead to many indigenous people being excluded due to the lack of documents,” said the ZSF statement. The tribal unions and student bodies are also apprehensive about the credibility of the NRC, based on 1951 or 1961 data. They cite the example of the 2011 census in the tribal areas of Senapati district, which was based on mere estimation without recording the names and demographics of the people due to its remoteness.

Regarding the allegations of poppy cultivation, the ZSF statement says that “all Zomi, Kuki, and Hmar civil society members have openly spoken up against poppy cultivation. No community is in favour of poppy cultivation”. While poppy cultivation is done in pockets across Manipur, it is inaccurate to accuse one community of being responsible for it. “Painting the Zomi, Kuki, and Hmar communities as poppy cultivators is nothing more than a politically motivated smear campaign. It is linked to displace the population and grab their land,” said the student body.

ZSF also pointed out that those engaged in poppy cultivation from these communities are mere labour — mostly economically disadvantaged tribals who are daily wage earners — while the business deriving from poppy and opium is controlled by kingpins based in the Imphal valley. According to data on the Narcotics & Affairs of Border website of Manipur Police, most of the opium manufacturing laboratories are located in Meitei-dominated areas in Imphal valley. “Why are these kingpins not targeted?”questions the ZSF.

Demand for separation

The ZSF and other tribal bodies have demanded that President’s Rule be imposed in Manipur under Article 356 due to the breakdown in law and order. They have stated that tribals have lost faith in the “communal government led by Biren Singh”. They have also stated that coexistence with Meiteis is no longer possible under the current administration. “Now the mass exodus of our people from the valley is an indication and undeniable fact that political and administrative separation is the only viable solution for maintaining peace and harmony,” said ZSF in a statement.

Manipur_Demand for Separation
The tribal unions and student bodies have demanded for separation of hill regions from the valley

The Imphal-based human rights activist, Babloo Loitongbam, says that today’s civil society is far removed from what it was in the past. He also points out that radical Meitei groups could not have carried out violence against the tribals on such a scale without powerful patronage from the state government. “This is a dangerous trend. There has been no intervention, no concerted effort by the state and there is no security where it is needed. The silence from the Central government is too loud,” says Loitongbam. He also notes that since Article 355 is operational in Manipur, the Centre should take charge of the situation. “If the Centre wants, it can solve the present crisis easily,” says the veteran human rights activist.

On May 13, 10 Kuki MLAs, including seven from the ruling BJP, wrote a letter to the Centre, demanding “separation from the state of Manipur”. Justifying their demand, they wrote, “Our people can no longer exist under Manipur as the hatred against our tribal communities reached such a height that MLAs, ministers, pastors, police and civil officers, laymen, women and even children were not spared. Not to mention the destruction of places of worship, homes and properties. To live amidst the Meiteis again is as good as death for our people.”

The writer is senior Imphal-based independent journalist

Ninglun Hanghal

She is an Imphal based freelance journalist and writes on the most burning issues in the north-east for some of India’s leading publications. With her extensive contacts in the region, she gets details and information, which are difficult to gather. She writes on current affair, politics, gender issues and human rights.