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Manipur – malady, madness, and mayhem

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Manipur - madness, uncertainty and conflict
Pic: India Today/PTI

Manipur has witnessed prolonged fighting in the past few months in which apart from mortar fire, violence by armed factions and illegal arms trading have also been observed.

Violent communal conflicts have erupted in Manipur due to the Manipur High Court (HC) ordering the State to follow a 10-year-old recommendation to award Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the non-tribal Meitei population. After the All-Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) organised a “tribal solidarity rally” against the claimed plan to add the Meiteis to the ST list, the violence erupted.

Ethnic composition

The non-tribal Meitei group are a majority in Manipur, accounting for roughly 64% of the population and 40 of the state’s 60 MLAs. The hills, which cover 90% of the land area, are home to nearly 35% of recognised tribes yet send just 20 MLAs to the Assembly. The Meiteis are mostly Hindus, followed by Muslims, while the 33 recognised tribes are mostly Christians. The Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur (STDCM) began advocating for the Meitei ST classification in 2012, claiming that it is necessary to safeguard the community and ancestral land, history, culture, and language. The Meiteis have been pushed to the margins of their native homeland, with their numbers falling from 59% in 1951 to 44% in 2011. The Naga and Kuki movements fueled Meitei nationalism, and in the 1970s, concerns about demographic change and dwindling traditional Meitei territories arose. Manipur’s population growth rate increased from 12.8% in 1941-51 to 37.56% in 1961-71. Insecurity has been exacerbated by infrastructure development, such as railways.

The history and geography of Manipuri violence

Manipur is divided into 16 districts, with the valley districts of Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal, Bishnupur, and Kakching once belonging to the Kangleipak kingdom. The valley is ringed by low hills and is home to 15 Naga tribes as well as the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi group. Naga tribes attacked the Kangleipak kingdom, bringing the Kuki-Zomi from Burma to guard the valley from looting. The fearsome headhunting warriors known as the Kukis were given territory along the hills to protect the Imphal valley below. Ethnic disputes between hill villages and Meiteis have existed since the kingdom’s inception. In the 1950s, the Naga independence movement sparked insurgencies among the Meiteis and Kuki-Zomi. The Kuki-Zomi groups militarised in the 1990s to demand a state within India named ‘Kukiland,’ distancing them from the Meiteis. Hindu Meiteis clashed with Pangals (Muslims) in 1993, and awful bloodshed erupted between ethnic Nagas and Kukis. Churchandpur, a Kuki-Zomi-dominated district with a mostly Christian population, is the poorest district in the country. As the Meiteis of the valley rallied for ILP in Imphal, they also protested against the implementation of legislation in Churachandpur in 2015. 

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Cause of the unrest

Tribal communities in India are opposed to Meiteis being included in the Scheduled Castes (ST) list because of their demographic, political, and educational advantages. They claim that ST classification will result in employment losses and allow them to buy land in the highlands, displacing tribals. The Meitei language is listed in the Constitution’s Eighth Schedule, and many Meitei people get advantages connected with their SC, OBC, or EWS classification. Although tribal regions cover 90% of the state’s land area, most of the state’s money and development efforts are concentrated in the Meitei-dominated Imphal valley. State governments submit tribes for inclusion in the ST list, which is then examined by the Tribal Affairs Ministry, the Registrar General of India, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, and the Cabinet for ultimate approval. The President’s office makes the final decision under Article 341 (which gives the President the authority to identify certain castes, races, or tribes as “Scheduled Castes” for the Constitution) and Article 342 (which specifies tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within tribes or tribal communities that are deemed to be Scheduled Tribes for the Constitution about that State or Union Territory). Recent unrest has been sparked by factors such as the delimitation process, the inflow of migrants from neighbouring regions, the drug crisis, and the displacement of Kuki village people. The state administration withdrew from agreements to suspend activities with two Kuki extremist organisations accused of encouraging the protests.  

The violence and the weapons

There have been unprovoked attacks by assailants from various sides against civilians living in Manipur, making up scattered episodes of violent behaviour. Over 50,000 persons were forced away to be internally displaced, and 157 civilian casualties. In Bishnupur district, particularly in August, Naranseina village witnessed frequent conflicts.

Minimal progress made in recovering stolen weapons prompts continued efforts by security forces. Arm stealing and looting were reportedly carried out at the armoury. The second India Reserve Battalion headquarters in Bishnupur district’s Naranseina was pillaged. 

An annexure lists the looted items as 1 AK series rifle, plus multiple others like 25 INSAS rifles and four Ghatk rifles.

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Disagreements escalated while the two forces were active, culminating in a legal filing by local authorities The AR faces accusations of bigotry that have been refuted by the Force and Army Command Center.

Legislative Shortfalls and Political Stalemate

Regardless of attempting through legislative means to produce an answer, nothing tangible has happened thus far. Aware their proposal wouldn’t pass, the opposition brought forth a No Confidence Motion in parliament nonetheless hoping it could lead to constructive dialogue. However, things only grew worse, as lawmakers resorted to name-calling instead of focusing on resolving issues related to the conflict in Manipur.

 Leaders of India’s opposition had a sitdown meeting with President Droupadi Murmu where they handed over an official document requesting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi give a formal speech about Manipur in Parliament and lay out specific measures he plans to take toward restoring peaceful conditions there. Protests from Congress legislators forced a sudden halt to proceedings during the August 28 session; subsequently, no important state topics were discussed because the session was abruptly adjourned.

Irrespective of caste, community, region, religion, or language, the house vows to promote peace and inclusivity among Manipur’s diverse population. By engaging in dialogue and implementing Constitutional reforms, the State aspires to attain perfect harmony, per the House’s decree.

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By ignoring negative forces, maintaining peace, and staying clear of conflict, the House hopes to safeguard both the state’s well-being and the populace’s safety, as stated in the United Nations Information Office declaration.

Ten members of the Kuki-Zomi caucus failed to attend the assembly session in Imphal citing security worries despite previous statements expressing their reluctance to participate. With all members accounted for, even the ten Naga MLAs showed up. Together, the ITLF, representing various groups across Churachandpur, and COTU, operating from Kangpokpi, unified their stance by issuing an announcement that criticized the meeting and raised alarm over the protection of Kuki-Zo lawmakers.

Government initiatives bridging divides

By beginning a dialogue with the Kuki group, the Union government has urged Meiti groups forward. With COCOMI being comprised of five Meitei groups, they got together with Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi.

Before meeting with JP Nadda and Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, Shah previously interacted with them. Meeting with senior officials of the Intelligence Bureau was part of COCOMI’s agenda. By fostering talks between dependable Kukis and the organization, COCOMI hoped to achieve long-term stability by finding answers to difficulties collectively. Manipur authorities have adopted various types of biometric registration techniques to monitor individuals entering their territory effectively—including retinal scanning.

 With violence and demos spreading across the region, Shah convened a meeting with ITLF leaders on August 9. During the meeting, the ITLF addressed several issues brought forward by the Kuki people, including their request for helicopter services and those originating from mountainous terrain. Frantic negotiations by authorities led to a court order, followed by an agreement from MHA and a meeting with Home Minister Shah.

Also Read: Are reservations serving the ends of social justice?

Disagreeing with Manipur CM N Biren Singh’s statement, the Kuki-Zo-Hmar MLAs insist on establishing a distinct governance structure tailored specifically for the region’s hill areas. Security was one aspect highlighted by Singh when speaking with MLAs regarding normalcy. Addressing Meitei organizations based in Imphal, he emphasized their opposition towards banning lawmakers from entering the valley while conducting official duties.

To work, MLAs must promptly report. It must be noted that “Manipur cannot be divided”, said the lawmakers via their joint declaration since May 2023, when communal tensions flared up. The ten Kuki-Zo-Hmar MLAs, have not spoken to CM N Biren Singh since. A letter signed by ten MLAs dated August 16 called upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi to appoint a separate chief secretary and police chief for the hill areas, which house the majority population of the Kuki tribe and others.

The way forward

Experts advise examining ST status criteria by suggestions from numerous groups, including The Lokur Committee (1965), the Bhuria Commission (2002-2004), and a High-Level Committee (HLC) chaired by Prof. Virginius Xaxa. 

The group focuses on five major tribal community concerns viz. livelihood and employment, education, health, involuntary displacement and migration, and legal and constitutional challenges. It also recommends establishing economic and diplomatic connections with neighbouring nations to improve regional stability and security. The article also emphasises the need to preserve people’s identities in border areas and sign peace treaties with local rebel groups to keep the peace. To protect human rights and establish a fair and open judicial system, the government should abolish the contentious Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958. The government should also encourage citizens to participate in decision-making processes to develop a sense of ownership and belonging.

Is conflict resolution the ultimate goal? 

Growing the gap is the mutual aim of the involved parties. Not sharing the wish of the Meitei in power, the Kukis seek split and customized care.

Rather than approving the Kuki request for an autonomous state, the central authority picked friendly discourse between the fundamental rivals—the Meiteis and Kukis—as the means through which they could resolve conflicts successfully. Seeking justice and equality through separate administration, MLAs belonging to Kuki-Zo and several associations emphasize existing Meitei hegemony as the root cause.

COCOMI pinpoints four major triggers responsible for the violence. Says N Biren Singh, Chief Minister of Manipur, “Foreign national intrigue, deep-seated biases, and mistaken assumptions have thrown our state into turmoil.” A lack of comprehension persists regarding a problem driven by the insecurities inside oneself.

Contrary to popular belief, the Kuki groups argue that Meitei’s attempts at suppression have caused the conflict by undermining their rightful position within government structures; they maintain that external factors are merely peripheral to the issue. Weariness could mark the end of hostilities in Manipur only if talks result in common ground being found.

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Vipul Tamhane
Vipul Tamhane
Vipul Tamhane is an Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Terrorist Financing (AML/CFT) specialist with expertise in international business, and Commercial Law. He is a visiting faculty at Pune University's Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, where he teaches Counter Terrorism to Masters and Postgraduate Diploma students. He is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Diplomacy Direct, an upcoming national-interest think tank dealing with counter-terrorism, national security, geopolitics, and international diplomacy.


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