It is believed that the spark that set Manipur on fire and triggered a dormant conflict between the people of the hill and people of the valley was the Manipur High Court’s Single Bench judgement on March 26, 2023.
The judgement was made public on April 19, 2023. The Manipur High Court directed that N Biren Singh’s government to submit recommendations for inclusion of Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribes list within a period of four weeks. The petition in the Manipur High Court was filed by eight petitioners of the Meitei Tribe Union.
Reportedly, the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) was upset over the order of the Manipur High Court. Its members decided to petition the state and centre to go for appeals against the High Court order.
On April 21, 2023, the All Manipur Tribal Students’ Union (ATSUM) publicly denounced the High Court judgment and raised the apprehension that the interests and rights of the hill people will become uncertain if the demand of Meiteis for ST status is fulfilled. Subsequently, the ATSUM organised a Tribal Solidarity March on May 3 in protest against the Manipur High Court’s directive in the districts dominated by tribal people. The protest rallies in other districts were peaceful except in the districts Churachandpur and Kangpokpi.
The violence that erupted on May 3, 2023 in Manipur was not spontaneous. There is a planned pattern. However, the N Biren Singh government failed to see the signs of an impending violent conflict in Manipur.
On March 10, 2023, the Kuki Students’ Organisation and Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum organised a protest rally in the Kuki dominated districts against the state government’s eviction drive against encroachers in the Reserved Forests and Protected Forest Areas. The government plans to protect the state from illegal poppy plantation, illegal migrants from Myanmar and protection of the Reserved Forests turned violent in Kangpokpi district.
The Manipur government on March 10, 2023 took a Cabinet decision to withdraw the State Government from Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreements with two Kuki militants groups – Kuki National Army and the Zomi Revolutionary Army. On April 5, 2023, Manipur government declared that the Commander-in-Chief of the Kuki Independent Army Thangkhongam Haokip as the ‘most wanted’ criminal in the state of Manipur. On April 8, 2023, the Kuki Independent Army raided the SoO camp at Henglep Sub-Division in Churachandpur district and looted a large cache of arms and ammunitions from the camp around 7.30pm.
The ATSUM called for a 12-hour shutdown on April 24, 2023 in the tribal areas over job reservations in the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) demanding to follow the Office Memorandum of the Government of India’s Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) for reservation of the state’s 34 percent for ST since 2005 instead of the central reservation norms in the Central institutes. This 12-hour shutdown was also supported by the Kuki Students Organisation and Zomi Student Federation.
On April 27, 2023, the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF) in a press release announced non-cooperation of all government related programmes and called for a total shutdown in the Churachandpur District on April 28, 2023 from 8am to 4pm in protest against the land and forests survey carried out by the Manipur government. On April 27, 2023, reportedly at about 8.30pm, miscreants suspected to be supporters of the ITLF came in large number and vandalised by burning the Open Gym at the PT Sports Complex which was set up by the Churachandpur MLA LM Khaute, which was to be inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Manipur, N Biren Singh. Following the act of vandalism and burning off the Open Gym, N Biren Singh cancelled his plans to visit Churachandpur.
In order to prevent any disturbance to the peace and public order in Churachandpur and Pherzawl districts after the incident of burning of the ‘Open Gym’ at the PT Sports Complex, mobile internet services were suspended with immediate effect on April 28, 2023 for the next five-days by the Manipur government.
Supporters of the ITLF on April 28th, 2023 set on fire a Forest Range Office in Tuibong District, reportedly destroying public properties including records and official documents. This was followed by a mob belong to Kukis raiding a house belonging to a Meitei family at Tingkangphai in Churachandpur. During the raid, the Kuki miscreants destroyed the temple of Lord Pakhangba and also burnt the seven-coloured flag representing the seven-clans of Meitei.
The Manipur government to control the wave of violence, deployed extra police personnel to Churachandpur. The arsonists who burned the Open Gym at PT Sports Complex were arrested by the Manipur police. The MLA of the Saikot Assembly Constituency in the Curachandpur District, Paolienial Haokip, of the BJP, meet with leaders at the Centre and eventually ensured the release of the arsonists and the Manipur government was humiliated. During the victory celebration, Haokip, as reported by local media, told the people, “The government of India understood the problem of the Kukis even if the Manipur government does not understand it.”
On April 30th, 2023, the Mizo Zirial Pawl issues a press release saying that ‘origin of these problems is the Manipur’s government attempt to evict the ethnic Chin-Kuki-Zo people from their settlements so that their lands can be taken from them, and these tribal lands can be declared reserved forest, protected forest, wildlife sanctuaries and wetlands.
In an interview post the eruption of violence in Manipur, Saikot BJP MLA Haokip told media that Chief Minister of Manipur N. Biren Singh has been using language calling Kukis foreigners and even illegal immigrants, accusing them of involvement in the drugs trade and poppy cultivation as well as trespassing on forest land.
In fact, Haokip in an article in India Today, expressed that proof of state complicity can clearly be discerned from the fact that what started out as a purely ethnic-communal violence was later on attempted to be portrayed by the Chief Minister as the state’s war on ‘narco terrorists’. And that the narrative seemed to be aimed at justifying the use of state forces to aid the radicalised Meitei militia in attacking and burning down Kuki Zo settlements in the foothills surrounding the Imphal valley, beyond which it doesn’t seem to hold much water. Haokip even went on the allege that N Biren Singh is known to be hand in glove with radical groups like Meitei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol, who he alleged were the main executors of the ethnic cleansing of Kuki Zo community.
There is much more to the ethnic conflict in Manipur. But could it have been avoided and did the N Biren Singh government fail to see the signs of an impending violent conflict in Manipur is the moot question on everyone’s lips. More importantly, as alleged by BJP MLA Haokip is N Biren Singh the architect of portraying the Kuki Zo as narco-terrorists even though under his leadership, local law enforcements destroyed hundreds of poppy fields since the war on drugs campaign was launched. The hills of Ukhrul, Senapati, Kangpokpi, Kamjong, Churachandpur, and Tengnoupal districts were especially targeted as large-scale illegal cultivation of poppy was being carried out. The government states that of 2,518 people arrested under Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act between 2017 and 2023, only 873 were from the Kuki-Chin community, while 1,083 were Muslims, 381 Meiteis, and 181 were from other communities. This is despite the fact that the Kuki-Chin community cultivated poppy in 13,121.8 acres of land and the Naga Community only 2,340 acres.