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Friday, May 24, 2024

The Manipur Conundrum

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The Manipur Conundrum can be surmised in one statement – It is a conflict between the people of the valley and the people of the hill.

Manipur has had no major ethnic clashes in the last 20 years but it is without a doubt an ethnically polarised state in India. The relationship between the three major communities in Manipur – the Meiteis, the Kukis, and the Nagas has been simmering for decades. A small spark is all that would be needed to see Manipur burn and that spark was lit on May 3, 2023, and it turned into fire.

According to the 2011 Census, the Meiteis (including the Pangals) constitute the majority group, inhabiting 10.02 percent of the state’s total geographical area, and constituting 65.82. percent of the total population. Together, Nagas and Kukis occupy 89.98 percent of the total geographical area and account for 34.2 percent of the total population.

The spark to set Manipur on fire, according to some conflict analysts and sections of media was the High Court’s directive to the Manipur government to submit recommendations to the Centre for the inclusion of Meitei in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list which was a long-standing demand by the Meitei people for a Scheduled Tribe status under the Constitution of India. The High Court also criticized the state government for dragging the issue for over 10 years. The tribal communities protested the Meitei demand for ST status. The All Tribal Student Union of Manipur (ATSUM) conducted a solidarity march in all hill districts on 3 May 2023.

It is important to note that both the Kukis and Nagas are opposed to the Meitei demand for ST status. The solidarity marches in Naga-dominated areas remained peaceful while in Kuki-dominated areas the solidarity marches turned to violence. In fact, the Naga community distanced itself from the violent protests and claimed that the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF), which was involved in various violent activities, did not represent all the tribal people of Manipur.

In my opinion, the Meitei ST status is a mere deflection of the real reasons behind the conflict in Manipur between the people of the valley and the people of the hill.

Poppy Cultivation and the War on Drugs

One of the reasons for the conflict and continuous tensions in Manipur is the ‘War on Drugs’ launched by the Chief Minister of Manipur N. Biren Singh. The Joint Tribe Council, consisting of the Inpui, Liangmai, Zeme, and Rongmei tribes of Manipur, came out to support the CM’s mission. Representatives of the tribes, at that time, told sections of the media they had never cultivated poppy. The apex community-based organizations of the Nagas and Kukis had also come forward and pledged that they will not allow poppy cultivation on their land.

The Manipur Conundrum -Hundreds of poppy fields were destroyed 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

The government’s attempt to stop poppy cultivation in some of the hill areas was questioned because it was claimed that the campaign directly affected the lives of the poor cultivators without the Manipur government providing an alternative to the cultivators. The forcible destruction of illicit poppy cultivation and arrests of villagers, however, has been perceived by the Kuki community as depriving them of their livelihood because the ‘affected cultivators’ never received the compensation promised by the state government.

Manipur is close to the ‘Golden Triangle’ of drug production – Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. Being near the 398-kilometer porous border with Myanmar – the world’s second-largest producer of opium – Manipur is not short on heroin. Interestingly, state data indicates that extent of land used to grow the poppy plant from which opium is derived has increased more than three times from 1,853 acres to 6,742.8 acres.

The sad fact is that the farmers who grow poppies are extremely poor, and with a conducive climate and fertile soil, poppy cultivation is bringing in money that no other crop can compete. Reportedly, in one 60-day harvest cycle, a family can make enough money to see them for most of the year. If a farmer grows fruits and vegetables, the family is likely to make Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh a year but with poppy cultivation, the minimum a family makes is minimum Rs 10 lakh on cultivating one acre of land.

Illegal Immigrants from Myanmar

Along with the ‘war on drugs’ drive, the N Biren Singh government’s hard stand against illegal immigrants from Myanmar also conflicted with the Kuki community. In fact, N Biren Singh’s government suspended the Free Movement Regime (FMR) with Myanmar. At that time, Peter Salam, deputy secretary (home) of the government of Manipur told the media that it is felt that the FMR may lead to a further increase in the number of illegal entries of Myanmar nationals into India in view of the current law and order situation in Myanmar. The Manipur Conundrum -Post the suspension of FMR, 410 illegal immigrants from Myanmar were detained. The India–Myanmar border has a Free Movement Regime (FMR) which allows tribes living along the border to travel 16 km across either side of the border without visa restrictions. There are over 250 villages with over 300,000 people living within 10 kilometers of the border who frequently cross the border through 150 small and large formal and informal border crossings.

Reserved Forests and Tree Plantation Drives

Besides the war on drugs and the crackdown on illegal migrants from Myanmar, one of the most emotive issues in Manipur over the last couple of years has been the encroachment of reserved forest lands by individuals and villages. The Forest Department’s series of eviction notices to village chiefs for allegedly encroaching upon reserved forests did not go down well with the people inhabiting those hills. A show cause notice was sent to 45 villages by the Assistant Conservator of Forest, Central Forest Division, Government of Manipur, on January 13, 2022, for allegedly encroaching upon Khamenlok-Gwaltabi Reserved Forest was seen as divisive and an attack on the tribals because almost all the villages belong to them. This notice was opposed with a protest for apparently affecting the interest of the forest dwellers. All show-cause notices have ordered the villages to produce relevant documents in support of their claims to ownership of the respective villages within a specific time. 

The ‘Go Green’ campaign of tree plantation drives in the hills by the Manipur Forest Department to make the hills green again also faced opposition and protests from the people of the hill. Tree saplings plantations drive turned ugly on a few occasions when it met with opposition from the villagers. On June 5, 2022, the Forest Department officials, along with police personnel and volunteers, went to the Nongmaiching hill range in Kangpokpi district for a tree plantation drive on World Environment Day. However, they were confronted by the villagers inhabiting the foothills on the ground that the concerned authority did not take permission from the village chief. 

Eviction notices to Churches and demolition drive

Furthermore, eviction notices were served to various religious places and individuals for encroaching or illegally occupying, government land, which was another issue that simmered the hill-valley divide and stirred a dormant communal strife between the people of the hill and the people of the valley. Two eviction orders that were issued to 44 churches in Imphal in December 2020 were opposed by the All Manipur Christian Organisation (AMCO) and All TribalStudents’ Union Manipur (ATSUM). In a press conference, the two organizations contended that the state government had regularised 188 places of worship in the last few decades as per the order of the Supreme Court. They argued that the state government had regularised only places of worship belonging to the dominant community in the valley – the Hindu community, but not even a single church was included, according to a report in the Imphal Free Press. The eviction notices served to the churches, mainly attended by the Christian community from the hills settling in the valley, were seen as a deliberate attempt to target the minority tribal community.

On April 12, 2023, the administration in the Imphal East district of Manipur demolished three churches for constructing illegally on government land. The churches were demolished days after the Manipur High Court vacated its order for status quo on an order for eviction drive by the BJP-led government in the state. The churches that were demolished are the Evangelical Baptist Convention Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church Manipur, and Catholic Holy Spirit Church. One of these churches was built in 1974.

The Manipur Conundrum -All Manipur Christian Organisation (AMCO), an apex body of the Christian community in Manipur, in its statement to the media, stated, “It is very unfortunate that the government opted for the demolition of the places of worship while dealing with the issue of the construction of religious structures on public places and government lands despite the Supreme Court’s standing instruction of either regularisation, relocation, or removal of such structures.”

The drives against illegal immigrants, poppy cultivations, and eviction notices to illegal churches on government land coupled with tree plantation drives in the hills attracted large-scale protests, especially in the Kuki-dominated areas. Reportedly, the state government viewed the protests as anti-government and claimed that the protesters were heavily influenced and instigated by the Kuki militant organizations especially the Kuki National Army (KNA) and Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), who were not only providing shelter to illegal migrants from Myanmar, but also encouraging illegal poppy cultivation and drug trade. In fact, on 10 March 2023, the Biren Singh government decided to withdraw from the tripartite Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with the Kuki militant organizations. This unilateral withdrawal from the agreement has not only upset the Kuki community but also put a question mark on the resolution of the Kuki militancy problem in the state.

A separate Kukiland

Analysts reviewing the conflict in Manipur opine that the Kukis are resentful towards the Meiteis because they feel that the Meitei-dominated state governments kept their areas backward and did not provide them adequate political representation. Their unease with the Naga community stemmed from the demand of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) to include the area inhabited by the Kukis into the Greater Nagalim in the 1980s. The demand for a separate state, however, became prominent following clashes with the Nagas in the 1990s. Between 1992 and 1997, the Kukis were reportedly subjected to ethnic cleansing by the Naga militant groups, following which multiple Kuki armed groups demanded a separate Kukiland. During the Kuki-Naga clashes in 1993 more than 1,000 Kukis were killed, and many more than that number were displaced.

The claimed territory of Kukiland includes Sadar Hills, Churachandpur, Chandel, and parts of Tamenglong, and Ukhrul, among others. The Kuki State Demand Committee (KSDC) has asserted that these territories, comprising more than 60 percent of Manipur, should be designated for Kukis and Kukiland. The primary objective of the KSDC is to secure a separate state within the Indian Union for the Kuki community. The demand for a separate administration reflects the aspirations of Kukis for political autonomy and self-governance. The Kukiland demand is rooted in the idea of the Zale’n-gam, or ‘land of freedom’. They were brought from the Kuki-Chin hills of Burma by the British political agent and settled around the Imphal valley to protect the Manipur kingdom from the plundering Naga raiders of the north.

Some Kuki groups believe that a separate state would provide them with political power and control over their own resources which they believe are largely controlled by the Meiteis. In Manipur, the state government is constantly accused of bias in favor of Meiteis in the allocation of facilities and funds for development. Tribal leaders continually complain and point to a lack of infrastructural development, poor conditions of educational and health services, endemic poverty, and lack of employment opportunities and access to development resources.

The demands for Greater Nagalim and separate Kukiland with overlapping territorial claims have generated tensions and distrust between the Meitei, Naga, and Kuki communities for decades. The tensions and reasons for conflict are further accentuated by the fact that successive state governments have reportedly ignored the hill areas. As a result, the hill areas have remained economically underdeveloped with poor quality of life. The Kuki revolutionary groups justify their movement as an opposition to their deprivation of resources, benefits, and opportunities that are their rights.

It was a simmering issue that is now on full boil. Long years of neglect and suffering of the hill tribes under the state and national governments have made the Kukis economically, socially, and politically underdeveloped. The aspiration of self-determination through peaceful means has been denied to Kukis of Manipur but extended to other major ethnic entities in Northeast India such as Nagas (Nagaland), Mizos (Mizoram), Khasis and Jaintias(Meghalaya), and Bodos (Bodoland Autonomous District Council). However, Kukis have not been granted any form of autonomy along these lines. Thus, discontentment, suffering, and frustration with the state and national government policies and the territorial acquisitiveness and hegemonic policies of the Meiteis and Nagas led to the emergence of Kuki armed groups way back in the 1980s.

Indian government’s effort to resolve the crisis

The fires in Manipur will continue to rage and will not be put out soon. However, Union Home Minister Amit took five major initiatives to restore peace and normalcy in the state. These were: restoration of Law & Order; expedite relief measures; compensation for families of those killed; restoring communication; and countering rumor-mongering.

The Manipur Conundrum -A one-member judicial commission led by a retired High Court Judge has been set up to probe into the causes of the recent violence and find the culprits responsible. Rs 10 Lakh INR to be paid to the families [via DBT (Direct bank Transfer)] of those who have lost their lives in the recent violence. For the injured, the state government will announce the package. Under the chairmanship of the governor of Manipur, a peace committee has been set up. The members of this committee will be from all walks of life and all communities. For better coordination of security agencies in the state, the DG-CRPF (Director General- Central Reserve Police Force) and the state security advisor Kuldip Singh have been given the responsibility for overseeing an Interagency Unified Command. CBI will investigate six selected cases of violence out of the cases registered in FIRs (First Information Report). 10 km of Indo-Myanmar border fencing is complete. Tenders for the balance of 80 km will follow shortly. A biometric scan of every foreigner entering India will be data-based to trace miscreants. Provisioning 30000 metric tonnes of rice for Manipur in the next two months. Steps taken to ensure diesel and petrol are made available for people through 15 petrol pumps which would function 24×7. Supply of essential medicines will be undertaken and can be accessed through medical relief camps.

Conclusion 

To a person not from Manipur, the issues of reserved forests, tree plantations, eviction notices, the crackdown on poppy cultivation, or demolition of illegal churches may be viewed as a law and order concern but sadly it is not. The deep-rooted ethnic polarisation in the state is a harsh reality and it is having a socioeconomic impact leading to a conflict that is taking a communal color and violence. More so, political opportunists within India and outside of India are stroking the Manipur Conundrum to be a Christian Kuki community against Meitei Hindu community. 

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