Behind Manipur flare-up, ST list clamour, migration anxieties

Mobile internet is shut and the army is out on the streets. The extent of the damage due to arson and clashes is not clear yet.

WrittenBy:Samrat X
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Manipur is on the boil again. The army and Assam Rifles have “deployed an adequate number of columns for area domination in all affected areas” since Wednesday evening and rescued more than 7,500 people overnight who had to be shifted to safe areas away from places where violence had broken out between communities. Magistrates have been authorised to issue shoot-at-sight orders if required, to control the situation.

Other central paramilitaries are also out patrolling the streets, with additional companies of the Rapid Action Force being airlifted from Hindon air base. The state government has ordered mobile internet services to be suspended for five days starting Wednesday across the state, apprehending a likelihood of “serious disturbances to the entire peaceful co-existence of the communities and maintenance of public order”. 

Despite the ban, images of burning buildings including places of worship have made their way out, and can be seen on Twitter. The extent of the damage, however, is not yet clear. 

Epicentre Churachandpur

The violence erupted following “fighting amongst volunteers/youths of different communities” during a rally and bandh organised by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur in protest against the demand for inclusion of Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribe category on Wednesday. This was reported by the Manipur DGP, the order issued in the name of Commissioner (Home) H Gyan Prakash noted. 

This rally was followed by arson and violence. 

The epicentre of the initial violence was Churachandpur, and there was subsequent violence in Imphal. There are unconfirmed reports of casualties. 

The demographics

The Meiteis are the dominant community in the valley of Manipur including the capital Imphal and are the ones commonly referred to as Manipuri. The two other major communities in the state, the Kuki-Zomi and Naga, inhabit the surrounding hills. The area around Churachandur is largely dominated by the Kuki-Zomi tribes, while the Naga tribes dominate the areas around Ukhrul. 

While the Meiteis are mostly Hindu, the Nagas and Kuki-Zomis are mainly Christian. Manipur has nearly equal populations of Hindus and Christians, at around 41 percent each, according to data from the 2011 census. 

Currently, 34 sub-tribes of the Naga and Kuki-Zomi tribes are on the government’s list of Scheduled Tribes, but the Meiteis are not. However, certain Meitei castes are on the Scheduled Castes list. 

For over 10 years now, there has been a persistent demand from a section of the Metei community for their inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes list. 

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How the controversy unfolded

The controversy began on March 27, when a single-judge bench of the Acting Chief Justice of Manipur High Court directed the state government to “consider the case of the petitioners for inclusion of the Meetei/Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list, expeditiously, preferably within a period of four weeks from the date of receipt of a copy of this order”. 

The court was hearing a petition filed by a civil society organisation called Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union, which had argued that the status of the community before the former princely state merged with India in 1949 was that of a “tribe among tribes of Manipur”. “While merging Manipur with the Union of India, the Meetei/Meitei has lost the identity of tribe and, therefore, Meetei/Meitei should be included as a tribe among the tribes of Manipur so as to preserve the said community and save the ancestral land, tradition, culture and language.” 

The order was uploaded to the High Court site on April 19th, and began to attract attention. The following day, the Hill Areas Committee of the Manipur Legislative Assembly held a meeting in the chairman’s chamber in which a unanimous resolution was adopted, saying the committee was “perturbed/aggrieved by the order of the Honourable High Court…directing the Government of Manipur to recommend for inclusion of Meitei/Meetei community in the Scheduled Tribe list of the Constitution of India in spite of strong opposition from the Scheduled Tribes of Manipur. In this matter, the HAC as a Constitutional Body of the Hill Areas of Manipur was neither made a party to the case nor consulted.” 

There is a special provision in the Indian Constitution, Article 371c, pertaining to the governance of the hill areas of Manipur through the HAC. All MLAs elected from the hill areas of the state are its members. The body has representation from across political divides; the current chairman, D Gangmei, is an MLA of the ruling BJP. 

The hills are guaranteed a certain measure of local autonomy and there are six autonomous district councils with specified powers and responsibilities including management of forests other than reserve forests. There are however demands for more autonomy, including one for a Kuki state to be carved out of Manipur. The hills in the direction of Nagaland, dominated by Naga tribes, have long been embroiled in the Naga struggle for independence from India. The leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, Th Muivah, is from Ukhrul in Manipur. Those areas have been seeking an “alternative arrangement” outside the dominance of the Manipur government. Meitei pressure groups on their part have campaigned strongly for decades against any diminishing of Manipur state’s authority over the territories in its map.

A matter of alleged encroachment by members of tribal communities in forest areas in Churachandpur district amid an ongoing forest survey was already simmering before the court order came along. 

Since late last year, the Manipur government had embarked on a massive drive to end poppy cultivation in the state, which targeted mainly the hill areas. In March, this led to a breakdown of a peace deal with two rebel groups, the Kuki National Army and the Zomi National Army, over their alleged support for poppy cultivation in the hills near Churachandpur. 

On May 2, Chief Minister N Biren Singh tweeted a photo of two men who had been arrested with 16 kilos of opium. “These are the people who are destroying our generation. They are destroying our natural forests to plant poppy, and further igniting communal issues to carry out the drug smuggling business,” Singh wrote.

The chief minister’s mention of “communal issues” in the context suggested that there was a communal angle.

Beyond state, national boundaries

Several communities in Churachandpur district, which borders Mizoram and Myanmar, share ethnic affinities with their neighbours in those places. 

The Kuki and Zomi are part of the Zo group of tribes which includes the Chin tribes of northern Myanmar, across the Manipur border, and the Mizos of Mizoram. Ever since the coup in Myanmar in 2021, which has been followed by the outbreak of a low-grade civil war, thousands of mainly Chin refugees have fled across the border into India. While most have made their way to Mizoram, where they are far more welcome, some have also arrived in Manipur.

A couple of days before the Manipur CM’s statement, there was one from a powerful Mizo students’ association, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl. “The MZP is closely monitoring the problems being faced by ethnic Zo people living under the government of Manipur,” it said. “The origin of these problems is the Manipur government’s attempts to evict ethnic Zo people from their various settlements so that their lands can be taken from them and these lands can be declared reserve forest, protected forest, wildlife sanctuaries and wetlands.” 

The Chief Minister of Mizoram, the former veteran militant leader Zoramthanga of the Mizo National Front, has written a letter to his Manipur counterpart saying he is “deeply pained by the violence that has flared up…and the underlying tension between the Meitei community and tribals there”. 

Zoramthanga added that “at a time when our two states are already facing issues as a result of the political situation in Myanmar and Bangladesh and the lingering effects of Covid-19…such violence only makes things worse”. 

Apart from Myanmar, there is also a small Kuki-Zomi community in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. The Kuki National Army also operates there and has been facing what it calls a proxy war with the Arakan Army backed by the Bangladesh military. The conflict there has also produced refugees – a few hundred of whom have found shelter in Mizoram. 

The current troubles in Manipur, therefore, have roots that sprawl across several state and national boundaries. 

Histories of conflict

There are also complex histories of conflict between and also within the major communities in the state, which further complicates matters. 

The Naga and Kuki, the two major tribal and Christian groupings in the state, have a long history of violent clashes going back decades. Relations between the Meitei-dominated Imphal valley and the Nagas, especially the Tangkhuls in the hills around Ukhrul, have historically been marked by both close fraternal ties as well as frequent tensions. The Kuki and Zomi are both part of the larger Zo group or “zohnahthlak” but have themselves had internal clashes leading to riots in the past. 

Politically, both Manipur and Mizoram are now part of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance. The likely intervention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah may therefore put a lid on matters. 

The underlying tensions and issues, which relate to the highly contentious issues of reservations and migration, will however remain.

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