Manipur strife: Slide into the ‘tribal’ age

Over the past one year Manipur has been witness to Meitei-Kuki conflict like nowhere seen even among Hindu-Muslim communities. Even if you may have totally segregated Hindu and Muslim residential areas like in some places in Gujarat, it is possible for a person of one community to pay a courtesy visit to the other community. But not so in Manipur. A Kuki government official cannot work in a Meitei area and vice-versa. When one moves from one area to another there are check posts, manned and womanned by both communities in their respective areas, in addition to the army, para-military and the Manipur police, sometimes total numbering upto half a dozen.

On March 27, 2023, Manipur High Court came out with a ruling granting Scheduled Tribe status to majority Meitei community, which was withdrawn after at least 220 people officially lost their lives, thousands have been displaced from their home and work of which an estimated 50,000 are still in relief camps, settlements have been burned and few women were sexually assaulted in the most humiliating manner. The ruling was perceived as a threat by the tribal community of Kuki. Although it is a threat to the Naga community as well but for the time being they’ve decided to not wade into the controversy, maintaining a neutral stance.

A unfortunate incident of burning tyres near an Anglo-Kuki gate in Churachandpur where Kukis were organizing a protest rally against the HC decision on 3 May, 2023, sparked what was to be the worst violent conflict Manipur has seen in its history.

In the ‘90s Kukis have clashed with Nagas. But by following a ‘forget and forgive’ policy the dispute was ended. In 1993 the Meiteis clashed with Pangals, who are Muslims of Meitei origin, and the violence claimed 90-130 lives. Incidently, then the violence also began on 3 May. But this too is now forgotten. Presently the Meiteis and Kukis are using the Pangals as their go between. If any vehicle goes from a Meitei area to a Kuki area with non-Kuki and non-Meitei passengers or supplies and vice versa, the drivers are all Muslims. Given the intensity of hatred between Kukis and Meiteis which is fuelled by pre conceived biases one wonders whether we’ve to wait for the next conflict between another set of ethnic groups before the rancor of present conflict is forgotten?

After the initial attack on Kukis by Meiteis, in which the numbers of Kukis killed in first two days was disproportionate and also with Kuki houses marked before they were burnt there also appears to be some preparation going into the violence, the Kukis have taken a hard stance demanding a separate administration. Meiteis are committed to protecting the territorial integrity of Manipur, for which they’ve held many demonstrations. There is a stalemate and with no dialogue at present situation has become even grimmer.

The Naga dimension to the problem further entangles it. Nagas claim that the hills belong to them. They view majority of Kukis as having migrated from Myanmar after Manipur’s integration into India in 1949. Although right now they are silent but they will resist the idea of separate administration for Kukis, if it were to materialize, just like Meiteis have resisted the idea of Greater Nagalim which includes parts of Manipur in addition to Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and the whole of Nagaland.

In fact, the demand by Meiteis to protect territorial integrity was first raised in reponse to the push by National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isac-Muivah) in its negotiations with the Government of India for the idea of Greater Nagalim.

So, the crux is that the Meiteis are insecure about the idea of separate administration for Kukis as it is a threat to territorial integrity of Manipur and Kukis and Nagas are insecure about Meiteis getting ST status as it would open up possibilities of Meiteis buying land on hills which belongs to Kukis and Nagas and competing for jobs reserved for STs.

A question that deserves serious consideration is why Manipur was not included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution providing for administration of tribal areas along with other northeastern states like Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram? This provision could have addressed the concern of Kukis because of which they are forced to raise the demand of separate administration today. A number of tribal areas in northeast have autonomous district or regional councils. A similar demand is being raised by people of Ladakh now realizing that taking away Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution meant for Jammu and Kashmir opens up possibility of exploitation of natural resources of Ladakh by outsiders.

Fresh violence has erupted in Jiribam district bordering Assam in which both communities have suffered

Unless a solution is found soon, Manipur will continue to bleed. Fresh violence has erupted in Jiribam district bordering Assam in which both communities have suffered. The situation has become so dire that people have taken law into their hands. Kuki homes traditionally have arms as they are used to hunting. Meiteis have looted the police armoury. Kashmir, according to some estimates, has about 300 militants who may have hundreds of arms.
But Manipur has close to 7,000 arms in the hands of people at present. When a Kuki village is about to be attacked by Meitei mob and a request is sent to police or para-military or army for help, usually the security agencies don’t interevene. They advise the people to defend themselves. The state and the union governments have allowed things to deteriorate and slide into a ‘tribal’ age where, literally, every Kuki or Meitei village or locality have armed volunteers to defend them. State has no control over this anarchy. One incident of violence can escalate things as was seen in Jiribam. An advance security convoy of Chief Minister N. Biren Singh was ambushed by militants.
Recently elected Member of Paliament from Inner Manipur, Bimal Akoijam, has raised the question as to why are security forces not providing security to ordinary people? Why are people left to fend for themselves? In an interview after the loss of two seats in Lok Sabha N. Biren Singh has blamed outsiders for the state of lawlessness. But this cannot be an excuse. Outsiders have not defeated BJP in the recent elections. Locals, of all communities, are thoroughly disillusioned. If the government cannot protect its people then it must resign and give a chance to new set of people.
In the long term we need to think of innovative solutions to the complex problem of Manipur. The only manner in which Naga and Kuki communities can be assured of autonomous administrations as well as Meiteis of territorial integrity remaining intact is to think of overlapping areas of administration. A Kuki autonous area and a Naga autonomous area may share common geographical areas with Manipur. The Naga area could also be part of the idea of Greater Nagalim at the same time. Sooner or later, the demand of NSCN (IM) will also have to be addressed.
The idea is not outlandish as even today we’ve separate administrations of the same area by Union government, State government and local bodies. The Panchyati Raj itself has three tiers. If we can have different administrations functioning in the same geographical area with their separate jurisdictions, why can’t the same concept be applied to solve the problem of different communities of Manipur. A day might come, when the concept of nationalism is not so rigid, when parts of Myanmar may also be part of Geater Nagalim, as initially envisioned by Naga leaders and parts of it could join the Kuki-Zo-Chin common area which may include Mizoram as well.
In the form of ‘Condomiums’ we have the idea of joint governance of soverign areas, for example, Andorra shares its head of state between France and Spain. Narendra Modi’s government has signed a Framework Agreement with NSCN(IM) in 2015 which mentions the idea of ‘shared sovereignty.’ Such solutions to disputed territories are the only hope for humankind if we have to end the cycle of violence and politics of hegemony by various groups.

By Sandeep Pandey 

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