Blood continues to spill in Manipur where fresh incidents of killings, arson and gunfights continue to keep all hopes of peace at bay.
Temporary lulls in violence that raise feeble hopes for a return to normalcy are shattered by the crackle of guns and smoke that rise from newly-torched houses.
Few of the measures taken by the Union and state governments seem to be working, primarily because of the trust deficit between the warring Meitei and Kuki communities, and between the Kukis and the state government.
Manipur, of course, is not new to ethnic tensions and strifes. The Kukis clashed with the Nagas in the early 1990s, leaving nearly 250 dead and displacing tens of thousands.
The Kukis clashed with their ethnic brethren--the Paites--in 1997-98, leaving over 350 dead, thousands of homes destroyed and nearly 20,000 people displaced.
A communal clash between Meitei Hindus and Pangals (Meitei Muslims) left an estimated 130 people dead. Hundreds had to flee their homes.
Tensions have often flared up between Meiteis and Nagas over the latter’s demand to integrate Naga-inhabited areas in the hills of Manipur with the state of Nagaland.
But each time in the past, peace could be restored through persistent efforts by the state government. This time, however, the task of restoring peace seems to be hobbled by seemingly unsurmountable hurdles.
The primary reason is that the Kukis have little faith in the state administration led by chief minister N. Biren Singh.
The Kukis simply do not trust Biren Singh and his administration, including the state police. They accuse the Manipur police and the state administration of being complicit in the attacks on Kukis and doing nothing to rein in Meitei groups who have been targeting Kukis.
There are many reasons for the distrust that Kukis harbour towards the Meiteis and the state government headed by chief minister Biren Singh:
State Govt’s Unilateral Eviction Action:
Earlier this year, the Manipur government unilaterally declared many areas as reserve forests and evicted hundreds of Kukis from those lands.
The Kukis maintain that they were never consulted by the state government when their ‘ancestral lands’ were declared as reserve forests.
Kuki bodies and community elders say they would have cooperated with the state government had the latter cared to take them on board.
The branding of Kukis as ‘illegal immigrants’ from Myanmar:
The Manipur government justified its drive against Kuki settlers on the ground that the population of Kukis have witnessed an exponential rise in recent years. Large-scale illegal immigration from Myanmar has been cited by the state government as the reason for this.
Branding Kukis as illegal immigrants from Myanmar triggered the demand by Meitei groups to conduct an exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state in order to detect the illegal Kulki immigrants. The Biren Singh government endorsed this demand.
The allegation that many Kukis have come in illegally from Myanmar is, however, not without basis. Statistics show that the population of Kukis in Manipur has registered a sharp and unnatural increase, and as many as one thousand new Kuki villages have come up in the past one decade.
In March this year, the state government unilaterally withdrew from a trilateral agreement on suspension of operations (SOO) with three Kuki militant groups--the (KNA), the (ZRA) and the (KRA)--alleging that the three outfits were supporting large-scale illegal immigration from Myanmar, and were encouraging illegal poppy cultivation.
Kukis bristled at these allegations against the militant groups and the impression grew among them that the Biren Singh government is anti-Kuki.
Kukis claim that there are no illegal immigrants amongst them, and that the state’s act of branding them ‘foreigners’ has led to a sense of hurt.
Inaction of the police and state machinery to prevent attacks on Kukis:
The violence in Manipur was triggered by attacks on Meiteis by Kuki mobs in Churachandpur district on 3 May, and soon led to retaliatory attacks on Kukis by Meitei groups.
It was but natural that the retaliatory attacks by Meiteis, who are in a majority in Manipur, on the Kukis (who are in a minority) would be fiercer and more widespread.
Thus, a larger number of Kukis became victims of the ethnic violence and more Kukis than Meiteis lost their lives in the strife. Also, more Kuki houses than that of Meiteis were vandalised and torched. More Kukis than Meiteis have been displaced from their homes and are now in refugee camps.
Kukis hold that they suffered much more because the state administration was biassed against them. But the state government denies any bias.
However, it remains a fact that the Manipur police faces allegations of being an undisciplined force and of being deeply divided on ethnic lines. The lack of professionalism of the state police can be gauged from the fact that Meitei crowds could overrun armed police battalions and police stations and loot thousands of rifles and small arms, ammunition and explosives from the police stations and battalions.
The Kukis say these looted arms are now being used against them.
Meiteis’ Demand For ST Status:
Kukis say that the demand by Meiteis for ‘Scheduled Tribe’ status is a ploy by the majority community to take over lands belonging to the Kukis in the hills. At present, Meiteis cannot buy tribal lands or own properties in the hills because they don’t have ST status.
The Kukis also say that granting of ST status to Meiteis, who are far more advanced culturally, socially and economically, will further marginalise the Kukis.
The Kukis argue that Meiteis wield a lot of political power since Meiteis have 40 seats in the 60-member state Assembly. These 40 are general seats while the remaining are seats reserved for tribals. The Meiteis, content the Kukis, do not deserve any protection or additional benefits.
The Meiteis, too, have their own points of view that are quite justifiable
Meiteis allege that Kukis are seeking a demographic change in Manipur:
Kukis were not native inhabitants or indigenous to any part of the present-day state of Manipur, at least not in any significant numbers. Migration of Kukis from the present-day Chin province of Myanmar started in 1892 and was encouraged by the British, who used the Kukis as a buffer against the Nagas who used to attack British troops and interests.
Since then, the number of Kukis has been rising. But the sharpest increase has been seen in recent years. Kukis numbered 4.7 lakhs in 2011 and constituted about 16.4 per cent of Manipur’s population then.
According to reliable estimates, the population of Kukis in 2022 was 9.26 lakh. But if the population of Kukis is projected using the 2021 state birth rate of 13.3 (per thousand), Kukis should have numbered about 5.4 lakh in 2022.
So where did the extra 3.6 lakh Kukis come from? Meiteis and the state government say that they are illegal immigrants from Myanmar.
The population of Kukis in some districts bordering Myanmar like Pherzawl, Tengnoupal, Chandel and Churachandpur has registered an exponential growth of 230 per cent!
Meiteis say that Kukis are working towards a demographic change in Manipur and, therefore, an exercise to update the NRC should be conducted to detect illegal immigrants from Myanmar.
Meiteis also allege--and the charge is borne out by facts--that Kukis who are illegal immigrants from Myanmar have taken to large-scale cultivation of poppy in the hills, thus turning Manipur into a major producer of opium and a hub of drug trade.
Meiteis are squeezed into Imphal Valley and suffer disadvantages:
Meiteis, who constitute 53 per cent of the state’s population now, are squeezed in the 1,864 square kilometre Imphal Valley which is just 8.3 per cent of Manipur’s total landmass of 22,327 square kilometers.
Meiteis cannot buy land or purchase properties in the hills which are designated as tribal lands. However, tribals (Kukis and Nagas) can and have been purchasing properties in the Imphal Valley, thus squeezing Meiteis further in the little land they can own.
Thanks to strange laws, Meiteis cannot even buy back properties that have been sold to tribals in Imphal Valley.
Meiteis feel it is grossly unfair to be denied the right to own properties in areas (outside Imphal Valley) that was part of the centuries-old Kangleipak kingdom that traces its history to 1074 CE. If they are granted ST status, they can purchase properties in the hills that were part of the erstwhile Manipuri kingdom ruled by Meitei kings.
Opposition to Meitei Demand For ST Status Is Unjustified:
Meiteis say that they were considered tribals when Manipur was a princely state under British suzerainty. But they lost the ‘tribal’ status after Manipur merged with India in October 1949. It is time that Meiteis get back their tribal status.
Meiteis contend that a disproportionate number of top posts in the state administration have been cornered by Kukis.
A look at the names of top-ranking officers in the state police and civil administration shows this to be true. Thirteen of the 21 senior-most IPS officers in the state are tribals.
The same is true for the civil administration where Kuki officers form a large chunk of Manipur’s top bureaucracy.
Given this, say Meiteis, their demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status is well justified. Meiteis also point out that a large proportion of their population are socially and economically disadvantaged and, hence, need protection.
Meiteis also argue that their demand for ST status has nothing to do with Kukis. Hence, the opposition of Kukis to their demand is not justified and, instead, reeks of an ‘anti-Meitei’ mindset of Kukis.
Other factors that hobble chances of peace
Widespread availability of arms:
Nearly 4,000 rifles and small arms, five lakh rounds of ammunition and hundreds of hand grenades and mortars were looted from the state police armouries by Meitei groups. Only a fraction of these have been recovered or surrendered so far.
Kuki militants and vigilantes also have sophisticated Chinese-made arms, most of them smuggled in from Myanmar, in their possession.
The civil populace--Meiteis and Kukis--are thus heavily militarised and the militant and radical groups in both these communities have easy access to sophisticated arms.
Till both sides are demilitarised and disarmed, peace will remain elusive.
Inept peace moves by government:
The Union Government constituted a 51-member peace committee to broker peace between the two warring communities. But influential Metiei and Kuki bodies refused to be part of the committee.
Kuki Inpi--the apex body of Kuki tribes in Manipur--said its president Ajang Khongsai was not consulted before he was named as a member of the committee.
The Kuki Inpi also said that it saw no point in being part of a peace committee that had chief minister Biren Singh--the Kukis accuse him of being biassed against them--as a prominent member.
The CONCOMI also refused to be part of the peace committee because its convenor, Jeetendra Ningomba, was allegedly named its member without his consent.
Delayed intervention by New Delhi:
Though Kukis welcomed Union Home Minister Amit Shah during his visit to Manipur a little over two weeks ago, many prominent Kukis have criticised the failure of top Central leaders to speak out when Manipur was burning since May 3.
The fact that it took the Union Home Minister nearly four weeks to visit Manipur has also come under criticism in Manipur.
Amit Shah had, during his meeting with Kuki groups in Churachandpur on May 30, asked for 15 days’ time to start the process of finding a political solution to the demands of Kukis. Fourteen days have passed, but there has been no visible movement on that assurance. This has sowed the seeds of suspicion among Kukis.
At the same time, the Meiteis are also unhappy with the Union Government for its failure to unequivocally assert that Manipur’s territorial integrity would be honoured.
Lack of innovative steps to restore peace:
Faced with the present crisis, both the Union and state governments have failed to think out of the box and initiate innovative steps to end violence.
One such step could definitely have been to involve prominent members of Kuki and Meitei communities who have inter-married (Meities who have married Kukis and vice versa) to lead small and localised peace initiatives. These mixed families have maximum stake in a return to peace and should play a prominent role in brokering peace.
An unwieldy 51-member committee headed by the state governor who is handicapped by protocol and officialese is seen as a perfunctory step that holds little meaning. Such a committee cannot reach out collectively to all groups, including Kuki militants and Meitei radical bodies, to broker peace.
Similarly, swift action against police officers who have failed in their duties could have displayed the resolve of the state government to mete out justice. Not only has such action not been taken, the Biren Singh administration is widely seen to have been beset by a paralysis and has allowed the situation to spin beyond its control.
Given the scale of violence that has wracked Manipur, it is strange that no heads (in the government) have rolled.
This has led to a loss of faith in the state administration by both Meiteis and Kukis.
And that is a major hurdle in the path of a return to peace.
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