Ethnic tensions triggered by an eviction drive carried out by the state authorities last month and a High Court order asking the state to consider granting Scheduled Tribe status to the majority Meitei community have led to widespread protests and violence in the state.
The state government has all over Manipur, and imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 CrPC in eight districts. The army has been called out.
Last week, many parts of Churachandpur district witnessed violence after clashes between police and people protesting the eviction drives. Government properties were torched and many injured in retaliatory police action. The eviction drived has affected the Kukis.
While Churachandpur over the weekend, tensions between the majority Meiteis and the tribal Kukis and Nagas started mounting earlier this week over protests called by tribal bodies over the High Court order.
Tens of thousands of Kukis and Nagas, under the banner of All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM), participated in ‘tribal solidarity marches’ in the tribal-dominated hill districts of the state Wednesday (April 3).
The marches, with protestors denouncing moves to grant Meiteis tribal status, triggered ethnic tensions and sporadic clashes, including some instances of arson, from some parts of the state.
Manipur’s Ethnic Mix
For a proper understanding of the ethnic issues in Manipur, it is necessary to have an idea of the state’s ethnic mix.
Manipur is home to the Meiteis, who form 53 per cent of the state’s population and are concentrated in the Imphal Valley that forms just ten percent of the state’s total geographical area.
The Meiteis are predominantly Vaishnavites and have ruled over all areas, including the tribal-dominated hills districts, that comprise the present-day state of Manipur for hundreds of years.
The Kukis belong to the Kuki-Chin-Zo ethnic group that inhabits some of the hill districts of Manipur and adjoining Mizoram as well as the Sagaing and Chin provinces of Myanmar. Kukis form about 30 per cent of the state’s population.
The Nagas form about 15 per cent of the state’s population and have been demanding the integration of their areas with Nagaland state, a demand that is vehemently opposed by both Kukis and Meiteis.
Manipur witnessed fierce attacks on Kukis by one faction of the Naga insurgent group, NSCN, led by Thuigaleng Muivah who hails from the Ukhrul district of Manipur. The Kuki-Naga clashes in 1993-1994 left hundreds of Kukis dead and displaced tens of thousands of Kukis from their villages.
The Kukis and Nagas are predominantly Christians. And while they do not see eye to eye on many issues and clash often, they are united in their opposition to Meiteis.
Manipur is also home to Meitei Pangals, or Muslims, who make for a little over 8 per cent of the state’s population. There have been some communal tensions between the Meiteis and Pangals in the past. In 1993, communal violence between the two communities claimed hundreds of lives.
Manipur also has a large number of insurgent groups, most of them owing ethnic affiliations. While most of these outfits have entered into ceasefire agreements with the government or have been disbanded, some of them are still active.
The tribals resent the dominance of Meiteis in the state’s politics (40 of the state Assembly’s 60 seats are reserved for Meiteis), bureaucracy, police, society and culture. The Meiteis, on the other hand, feel the tribals get a lot of undue benefits, including reservations in jobs and medical and engineering colleges because of their Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.
The Eviction Drive & Why Kukis Are Angry
In end-February this year, the Manipur government evicted residents of K.Songjiang, a Kuki village in Kangvai sub-division of Churachandpur district.
The government claimed that the village, located along the border of Churachandpur and Noney districts, was standing on encroached land of Churachandpur-Khoupum protected forest. But Kuki organisations countered that the village has existed for a long time.
The forest department contended that K. Songjiang was a new village established only in 2021 by encroaching inside the Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest “in violation of Forest Acts, Rules, Supreme Court Order and State Government’s Standing Order”.
The government also served notice on all residents of Kungpinaosen, an adjoining village in the same district, asking them to move out since the village had come up in a protected forest.
The state government holds that thousands of Myanmarese belonging to the Kuki-Chin-Zo ethnic group have been migrating illegally into Manipur through the porous and unfenced Indo-Myanmar border.
This illegal immigration has intensified ever since the military junta staged a coup in Myanmar in February last year and cracked down on ethnic groups opposing the junta. The junta has carried out attacks, even air strikes, on villages and towns inhabited by Kuki-Chin-Zo tribals, driving them to Manipur and Mizoram.
The government and Meitei organisations say that the population of Kukis has registered an exponential growth. According to Leishangthem Lamyanba, the president of the Democratic Students’ Alliance of Manipur (DESAM), the 2011 census has shown a decadal growth of 39.54 per cent among tribal communities in the hills as compared to just 15.72 per cent in the better-developed valley that’s dominated by Meiteis.
Lamyanba said the exponential growth of tribals (mainly Kukis) is due to unchecked illegal immigration from Myanmar. He said that this is disturbing the delicate demographic balance in the state.
He said that more than one thousand new Kuki villages have come up in the hills, most of them having encroached on protected forests.
But the Kukis deny this allegation. Seilen Haokip, spokesperson of the Kuki National Organisation (KNO), said that the K.Songjiang village has existed since the past two centuries and records dating back to the 1800s mention this village.
The Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF), which spearheaded the protests against the eviction of Kuki villages that led to violence in Churachandpur last week, holds that “labelling tribals living in the hill tracts of Manipur since the pre-independence period as foreigners or Myanmarese in their own land was discriminatory, derogatory and unforgivable”.
Meiteis have started demanding that an exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) should be initiated in the state to detect all those who have come in and settled in the state since 1951.
The Meiteis are also demanding the constitution of a Population Commission.
The DESAM, in a statement, said: “Outsiders coming from the other side of Indian boundaries, especially Myanmar, are taking full advantage of possessing similar facial composition, skin colour, and language as they create and expand their own villages, encroaching land which is owned by the state on the hills of Manipur. This constitutes a never-ending threat to the indigenous people of Manipur”.
A shutdown called by the ITLF witnessed violence and arson by Kukis who torched government properties and clashed with security forces last weekend.
ST Status For Meiteis
The Meiteis have been demanding Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for many years. The Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union (MTU), which is spearheading this demand, has made many representations to the state government over the past ten years.
The MTU filed a petition before the Manipur High Court. A single-judge bench of the High Court comprising acting Chief Justice M.V. Muralidaran passed an order giving the state government four weeks’ time to consider the MTU’s request and send an appropriate recommendation to the Union Government.
The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs had, in 2013, written to the Manipur government that a request for granting ST status on Meiteis should originate from the state government.
The Court observed that “no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming from the side of the respondent State for not submitting the recommendation for the last 10 years”.
The Meiteis, who are now categorised as SCs or OBCs, argue that they had been listed as one of the tribes of Manipur before it merged with India in 1949 but that they lost this tag when the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 was drafted.
But the tribals are strongly opposed to this demand of the Meteis. The All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM) and other tribal bodies contend that granting ST status to Meiteis will defeat the purpose of protecting tribal communities through reservation.
The ATSUM has organised statewide protests that have been supported by organisations that represent 36 ST communities in the state.
The agitation by tribal bodies has triggered a backlash from Meiteis. Sporadic clashes between Meiteis and tribals have been reported from some parts of the state whose ethnic cauldron is on the boil once again.
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