The intense and half-century-old hatred between the tribal and non-tribal populations of this North-Eastern state is coming to a boil. The state could go up in flames very soon.
Manipur is, undoubtedly, the most dangerous and strife-torn state in the country today. A 51-year-long insurgency demanding sovereignty from India and a brutal counter-insurgency by security forces that has led to countless deaths, extra-judicial killings and unimaginable human rights violations has torn apart the social fabric of the state.
The subsequent spawning of many insurgent groups representing not only the majority Meiteis concentrated in the Imphal Valley that constitutes 10% of the state’s total area, but also groups representing the Nagas, Kukis, Paites, Vaipheis and Hmars, besides the Pangals (the Muslim Meities) have only complicated matters. Add to this ethnic tensions and strife, poor governance, a history of political instability and chicanery, failure of many organs of the state, endemic corruption, widespread drug abuse, lack of job and business opportunities leading to huge unemployment and frustration, and what one has is a surefire recipe for disaster.
And disasters—all man-made—have been rocking Manipur for more than five decades now. There are many fault lines in the state today, and the most dangerous one is the divide between the hills (inhabited by the tribals) and the Imphal Valley (inhabited by the Meiteis). It is this divide that could widen into a chasm and tear the state and its people apart in the near future.
The Meiteis living in the Imphal Valley and the tribals in the hills have, for the last three decades, had a testy relationship. The Nagas, especially, have long resented what they term as ‘subjugation’ by the Meiteis. The Nagas and other tribes in the hills were subjects of the Meitei kings belonging to the Ningthouja dynasty that has ruled the erstwhile kingdom since 33 CE till it merged with India in September 1949. This merger, or what the Meiteis call the ‘annexation’ of their state, is at the root of Meitei insurgency.
The Nagas in the hill districts of Manipur have, for the last three decades, been demanding greater autonomy and, over the last few years, merger with Nagaland. They hold that the Meiteis have always looked down upon them and ill-treated them. The hill districts of Manipur suffer from neglect and under-development, they say, and the only way they can develop would be to break away from Manipur. This demand for ‘Nagalim’ or a greater Nagaland involving integration of all Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh contiguous to the state of Nagaland was actually articulated a long time ago by the NSCN (Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland) faction led by its chairman Isak Chisi Swu and general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah. Muivah belongs to the Thangkul Naga tribe which lives in Ukhrul district of Manipur and adjoining areas of Myanmar.
Many observers say that the ‘Nagalim’ demand is critical for the NSCN (IM), and more so for Muivah. This Naga leader would, after a final peace accord, like to contest elections and become the Chief Minister of a Naga state. But if he contests from any area of present-day Nagaland, his victory will not be assured since the other tribes may not like the idea of an ‘outsider’ contesting from their Assembly segment. Thus, for Muivah, inclusion of the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, and of the two other neighbouring states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, is a necessity, say these observers. In fact, Muivah said as much in August this year, raising consternation in the neighbouring states.
The ‘Greater Nagaland’ issue agitates the Meiteis like perhaps no other. Reflecting their will, the Manipur Assembly has passed resolutions asserting the territorial integrity of the state and the Meiteis have repeatedly protested any move to divide their state. Even a hint of a move to redraw the boundaries of Manipur evokes violent reaction among the Meiteis.
For instance, in June 2001, when the then NDA government announced that the ceasefire with the NSCN(IM) would be extended to all Naga-inhabited areas in the adjoining states of Manipur, Assam and Nagaland, Manipur went up in flames. Agitated Meiteis torched the state Assembly and residences of ministers and lawmakers and scores were killed and injured in police firing. It was only after the move was abrogated by the Union government did the Meiteis calm down.
A final accord with the Nagas, which the present NDA government, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is very keen on, has to have some sort of arrangement for the Nagas living in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Even if one were to discount Muivah’s assertion about the demand for Nagalim being on the table, the Union Government has to offer something to meet the aspirations of the Nagas “to live together as one people”.
New Delhi cannot afford to redraw the boundaries of the North Eastern states without causing major and unmanageable conflagrations in those politically volatile and strategically important states. On the other hand, the NSCN(IM) leadership will be loath to sign a final peace accord without their demand for Nagalim not being met even halfway. Hence, it is likely that New Delhi will offer greater autonomy to the Nagas living in the three states and creating a broad cultural and ethnic platform with Constitutional provisions for all the Nagas to come together on. The Meiteis are bound to oppose any such arrangement since they will view it as the first step towards the eventual break-up of Manipur. And this is when the state will erupt in to flames.
There is an immediate volatile issue too. The Meiteis have long resented the unchecked influx of non-tribals from other states into the Imphal Valley. They contend that the population of these non-tribals from other states (who the Meiteis label ‘Mayangs’) has increased sharply in recent years and the Mayangs form a quarter of Manipur’s total population of 2.7 million. The Mayangs can own, buy and sell property in the Imphal Valley and can freely set up businesses. This is resented by the Meiteis, and naturally so in a state where unemployment is rife. A very sore point with the Meiteis is that Marwaris and Biharis control and large slice of the state’s trade and commerce.
Since earlier this year, the Meiteis led a successful agitation for introduction of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) that would restrict entry of non-tribals from other state into Manipur. In late August this year, the Manipur state assembly unanimously passed three bills that place restrictions on non-tribals from other states owning properties and running businesses in the Imphal Valley. The tribals in the hill areas of Manipur have long had such protection—even the Meiteis cannot own property or run businesses in those areas.
But the tribals in the hills are up in arms against these bills which await Presidential assent. They contend that since these bills place the Meiteis at par with the tribals in terms of protection from ‘exploitation’ by outsiders, their own safeguards would stand diluted. The Meiteis say this is a specious argument and the bills do not chip away at the safeguards for tribal areas. But so deep is the distrust between the Meiteis and the tribals that the latter have vowed to launch an agitation if the bills get the President’s nod and are implemented.
The Meiteis, impatient over the delay in the President signing the three bills, have announced an intensified agitation to get the Congress government in the state to get Pranab Mukherjee’s signature on the bills. The Nagas and the Kukis have submerged their differences—violent clashes between the two tribes from 1992 to 1997 led to thousands of deaths and displacement of tens of thousands; it was widely believed that the NSCN(IM) engineered the attacks on Kukis as a form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ to drive them out of the hill districts to strengthen the ‘greater Nagaland’ demand—and have decided to launch joint agitations to oppose the bills.
These agitations by the tribals will invariably involve blocking the national highways that are the lifelines for Imphal Valley. As was the case with similar such blockades in the past by the Nagas, the residents of Imphal Valley will suffer a lot. And that will only sharpen the Meitei-tribal divide.
These agitations and counter-agitations, and the resultant bitterness between the people of this state, will only provide a fertile ground for a major flare-up in Manipur if the Naga Accord makes any provision for the Nagas of Manipur, as it in all probability will. The future is, thus, perilous for Manipur and its people.