From Tribal Agitation to Civil War: The Unfolding Crisis in Manipur’s Meitei-Kuki Conflict

On 3rd May, a large-scale violence broke out in India’s northeastern state of Manipur during a tribal agitation, which took the world by surprise. According to the latest media reports, as of Saturday 6th May 2023, 20,000 civilians have been rescued and taken to safety under the protection provided by the army.

Clashes broke out between the Meitei and the Kuki community, which later turned into a civil war like situation. According to the state’s security adviser Kuldiep Singh, at least 18 to 21 people have been killed as of Friday 12th May 2023 and around 500 houses were burnt—this is the first official confirmation of casualties coming from the northeastern state.

On Wednesday, 3rd May, the All Tribal Students Union (ATSUM) called for “Tribal Solidarity March” in Torbung area of Manipur’s Churachanpur district, to protest against the demand of Meitei community for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.

Meitei’s represents 53% of the population in the state, making it the majority ethnic group, while Kuki and Naga community together hold 41% of state’s population.

On Thursday 4th May, the Central government imposed Article 355 to control the situation and bring back law and order at place. According to the officials, the situation came under control in Manipur after the Indian Army and the Assam Riffle personnel were deployed in several affected districts.  

How the violence unfolded in the region

Amit Kumar Singh, who works as PRO with one of the representative MLA in Imphal, narrated the afternoon of Wednesday when clashes took place between the two communities.

“On the afternoon of the Wednesday rally, they (Kuki people) started attacking and burning down the Meitei people in Churuchadpur” which is majorly dominated by the Kuki tribe, said Amit.

“They (Kuki people) even killed innocent people. Then they started spreading those disturbing videos on social media like Facebook. At that time, Meitei people started attacking Kuki people, who were settled in Imphal area and in neighboring districts of Imphal and other valley districts,” said Amit.

On the other hand, DJ Haokip, the Secretary of Kuki Student Organisation (KSO) Churanchandpur, while speaking to SSZee Media, had another version to tell. He said that the Wednesday rally organized by ATSUM was peaceful, where more than lakhs of people participated and the rally ended by 2 pm.

Haokip, who was present with the people at the rally, described the events of violence, saying, “When the rally people were on their way back to their respective places, the goons (Meitie people) clashed with people at the district boundaries and burned the war gate, which is commemoration of Anglo Kuki War”.

Though the mob couldn’t destroy much of the gate but the activity hurt the sentiment of Kuki people. And later the mob started beating up Kuki people at the district boundary, said the secretary of KSO.

He also accused the Delhi-based news outlets of discrimination and making all sorts of wrong accusations by calling the Kuki people, Myanmaris and Burmese.

“Though later TV and media apologized but it had hurt the sentiments of people. That way it escalated because it is very hard for us to control the mob,” said KSO secretary.  

Haokip, who lost his cousin in the violence, expressed his grief of losing many people from his clan alongside his brother. The lack of information on the whereabouts of his body has him in grave concerns. He is hopeful that one day he can complete his funeral ceremony and his cousin will be at peace.

Simon, who also witnessed the violence said on Friday that “Meities first started burning the churches”. A lot of people have lost their lives but it is hard to mention any number, he added.

He further informed, “Thousands of tribals in Imphal took refuge in paramilitary camps with little or no army presence, while burning of tribal houses and worship places were still taking place”.

Amit on contrary informed that Kuki people were participating in the agitation and using AK rifles and automotive weapons against Meitei community.

When asked about burning Churches, Amit said with a deep sigh that “some churches have been burn down by the Meitei community because of the sentiment as you know we have seen so many Meitei people have brutally killed by Kuki people, showcasing in social media,”

He further clarified that Meitei people are peace loving people and don’t want to fight with any of the community who are settled in Manipur. But, he explained the reason behind this aggression, saying, “After seeing all those things on social media, the sentiment of the people was hurt and cannot be controlled. So that’s why we burn down some of their Churches and even properties. It is a movement. Everything is fair in war no…and it is a civil war really happening in Manipur,”

He further added that “all the Kuki’s are militant. They are only taking advantage of SoO with government of India”.

However, according reports, the Manipur government withdrew the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement on 10th March, 2023 with two militant groups—Kuki National Army (KNA) and Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA)—alleging their involvement in inciting agitation among forest encroachers.

The SoO agreement was signed in 2008 as a ceasefire agreement between the Indian government and various Kuki militant groups operating in the northeastern states of Manipur and Nagaland.

On the other hand, Haokip informed that after the violence escalated the leaders talked to the SP of Churachandpur to diffuse the situation. “Our negotiation was that we will draw back our people and you drew back yours and gradually move back to our respective district. However we thought that police is taking control so, we all the leaders came back thinking it would be peaceful one. But these people did not dispersed,” he said.  

“We got information that commando (referring to state force) are here already to pacify the situation, but at our surprise what happened that behind the commando there was a Meitei mob, they started burning down. The commando cleared the ground and the mod started burning down,” he narrated.

KSO secretary further claimed that “more than 1000 Meitei people captured and manhandled the Pangai Training centre in Imphal. They took all guns from the training centre and that very gun was used to attack Kuki people”. He raised question that “how can mob manhandled people there and took guns?”. 

Each side seems to have their own version to tell about the violence that occurred on Wednesday; the chilling videos of burning churches, villages and properties—which went viral on social media—made us all question about the real reason behind the violence.

The core reason behind the fierce clashes between Meitei and Kuki community

On April 19th the High Court of Manipur directed the state government to submit its recommendation for the inclusion of Meitei community in the ST list to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs and to consider the case within four weeks—that’s what became the flashpoint of the conflict.

The state of Manipur is divided into two geographies—hill area and valley area. Valley is inhabited by the historical Manipuri’s or Meitei’s and hill is inhabited by the Nagas and Kuki’s tribe.

While Meitei community is fighting for the ST status for two decades now; maintaining that the tribal status of Meitei’s existed before September 1949, before signing of the Merger Agreement of Manipur into the Indian Union. However the tribal people believe that the inclusion of Meitei people will lead to land conflicts in the hill areas. Meitei’s claimed that they want their tribal identity back, to ‘preserve the community and save the ancestral their land, tradition, culture and language’.

Currently, outsiders including Meitei—as they come under general category—cannot buy land in hill areas of Manipur.

Dr. A.C. Kharingpam, a scholar and assistant professor of a Central University, spoke to SSZee Media about the deep-rooted issues between Kuki and Meitei community. He said that the reason behind not allowing outsider to buy land in hill area is “to protect the tribal people from the encroachment of the general people”.

Dr Kharingpam explained that the Manipuri’s resentment is that tribal people can come to the valley/town and buy land here but Manipuri cannot do the same in hills. The tribe argues that Meitei community is already the majority with more facilities and development. The community is more affluent and educated, and also politically powerful with greater representation in the state assembly.

Tribals fear that if Meitei community is given the ST status, they will gradually remove the restriction of not allowing the general people to buy land in hill area, which will lead to gentrification, alongside loss of job and other essential opportunities.

Eviction drive by the State government of Manipur

Since February Manipur has witnessed many small scale protests after the BJP-led state government launched the eviction drive, which was largely considered to be targeting a particular tribal group.

DJ Haokip, said that from past two-three months, “there was a lot of tension in Manipur state because the state government issued an order without the consultation of indigenous people, including Kuki community”. “They are evicting our people from their own land which has been occupied by our forefathers for generations, saying it is protected forest lands. So, the tribal people came forward to show the resentment and procedural failure in the system”, he said.  

“They (state government) haven’t consulted anything and bypassed all of them and issued the order. In Manipur, there is a system that everything and everything related to hills have to be consulted with the Hill Area Committee (HAC), which comes under the legislature,” said Haokip. He added that even the “HAC has put up the resentment paper questioning the government that why is this happening when we have given constitutional rights”.

HCA is empowered by the Indian Constitution to monitor the Law making and administration of hill areas. The council represents both Naga and Kuki community.

When the election drive began, many of the village’s individuals could not produce paper as they live under hill rules and they became illegal or refugees.

According to the hill rules, only the village chief is the official land owner, who owns the entire village. “Tribals have their own way of living. The chief is recognized as only legal land owners. So, individuals, actually legally do not own any land. So when, government evicted these people by saying that documents were not found as they were unable to produce land papers. It hurts the sentiment of Kuki’s and tribal people,” said Dr Kharingpam.

However, another angle to the issues is the emergence of illegal migrants from Myanmar, who are ethnically related to the Kuki-Zomi people of Manipur.

Amit Kumar Singh said, “Kuki people, specially those are settled in Chruchandpur are mostly from Myanmar.”

Amit explained the tribals’ anger with the government as it is trying to evict the illegal settlers, who migrated because of Junta and settled down in Chruchandpur in protected reserved forest area adding that “poppy cultivation is also going on in a very vast area in Chruchandpur”.

“The Kuki people are very angry with the State government because of two things—eviction drive and action to stop poppy plantation,” he said.

Dr Kharingpam also pointed out at falling population rate of Manipuris/Meitei’s and rapidly increasing population growth of Kuki tribe. 

The illegal migrant or refugee angel

A day before the violence broke out in Manipur, the Chief Minister of the state N Biren Singh said that the “state is facing the threat of large scale illegal immigration from Myanmar”, while speaking to media after launching facial recognition cameras at the state secretariat on 2nd May.

In March this year, several Manipuri organizations held a demonstration in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, asking for NRC implementation in the state as they claimed that Manipur was “witnessing a sudden population surge with a growth rate of 24.5 per cent, against the national average of 17.64 per cent,” according to media reports.

Pointing out the population growth, Amit Kumar Singh said, “some of the Kuki people are indigenous people but others are not. We don’t want them to settle down in Manipur. But they (not indigenous Kuki’s) are trying their best to settle down in Manipur and to evict Meitei people who are settling in Chruchandpur”.  

Talking from his personal experience, Dr Kharingpam said, “In the last 20 years, a lot has changed in the region; many Kuki’s have migrated from Myanmar. This is why there population has increased rapidly”. 

He referred to his recent visit to Manipur, said, “This time, when I went home in hill town of Manipur, on my way, I saw that many more Kuki hamlets have been established compared to last 10 years. Earlier it was 1-2 Kuki’s Hamlet”.

The Complex demographic pattern of Manipur

Manipur land is divided in majorly two part—Imphal valley and hill districts. There are 16 districts in the state with 60 constituencies, out of which 40 are in the valley and 20 in the hills. Around 20 lakh voters of the population of 28 people live in Imphal valley.

The overall land area of the state is projected at 22,327 square km of which State’s Recorded Forest Area (RFA) is 17,418 sq km, which is divided as 1,467 sq km is Reserved Forest, 4,171 sq km is Protected Forest and 11,780 sq km is Unclassified Forests.

But, interestingly, As far as the land is concerned, Imphal valley consists only one-ninth portion of the entire land and the hill areas have the rest of the entire land with fewer populations in number.

Even though Manipur is home for more than 35 tribes, mostly Naga and Kuki, and Meitei community in Valley, majorly resides in Imphal valley—the state has a very complex demographic structure which make the issues of these communities more layered in nature and overlapping with each other. 

Besides losing its claimed rights over the land, Manipuri people are also afraid of losing its cultural status as they believe the rapid population growth of Kuki people due to illegal settlement will make them stronger in numbers in future.

Meitei people are concerned about tribal population’s rapid growth in the state, explained Dr. Kharingpam. “So, they are worried of demographic replacements soon to be happened in another 30 years. Then Manipuri cannot manipulate tribal because they are leaving their village and coming to the town and their population is also rapidly increasing,” he said.  

He also noted the language conflict among the tribes. “The old Kuki people would speak to us in Manipuri language but now no one speak Manipuri. That language barrier has alarmed Meitei community,” he added.

The cultural difference between Meitei and Kuki community

Though both the communities have been living together for decades but their livelihood patterns are unlike in nature. Indicating at the increasing population of Kuki tribe, Dr. Kharingpam said that number of houses has been increasing in Kuki villages in recent times. “Kuki people have started building houses, like earlier there used to be 50 houses in a village but now there are 200 houses, which irked Meitei’s because these new landlords also do not speak Manipuri language,” he said.

According to the academic scholar, when concerned to land practices, Nagas and Meitei community share common culture as they have very ‘strong sense of belonging with their respective villages’.

“Naga’s and Meitei’s have shared culture of not leaving their villages. They do not particularly migrate to another city leaving their native places. They might go out in different cities but they never physiologically and emotionally settle down there. But on the other hand, this culture is not shared by the Kuki tribe,” he said.  “Therefore, the Kuki’s have their own sense of land which is different from Meitei’s—this plays huge role in fueling the fear in Manipuri’s,” he added.

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