What lies behind?

How to misread ethnic violence in Manipur

Northeast is a massive blind spot for most in the country's media and academia

Prashun Bhaumik | New Delhi | 9 May, 2023 | 11:50 PM

The crisis in Manipur that has claimed 60 lives in the past few days is a bitter fight between two ethnic groups – one settled in and around the state capital Imphal valley, and the other in the hills.

The commentary that the violence is the result of tensions between the Hindu Meiteis and the Christian Kukis – note the emphasis on religion – is simply misinformation.

The northeast is a massive blind spot for most in the country’s media and academia. They unknowingly tend to reduce the complexities of the region into a world-view familiar only to themselves.

Since violence broke out on May 4, some churches of the tribals have been destroyed in Imphal valley and temples of the Meiteis have been set on fire in the hills, according to reports. Put two and two together and there it is – Hindus burning churches in Meitei-majority areas, and Christians destroying Meitei places of worship in Kuki-majority hills.

The BJP is in power in Manipur, and it is easy for the party’s critics to allege that the violence is communal.

The nature of the crisis in Manipur that has displaced thousands of people, both Kukis and Meiteis, however, has a lot to do with socio-economics – the rush for government benefits, land and forest resources – and is less about identity and religion. To those at the receiving end of the violence, religion and identity are not even in the picture. The people who have suffered the most in both the communities are the poor.

The army has said approximately 10,000 Kukis from the valley and 9,500 Meiteis from the hills have been internally displaced. Many of them were probably co-existing peacefully until violence flared up.

Most armchair commentaries, unfortunately, have only picked up visuals of churches and temples burning – every Meitei home keeps a tiny space in the south-west corner for their God ‘Sanamahi’ – to authoritatively conclude on social media and even in the mainstream press that the Manipur violence is about the Meitei Hindus chasing away the Christian Kukis, or the Kukis trying to grab Meitei land in the valley.

The Archdiocese of Bangalore in a statement expressed deep concern over what it called the “resurgence of the targeting and persecution of Christians in the peaceful state of Manipur.” “It is distressing to hear that despite having a sizable Christian population in Manipur, the community is being made to feel insecure,” it said.

The Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church in Kerala, however, gave a statement of remarkable equanimity that said, “Violence has resulted in great misery for the ordinary citizens of the state, with loss of life and property… Irrespective of who the aggressors are and who the victims are, we call upon all the communities in Manipur to refrain from acts of violence and disorder.”

To guard against misreading of the violence in Manipur by those in responsible positions is a critical ingredient in bringing peace. Failing to do this will only lend credence to allegations of bias in favour of or against a community.

Attempts to end the quagmire of ethnic violence in Manipur cannot succeed without shining a torchlight at the elephant in the dark room – the insecurity of people over land, money and forest resources.

The Meiteis, who have been historically in the “general” category and live in and around Imphal valley, cannot buy land or settle permanently in the hills.

The Kukis, who are Scheduled Tribes (ST) and live in the hills, however, can buy land in the valley.

A section of the Meiteis claim they are no different from tribals as they were converted to Hinduism in the late 17th century and they still follow their animistic religion ‘Sanamahism’, so they want to be ST.

But the tribals are concerned that the numerically larger and economically stronger Meiteis, if brought under the ST category, would expand out of the valley to the hills and take away their livelihoods. The Meiteis, however, say if they can’t buy land in the hills, why are tribals allowed to own property in the valley? The Meiteis are resentful and suspect their place in the valley will shrink over time.

Meiteis want ST status; Kukis don’t want them to get it. There is no middle path and this is the knot that the government hasn’t been able to untie. It has not proposed a solution yet. At best, banning the tribals from buying land in the valley and stopping the Meiteis from demanding ST category may work as a temporary solution. But this is fraught with legal problems – citizens have the right to live wherever they want in this country, and they can seek help if they feel they are falling behind in socio-economic growth compared with other communities.

Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh also faces questions on why his government did not anticipate the violence when it was publicly known for weeks that the tribals were upset after the Manipur High Court order to see whether Meiteis could be included under ST. Just before the violence broke out in Churachandpur district, 65 km from Imphal, Mr Singh had scheduled the launch of a small sports facility in the tribal-majority area. The venue was set on fire by protesters a day before Mr Singh’s visit.

Another reason for the Manipur flare-up is the state government’s inability to answer the question of how to identify illegal immigrants who have come from Myanmar to escape persecution. Manipur’s neighbour Mizoram has accepted thousands of refugees from Myanmar’s Chin State owing to close ethnic and family ties. The Meiteis allege many illegal immigrants have settled in the hills of Manipur and have embedded themselves with local tribes and it is they who are the tip of the spear of the protest by Kukis.

The tribals, however, say the problem of illegal immigrants is a work of fiction created by the state government to justify what will follow – the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Manipur’s BJP government has announced it is ready to conduct the NRC exercise, similar to the one that was carried out in Assam, another BJP-ruled state where illegal immigrants from Bangladesh is a big issue. The Kukis suspect the Manipur NRC plan is an excuse to formally exclude them. The Assam NRC, too, was not without problems. It was riddled with devastating inconsistencies like the wrong identification of Indians as foreigners, many of whom went to the courts and the foreigners’ tribunals.

The last point of friction between the Meiteis and the Kukis is the state government’s anti-encroachment drive in the hills, which the government wants to declare as reserved or protected forest. Many tribals grow marijuana openly in the hills. The state government in 2019 announced it planned to legalise marijuana cultivation for industrial and medicinal use. Again, add two plus two, and the suspicion among the tribals is that the government wants to take over the trade once it is legalised.

A possible solution to the Meitei-Kuki stand-off is to agree to the tribals’ demand for inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which empowers designated tribal areas as autonomous entities. There is no Sixth Schedule in Manipur, unlike in the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Right now the protesting Kukis have no homeland. The mind will never be at ease without a homeland. The Kukis – seen to be nomadic – also fought with the Nagas in the early 90s after the Nagas accused them of encroaching on their land. Many from both tribes were killed in this conflict.

If the Sixth Schedule comes to Manipur, the next natural step would be to grant ST category to the Meiteis since the tribals have their autonomous region to govern on their own.

This solution, however, depends on whether local politics are amenable to peace, which is why it is all the more important for communities – tribals and non-tribals – to work together with a calm mind and guard against any larger conspiracies that try to divide them.

It is no surprise that these problems in Manipur are directly linked to livelihoods and land. What is surprising is that the commentaries on Manipur have gone communal.

Courtesy NDTV