Manipur Violence: Complex Tangle of Ethnic Conflict, Illegal Immigration, and Insurgency Amid Meitei Community's ST Demand

Curfew is imposed in some districts, mobile- internet services have been suspended throughout the state for five days. This measure has also disrupted vital supplies, including food and medicine.
Manipur Violence: Complex Tangle of Ethnic Conflict, Illegal Immigration, and Insurgency Amid Meitei Community's ST Demand

Manipur is in a state of pandemonium, armed with violence and curfews implemented as a consequence of a past massive gathering that eventually heightened into a combative confrontation a day ago.

During the early hours of Thursday, distinguished female pugilist, Mary Kom, took to social media to implore Prime Minister Narendra Modi to extend a helping hand. Her tweet read, "My state  Manipur is burning. Please help". 

Mary Kom had also tagged Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister's Office, Home Minister Amit Shah, and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh in her plea, along with a series of photographs exhibiting the prevailing anarchy that has gripped Manipur.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi too said , in a tweet , "Deeply concerned about Manipur’s rapidly deteriorating law and order situation. The Prime Minister must focus on restoring peace and normalcy. I urge the people of Manipur to stay calm". 

The violent clash

The All Tribal Students' Union Manipur (ATSUM) organized the rally as a show of solidarity against the demand for the Meitei community's inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category, following an April 19 ruling from the Manipur High Court. This decree has reignited age-old ethnic conflicts between the plain-dwelling Meitei community and the hill tribes.

During Wednesday's rally in Churachandpur district, the demonstrators clashed with a group of individuals, leading to violent unrest. Subsequently, unidentified perpetrators set fire to houses belonging to a specific group, although there are no official accounts of any fatalities. The situation remains tense, but the police and security forces are maintaining caution.

Following the rally, sparse instances of violence cropped up in several regions of Manipur, including Imphal, the capital city. Allegedly, homes belonging to tribal residents were attacked, and the police had to resort to tear gas shelling in most areas of Imphal until late into the night. 

Some churches were torched. Consequently, the Manipur government imposed curfew in most districts and suspended mobile internet services throughout the entire state for five days, effective immediately from Tuesday. This measure has also disrupted vital supplies, including food and medicine.

The ATSUM protest march took place in all hill districts, including Senapati, Ukhrul, Kangpokpi, Tamenglong, Churachandpur, Chandel and Tengnoupal. It operated under the banner, "Come Now Let Us Reason Together", displaying slogans such as, "Meiteis already enjoy SC, OBC, and EBC reservations," "Meiteis are not tribals, they are SC, OBC & Brahmin," "No protection for our land if Meiteis become ST," "Tribals of Manipur unite," and "We want 6th Schedule for our survival, No 6th Schedule no rest."

The demand for the Meitei community's inclusion in the ST category has unraveled ethnic fault lines in the state. The Meitei constitute around 60% of the population, clustered in the valley districts, while the hill districts are mainly inhabited by tribal communities.

If included in the ST category, the Meitei people would be entitled to reservations and benefits intended for scheduled tribes. This has caused a stir, with some hill tribes like Nagas and Kukis opposing the move, citing cultural, historical, and economic differences.

They also asserted that Meiteis are already availing benefits of the Economically Weaker Section quota, with certain members even possessing Scheduled Caste status.

Cross allegations

The Meitei people have leveled allegations of violence against the Kukis, and vice versa. Both sides feel dispirited and disillusioned, with conjecture appearing to trump concrete information. While the general narrative centers around violence and the prevailing law and order situation, it's vital to acknowledge that the center of the predicament stems from elsewhere.

Manipur has been one of the most unsettled states in the North East for years. The state accounts for 47% of the violence related to insurgency in the region and is trapped in an endless loop of insurgency, ethnic conflict, and intra-state estrangement.

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Also, the state's economy has not progressed as anticipated in recent years. The primary reason for the lack of progress in the state is the persistence of the hill-valley divide. Periodic economic blockades instigated by nearly all the ethnic groups, as well as the parallel economy run by the insurgents, have further worsened the situation.

The High Court directive

The Manipur High Court's recent order to recommend the inclusion of the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list has intensified long-term ethnic frictions between the two opposing factions. 

The order came after the Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union submitted a petition , requesting a recommendation to be made to the Union Ministry for Tribal Affairs for the community's inclusion in the ST list of the Constitution as a "tribe among tribes in Manipur." The petitioner claimed that the Meitei community was classified as a tribe before the unification of the princely state of Manipur with the Union of India in 1949. They argued that the demand for ST status was for the preservation of the Meitei community's ancestral land, tradition, culture, and language.

The government was directed by the court to make its recommendation after examining the petitioners' case, "preferably within four weeks" after receipt of the order. For years, the petitioners have been advocating for the Meitei community's inclusion in the ST list.

The call for the Meitei community's ST status has been a topic of discussion, with some tribes against it, citing cultural, historical, and economic differences. The hill tribes of Manipur have been apprehensive of the Meitei community's inclusion in the ST list, as it would make them eligible for reservations and benefits intended for scheduled tribes.

The United Naga Council, Manipur (UNC) and the Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM) have expressed significant misgivings towards the Court's order stating that "the Meitei community of Manipur is an advanced community of India," primarily due to the incorporation of their language, Manipuri (Meiteilon), in the Indian constitution's Eight Schedule. Moreover, the timing of political events has raised concerns of administrative division.

The ATSUM stand

The Meitei community demand  to obtain Scheduled Tribe (ST) status garnered strong resistance from the All Tribal Students' Union Manipur (ATSUM). ATSUM contends that granting ST status to an economically and socially advanced community  would defeat the constitutional objective of assigning ST classification for protective discrimination. 

Furthermore, ATSUM believes that fulfilling the Meitei's demand for ST status would unfavorably impact the rights and interests of traditionally marginalized and underprivileged tribal groups, constituting approximately 40% of Manipur's population. These tribes have called for the implementation of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, an act that offers increased independence and safeguards for tribal land, language, and culture.

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Therefore, ATSUM is urging the state government to avoid proposing Meitei's demand for ST status and instead address the concerns of the tribal community.

It's worth mentioning that the demand for ST status by the Meitei community has been a controversial issue, receiving strong opposition from the 34 established tribes of Manipur, categorized as "Any Kuki Tribes" and "Any Naga Tribes." The demand for ST inclusion by Meiti community has been prevalent for almost twelve years now.

The divides between the hills & valley

The fissure between the hills and the valley in Manipur is distinct. The central valley represents the Meitei and Meitei Pangals, constituting approximately 64.6% of the state's population. The rest of the state's 90% geographical area comprises hills, the abode of the recognized tribes that make up about 35.4% of the population.

The geography of the state, including the safeguards extended to the hill regions and the prohibition of land purchases there, has been fundamental to the apprehensions voiced by those opposing the demand.

The Hill tribes groups in Manipur oppose the demand citing the dominant position of the Meitei community in the state. The Meiteis account for 60% of the state's population and have 40 out of the 60 Assembly constituencies in the Valley. Additionally, the relative economic advancement of the Meitei community has also been identified as a reason for opposition by the hill tribes groups.

On the other hand, Luwanngcha U Ngakheingakpa, Secretary-General of  the Kangleipak Kanba Lup, states that the Meitei community's request for ST status is to protect their meagre land holdings, which amount to less than 2,000 square kilometers of the state's total 20,000 square kilometres.

Yambem Laba, who advises the Scheduled Tribes Demand Committee, leading the push for the demand since 2012, argues that the Meitei kings once dominated from the Chindwin river in Myanmar to the Surma river in present-day Bangladesh. However, upon joining India, the Meiteis were restricted to a nominal 9% of the state's entire geographical area. The outlook for the Meitei community is bleak, as they are unable to settle in the remaining 90% of the state's area, which are lands belonging to various scheduled tribes of Manipur, while the opposite does not hold.

The Interwoven Issues: ST Demand, Illegal Immigration, and Militant Involvement

According to some of the social right activists,  the recent events in Manipur involve two intertwined issues: ST demand by the Meiteis and illegal immigration along with deforestation. 

Speaking to The Mooknayak, an RTI activist Amarjit Ukmabam said, "Illegal immigrants have been violating Article-51 A for 2-3 decades, engaging in mass deforestation and poppy cultivation. Certain sections of indigenous Kukis have sided with the illegal immigrants, making the situation complicated. As a result, the Indian citizens of Manipur, including Nagas and Meiteis, are losing their lands and resources to these illegal immigrants".  

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The state government has been acting to address the issue and halt the deforestation, poppy plantation, and drug proliferation, but some groups oppose these actions and use drug money to engage in deleterious activities, blaming the Meitei community. 

Vinay Ayekpam a social activist told The Mooknayak "The situation became complicated when Kuki militants got involved, using AK47s and Kuki civilians as human shields to carry out violent attacks on Meitei houses and properties. These militants are oddly already under the agreement "Suspension of Operation" with State and Central Govt. and at designated camps. It is surprising that these militants came out with guns and disrupted the peace of the region, which is presently a very grim situation."

N Biren Singh, the Chief Minister of Manipur, who hails from Meiti community himself, too had, in the recent past, taken to social media to discuss the government's efforts to protect the state. The government has launched a green Manipur campaign to promote fruit and vegetable farming, protect occupied reserve forest lands, and destroy hidden poppy fields as part of a drive against narcotics.

The Chief Minister had also shared pictures of two arrested drug peddlers and accused them of destroying natural forests to plant poppy and fueling communal issues to profit from their drug smuggling business.

The WMC memorandum to PM

The World Meetei Council (WMC) in November 2022,  submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, alleging that the All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) has been engaging in extremely inflammatory activities and has demanded the removal of immigrant Chin-Kuki peoples from the list of Scheduled Tribes (ST) in Manipur. 

The WMC accused the union of spreading falsehoods in New Delhi by misrepresenting and distorting the demand of the Meetei people to be included in the list of STs in the Indian Constitution. According to the memorandum, the Meeteis should be included in the ST list to protect themselves from total annihilation. WMC stated that the Meeteis are the aboriginal people of Manipur, along with the Nagas.

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The WMC stated that the Meeteis are formed by seven clans or seven prominent families known as Salai Taret. However, because the Meeteis converted to Hinduism in the 18th century, they were classified as Aryans, and not as a Scheduled Tribe.

The WMC claims that this was the sole reason why the Meeteis were considered as general caste. Notably, the memorandum observed that the elders of the Meetei community were also proud to be identified as Aryans and did not identify themselves as aboriginal people, unlike the Nagas.

The WMC statement highlighted that the Meetei people are being unjustly disallowed from living as legitimate citizens in Manipur. They are allowed to reside only in the valley area, which accounts for 9% of Manipur's area. According to the statement, this is a grave injustice to the Meetei people.

The Meeteis are not included in the list of Scheduled Tribes, and 91% of Manipur's land area is protected for the communities that are enlisted in the ST list. The WMC noted that the Meetei people are demanding to be added to the ST list, as they meet all the criteria prescribed by the Lokur Committee. However, the memorandum alleges that a section of the communities enlisted as STs, namely the Chin-Kuki groups, are vehemently opposed to the Meetei's demands.

The Outsiders creating troubles

The Chin-Kuki groups of people migrated from Burma (Myanmar) and were permitted by the Manipur government to settle under the refugee settlement policy on humanitarian grounds. The WMC, however, claims that when they settled in Manipur, they became troublemakers, even working to carve out an independent homeland called Zalengam. The WMC noted that the unrestrained communal activities of these Chin-Kuki groups could lead to severe unwanted situations in Manipur and the northeast.

WMC emphasized that the law of the land is clear, and that migrants and their children cannot become Scheduled Tribes in India, particularly in Manipur. STs in India are the aboriginal inhabitants of the land who are generally known as indigenous people.

According to the WMC, the Chin-Kuki people still live in their homelands in the Chin State in Burma. The WMC notes that they also claim to be Jewish people, and the Israeli government has accepted them, resulting in some of them migrating to Israel and settling there. The WMC submitted the memorandum to the Indian Prime Minister and furnished copies to the Union minister of tribal affairs, the Union Minister of law, and the Chief Minister of Manipur, requesting them to take necessary action.

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