Whose fight is it anyway? An attempt to understand Manipur unrest

A bloody street battle between the Meitei and Kukis saw the mask of peace being ripped apart from the face of this northeastern state. 
Did we vote for this? May 3, 2022: Voters holding ID cards stand in queues to cast their votes for the second phase of Manipur Assembly elections, in Senapati. (File Photo | PTI)
Did we vote for this? May 3, 2022: Voters holding ID cards stand in queues to cast their votes for the second phase of Manipur Assembly elections, in Senapati. (File Photo | PTI)

Manipur is struggling to lay to rest the unrest which erupted last week.

A bloody street battle between the Meitei community and Kukis saw the mask of peace being ripped apart from the face of this northeastern state which has had a long history of mutual suspicion between ethnic groups in Imphal Valley and its surrounding hills.

The ethnic violence that erupted on May 3 has claimed over 50 lives. Indian Army and Assam rifles have rescued 23,000 people. The curfew was relaxed on Sunday. Earlier, among the measures to curb the violence from spreading, the government had banned mobile internet service. Further, a shoot-at-sight order was imposed. 

What unfolded since May 3 has left the residents across ethnic, religious, and political divides unnerved. 

The Beginning

On April 27, an open-air gym facility in New Lamka was set on fire by a mob, a day ahead of its scheduled inauguration by Chief Minister N Biren Singh. A public meeting venue closer to the sports complex was also vandalized. That spark of a protest by the Kuki-Chin tribals was followed by a call for an eight-hour total shutdown by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF). The All Tribal Students Union of Manipur (ATSUM) followed this up with a Tribal Solidarity March on May 3. It was the day when the spark turned into a full-blown fire.

The Reason

The first round of Kuki protests and shutdown calls were in response to the BJP-led government's move to evict tribal villagers from areas declared as protected/reserved forests. The Kukis fear the government's decision would lead to their displacement. Various Kuki outfits have prevented officials from carrying out surveys as they demanded resettlement, rehabilitation and compensation for residents who are likely to be displaced.

The eviction notices issued in K Songjang village in February led to running battles between law enforcement agencies, residents and stone-pelters. Churachandpur District was s a flashpoint.

An April 19 High Court order asking the state government to consider the case of inclusion of Meetei/Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list, "expeditiously, preferably within a period of four weeks,” got the tribals' goat. The Meitei community has been lobbying for ST status since at least 2012. The request centers around Meiteis being categorized as a tribe during the princely state’s original merger into the Union of India. This is seen as a significant demand for Meiteis, as tribals can purchase land in both the hills and Imphal Valley, whereas Meiteis are not allowed to purchase land in the hilly tribal areas.  

March 3

The expectation was that the ATSUM march would pass off peacefully. But hopes were bullied as images and videos of the march revealed armed men participating in full battle kits including weapons, helmets, plate carriers, and communication systems. It was the day when Manipur burnt. The scalding scars would take time to heal.

The government’s measures to end the ongoing violence continue. Initially, tear gas and flag marches in key hotspots were deployed to quiet things and perhaps to briefly allow Meiteis and Kukis alike to flee to their more protected enclaves. Operating under both Article 355 and Section 144, military personnel continue to rush to Manipur.

Both Meiteis and Kukis are claiming that the government is showing favoritism to the opposing side. Meitei's point to curfews and restrictions being deployed in Meitei-dominated Imphal first, despite relative calm compared to Churachandpur. The tribes, on the other hand, point to the ongoing land disputes and that Meitei MLAs have a majority. 

As for carrying firearms and private licensed weapons, enforcement is quite strict in Imphal Valley, with Meitei people largely complying. This means that many, if not most, leikais (Meitei residential communities) have been unarmed during the conflict. Local police and government officials have been largely unresponsive to immediately returning weapons to their owners. 

Tribal groups largely rejected the call to deposit their licensed firearms. It is alleged that due to large-scale poppy cultivation in the hills and the illegal settlement of Kuki-Chin refugees from Myanmar, large caches of unregistered firearms can be found throughout the hill areas. This was furthered by the looting of Churachandpur Gun House. 

What the conflict isn’t 

If looking for an easy, singular answer to what is dividing Manipur, political party and religious lines often rise to the top of the discussion. However, these are woefully incomplete concepts. 

Looking towards party lines, Manipur enjoys a double-engine government, with Chief Minister N Biren Singh being a member of the BJP since 2016. However, within Manipur, the situation is much more nuanced as MLAs represent a mix of both urban and rural as well as Meitei, Kuki, and Naga voters. This is evidenced by some individual Manipuri MLAs supporting the call for ST notification while others are seen approaching the Supreme Court to reverse the recent High Court order. 

Both Hindu temples and Christian churches have burned during the ongoing unrest. However, viewing this as a religious divide is futile. While the majority of Meiteis are Hindu, there are also significant populations which are Sanamahi (the Meitei ancestral religion), Christian and Muslim. When asked what she thought of when seeing the unrest as a religious divide, a Christian Meitei responded “Who told you that? You are being lied to. This is not some religious war. My own family is Meitei Christians. We even protected the {Hindu} temple when a mob came to destroy.” 

Extending this thought even further, even the core Meitei - Kuki divide is not strict. And viewing it as so is tearing families apart. An example of this would be the case of one Manipuri in Churachandpur who the author spoke to. Running a small shop alongside his Kuki wife, he initially hoped, as a mixed family, they would be insulated from the violence. That changed when his shop was burned down by protestors. Forced to flee under the protection of commandos and darkness, he and his kids managed to escape to Imphal. However, his wife stayed beyond as she had concerns for her own safety within the city. 

Taking a wider view 

Manipur was riding fairly high before the current situation unraveled things. During February’s B20 meet in Imphal, Biren Singh revealed at least $500M in investments had been pledged. Femini Miss India World 2023, held in Imphal, was a success. In addition to a great event, it was an opportunity for Manipur designers to showcase the unique styles of Meiteis and tribes alike.

Earlier in February, a Sunny Leone visit and fashion show were canceled due to a grenade attack on the venue. However, no one was injured.  

The unrest has deflated the high spirits if there was any.

Now, calls for revenge attacks are widespread across social media platforms. One interesting theme is a palpable sense of resentment amongst Meiteis as they feel betrayed by Kuki violence. In the 1990s, during clashes over land, Naga Militants massacred hundred of Kuki civilians in the hills of Manipur. At the time Meitei people gave refuge to Kukis. 

A Chennai-based Imphal native recalled that bloody period by recalling (subtly put) how Meitei people saved the Kukis from the hands of Naga militants. "Now the same people are targetting us for helping them then."

Another complexity is the diverse makeup of tribals in Manipur compared to the fairly homogeneous nature of the Meitei population. The Kuki-Chin population, on the other hand, represents a mix of 50+ indigenous (spanning several Northeastern states and Myanmar) tribes. The Myanmar connection is of particular concern for Manipuris and the government alike, as instability in Myanmar continues to lead to an influx of genuine refugees, illegally immigrating families, and narcos looking to increase poppy cultivation in the rural hill areas. This has led to Meiteis pushing for the implementation of the National Register of Citizens in the state, which Kukis are opposed to. 

Finally, the drugs. The war on illegal poppy cultivation, processing, and sales continues to quicken in Manipur. Meiteis, Kukis, and Nagas alike are fearful of losing the next generation to opiate-derived drugs. Biren Singh who has pledged to completely eradicate poppy cultivation in the state has taken meaningful measures towards doing so. Officially, hill groups support the poppy eradication initiatives, but it is clear that the poppy growers are given shelter and privacy in many of the hill areas. 

What Manipur ultimately needs are hands to nurse the wounds, not politics of adding fuel to the fire.

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