India: Ethnic Ferment In Manipur – Analysis


By Ajit Kumar Singh*

Ethnic clashes erupted between Kukis and Meitei/Meetei on May 3, 2023, in Churachandpur District and spread rapidly across the state. Kuldeep Singh, security advisor, Manipur Government, stated on May 7, 2023, “37 casualties happened and agencies are reporting some more deaths, we are still verifying. Till now, 134 arms have been recovered from the looted arms. The current situation in Manipur has improved quite a lot. Today curfew was also relaxed. Some areas of Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, and Moreh are still under tension. Peace meetings were held.”

Varying media reports, however, have put the death count anywhere between 50 to more than a hundred.

Earlier, on May 6, 2023, denying media reports, Kuldeep Singh asserted that there had been no promulgation of Article 355 (direct control of the state by the Union Government) in Manipur and “confusion had been created by certain elements”. He added that action would be taken up against all those who had taken the law into their hands, including groups that were under Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreements. He disclosed that as many as 54 companies of the Central Armed Police Force had been deployed to ensure public safety in the state, of which 15 companies were deployed in the periphery areas, including the foothills and tracks. A regular watch with drones and helicopters was also being maintained.

The Army, meanwhile, issued a statement:

The past 24 hours also witnessed Army significantly enhancing surveillance efforts through aerial surveillance, movement of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and redeployment of army helicopters within Imphal Valley. A total of 23,000 civilians have been rescued till now and moved to own military garrisons. Ray of hope due to efforts of 120-125 Army and Assam Rifles columns who are working tirelessly for past 96 hours to rescue civilians across all communities, curb violence and restore normalcy has emerged with no major violence being reported and curfew, therefore being relaxed from 7-10 am today [May 7] in Churachandpur followed by flag march by Security Forces immediately thereafter.

Earlier, on May 4, 2023, the Governor of Manipur was forced to give the nod to ‘shoot at sight’ orders. The official order said, 

In view of the prevailing law and order situation, following the unwanted incidents that occurred at the Tribal Solidarity March 2023 held on 03-05-2023 and in order to maintain public order and tranquillity in the State, the Governor of Manipur is pleased to authorize all District Magistrates, Sub- Divisional Magistrates and all Executive Magistrates/Special Executive Magistrates detailed by the District Magistrates concerned to issue Shoot at sight orders in extreme cases whereby all forms of persuasion, warning, reasonable force, etc. had been exhausted under the provisions of law under CrPC, 1973 and the situation could not be controlled.

While the scale of the pandemonium that the state went through has now subsided, there are now strong apprehensions that marginalized insurgent groups will exploit the current situation to resurrect the dying armed movements in the state. 

The ethnic divide between the Meiteis, who primarily inhabit the Valley Districts and constitute more than 50 per cent of the population, and Kukis residing in the Hills, is age-old. The divide, however, started widening after the Meiteis raised the demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) almost 10 years ago. The Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur (STDCM) was spearheading the movement. Significantly, following the STDCM representation on May 29, 2013, demanding ST status for the Meitei, a letter was sent by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, to the Manipur Government. It requested specific recommendations, along with the latest socio-economic survey and ethnographic report. The state government, however, deliberately failed to submit the recommendation even after 10 years. The Meitei ST status demand was based on the argument that the Meitei community had tribal status before September 21, 1949, i.e., before the signing the Merger Agreement with the Union of India (UOI). It also argued that Meitei had lost their identity as a tribe and should consequently be included among the tribes of Manipur so as to preserve the community, and save their ancestral lands, traditions, culture and language. 

As the Governments of the day continued to ignore, several members of the Meitei Tribe Union filed a civil writ petition in Manipur High Court (HC) on January 30, 2023. The HC in its order on March 27, 2023, noted that “no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming from the side of the respondent State for not submitting the recommendation for the last 10 years”, and directed “the respondent State to submit its recommendation to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs within a reasonable time”. It ordered, further,

The first respondent is directed to submit the recommendation in reply to the letter dated 29.5.2013 [May 29, 2013] of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India…

The first respondent shall consider the case of the petitioners for inclusion of the Meetei/Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list, expeditiously, preferably within a period four weeks from the date of receipt of a copy of this order…

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, is to hear a cluster of petitions related to Meitei ST status and the recent violence. 

The Kukis are vehemently opposing the efforts to give ST status to the Meitei and have put forth various arguments. Those who participated in Tribal Solidarity March under the theme “Come Now Let Us Reason Together” held on May 3, 2023, at the Ukhrul District Headquarters, submitted a memorandum, addressed to the President of India, through the Deputy Commissioner of Ukhrul, which read,

The Hills, constituting more than 90% of the total geographical areas and about 41% of the total population, have been subjugated, marginalized and deprived by the State Government dominated by the majority valley community for decades. The Industrial Unit Index and Infrastructural Unit Index clearly revealed that the tribals of Manipur have been under extreme form of subjugation and domination in their own land. As such, granting of ST status to the Meitei/Meetei community, who have already enjoyed all the benefits of modern amenities, will further annihilate the minority tribal communities who will ultimately be rendered landless in their own homeland since the Meitei/Meetei community will be free to snatch the lands and grab the 31% reservation allocated for the tribals.

The memorandum further read,

Moreover, the tribal communities genuinely feel that a separate political system with full autonomy will be the only way out if we are to protect the weak and marginalized tribal community from the onslaught of the dominant Meitei/Meetei community. Therefore, in the light of the above facts and circumstances, the tribal people of the state called upon your honourable self to help prevent the inclusion of Meitei/Meetei as Scheduled Tribe in the constitution of India. The recognition of Meitei/Meetei as Scheduled Tribe will not only sound a dead knell to the constitution(al) protection of hill tribal communities in the country. It will also be a contempt to the democratic principles of justice and equality, the foundation on which this great country is built upon. As such, this illogical and illegitimate demand should be prevented at all cost

It is quite evident that both sides have their own reservations and fears and the issue needed honest deliberation. However, as expected, given the nature of politics in contemporary India, when the politics of polarization and identity have overwhelmed all other aspects, the issue has been allowed to boil over. 

Indeed, no affirmative action was taken even when there were visible signs of efforts to ignite passion in the aftermath of the recent HC judgment. 

Significantly, in a statement issued on April 27, 2023, the All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur (ATSUM), the apex tribal body in Manipur, announced that it would organise a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ on May 3, 2023, in Manipur’s hill districts — Senapati, Ukhrul, Kangpokpi, Tamenglong, Churachandpur, Chandel and Tengnoupal. The solidarity march themed, Come now, let’s reason together was intended to press against the demand for inclusion of the Meitei/Meetei community in the ST list. 

Despite the sensitivity of the issue, no precautionary measures were taken, and violence erupted during the protest on May 3, 2023, first in Torbung, one of the few Meitei villages in the Churachandpur District, where the Kukis are a majority. As the state administration was found unprepared, the violence spread rapidly across the state.  

The distrust between the tribes (mainly Kukis) and the state government, dominated by the Meitei, has been on the rise since the state government’s drive to evict tribal populations from reserved forests began in February 2023. Following a violent clash that occurred at Thomas Ground in Kangpokpi District, where protesters tried to hold a mass rally against “encroachment of tribal lands in the name of reserved forests, protected forests and wildlife sanctuary” in March 2023, in which five persons were injured, the state cabinet withdrew the SoO talks with two Kuki militant outfits, Kuki National Army and Zomi Revolutionary Army.

Moreover, the adverse impact of the deteriorating security situation in Myanmar since the February 2021 coup, on the security of the Indian states in the northeast, has been highlighted by SAIR earlier. Intelligence reports indicate that nearly 300 cadres of Imphal Valley-based insurgent groups are currently stationed across the India-Myanmar border, and are fighting anti-coup forces on behalf of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army). Once the situation improves in Myanmar, these battle-hardened insurgents could venture into India and create disturbances.

The Security Forces have made tremendous sacrifices to contain a protracted insurgency in Manipur, bringing overall insurgency-linked fatalities down from a peak of 496 in 2008, to a low of seven in 2022. Unless managed with sagacity, the current crisis could draw the state back into chaos again. While the political masters are now trying to douse the flames, significant damage has already been done. It remains to be seen whether the present dispensation at the Centre and in the State will find the necessary political wisdom to restore a sustainable peace to Manipur.

  • Ajit Kumar Singh
    Senior Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

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