Securing Peace In Manipur: The Need To Keep Geopolitics At Bay – Analysis
The presence of ethnic divisions in Manipur, which shares a border with Myanmar, is not a recent development. The on-going increase in violent incidents in Manipur can be traced back to a demand made by the Meitei community over a decade ago. Specifically, they have been advocating for a Scheduled Tribe classification.
The violence that has recently occurred in Manipur can be attributed to a specific event – a directive from the Manipur High Court. The court ordered the state government to recommend to the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry that the community be granted a ST tag by May 29. This order is believed to have directly led to the outbreak of violence. According to the petitioners, the community in question had previously been granted the ST (Scheduled Tribe) tag before Manipur was merged with the Indian Union. They are now advocating for the reinstatement of this status.
Unravelling the Interplay: Violence and Demographic Landscape of Manipur
Despite its small geographical size, Manipur possesses a unique historical background. The Cheitharol Kumpaba, a State Royal chronicle, provides a recorded history of Manipur from 33 AD to 1890 AD. Throughout this era, a total of 74 monarchs governed the State. The initial ruler was Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, who reigned from 33 AD to 154 AD, while the final monarch was Kulachandra. At that time, Manipur was a small sovereign state. In 1891, Manipur was annexed by British India, resulting in the loss of its independence. Commencing in 1892, the territory was established as a royal indigenous jurisdiction subject to the political oversight of the Government of British India. Consequently, the governance of the state was subject to the sway of a political representative through the delegation of all executive authorities to said individual. The period of British India persisted until 1947, at which point India achieved independence.
As per the merger agreement inked on September 21, 1949, between Maharaja Budhachandra, the erstwhile ruler of Manipur, and the Indian government, the state was integrated into India as a constituent of the “C” category on October 15, 1949. The President of India was designated as the administering authority, and a Chief Commissioner was appointed to oversee the state’s governance. On November 1st, 1956, Manipur was reclassified from a “C” state to a Union Territory in accordance with the Union Territorial Council Act of 1956. On January 21st, 1972, Manipur attained the status of a complete state within the Indian Union, with a Governor serving as the Head of the state. Additionally, the number of members in the Legislative Assembly was augmented to 60. On March 20, 1972, the inaugural Ministry gained popularity subsequent to the attainment of statehood.
Ketkar (2023) has argued that the current tense situation in Manipur can be attributed to the colonial construct of a perceived division between the inhabitants of the hills and those of the plains. It is seen that a decolonized approach is necessary to ensure justice for the indigenous Meitei community residing in the Imphal valley. The use of the term “stoking of feuds” implies that external forces may be contributing to the tensions in the region.
The state of Manipur is characterised by the presence of several important ethnic groups such as the Meitei, Naga, and Kuki. The population of the State has grown significantly over the past century, increasing from 0.2 million in 1901 to 2.8 million according to 2011 census. The Meitei people reside in the valley. The text highlights the increasing worry that suspected illegal migrants from across the border are encroaching upon forest areas and other places. The growth of villages in various regions of Manipur suggests the possibility of illegal or undocumented migration and settlement from Myanmar and Bangladesh, potentially through Mizoram. The state of Manipur has a border that spans 398 kilometres with Myanmar. The Indian state of Manipur has four districts, namely Chandel, Tengnoupal, Kamjong, Ukhrul, and Churachandpur, that share a border with Myanmar. The Kuki population in Myanmar decreased from 100,000 in 1947 to 40,000 in 1990. According to historical accounts, a portion of the Kuki community is believed to have relocated to the regions of Manipur and Mizoram. According to a recent study, the Kuki population in Manipur has experienced a significant increase from 1% in 1901 to 29% in 2022. In contrast, the Meitei population has declined from 60% in 1901 to 49% in 2022. The Naga population has experienced a decline from 16% in 1901 to 15% in 2022.
The Kukis were originally nature worshippers, similar to the Nagas, but a majority of them have since converted to Christianity. The British colonial policy resulted in the division of the country. The Kuki people from East Pakistan and later Bangladesh were subject to persecution in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region, leading many to seek refuge in Mizoram. The apprehension that granting Scheduled Tribe status to the Meitei community would affect the interests of the Kuki community was apparently stimulated by recent violence. On March 27, 2023, the Manipur High Court instructed the State Government to evaluate the possibility of adding the Meitei community to the Scheduled Tribe list. The High Court has stated that the State Government is violating the Meitei people’s Right to Equality and Life with Dignity, which is protected by Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. Opponents of the Meitei people’s request for ST status argue that granting them this status would result in their dominance in government jobs due to their advanced education. The Kukis expressed apprehension that the granting of Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meiteis may result in their ability to acquire land in the restricted hilly terrain, thereby causing concern. The Meitei people residing in the state have raised concerns regarding a significant rise in the tribal population. They suspect that this increase cannot be attributed to natural birth alone and may have other underlying factors. The individuals or groups in question have been advocating for the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in their state as a means of identifying and addressing illegal immigration from Myanmar. According to the Kukis, the issue of illegal immigration is being used as a justification by the Meitei population to displace the tribal population from their ancestral lands. This suggests a complex power dynamic between different ethnic groups in the region and raises questions about the motivations behind the Meitei population’s stance on immigration.
The population of Manipur was 2.294 million in 2001. 37.4% of the total population mentioned, which amounts to 0.857 million, were identified as legitimate ST population. The groups mentioned are the Kukis and Nagas. The number of Christians among the tribal population was 0.831 million. The Christian religion was prevalent among 97% of the tribal population. There are currently 25 IAS officers belonging to the Scheduled Tribes category serving in Manipur. The individuals in question were identified as having Christian beliefs and belonging to the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category. The number of IAS officers belonging to Scheduled Tribe communities in the North East region was 130. 105 out of the total 130 IAS officers were identified as Christian and belonged to the ST category. The Meitei people make up the majority of Manipur’s population, accounting for approximately 53% of the total population. Only 8.2% of the total land area is available to them. As a result, they hold a significant political influence, with 40 out of the state’s 60 MLAs coming from this region. The majority of the geographical area is made up of hills, which are home to over 35% of recognised tribes. However, despite this significant population, only 20 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are elected from these areas.
The absence of restrictions in the plain area has led to the settlement of many individuals from the hill area. The Pangal Muslims, comprising almost 8% of Manipur’s population, reside in the plain region. The Meitei people’s land area has been reduced due to various factors. They do not have the right to claim ownership of the hilly region that constitutes 67% of Manipur’s total area. Article 371(c) has granted special privileges to the Kuki and Naga people in the hill area. The text highlights the disparity in land ownership and settlement rights between different ethnic groups in the region. It notes that while the Kuki and Naga people are allowed to settle in the plain area, the Meitei people are prohibited from buying land and settling in the hill area.
The article discusses the shared origin of the Kuki, Naga, and Meitei people as described in various legends from Manipur. The Kuki people, similar to the Meiteis, continue to uphold their clan’s name even in old age. The Nagas continue to adhere to their traditional beliefs and show reverence to nature gods. The Meitei community maintains a deep respect for Lainingthou Sanamahi, who is believed to be the offspring of the highest deity Yaibirel Sidaba and the supreme goddess Leimarel Sidabi. The deities Sannamahi and Leimarel are universally venerated by the Meitei community. The conversion of tribal communities to Christianity resulted in the abandonment of their ancestral religion, which included the worship of ancestors. Many tribal organisations, including those in the North East, are of the opinion that individuals who have abandoned their janjati/tribal faith should not be eligible to claim ST status under Article 342. The section expresses concern that individuals who genuinely identify as ST are having their rights infringed upon by those who have converted to the ST community. The 2011 Census data reveals that the scheduled tribe population is predominantly concentrated in the hill districts of Manipur, accounting for approximately 95% of the total population. In contrast, the valley districts are home to only 5% of the scheduled tribe population. The distribution of the scheduled caste population is highly concentrated in the valley districts, with approximately 98% residing there, while only 2% live in the hill districts. The North East region saw a significant number of people converting to Christianity due to the influence of foreign missionaries, leading them to abandon their traditional tribal faith. For decades, tensions have been fuelled by disputes over land and illegal immigration, which are the primary sources of conflict. Jaideep Saikia, a conflict analyst, has observed that the swift conversion of the tribal population in Manipur to Christianity has resulted in a significant socio-cultural divide between the two groups in the state.
Entry of Geopolitics: The Need to Keep at Bay
The geopolitical situation in Manipur is complex and multifaceted. The government has taken steps to address these issues by engaging with stakeholders from all sectors of society, including civil society organizations, religious leaders, and community members themselves. However, progress has been slow, and much work remains to be done to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for the people of Manipur. This violence has caught the attention of neighbouring countries like China and Pakistan, who see it as an opportunity to expand their influence in the region.
China, for instance, has been accused of providing support to some of the insurgent groups in Manipur as part of its broader strategy to counter India’s rise as a regional power. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been linked to some of the militant outfits that operate in the state. Both countries are believed to be interested in destabilizing India’s northeastern region as a way to weaken its grip on the area. China’s Xinhua Asia-Pacific news summary has labelled the recent outbreak of violence in Manipur, India as “India-Manipur violence.”
While not quite the same, we also see some parallels to the BJP central government’s actions in Occupied Kashmir — namely, giving ‘outsiders’ property rights that may skew demographics and strengthen their own voting bases at the expense of established local populations (Pakistan’s express Tribune, 2023). Thus, it raised questions about the government’s handling of the situation.
Apart from this, the security forces are concerned about the potential for increased challenges in Manipur if the “valley based insurgent groups” located in camps along the India-Myanmar border become involved. This situation could pose a new threat to the region. According to a security source, TOI expressed that the situation may have negative consequences on the current attempts to bring back stability in Manipur.
The discussion highlights the complexity of the peace-building process in Manipur, which requires a multifaceted approach to address the various underlying factors. The current volatile situation in Manipur is believed to have its roots in the colonial construct of an imaginary division between the people of hills and the people of plains. The author argues that in order to achieve justice for the Meitei community in the Imphal valley, it is necessary to combat divisive influences that are causing conflict and to adopt a decolonized approach to the North Eastern region of India. The author presents an approach that involves a multi-faceted approach to conflict resolution. This includes identifying the root causes of conflicts, promoting productive communication and reconciliation between opposing parties, and implementing governance and development strategies that result in favourable outcomes. The process of building trust between individuals from different backgrounds requires the cultivation of genuine interaction and communication. Thus, The achievement of peace in Manipur is a multifaceted and continuing endeavour that demands the involvement of diverse actors, including government authorities, non-governmental organisations, spiritual figures, and local inhabitants.
*Dr. Sandeep Singh teaching at the Dr. Ambedkar Centre of Excellence, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India.