Yazagyo (Rajgriha) was the capital of ancient Manipur – known as Kassay/Kathe – now located in the Kabaw Valley of Myanmar. The valley is located between the foothills on the eastern confines of Manipur and the Chindwin River.
During the First Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26), Prince Gambhir Singh conquered the Kabaw Valley from Burma. But the Burmans were able to prove to the British Resident, Major Burney that the valley had been ceded to Burma by the former Manipuri king Marjit Singh in 1813. Facing severe economic headwinds following the war, Major Burney was persuaded to hand the valley back to Burma, on January 9, 1834, without the knowledge of the Manipuris, for a war indemnity of one million pounds sterling.
The British in turn compensated Manipur for the loss of territory with an annual subsidy of 6000 sicca rupees. On September 21, 1949, Maharaja Budhachandra signed the Merger Agreement in the presence of VP Menon under the condition that internal autonomy of Manipur would be preserved. Soon after the ‘merger,’ the Nehru government discontinued the practice of compensating Manipur with the subsidy in 1952. The ‘merger’ was disputed by Meitei groups as having been done without consensus and under duress. Moreover the discontinuation of annual subsidy did not go down well with the Meiteis. Seeds of the Meitei insurgency were thus sown.
Manipur became a full-fledged state on January 21, 1972, after a 23-year long and tumultuous statehood movement. The Centre’s impassiveness and its inordinate delay in granting statehood irked the Manipuris no end leading to the birth of the first valley based Meitei rebel outfit – the UNLF – in 1964, during the struggle for statehood. Other groups emerged in quick order; PREPAK in 1977, PLA in 1978, and KCP in 1980 in the four valley districts of Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal, and Bishnupur. To curb the fast growing Meitei insurgency, the state was declared a ‘disturbed area’ in 1980 under the AFSPA.
Kuki-Chin migration began soon after the Burmese occupation of Manipur (1819-26) or the Seven Years of Devastation when the state was most vulnerable, initially in small numbers, to the sparsely inhabited Naga areas of Manipur hills. After the death of Gambhir Singh, Nar Singh became the Regent of the ‘minor king’ Chandra Kirti, amidst a tussle with the other rebellious princes. He sought protection from the British Political Agent William McCulloch to thwart any challenge to his rule from his scheming siblings and the vengeful Burmese.
McCulloch saw this as an opportunity to nudge the Manipuri king to acquiesce to British monopoly over trade and commerce as per a special clause of the Anglo-Manipur Treaty of 1833 between Gambhir Singh and the East India Company, and to use the Kuki migrants as a deterrent against the Nagas, for which he got Nar Singh to grant settlements, from 1845 onwards, to the Kukis by providing land in the hill areas of the state where the Nagas lived. McCulloch came to be known as the “father of Kuki settlement in Manipur.” Over time, ethnic tensions rose between the settlers and the indigenous tribes, leading to conflicts over land, resources, rivers, and forests.
The educationist Sir James Johnstone had noted, “The new settlement policy began to cause anxiety in the hill tracts of Manipur as large numbers of Kukis poured into the Naga-inhabited areas.” The content of letter written by Major General WF Nuthall, the Political Agent of Manipur, to Lt. J Butler, the Deputy Commissioner of Naga Hills in 1871, again a similar letter written by WA Cosgrave on February 25, 1931, the Chief Secretary to the Govt of Assam, and the Kabui Naga rebellion of 1930-32 against the Kukis as well as the British corroborate what Johnstone had noted decades earlier.
The KNA, formed in 1988, was in response to the overwhelming growth of Naga armed power. After the 1993 Kuki massacre by the Nagas, the state witnessed a sharp uptick in Kuki insurgency. From the early 1990s, the state was battered by multiple inter-ethnic conflicts – Kuki-Naga, Meitei-Pangal, Kuki-Paite, and even Kuki-Tamil clashes, pitting the Kukis against the Tamil traders who settled in the Moreh-Tamu stretch during the colonial era. Earlier, the conflicts were primarily over land and resources.
The recent crisis, however, is due to a complex interplay of various factors: the use of counter-insurgency to manipulate ethnic identities, the war on drugs, the eviction of forest encroachers, reservation demands by the majority community, the unequal development between the valley and the hills, the pressure on land, and unequal employment opportunities which make vulnerable youths the target of rebel recruitment.
Manipur borders two regions of Myanmar: Sagaing region to the east and Chin state to the south. It is a gateway state for India to fulfill her ‘Look East’ dream. With the completion of the Trilateral Highway, India could usher into the era of ‘Acting East.’ Manipur is a gateway to a future of endless possibilities from hydrocarbons, timber, and minerals to regional trade over land and water which could emerge as a crucial node of a new Silk Route – a bulwark against China in Southeast Asia. Alongside hope and aspiration, there is anguish and anger as the state is constantly roiled by age old ethnic tensions along with an increasing clamour for the amalgamation of Naga populated areas of Manipur with the state of Nagaland.
Both India and China are locked in a race for resources, infrastructural facilities and geopolitical influence. Both sides are also in the midst of an intractable border row. The CDS Anil Chauhan has recently pointed out that the withdrawal of the Indian Army from Manipur in 2020 in the wake of the Galwan incident, for redeployment in Ladakh to counter the Chinese threat, had led to a security vacuum in the state, which would not have gone unnoticed in Beijing.
China is infamous for ‘fishing in troubled waters.’ It would not be an exaggeration to state that China would take advantage of this security vacuum and use Manipur as the launch pad for its anti-India operations, facilitating infiltration of militants, arms and narcotic supplies, and fuelling both sides of the Manipur conflict.
While India has placed all her eggs in the military junta’s basket, China has hedged her bets on both sides of the Myanmar conflict since the February 2021 military coup. Beijing has officially lent its support to the military junta, but Chinese arms dealers have sold weapons to ethnic militants with Beijing’s tacit approval. China could use the services of rebels and refugees fleeing the junta’s air raids on PDF strongholds in Myanmar along India’s porous frontier. It has also been reported that many a time Chinese backed insurgents have disrupted the progress of India’s flagship Kaladan Project. The conflict in Myanmar will further delay India’s ‘Act East’ projects, and the Manipur crisis could temporarily divert Delhi’s attention from the LAC.
Of late, the possibility of Western involvement is gaining currency. The Khalistan Movement in the 1980s was backed by Western and regional agencies to punish India for not siding with the West during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. What has been particularly galling for the West is ‘democratic’ India’s support for Myanmar’s military junta and its neutral stance over autocratic Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The conflict in Myanmar suits the Western gameplan to weaken the military junta by propping up the resistance forces, and to hit out at India simultaneously by spurring the outflow of refugees and rebels into India and prolonging the ethnic strife in Manipur. Western agencies operating out of Thailand are reportedly training the resistance forces and providing them with funds, weapons, media and intelligence support.