Changes needed in the forest, migration, agriculture and social classification policies to bring lasting peace to India’s troubled border State
The Meitei-Kuki violence in Manipur since May 3 has claimed more than 180 lives. Hundreds of houses and churches have been destroyed and thousands have fled from their homes. According to official data seen by Reuters, the minority Kukis have borne the brunt of the violence being two-thirds of the victims.
The Meitei-Kuki violence is attributed to a variety of factors. Among them are:
1. Hindu Meitei’s majoritarian outlook, aided and abetted by Chief Minister Biren Singh and backed by the majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in New Delhi;
2. illegal migration from troubled Myanmar;
3. poppy cultivation by the Kukis allegedly backed by armed tribal groups spilling over from troubled Myanmar;
4. the fight between the government and Kukis over the latter’s “illegal” occupation of reserved forest lands.
Meiteis’ Majaritarian Outlook and Demands
The Meitei, who are 53% of the population, are Caste Hindus unlike the Kukis who are Scheduled Tribe (ST) Christians. While on the one hand, the Meiteis have a majoritarian outlook, on the other hand, they occupy only 10% of the land, the rest going to the Kukis and 33 other tribes, who are only 30% of the population.
The Meiteis are trying to overcome this imbalance by claiming ST status on the grounds that they were tribals with their own religion “Sanamahism” till the 18th Century. ST status would give them exclusive land rights at least in areas of their habitation.
It was a Manipur High Court directive on their ST status claim that sparked Kuki violence in early May which was followed by Meitei counterattacks. Kuki and Meitei violence then became the order of the day.
It is now imperative for governments both at the Centre and the State to find a solution to the social classification problem raised by the Meiteis if peace is to be guaranteed in Manipur.
A thorough socio-economic study has to be done and a solution worked out with the consent of all the political parties, the various communities and civil society.
In this context, an important requirement is that the BJP at the Centre and the State should not fan the flames of Hindutva majoritarianism among the Meiteis for a narrow electoral gain.
“Illegal” Migration from Myanmar
The second factor in the conflict is the allegation by the Meiteis, that there is uncontrolled illegal migration of Kuki-related tribes from conflict-ridden Myanmar with which Manipur has a porous border. Border tribes from Myanmar related to the Kukis and Nagas, are officially allowed go 16 km into the Indian side without a visa.
Media estimates suggest that about 5000 Myanmarese tribals may have entered Manipur since February 2021. But this claim is not backed by any evidence, says Bibhu Prasad Routray writing in Mantralaya.
He recalls that in February this year, Chief Minister Biren Singh said that 393 Myanmar nationals were apprehended in the State since 2012. Out of them, one was deported,107 were in judicial custody, 105 were in detention centres, and 180 were released on bail.
To check illegal immigration, the State government conducts raids asking for Aadhaar cards to establish identity. It has set up 34 police outposts between Jesami and Behiang on the border.
Drug Production and Smuggling
The State government and the Meiteis repeatedly claim that Myanmar-based drug lords and “illegal immigrants” are involved in large-scale poppy cultivation in the hill areas forests in Manipur.
Officials say that since 2017, over 18,000 acres under poppy cultivation have been destroyed in the State and that frustrated drug lords are the ones who instigated the Kukis to take to violence. On August 15, 2022, Chief Minister Biren Singh said that 539 acres of poppy plantations were destroyed in the State, 432 people were arrested and drugs worth INR 8.1 billion were seized.
But data from the State’s Narcotics and Affairs of Border (NAB) cited by Routray, show that Kukis alone could not be blamed for poppy cultivation and trade. Of the 2518 people arrested in the past five years, 381 were Meiteis, 1,083 Muslims, 873 Kuki-Chin, and 181 others, Routray points out.
More importantly, the data doesn’t show the arrest of any Myanmar citizen either for involvement in poppy cultivation or for drug trade, he adds.
However, it is true that most of the poppy cultivating areas are in Kuki territory. Routray quotes NAB to say that of the 15,497 acres of land where under poppy, 13,122 acres were in Kuki-Chin-dominated areas, 2,340 acres in Naga-dominated areas, and 35 acres under other people.
Therefore, people across Manipur have to be disabused of the notion that Kukis and Myanmarese nationals are to be exclusively blamed for poppy cultivation and drug trade. It should also be recognized that the Manipur-Myanmar border is officially porous, and therefore, the illegality of migration from Myanmar is not easy to establish.
As the Meiteis demand, a survey should be conducted on migrants from Myanmar to find out who are permanent residents and who are birds of passage.
Reserve Forest Conservation
The State government and the Meiteis complain that Kukis are intruding into and settling in reserved forests. But it is not appreciated that the Kukis are not “settled agriculturists” like the Meiteis but are itinerant Slash and Burn or Jhum cultivators.
The Slash and Burn cultivators burn a section of the forest, let the place be for some time and then plant crops on the enriched soil. After harvesting the crop, they go to another section of the forest, burn it and then cultivate on that patch of land. At times, they could be intrude into reserved forces.
The government tends to go by the rule book, destroys the temporary villages and evicts the inmates. The Kukis and other tribes consider this unjust and tantamount to persecution.
The tribes of Manipur have a custom in which only the oldest son inherits the homestead and the younger sons set up their own separate homesteads. This leads to a proliferation of homesteads and encroachment into reserved forest lands.
Therefore, government needs to have a rational and realistic policy on forests, rooted in social justice.
Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023
A new threat to forest dwellers is looming on the horizon. That is the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 that is expected to be taken up in the monsoon session of the Indian parliament.
As per the proposed amendment, forest land situated 100 km away from international borders that are to be used for “strategic projects of national importance” and land ranging from 5-10 hectares that are to be used for security and defence projects, will be exempted from the original Act’s stipulations regarding forest dwellers’ rights.
A story in Outlook dated July 19, says that former forest officials have raised objections to the bill saying that it weakens the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006. The proposed amendment does not even mention the need for the permission or consent of Village Committees to take the lands.
There are 1,70,000 villages in India in which more than 200 million tribals and aboriginals reside. These people have rights over a total area of 85.6 million acres under FRA, Outlook points out. To avoid trouble of the kind one is seeing in Manipur, taking the consent of the affected tribes on land acquisition is necessary.
It is likely that violence will abate soon in Manipur. It is encouraging to learn there has been no killing since July 18. But the peace seen may well be due to exhaustion. Issues that caused the violence are still there and could surface as Manipur approaches the May 2024 parliamentary elections.
As to what the ruling BJP at the Centre and the State will do is not clear. So far, it has made no effort to discuss the problem in depth, identify the basic issues, and come out with a policy direction.
Perhaps, it is in the BJP’s interest to maintain the status quo in the hope the issues will help it harvest the Hindu Meitei vote. Working for a Meitei-Kuki or Hindu-Christian compromise may not be in its electoral interest till May 2024.