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Chronicles of the Manipur conflict: Understanding the historical roots of violence in Manipur

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Mr. Avhirup Kumar Ghosh
Mr. Avhirup Kumar Ghosh
Mr. Avhirup Kumar Ghosh is an individual who exemplifies the spirit of continuous learning, exploration, and personal growth. With a zest for life and a passion for discovering new horizons, Avhirup has embarked on a remarkable journey that has led him to diverse experiences and accomplishments. Through dedication, perseverance, and a thirst for knowledge, he has carved a unique path in both his personal and professional life.

The recent incidents of killings and lynchings in Manipur have struck fear into the hearts of its residents. Disturbing videos of violent confrontations and clashes circulate online, painting a grim picture of a state seemingly engulfed in war-like chaos. As the reports of bloodshed continue to emerge, it becomes increasingly evident that this is not merely an isolated event but a manifestation of deep-seated grievances that have been simmering beneath the surface for decades. If you watch Manipur’s videos, you’ll think that there’s a war going on.

The situation is so serious that the Indian government has used Article 355 to take over Manipur’s security. And it has issued a shoot-at-sight order. The situation in Manipur cannot be understood in isolation; it is a complex web of historical, political, and social factors that have contributed to the current state of affairs. Manipur has a long history of ethnic and political tensions, with various communities vying for recognition and autonomy. The lack of adequate representation and political marginalization of certain groups has bred feelings of alienation and resentment, fuelling a cycle of violence that persists to this day. Socio-economic disparities have also played a significant role in exacerbating the crisis.

Despite the state’s natural beauty and resources, many of its people continue to struggle with poverty, lack of infrastructure, and limited access to education and healthcare. The glaring socio-economic divide has widened the rift between the privileged few and the marginalized masses, leading to a sense of frustration and disillusionment among the latter. Furthermore, demands for regional autonomy and identity have been a longstanding issue in Manipur. Certain sections of the population have expressed a desire for greater control over their own affairs and a preservation of their unique cultural heritage.

However, the central government’s response to these demands has often been inadequate, further deepening the sense of discontent and alienation among the people. The use of Article 355 by the Indian government to take over Manipur’s security reflects the gravity of the crisis. In a desperate attempt to restore order, the government has issued a shoot-at-sight order and imposed a curfew. While such measures may be necessary to contain the immediate violence, they do not address the root causes of the unrest. Instead, they risk exacerbating the underlying issues and perpetuating a cycle of violence and repression.

To truly comprehend and resolve the crisis in Manipur, the nation must rise above apathy and engage in a genuine effort to understand the root causes of the turmoil. Dialogue and reconciliation are crucial to bridging the gaps and healing the wounds that have been inflicted on the state and its people. The central government must display a genuine commitment to addressing the concerns of Manipur’s residents, ensuring adequate representation and participation in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. The curfew has been imposed, the internet is off, and the army has been called.

But how many of us care about what’s happening in Manipur? You’ll find more articles about the Virat Kohli and Gambhir fight than the Manipur violence. But it’s important for me to tell you what’s taking place in Manipur. More importantly, why’s it taking place?

Manipur has predominantly two regions – hills and valley plains. You can see that 90% of the land is in the hill regions. And these areas are home to the Naga and Kuki tribes of Manipur. The complex demographic and territorial distribution in Manipur has been a significant factor contributing to the longstanding tensions and violence in the region. With predominantly two regions – hills and valley plains – occupying 90% and 10% of the land, respectively, the state’s population is divided into different ethnic groups and religious affiliations.

The hill regions, covering 90% of the land, are home to the Naga and Kuki tribes, among others, with a Christian majority. These tribal communities collectively make up only 35% of the population, despite occupying the vast majority of the state’s territory. Within these tribal groups, there are recognized and unrecognized tribes, each with its own distinct cultural identities and histories.

On the other hand, the Meiteis, comprising 65% of the population, predominantly live in the valley plains, occupying just 10% of the land. The Meiteis include Vaishnavite Hindus and Muslims, the latter being known as Pangals. This demographic division of the state has often fueled tensions and conflicts between the hill tribes and the valley tribes. The government’s rules and acts have added complications to the already delicate situation.

Various policies and decisions, such as forest protection initiatives and land acquisitions, have often led to the displacement of tribal communities from their ancestral lands, further exacerbating their grievances and sense of marginalization.

Manipur’s Chief Minister, N. Biren Singh, faced criticism from the Kuki People Alliance, a partner of the BJP government, when some villagers from the Kuki ethnic group were evacuated from the K. Songjon village in the Churachandpur district to protect the forests. The perceived discrimination and marginalization of the hill tribes, coupled with their concerns about land rights and cultural preservation, have been significant drivers of tension and violence in Manipur. The grievances of the tribal communities against the dominant Meitei population have further complicated the situation, leading to a deep-rooted conflict.

Moreover, the presence of unrecognized tribes also adds to the complexity of the issue. The lack of official recognition deprives these tribes of essential rights and privileges, leading to a sense of invisibility and exclusion, which can fuel further discontent and unrest. Despite being home to diverse communities with unique cultural identities, Manipur has struggled to find a harmonious balance among its various groups.

The government’s efforts to address these challenges have often fallen short, leading to frustration and disillusionment among the marginalized tribal communities. To find a lasting solution to the violence and unrest in Manipur, it is essential for the government to prioritize inclusive policies that respect the rights and identities of all communities, regardless of their size or location.

A comprehensive approach that considers the concerns and aspirations of both the hill and valley tribes is necessary to foster unity and stability in the state. Promoting dialogue, reconciliation, and equitable development initiatives that uplift the marginalized communities can help bridge the gap between the different groups and pave the way for a more peaceful and inclusive Manipur.

Recognizing and addressing the historical and socio-economic factors that have contributed to the current state of affairs is crucial in finding a common ground for progress and coexistence. The complex demographic and territorial distribution in Manipur has been a significant catalyst for the tensions and violence that have plagued the state. The disparity in land distribution and population between the hill and valley tribes, along with historical grievances and lack of recognition for certain ethnic groups, has contributed to the prevailing unrest.

To achieve lasting peace and stability, it is imperative for the government to pursue inclusive policies and address the concerns of all communities, fostering a sense of unity and mutual respect. Only through collective efforts can Manipur overcome its challenges and build a prosperous future for all its inhabitants.

A box to receive weapons taken during ethnic clashes and rioting is placed in Imphal, capital of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, Thursday, June 22, 2023. (Image Credit: AP/Altaf Qadri)

There are many ethnic groups in Manipur, which we’ll discuss in detail later. That’s why in March, many tribals protested peacefully against the government’s decision. When I say tribals, I’m talking about the Naga and Kuki tribes, but the government of Manipur said that this protest is unconstitutional. The government said that it’s not at fault. It conducted a land survey of a protected forest region in Manipur. The government of Manipur said that their protest is unconstitutional and many villagers are using the forest land for their drug business. The land survey included three districts. One of them was Churachandpur district.

After this, some tribal leaders announced a 8-hour shutdown, in Churachandpur district. Before the shutdown, the chief minister, Biren Singh, was going to inaugurate a gym and address a rally, but many protesters broke the gym and threw chairs in the venue of the rally. Despite this, Biren Singh didn’t stop his rally. Then, the protesters tried to enter the venue of the rally where many VIPs were sitting. Thereafter, the police and protesters clashed. After this, the government imposed a curfew on the entire district and shut down mobile services for 5 days. This frustrated the locals, but this decision to remove the villagers was just one issue. The government was about to face another issue. The All Tribal Students Union Manipur appealed to the people for a Tribal Solidarity March.

They were opposing an order by the Manipur High Court which said that the Manipur government asks the central government, to give the Meiteis the status of a Scheduled Tribe. The people of Hill, the Naga and Kuki Tribes, don’t want the Meiteis to get the Scheduled Tribe status. The Meiteis have been demanding the Scheduled Tribe status since 2013. The Meiteis believe that their community needs the Scheduled Tribe status to protect their land and culture. They say that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar are harming the identity and culture of the Meiteis. The Meiteis say that if they get the Scheduled Tribe status, the Naga and Kuki Tribes won’t be harmed.

Instead, it will bring peace to Manipur, but the tribals of Hill, the Nagas and Kukis, don’t agree with this. The tribes of Hill say that the Meiteis are powerful, well-educated, and connected. If they get the Scheduled Tribe status, the political and economic power of the people of Hill will be diminished in Manipur. The tribes of Hill claim that the Legislative Assembly of Manipur has around two-thirds seats of Meiteis. If they have such political power, why do they need the Scheduled Tribes status? They also claim that some sections of the Meitei community have the Scheduled Caste and OBC status. So, they get protection from there as well. The language of the Meiteis, Manipuri, is also included in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution.

The tribes of Hill also claim that if the Meiteis get the Scheduled Tribes status, they’ll have to fight for the remaining jobs. These are the two issues that are responsible for the recent violence. The tribes of Hill claim that the Manipur government is kicking out the Kuki tribal people from their homes and will soon give the Meiteis the Scheduled Tribes status. This is why a few days ago, violence broke out in the tribal protest rally when the rumor spread that the Meiteis had attacked a tribal woman.

The rally started with this rumor and then the violence spread throughout the state. TV channels showed pictures of how the Meiteis and the tribals were burning houses. This is why the Indian Army was called to the state. The army and Assam Rifles were deployed to control the situation in the state. But you won’t understand the complexity of these issues until you understand the complex history of Manipur. So let’s go back hundreds of years to understand who Manipur belongs to.

People hold placards during a protest over sexual violence against women and for peace in the ongoing ethnic violence in India’s north-eastern state of Manipur, in Ahmedabad on July 20, 2023. (Photo by Sam PANTHAKY / AFP) (Photo by SAM PANTHAKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Manipur’s history begins with the Meitei people, who ruled the Manipur Valley for centuries. It’s said that the Meiteis came to Manipur Valley from Myanmar, where they settled their kingdom. Many Meitei kings ruled Manipur and expanded their kingdom. Apart from the Meitei people, there were many hill tribes in Manipur, like the Nagas and the Kukis. These tribes lived in the mountains of Manipur and had their own culture, language, and tradition. The Meitei Kingdom had a complex relationship with the hill tribes. The Meitei Kingdom launched many military campaigns against the tribes. The tribes of the hills were pressured to adopt the Meitei culture, language, and religion.

If we go back in history, the Meiteis did this to expand their kingdom. To expand their kingdom, the Meiteis believed that they must pressurize the tribes. This led to violence between the Hill Tribes and the Meitei Kingdom. But! this story isn’t all black and white. There are instances where the Meitei Kingdom formed alliances with the Hill Tribes, so that they could trade with each other. The Meitei Kingdom would get forest goods from the tribes, while the Meitei Kingdom would give protection to the tribes from outsiders, but this changed in the years 1819-1825, when the Burmese Empire invaded Manipur.

The Burmese Empire defeated the Meitei Kingdom, and the Meiteis were made to adopt the Burmese culture and Buddhism. The Hill Tribes had to suffer the same fate. The Burmese rulers launched several military campaigns against the Hill Tribes, which killed the tribal people and destroyed their villages. This went on for 7 years, which is why this period is called the Seven Years’ Destruction. This lasted until 1826, when the First Anglo-Burmese War broke out, where the British defeated the Burmese Kingdom and took control of Manipur.

After the British came to power, the Manipur society underwent political and economic changes. In 1835, the British formed a political agency in Manipur and upgraded it in 1891, making Manipur a full princely state.

Now, there’s a difference between a political agency and a princely state. In a princely state, the British told the kings to take care of their kingdom and they had to pay the British for it. Whereas in a political agency, the British sent a political agent, who was the king’s advisor, but the king didn’t have any power. He was like a puppet in the hands of the British. Initially, the British took control of the Meiteis Kingdom, but the Hill Tribes were given the free reigns by the British. This also changed gradually, and then a very popular policy of the British started –Divide and Rule!

The British created a political structure where the Meiteis were preferred. This created tensions between the Hill Tribes and the Meiteis. The British created a land settlement policy to decide which group would acquire a certain part of the land. So they gave some land to the Meiteis and some to the Kukis, but there were two problems. The first problem was that the Kukis were tribal people. They didn’t have a single land. They went to different places with their animals.

So when they were told that their land was permanent, they couldn’t follow their culture. The second problem was that the British gave more fertile land to the Meiteis and less fertile land to the Kukis. This created tensions between the Meiteis and the Hill Tribes, and this didn’t stop even after India’s independence.

There is another twist in this story. This time, the British were not the enemies. It was the Indian government. This is Maharaja Bhodhchandra Singh, who was the king of Manipur after independence. In 1891, the British made Manipur a princely state. After India’s independence, the king had to decide whether Manipur would go with India, Pakistan, or remain independent. Maharaja Bhodhchandra Singh decided that Manipur would remain independent. Manipur was very strategic for the Indian government because Manipur was on the border between Myanmar and China.

The Indian government was also afraid that a communist movement was about to start in Manipur, which could instigate instability in India. So it was very important for the Indian government that Manipur didn’t remain independent but become a part of India, and India was successful in this. In 1949, Manipur signed a merger agreement that made Manipur a union territory instead of a state. But there’s a twist to the story. Before the agreement was signed, many people in Manipur had been protesting against the king because they didn’t want a monarchy in their state. That’s why a legislative assembly was formed, but when the king signed the merger agreement, he didn’t seek permission from the legislative assembly.

Instead, many Manipuris say that the king signed the merger agreement under pressure. It’s said that when the king went to Shillong in 1949 to talk to the Assam government, he was arrested and kept in custody until he signed the merger agreement. Many ethnic groups in Manipur were not happy with this. The problem was that after the merger, Manipur was run by the central government. For the first 25 years, Manipur wasn’t a full state. It was a union territory. So the Indian bureaucrats ruled Manipur, who weren’t from Manipur but from other parts of India.

Another problem was that different communities had different aspirations. The Naga tribe wanted some parts of Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh to be merged into Nagaland. The Kukis wanted areas of India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar with Kuki domination to be a separate country called Zale’n-gam. The Kukis wanted Kukiland, the Nagas wanted Nagalim.

The problem was that some areas were common to both. The Meiteis didn’t want either. They believed that for centuries, the Meiteis ruled the Manipur area, which also had hill regions. So they wanted the hill regions, where the Kukis and Nagas were, to be part of Manipur, where the Meiteis ruled.

What did the Indian government do? They came up with a solution that displeased everyone. They made Manipur a Union Territory, and revoked the Scheduled Tribe status given to the Meiteis. The Indian government argued that if Manipur was dominated by the Meiteis, why would they want the status? They also told the Meiteis that they couldn’t buy land in the hill regions. The Indian government gave the Kukis and Nagas the Scheduled Tribe status. And said that they could buy land anywhere in Manipur. It’s said that a solution that displeases everyone is a pragmatic solution. But this solution didn’t solve all the problems.

In 1972, Manipur was made a state from a union territory. In the same year, the first elections were held in Manipur, and there was a problem with these elections. Manipur has 60 constituencies, 40 of them are in the Meitei-dominated valley area and 20 in the hill region. This means that it’s easier for the Meiteis to win power. This is why the chief minister of Manipur is from the Meitei community, and the tribal people of the hill region believe that this is why Manipur’s policies are against them. For example, the recent decision where the government asked the Kuki villagers to evacuate their land. The tribal people also say that they’re discriminated against.

For example, the leaders of the Meitei community have called the Kukis refugees. But the Kukis say that they’re not refugees in Manipur. They’ve been living in the hill areas of Manipur for centuries, so how are they refugees? In 1979, Meiteilon language was made the official language of Manipur, which is written in Bengali script and is used by the Meitei communities. It’s not like only the Meitei people speak this language. Many tribal people also use this language, but because of the Bengali script, they can’t read and write it well. So in the 1980s, when the government made the language compulsory till class 10, the Manipur tribals were not happy with it. Because of these examples, they believe that the Meiteis are discriminating against them. But the Meiteis say that they’re discriminated against too! A Meitei leader said that in 60 years, their population has fallen from 59% to 44%. He says that they’ve become outsiders in their own ancestral land.

While the tribals can buy their lands, they can’t buy the lands of tribals. The Meiteis argue that they need an inner-line permit system in their state. A system similar to the one in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Nagaland. Let me tell you what this system is about; The Meiteis say that they’re fed up with illegal migration. Because of this, their population percentage has decreased in Manipur. So why not create a system where a person who isn’t from Manipur needs a permit to enter Manipur? The hill tribes say that the Meiteis have the power in Manipur.

Many Meitei leaders have said that the Kukis are the refugees. Who knows, maybe the Meiteis will say that the Kukis will also need a permit to enter the Manipur valley. Because the tribes don’t trust the Meiteis, they don’t want to implement this system. Many times, the Meiteis tried to make a law about this, but the Indian president rejected it. Because of this, the Meiteis came up with a different strategy. They said that they want the government to give them the Scheduled Tribe Status, the same status that the Meiteis had before 1949. The tribes of the Hill region say that they don’t need Scheduled Tribe Status when they have their own domination in the state.

Because of these issues, the Meiteis and the Hill tribes keep clashing with each other. Because both groups believe that if one group benefits from a policy, the other group will suffer. Do you know what this tension between these groups results in? These are two national highways, NH2 and NH37, which connects Manipur to other parts of India, but these are not just two highways. They are ways to earn money. The group that has influence over the highways, uses them to earn illegal taxes. You must pay the group to move goods from one place to another across this highway. Do you know who gets this money? The insurgent groups.

Every ethnic community has an insurgent group. For example, there are several insurgent groups for the Kukis. They say that they protect their own people. Like the Kuki Commando Force, the Kuki National Army, the Kuki National Organization, Kuki Front Council, Kuki Independent Army, Chin Kuki Revolutionary Force, and Kuki Defense Force. Nagas also have insurgent groups, like NSCN (IM). Manipur is so complex that you’d think that Nagas and Kukis are from the Hill Tribes. They must have lived together in peace, fighting the Meiteis. But that’s not true.

There’s been a lot of violence between them. For example, in the 1990s, thousands of people were killed in Naga and Kuki clashes. Because NSCN (IM) Naga insurgents targeted Kukis in the villages where Nagas were the majority. Because they wanted to unite all the Nagas of North East India to build Nagaland. Whereas, KNA and KNF Kuki groups targeted Nagas.

Many people might comment that I have just pointed out the problems but barely discussed the solutions. This problem is very complex, but I believe that we can solve any inter-group conflict through economic factors.

To consider, in 2002, when there was a riot in Gujarat, there was a lot of violence in Ahmedabad, but not in Surat. There was a reason behind this. Hindus and Muslims worked together in Surat. Hindus ran businesses, and Muslims were the workers, but this wasn’t the case in Ahmedabad. Both communities were divided in Ahmedabad.

So, imagine if you’re a Hindu, but your workers are Muslims. If your workers are attacked, what will happen to your business the next day? You’ll pay a price. That’s why researchers say that economic needs can reduce violence between groups. The Manipur and Indian governments need to come up with a similar solution that will make all the communities of Manipur economically interdependent. Obviously, it’s easier said than done. The solution is difficult, but we can at least take a step forward.

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Mr. Avhirup Kumar Ghosh
Mr. Avhirup Kumar Ghosh
Mr. Avhirup Kumar Ghosh is an individual who exemplifies the spirit of continuous learning, exploration, and personal growth. With a zest for life and a passion for discovering new horizons, Avhirup has embarked on a remarkable journey that has led him to diverse experiences and accomplishments. Through dedication, perseverance, and a thirst for knowledge, he has carved a unique path in both his personal and professional life.
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