Conflict or prosperity? Unravelling the Manipur conundrum

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MANIPUR conundrum explained
Meitei refugees ona para military truck being evacuated from violence hit place near Imphal (Photo: AFP)

It is now three months since violence erupted in the north-east state of Manipur over an inter-tribal clash between the Meitei and the Kuki tribes. The trigger was a “peace rally” on 3 May, 2023, called by the All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM), in protest against the order of Manipur High court granting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meitei community.

The so-called peace rally did not take long to convert into a violent disruption of peace and tranquillity in the state. The manner in which private houses, public property and even temples and churches were burnt gave a clear indication that both communities were ready for a face-off on declaration of the court verdict.

On the first day itself, violence, arson and mayhem quickly spread to several districts like Churachandpur, Imphal East, Imphal West, Bishnupur, Tengnoupal, and Kangpokpi. The majority Meitei community settlements in the foothills were attacked by the Kuki’s. The Meitei also retaliated in Imphal east and west where several Kuki houses were vandalized and destroyed by mobs.

It is evident from the unfolding of the events that this whole episode of violence was very well strategized and guided by some anti-national militant elements who were in touch with certain political organisations.

Militants who formed a part of the violent mobs had in their possession sophisticated weapons and ample quantities of ammunition. This indicates foreign involvement that needs serious investigation. The looting of police armouries that has happened on multiple occasions during this period of violence, the last reported incident having taken place as late as July 3, calls for an explanation by the state government.

The violence led to a considerable loss of life and displacement, it is estimated that nearly 150 people died within the first few days of the mayhem and about 60000 were displaced. The most gruesome report was of stripping of women and rape. Such incidents are completely against the culture of the tribal people  who traditionally maintain strict norms even in conflict, wherein, women and children are not harassed and religious institutions are not attacked. This adverse development needs to be taken very seriously indeed by the civil society and the political/religious leaders of the region.

It is to the credit of the Union Government that it responded immediately to quell the violence which was contained within a few days. On 4 May itself, Article 355 was invoked which empowered the Union Government to take necessary steps towards protecting the state against external aggression and internal disturbance. This was followed by a rapid deployment of the Army, the Assam Rifles, the Rapid Action Force, etc., to assist the local police in quelling violence. Curfew was imposed and strictly implemented. It is because of this quick action that the number of deaths and destruction remained in controllable limits.

To expedite the reconciliation approach the government has opened dialogue with all the stakeholders while also providing relief and rehabilitation to those affected by the violence. Civil society has come forward and is working with the state administration to usher peace.

The manner in which the unrest in Manipur is being politically exploited by certain parties of the opposition with the eye on the forthcoming parliamentary elections is derogatory. In a vibrant democracy, such incidents should generate a “whole of nation” approach towards bringing about a modicum of order. Politics can come in later. Instead of playing a positive role the opposition is bent upon putting all blame on the BJP government. The end result is that the more aggressive elements of the opposing groups in Manipur are gaining confidence and are becoming more belligerent. Those who are crying hoarse against what they project as inefficiency of the government in Manipur are unaware of the ground situation since they have not even once visited the disturbed areas.

However, in a democracy and a civilised society even one case of death or molestation cannot be accepted. The miscreants, who triggered the violence need to be punished as per the law of the country. Simultaneously, those who have lost their property should be adequately compensated and those who are displaced need to be re-established in their homes with assured security.

The government has successfully contained the law and order situation, but the reasons behind the conflict remain. This is not as much a conflict of religion as it is one of identity and economy. In Manipur, the Meitei tribe has a higher population than the combined population of 34 tribes including Naga and Kukis (who have ST status). Strangely, only 10% of the geographic area of the state and its resources are available to them. It is so because they do not have ST status in a situation where  a large part of the state’s territory is reserved for the ST (Kuki and Naga). This is a very untenable situation indeed.

The Meitei had the ST status  as per the census records of 1891, 1901 and 1931. But from 1951 onwards they were removed from the ST list of the Union Government based on a report by the then premier of Assam, Shri Gopinath Bardoloi and his associate J.J.M. Nichols Roy, a Christian minister and politician from what is now the state of Meghalaya, India.

The Meitei community feels that the ST status would help preserve and protect their ancestral land, tradition, culture, and language under Article 241(1) or 244(2) and 275(1) of the Constitution and safeguard them against illegal immigrants who are rapidly settling in the reserved forest areas. They are right in this assessment.

The Kuki’s,  on the other hand, feel that reservation of their lands is the only protection that they have in the face of the majority Meitei tribe who control the democratic politics of the state. The Kuki’s thus strongly support maintenance of the status quo.

As per the 1976 amendment to the Forest Act, forests fall under the state list, making the state government the sole owner and in charge of their protection and preservation. This state entitlement was put ablaze on 3 May 2023 by the Kuki tribal leaders who are against the state government’s intended survey of protected wetlands and forest reserves,

There is also strong resentment among the Kuki’s against the state government’s endeavour to provide alternatives to poppy plantations and thereby prevent illegal drug trafficking and narco-terrorism. The sentiment, however, is not all pervading since some from the Meitei are also involved in the drug trade and some from the Kuki are against it since it is ruining the new generations.

Whatever may be the sentiment, the government at the state as well as the centre is obliged to eradicate the poppy cultivation since it is proliferating drug abuse only in the affected region and across the country. It also makes the region a partner in the Golden Crescent drug network and allows entry of dubious foreign elements into the region which is a great security risk for the entire country.

The matter of illegal immigration also needs to be addressed with urgency. The state government has sought assistance from the Union Government to build border fencing and establish police stations along the India Myanmar border. The illegal immigrants obviously feel threatened and have joined up with the Kuki in the conflict. The Kuki have reciprocated by protesting against the NRC.

The conflict would be best resolved by strictly following the principles of justice, both natural and constitutional. Also, what is righteous should be accepted by all. As the High Court has delivered a judgement in favour of reinstating the ST status of the Meitei tribe it is incumbent upon all to respect the verdict or appeal against it in a higher court. Resorting to violence to get a drawback is not acceptable in a democracy.

The nation expects the governments to eradicate poppy cultivation in the region and stop the process of illegal immigration since these form a serious threat to national security. All voices being raised against such actions should be considered to be against national interest and dealt within the ambit of the law.  

The entire North-East of the country has a large land mass, less population and abundant natural resources. The region has been kept undeveloped due to certain political compulsions for almost six decades since independence . The period of the BJP led government in the centre (since 2014) has witnessed a total reversal in policy with all effort directed towards the development of the neglected region. This has resulted in fast track build up of infrastructure like roads and railway connectivity, airports, hospital, education institutions etc. The face of the region is changing for the better at a very fast pace. There is enough in the North-East, especially Manipur, for all inhabitants to lead a life of prosperity especially now when the region is witnessing fast development. But, for prosperity to gain roots, peace must prevail and for that old traditional rivalries must give way to trust, mutual accommodation and integration.  It is up to the people of the region to choose between prosperity and conflict.

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