Ethnic Conflict in Manipur Violence: Origin, Concerns, Way Forward

India’s northeast region is home to a myriad number of ethnic groups with complex inter-relationship. This region witnesses large-scale violence and conflict on account of the ethnic and geographical divides of which the recent Manipur violence is the latest example. Knowledge of ethnic issues in the northeast is important for both the internal security topic of GS paper III as well as the society topic of GS paper.

Present Context of Manipur Violence

Manipur witnessed large-scale ethnic violence in the first week of May 2023, in the aftermath of the ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ organized by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) in the ten Hill Districts of Manipur on 3 May 2023. The meeting of the tribal student organizations was called following a High Court order of 19 April 2023, wherein a single bench judge, after hearing a petition by eight people representing the Meitei Tribe Union (MTU), directed the Manipur government to submit its recommendation on the inclusion of the Meitei community in the ST list, preferably within a period four weeks. The order has since been stayed by the Supreme Court which termed it as a “factually wrong judgment”.

Reasons and Roots of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur

The Hill Valley Divide

Manipur has two distinct geographical features—the Imphal Valley and the Hills which surround the Valley. The Valley constitutes the five districts and the Hill constitutes 10 districts.17 The Imphal Valley covers 10 percent of the land area of Manipur and the rest 90 percent is covered by the Hills. Ethnically, Manipur has three main groups—the Meitei, the Nagas, and the Kukis. The Meitei constitute 53 percent of the total population and are primarily settled in the Valley districts of East and West Imphal, Thoubal, Kakching, Bishnupur, and Jiribam. The Naga (17 percent) and Kuki communities (26 percent) which together constitute 41 percent of the population are categorized into 34 Scheduled Tribes in the state. The Nagas are concentrated in the North consisting mainly of the Senapati, Ukhrul, Tamenglong, and Chandel districts. The Kuki tribes primarily populate the southern hills comprising Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, Chandel, and Tengnoupal districts.

Today’s valley districts of Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal, Bishnupur, and Kakching were part of the erstwhile kingdom of Kangleipak, ruled by the Ningthouja dynasty. The Kangleipak kingdom, then a British protectorate, was repeatedly raided by Naga tribes who came down from the northern hills. The British political agent in Manipur is believed to have brought the Kuki-Zomi from the Kuki-Chin hills of Burma to protect the valley from plunder by acting as a buffer between the Meiteis and the Nagas. The Kukis, like the Nagas, were fierce headhunting warriors — and the Maharaja gave them land along the ridges, where they could act as a shield for the Imphal valley below.

Ethnic Conflict in Manipur Violence

Fear among Meitei

This disproportionate spatial distribution between the Meitei community and the Tribespeople is the crux of the problem. The Meitei community feels that even though they constitute 53 percent of the population, they are confined to only 10 percent of the land in the valley. Even in the valley, they argue that they are getting squeezed because tribal people is buying land and settling there while being non-tribal, they cannot buy land in the hills because of the protection provided to the tribespeople under Article 371 (c) of the constitution. The Meitei community further claims that in addition to the tribespeople, many ‘outsiders’ including illegal migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar and people from the rest of the country are settling in their land. They, therefore, argue that if the community has to “preserve” and “save the ancestral land, tradition, culture, and language”, they need the ST status. The fear of losing their land has become so prominent among the Meitei community that they started demanding the extension of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) in the state to protect the rights of Manipuri’s ‘indigenous’ people. Subsequently, in December 2019, the Union government extended the ILP in the state. The state government in June 2022 decided that 1961 shall be the ‘base year’ to decide who is a ‘native resident.

Religious Divide

The tribal divide was also accentuated by the religious divide between the two wherein the Meiteis embraced Vaishnavism patronized by their Kings of Manipur and the hill people were converted to Christianity by the missionaries who were allowed to function in the hill areas.

Discrimination Against Kukis

The Kuki community feels that there is an attempt to dehumanize Kukis through hate speeches by calling them illegal settlers and encroachers. Also, Manipur govt. anti-drug drive by destroying poppy cultivation is targeting the Kuki people.

Ethnic Nationalism

In the 1990s, as the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) pushed harder for self-determination, the Kuki-Zomi groups began to militarise, and the Kukis launched their own movement for ‘Kukiland’ — unlike the Naga movement, however, the Kuki-Zomi demand was for a state within India, not a separate national homeland. Even though the Kukis had started out as protectors of the Meitei people, the Kukiland demand created a rift between the communities. The Naga and Kuki movements fuelled Meitei nationalism, and numerous groups sprung up in the Imphal valley.

Economic Factors behind Manipur Violence

The Meitei contend that in a state where the government is the largest employer and there are very few other opportunities, reservation for STs in jobs amounts to an unfair advantage. Also, they point out, while tribals can buy land in the valley, Meitei are prohibited from buying land in the hills. News of infrastructure development — such as the coming of railways that would open up Manipur further — have made the insecurities of Meitei worse.

Impact of Manipur Violence

Violation of Peace Pact

The Manipur government, the MHA i.e., Ministry of Home Affairs, and 24 Kuki insurgent groups formalized an SoO (suspension of operations) pact in 2008. The groups have since held several rounds of negotiation with the Centre and had almost settled for “local self-governance” of Kuki tribal areas in Manipur before the current bout of violence erupted on May 3. These violent incidents can disrupt the hard-achieved peace in Manipur.

Impact on Neighboring Areas

Chin-Kuki-Mizos is a conglomerate ethnic group collectively known as the ‘Zo’ people. Hence any disturbance in Manipur will impact not only Mizoram but also the border areas of Myanmar. Given the ongoing conflict in Myanmar following the coup against Aung San Suu Kyi, violence in Manipur have to the potential to affect the fabric of the entire northeast region.

Government Response to Manipur Violence

The central government appointed a three-member Commission of Inquiry headed by Ajai Lamba, former Chief Justice of the Gauhati High Court, to probe the ethnic violence in Manipur. The other two members of the Commission are Himanshu Shekhar Das, a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer from the 1982 batch of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre, and Aloka Prabhakar, a 1986 batch retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officer of the Telangana cadre.

Way Forward: How Peace can be Achieved in Manipur

The northeast region is the living manifestation of “living in diversity”, however, this recent violence shows that enduring peace cannot be attained without addressing the complex and structural issues of ethnicity, insecurities, etc. North -East is witnessing unprecedented economic development in recent times, and we should not let this episode derail the momentum.

Ethnic Conflict in Manipur and Violence in Manipur and other areas of North-East is important topic for UPSC Civil Services 2024. UPSC CSE Aspirants are urged to understand the topic of ethnic conflict in Manipur and understand core issues.

Suggested Current Affair Readings:

India-Nepal Relations in the Context of Prachanda’s Visit in 2023

Issues of Railway Safety in the Context of Balasore Rail Accident in June 2023

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