The ethnic violence in Manipur is far from over, four months after it began. There are reports of gunfights and deaths almost every day. The security forces have established safe zones, separating areas where valley-majority Meiteis and hill-majority Kukis live.
What started as a protest by the Chin-Kuki tribes against the Meiteis’ demand for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category has now turned into a demand by the Kukis for ‘separate government’, whatever that means mean.
Why is it taking so long for violence in Manipur to stop completely?
There may be five main reasons behind this.
Firstly, narco-terrorism and drug cartels are believed to be the driving force behind the Manipur crisis. Worldometer, the real-time statistics website that became famous during the COVID-19 pandemic, reported that drug trafficking, opium poppy cultivation and heroin trafficking are worth an estimated $110 billion worldwide.
India is located right between the two largest opium producers: Afghanistan and the ‘Golden Triangle’ (Myanmar, Thailand and Laos). India’s western border is well protected due to the active threat from Pakistan, but its eastern border with Myanmar remains largely unprotected to date, making it the preferred route for drug cartels to move their ‘product’.
The five districts of eastern Manipur share a 400 km border with Myanmar and less than 10 percent of the international border with Myanmar is fenced, leaving the region wide open to drug smuggling. The total length of the India-Myanmar border is 1,600 km.
There has been no alarming reason to hasten the border fencing as Myanmar is a friendly nation. But the Indian insurgency center is also in this region. So the question is: did we take this lightly?
The shift from the ‘Golden Triangle’ is well documented, with large-scale opium cultivation mushrooming in Manipur. Media reports have indicated the direct involvement of drug cartels in Myanmar. More than 18,000 hectares of opium cultivation has been destroyed, the majority of which was in Chin-Kuki dominated areas.
Manipur’s N Biren Singh government has arrested more than a thousand people in drug cases in the past five years, following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s zero-tolerance policy on drugs. All these factors reinforce the claim that narcotics are one of the main reasons behind the violence in Manipur.
Instability in Myanmar
Second, instability in neighboring Myanmar, where a military junta government is in control, has forced many of its citizens to flee to India. Armed rebellion, junta crackdown and air strikes on anti-junta forces are taking place in Myanmar.
A United Nations report on March 6 this year – almost two months before ethnic clashes broke out in Manipur – put the number of internally displaced people in Myanmar at 17 lakh, of which 10.8 lakh were refugees and asylum seekers. The 16 km ‘free movement region’ policy between India and Myanmar also facilitates entry of refugees into Manipur through the border trading town of Moreh. Chin-Kuki-Zo insurgents in Myanmar’s western region bordering India are mainly present in Manipur.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, yet Mizoram has openly welcomed refugees from Myanmar, numbering as many as 40,000, according to Home Ministry data. Mizoram also formally registers them as ‘refugees’, who may later be deported.
In neighboring Manipur, the government has taken some steps to provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees, the actual number of which is yet to be determined. But the Chin-Kuki-Zo community reportedly does not grant refugee status to those who have fled Myanmar because they belong to the same ethnic groups, which the Meiteis say shows that ethnicity is being prioritized over nationality. As a result, asylum seekers prefer Manipur as they would not be labeled as refugees and denied the same support that Indian citizens receive. Many Myanmar citizens with fake Aadhaar and other documents have been arrested in Manipur.
Colonial divide-and-rule lingering effects
Third, a masterstroke by the British that allowed them to control people was the zamindari system, a form of ‘divide and rule’. Under the pretext of protecting the Manipur Kingdom from Burma, the British started resettling the Chin-Kuki-Zo people in the southern part of Manipur and introduced the feudal system, especially chieftainship.
After the British left, India passed the Zamindari Abolition Act of 1951 and ended the zamindari system, but in Manipur the Chin-Kuki-Zo tribes still practice it. Even the Chin-Kuki-Zo dominated state of Mizoram removed the chieftaincy.
The chiefs in Manipur’s Chin-Kuki-Zo villages are the sole leaders of their settlements and own entire villages.
The feudal system follows nepotism and autocracy – when the current chief dies, only his son can become the next chief. The thirst for power and infidelity among siblings have led to the mushrooming of many villages in Manipur, especially in areas dominated by them. They have been accused of large-scale deforestation because the new villages are located in the hills and forest areas. With refugees and illegal immigrants from Myanmar pouring into Manipur, setting up new villages becomes easier as the new arrivals can live as nationals.
The Times of India, in a report dated June 6, 2022, said Manipur has around 934 unrecognized villages. The Manipur government has carried out eviction drives in recent years to reclaim forest lands, sometimes leading to violent protests. The forest department office in Churachandpur district was the first to be set on fire by miscreants before large-scale violence broke out on the evening of May 3. One of the offices was wrongly identified as a ‘Kuki house’ by the Editor’s Guild of India in its recent report on media coverage of the violence in Manipur. The guild later corrected the error.
Questionable agreement with insurgents
Fourth, Chin-Kuki-Zo insurgents of nearly 25 armed groups in Manipur are under intense scrutiny for their alleged participation in the ethnic clashes despite signing a tripartite peace deal in 2008 with the Center, the state government and the army, called the suspension of war. operations (SoO).
The South Asian Terrorism Portal, a repository of terrorist incidents, has recorded extortion of common people and commercial drivers on highways, kidnappings and other illegal activities by the insurgents even after signing the SoO agreement. There are reports of signed “memos” sent by leaders of some insurgent groups citing violations of the basic rules of the SoO agreement by another group.
In Churachandpur, the epicenter of the violence that began on May 3, footage of a gathering of people, reportedly from the SoO groups, in camouflage battle gear carrying assault rifles is seen. An insurgent group that signed the SoO agreement had also called for an end to a two-month blockade of a national highway. The effectiveness of the SoO agreement is questionable if the insurgents carry out illegal activities.
Insufficient constitutional protection
Fifth, the constitutional protections afforded to ethnic groups in northeastern India appear inadequate to cover contemporary realities. After all, it has been over 76 years since independence. It cannot be denied that the Northeast experienced slow growth compared to the rest of the country until development picked up again in the past nine years. The people of the Northeast are ethnically and culturally diverse and are distinguished by their own customs and practices.
All major ethnic groups in every state in the Northeast are protected by the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The Mizos in Mizoram; the Khasi, Jantia and Garo in Meghalaya; Nagas in Nagaland and major indigenous ethnic groups in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Tripura and Sikkim are protected by this important law.
But in Manipur, only the Nagas and Kukis are protected. The Meiteis, who are also an important ethnic group in Manipur, are not protected.
This exclusion is a clear case of discrimination against the Meitei community. Without protection under the law, the Meitei community has access to only 6 to 8 percent of the state’s total land area, which is limited to the valley area. This is the de facto area where Meiteis can live, own land and call it home, while the remaining 92 to 94 percent of the state is denied to them.
The recognized tribes can own land and live in the valley.
The reservation system, which stands at 31 percent for Scheduled Tribes (ST) in Manipur, was not in favor of the Meiteis. With similar opportunities being provided, the representation of the Meitei community in employment and education has declined. Data from the last two Manipur Public Service Commission results shows that many ST candidates from the Chin-Kuki-Zo tribes have been selected on the basis of merit plus the 31 percent reservation.
Many from the Meitei community have migrated to other cities in the struggle to support themselves and their families due to a lack of opportunities and support in their own states.
The early British census reports of 1901 listed the Meiteis as “tribes”. Shockingly, this disappeared from the same list after independence. There is no explanation and consensus on how the act of disappearance occurred.
Each of these five factors is interrelated, so one solution may not be right for everyone. What is certain is that decisive action is the only way forward. At the very least, the Meiteis need constitutional protection against all these factors and forces.
They are not asking for extra protection, but to be treated and protected like other tribes in the Northeast.
(Debanish Achom is editor, News, at NDTV)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.