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As allegations and counter-allegations fly between Meiteis and Kukis, here is everything you need to know about the recent Manipur violence

It is being claimed that the violent protests by Kukis against ST status demand by Meiteis is just a façade, and the real target is the eviction of illegal Burmese Kukis from forest areas

Violence erupted at several places in Manipur on Wednesday during protests by tribal groups against the demand for ST status by the Meitei community. Protests by the tribal groups turned violent at various places in the state, where large scale arson took place. Manipur CM N Biren Singh has said that lives have been lost and property has been damaged in the violence. Curfew has been imposed in eight districts, and mobile internet services have been suspended in the entire state, while army and paramilitary forces have been deployed to contain the situation.

The recent violence first took place in Churachandpur district on 27 April, when a mob led by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF) burnt down a newly constructed gym-cum-sports facility a day before it was scheduled to be inaugurated by Chief Minister N Biren Singh. The tribal groups were protesting against the proposed survey of reserved and protected forests and wetlands by the state govt, and the demolition of three unauthorised churches.

While the situation was handled swiftly by the security forces, things went out of hand on 3 May, when All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) called for a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ in the Torbung area of Churachandpur district to oppose the demand for inclusion of the Meitei community in Scheduled Tribe (ST) category. Protestors started burning tires and other objects on the roads, which then led to arson and violence.

Similar protests in support of the ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ took place in several other places in Manipur, and many of them turned violent. Violence erupted in tribal-dominated Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, and Tengnoupal districts as well as the non-tribal-dominated Imphal West, Kakching, Thoubal, Jiribam, and Bishnupur districts. According to authorities, violence was fuelled by hateful and provocative messages circulated on social media, which led to the suspension of mobile internet services for 5 days.

While the tribal groups have been opposing the demand of the Meitei community’s demand for ST status for years, the recent protests and violence were triggered by a Manipur High Court order on 27 March, directing the Manipur state government to submit recommendations to the union government for the inclusion of Meitei in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list. The court had issued the order after several petitions filed by Meitei activists seeking the said direction.

The high court also criticised the state government for dragging the issue for over 10 years. In May 2013, the union ministry of tribal affairs asked the state govt to submit a formal recommendation along with the latest socio-economic survey and ethnographic report, but the Manipur govt failed to do so.

The demands by Meities started with a memorandum submitted to the governor in November 2012 by the Scheduled Tribes Demand Committee of Manipur Valley (STDCM). The committee then met Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh in December 2012 with the demand, and then met prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh in July 2013 with the demand. However, the PM asked to them to discuss the matter with the state cabinet.

Meities vs Kukis

The current conflict between Meiteis and ‘tribals’ is the extension of hills vs plains conflict that exists in almost all states in the north east. Meiteis are the majority community in Manipur, comprising around 53% of the population, while tribal communities account for around 40% of the population. There are 34 recognised tribes in Manipur, broadly classified into Naga tribes (24%) and Kuki/Zomi tribes (16%).

While the Naga and Kuki tribes are included in ST list, most of the Meitei community people have OBC status, and some of them are listed as SCs.

Also, the majority of Meiteis are Hindus, with some of them are Muslims and some identify as animists, while the tribals are Christians. The Muslim Meitei community, known as Meitei Pangal, is also demanding ST status, along with the Hindu Meitei community.

However, the Meiteis are limited to only around 10% of the land in the state, as the rest of the state is classified as tribal areas. They live in the small patch of plain area in the state, the Imphal Valley, while the tribals reside in the protected Hill Areas, exclusively reserved for them. Being classified as non-tribals, Meitei people can’t buy land in over 90% of the state.

It is notable that Hill Areas in Manipur, comprising 90% of the total land in the state, are declared by the government under the provisions of Article 371C of the Constitution. The same Article also provides for the constitution of a Hill Areas Committee comprising MLAs from Hills Areas, while relevant laws passed by the assembly constitute village authorities. The committee and the authorities do not allow non-tribals to purchase land in the notified Hills areas.

The Imphal Valley has five districts, while the Hills Area has eleven districts. Apart from the Meteis, the valley is also home to other non-tribals, including people from other Indian states, and immigrants including illegal immigrants from Myanmar. On the other hand, only tribals are allowed to buy land in the hill districts.

The petition by the Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union that resulted in the High Court order said that Meiteis had Scheduled Tribal status before 1949, but when the state merged with India in October 1949, they lost that status. When different communities in India were classified as Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) under Article 341 and Article 342 of the constitution, the Meitei community was not included in any of them, reportedly because they are caste Hindus. At that time, not having SC-ST status was not a big issue, but things changed later, and the Meiteis started demanding reserved status.

After the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, Meiteis were granted OBC status, and thus they became eligible for reservation in govt jobs and seats in educational institutions. In Manipur, the quota for ST is 31%, OBCs enjoy a reservation of 17%, and the same is 2% for SCs.

Apart from ST status, Meiteis are also demanding NRC in the state, alleging large-scale illegal immigration in the state, which is being opposed by the tribes.

Naga tribes distance themselves from violence

While both Naga and Kuki tribes are opposing the Meitei demand for ST status, the Naga community has distanced itself from recent protests and violence. It is the Kuki tribes who are mainly behind the recent protests and violence. While the Tribal Solidarity March took place in the entire state, violence took place mainly in the Kuki areas, and the march was peaceful in the Naga areas.

In fact, several organisations of the Naga community, including the Maram Union, Mao Union and Rongmei Naga Council Manipur, have said that Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum is a new organisation and it does not represent all tribals.

Rongmei Naga Council Manipur issued a statement last month saying that the actions of ITLF are against the wishes and integrity of the indigenous tribes. “Creating chaos to the peace and tranquillity loving people of the state has become a daily practice of some class of people. The indigenous Rongmei people clarify once for all that, it have no knowledge of the existence of such bogus forum and appeal all right thinking indigenous communities to abstain from the said rally,” the Naga boy had said.

What the tribals alleging

The tribal groups are alleging that Meiteis want to grab their jobs by becoming STs, while they already have reservation as OBCs. They also claim that the Meitei community is already an advanced community, and they don’t require the benefits of reservation. Pointing out that out of 40 out of 60 MLAs are from the Meitei community, the tribal groups claim that the majority community is the dominating community in the state.

According to them, the Meiteis are wealthier, wield both political and administrative power, have higher population than all tribes combined in Manipur, occupy most positions of power, control major businesses and institutions, and have relatively higher social, educational and economic standing than tribals.

In a memorandum submitted to union law minister Kiren Rijiju, the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) had said, “the fact that the Meetei/Meitei community has done exceedingly well in the fields of technology, medical, engineering, sports and civil services under UPSC is indicative of their advancement”. 

The tribal groups are alleging that if Meiteis become STs, they will grab all jobs reserved for STs, claiming that the educational qualifications of Meiteis are generally better than Nagas and Kukis. “If the advanced Meitei community is recognised as ST by the government, all the seats reserved for ST in the present will be occupied by the Meiteis. Despite already availing the reservations from SC and OBC categories, the Meiteis are insisting for inclusion in ST category with a sole objective of grasping the benefits presently reserved for the hill tribes,” ATSUM has said.

Further, according to them the Meitei language is included in the eighth schedule of the constitution and is a well-developed language with a script, as opposed to most tribal languages, and therefore Meitei community is ineligible for protected status.

Apart from this, they are also claiming that the Hindu Meiteis want to buy land from tribes in protected hills areas, which they don’t want to happen.

The tribal groups further argue that the plain people, the Meiteis, were not included in the ST list because they have lost their ‘primitive and distinctive’ features, therefore they can’t be classified as tribals.

The tribal groups further claim that originally Meiteis were happy to be not classified as tribals due to the social divide between the people of valley and hills, and the plains people used to use derogatory words like ‘Haos’ to refer to the tribals.

What the Meiteis say

On the other hand, Meiteis deny that they are seeking ST status to grab reserved jobs. According to them, without the status of the scheduled tribe, the Meetei will lose the status of an indigenous community. According to them, it is not about reservation in jobs & educational Institutions and tax relief, but it is more about protecting the Lands, culture and identity of the people, which can’t be protected without ST status.

They claim that their ancestral lands, culture and identity are under constant threat from illegal immigrants from Myanmar and outside the state, and therefore they need the protected status.

The Meitei community also reject the claim by ATSUM that they have lost their tribal nature, saying that even though they follow Hinduism, they still follow ancient animist rituals, they belong to mongoloid race, they are geographically isolated, economically backward compared to the national average, they are a microscopic minority, and therefore they fulfil all the criteria for being classified as Scheduled Tribals.

In regard to land, the Meitei community say that while they are allowed to buy land in only 10% of the state, there are no restrictions on others, including tribals and outsiders, from buying land in the valley, while only tribals are allowed to buy land in hill districts. According to them, this has resulted in a scarcity of land for them.

According to Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union, as a result of being left out of the ST list, “the community has been victimised without any constitutional safeguards to date. The Meitein/Meetei have been gradually marginalised in their ancestral land. Their population which was 59% of the total population of Manipur in 1951 has now been reduced to 44% as per 2011 Census data”.

Protest against Meitei ST status or eviction of Burmese Kukis?

The Meiteis also claim that the violent protest against ST status demand is just a façade, and there is another motive behind the protests by the tribals. According to them, the real target is the survey of forest land and eviction of illegal immigrants from protected areas.

According to the Meitei groups, Manipur is witnessing a sudden population surge with a growth rate of 24.5% against the national average of 17.64%, as a result of illegal immigration. They said the abnormal surge and mushrooming of villages were being noticed in the hill areas of Manipur. They said that such abnormally high population growth can’t be attributed to natural birth, adding that it is the result of migration from neighbouring countries.

According to them, Kuki people are immigrating from Myanmar and occupying forest land in Manipur, and the local Kukis are supporting them. Aware of the situation, the state govt has launched an eviction drive, which is being opposed by the tribal groups.

Chand Meetei Pocshangbamof of the All Meitei Council said, “Kukis are migrating illegally from across the Myanmar border and occupying forest land in Manipur. Recently, the Manipur government started an eviction drive to clear illegal settlements in reserve forest areas. The drive was in all areas, including those inhabited by Meiteis and Muslims, but only the Kukis are protesting.”

For this reason, Meiteis are demanding the implementation of a National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) in the state, to identify illegal immigrants. “Meiteis are demanding an NRC because of the sudden population spike in the last two decades in areas bordering Myanmar. Illegal immigrants from Myanmar have been settling in Manipur since 1970s but the movement has intensified now,” Pocshangbamof said.

It is notable that the state government has identified 38 villages in the Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest area as “illegal settlements” and said that its residents are “encroachers”. Following this, the govt launched an eviction drive that led to clashes. The government also announced a survey of forest areas to identify encroachment, which is being opposed by the tribal groups.

Chief Minister N Biren Singh said that the protesters were challenging the constitutional provisions. He had said, “the people there were encroaching reserved forests, protected forests and wildlife sanctuaries for poppy plantation and drugs business.”

The tribal groups, mostly Kuki groups, claim that the eviction and the survey are in violation of Article 371C of the constitution, which confers some administrative autonomy to the tribal-dominated hill areas of Manipur.

Allegations of pre-planned strategy for ethnic cleansing

Amid allegations and counter-allegations, another allegation has emerged saying that it is a pre-planned strategy to evict Hindu Meities living in Christian Tribal areas. According to Meitei groups, following the violence in the Churachandpur district, Meities who had left their villages have not returned. Allegedly several houses were burnt by tribals and stones were pelted, forcing the Meiteis to flee.

Unverified videos have emerged showing houses on fire, allegedly belonging to Meiteis. Reportedly, miscreants armed with sophisticated weapons attacked Meitei Hindu houses and torched them on Wednesday.

Reportedly, around Hindus fled their homes in Kuki-dominated areas in Churachandpur and took shelter in nearby Indian Army and para-military camps.

Hindu activists have claimed that it is not a tribal vs non-tribal conflict, but it was actually initiated by the Christian tribals to evict the Meiteis from Christian majority areas. They allege that Christian tribals pre-planned the incident, and implemented it on the day vice president Jagdeep Dhankhar visited Manipur.

The Hindu activists point out that the Tribal Churches Leaders’ Forum issued a statement supporting the tribal solidarity march. In response to the call by ATSUM, The Tribal Churches Leaders Forum (TCLF unanimously resolved to endorse the ‘Solidary March’ of ATSUM in a meeting held on May 1. “This solidarity March organised by the ATSUM is to collectively protect the social, political and religious interests of the tribal people of Manipur,” said the statement.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Raju Das
Raju Das
Corporate Dropout, Freelance Translator

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