Last week, ethnic violence engulfed the north-eastern state of Manipur – armed mobs attacking villages, houses set on fire and ransacked shops. According to multiple sources, around 56 people have died– caught up in the clashes between Manipur’s Meitei and Kuki communities.
Trouble began when last month, Manipur High Court asked the state government to send a recommendation to the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry, on considering the Meetei community under the ‘Scheduled Tribe’ tag. To protest this, the All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) organised a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ in the Kuki-dominated Churachandpur district’s Torbung area on May 3rd — which eventually sparked the riots that lasted almost a week.
The situation came to a boil last Thursday, leading the Manipur government to issue shoot-at-sight orders and a curfew to contain the spiralling violence. The riots are largely focused in the capital city of Imphal Valley, dominated by members of the Meiteis (Meetei) community and the Churachandpur hill district, where most of the residents are of the Kuki tribe. Since the riots broke out, 23,000 people have been rescued from the violence-hit areas and moved to military camps. Many students from across the country, studying in Manipur are also among those displaced.
What led to this violence?
Although the violence broke out last week, this conflict has been brewing for almost a decade.
The Meiteis are a largely Hindu community in Imphal and make up around 53 per cent of the state population. Tribals — including the Nagas and Kukis who are mainly Christians occupy the hill districts around Imphal which account for much of the state’s land — encroachment by various laws, including the ‘Scheduled Tribe’ status protects these tribes. These tribals make up around 4o per cent of the state’s population. Constitutionally recognised, the ‘Scheduled Tribe’ is an official designation that gives certain protections and reservations to tribes and communities.
For a long time, Manipur has also served as a home to refugees, including from the neighbouring country of Myanmar — from where around 5,000 immigrants fled, following the military taking power in February 2021.
The Meitei community claims that they face increasing marginalisation as compared to the other mainstream communities. Citing the influx of outsiders from both inside and outside the country, including people from Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh, the Meitei community believes that it has significantly affected the identity, culture, economy, administration and environment of Manipur. The Meiteis blame their troubles, like unemployment on “large-scale illegal immigration” from these countries– and they believe they deserve to be recognised as a ‘Scheduled Tribe’ and reap the benefits afforded by the tag.
The core of this conflict
The other tribes, however, disagree. The Meitei community makes up more than half of the state’s population. On top of that, they also form the majority of the 60-member Manipur Assembly — which gives them major power in the state’s important policies and decisions. This has, over the years, led to distrust and suspicions from the tribal communities.
Tribals in the state are anxious that a scheduled tribe status would mean the Meiteis can own land in the hills – which are typically reserved for the tribes.
According to the Indian Express, the Kuki tribe has long been subject to rumours of ‘illegal immigration’ and humiliation by Meetei and other tribes in the state. Kuki leaders accused the state of violating Article 371C which gives the hill areas some administrative autonomy and discriminating against them. This history adds another layer to the long-running conflict.
Critics of the Meiteis’ demands also point out that the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution– which lists the official languages of the Republic of India, includes the Manipuri language (also called Meitei). There are 29 languages other than Meitei spoken by the tribal people, but none are officially recognised. Some sections of the Meitei community already classify under Scheduled Castes (SC) or Other Backward Classes (OBC) and have their own benefits associated with the tag.
Scheduled tribes have been among the most socio-economically disadvantaged groups in India and have historically been denied access to education and job opportunities, prompting the government to officially recognize certain groups in a bid correct years of injustice. If the Meitei community are given scheduled tribe status, other ethnic groups – many of whom are Christian – fear they will not have a fair chance for jobs and other benefits.
What comes next?
Many people have fled to neighbouring states, including Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland. The Manipur government earlier decided to identify Myanmarese refugees who have sought asylum in the northeastern state and keep them at the designated detention centres. Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard a batch of pleas on the situation. They have also relaxed the curfew, and efforts to airlift displaced residents have begun.
Manipur’s chief Minister N.Biren Singh has said he is “constantly in touch” with India’s Home Minister Amit Shah to monitor the situation, adding the situation “continues to improve and normalcy returns.”
As the situation in Manipur continues to improve and normalcy returns, I’m thankful to the Shri @AmitShah Ji for his constant supervision and support to make this feat possible. I have been constantly in touch with the @HMOIndia to monitor the situation and ensure no further…
— N.Biren Singh (@NBirenSingh) May 7, 2023
Shah on Monday told India Today that the situation was under control. “There is no need for any person or group to be fearful,” he added
Modi, who is in the southern Indian state of Karnataka to campaign for state elections, is yet to speak publicly about the unrest, sparking widespread anger among Manipur’s residents.
The violent brawls have taken the rest of the country by surprise, but signs of this violence have been ignored by the state government for a long time. While the violence seems to have eased a little– in smaller parts of the state, chaos continues.