It was in the early eighties when I first went to Manipur to record human rights violations being committed by the Indian armed forces. When I returned to Delhi, friends and family commented that I had become much more polite and soft spoken after being in the state.
I was deeply impressed by the culture, the gentle ways of speaking. I was attracted to Manipur by the dignity of the people and their lack of aggression in their interactions and, most of all, the culture in which people avoided embarrassing or hurting each other.
However, from my very first visit I was aware of the deep division within the communities living in Manipur: the wariness and resentments were all too evident.
First of all, there was the universal suspicion and dislike for the outsiders or mayangs – a racist, derogatory term for Indians from the mainland. Then there was the deep division between the tribal people living in the hills and the majority Meitei people who were mostly Vaishnavites. But there were also Muslims and a small but significant community of Meiteis who did not convert to Hinduism. There was also some Nagas who had not converted to Christianity and some were included as Scheduled Castes.
From the eighties, these divisions were somewhat suppressed by the fact that the entire state was declared disturbed under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, and the anger of the people was directed at the Indian state.
However, even in 1988 when I was fighting another human rights case in Manipur, I found it very difficult to unite all sections of Manipur behind the demand for the repeal of the Act. It was perhaps the first time that lawyers belonging to four different communities took up a human rights case together: N Kotishwar from the Meitei community, Samual Risom of the Nagas, Songboi Serto of the Kom community and myself, the mayang.
Even the human rights movement was soon divided along communal lines, with each community focusing on specific violations rather than uniting to fight as one. In all these cases, the activists from New Delhi added to the divisions rather than bringing people together. I have written about this in the context of the 16-year fast by Irom Sharmila and how it became a Meitei nationalist issue in Manipur, while for peace activists from other parts of India she became a cause célèbre even though she was backed by the Meitei militant groups.
The most fundamental conflict in Manipur has been the resentment of the tribal people, both the Naga group of tribes and the Kuki-Mizo-Chin group of tribes, against the unequal development and disparity in infrastructure between the Hills and the Valley. Tribals are a majority in Manipur’s Hills. They cannot transfer their land to non-tribals, who include the Meiteis.
In 2021, Congress MLA Alfred Kanngam Arthur presented facts and figures about the disparity in budget allocation between the Hills and the Valley. The figures showed that in the previous five years, of nearly Rs 22,000 crore in plan funds, the Hills received less than Rs 500 crore.
These figures – placed before the Assembly in which there are only 20 MLAs from the Hill areas and 40 from the Valley – did not lead to any remedies. Instead, the Manipur state government denied the problem altogether. The finance department challenged the validity of the figures. Journalists known for their integrity dismissed the figures as “unbelievable” and did not consider the allegations of large-scale corruption and diversion of funds meant for tribal welfare to the Valley.
I have not studied the figures but I have been to the Hill areas and stayed in Imphal to see for myself the discrepancy in the infrastructure and basic amenities. I have seen how it is difficult to get even an ambulance or get basic blood tests or physiotherapy in Ukhrul, which is in the Hills barely three hours away from Imphal.
Apart from lack of medical facilities there is an acute water shortage. Even today, people have to walk several kilometres to Ukhrul from their villages to buy basic things. Daily life in the Hills is very tough, with growing poverty.
The Meiteis have always considered themselves the most advanced community in Manipur, with a history of being united under the Kangleipak Kingdom founded in 1110 AD. They practiced an ancient religion before they converted to Vaishnavism. With Hinduism, they were divided into castes. However, the royal family were not accepted as Kshtriyas but are categorised as members of the Other Backward Classes.
Meitei has been recognised as an Indian language and included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Meitei society is divided into Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes.
In these circumstances, the demand of the Meiteis to be recognised as a Scheduled Tribe has been looked upon with suspicion by the tribal communities who view it as an attempt by the Meiteis to dominate the Hill areas that so far have a measure of autonomy because of their Scheduled Tribe status. Article 371C of the Constitution deals with special provisions for the Hill areas of Manipur. There are also other laws to protect tribal lands from being transferred to non-tribals.
Tribal communities feel the Bharatiya Janata Party that is in power in the state is playing a dangerous communal politics by backing the Meiteis as “Hindus”, as against the tribal peoples who are predominantly Christian. Hindu nationalism has allowed the burning of churches and growing religious fundamentalism in the Valley.
The religious extremism of the majority community feeds into the minority religious fundamentalism. A dramatic example was the attack in April on a pastor who made derogatory remarks about the pre-Hindu Sanamahi faith.
Meitei youth have organised themselves under the banner of an organisation called Arambai Tengol, taking inspiration from he past. Even though this section of Meitei want to reclaim their pre-Hindu religion, the BJP has for long appropriated the traditional religions in the North East under their banner. For example, the BJP’s parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, backs the Zeliangrong Heraka Association of Manipur.
This is briefly the background in which the violence can be seen. But there are other reasons too that have added to the volatile situation becoming even more dangerous.
The coup in Myanmar in February 2021 coup sparked a civil war in that country that has forced thousands to flee their villages and take shelter in India. North East India has been directly impacted the most by the civil war in the Chin State, from where more than 40,000 people have taken shelter in Mizoram and Manipur.
The Chins are ethnically related to the Mizos of Mizoram and the Kuki-Zomi people in Manipur. Though at least 25 Kuki-Zomi extremist groups are under a ceasefire “suspension of operations” agreement in Manipur, The Hindu reported that they are said to be in touch with their Myanmar counterparts.
Similarly, the paper reported, “The Valley-Based Insurgent Groups of Manipur formed mostly by the dominant Meitei community are reportedly fighting alongside the Myanmar Army against the resistance forces in that country. Many members of these VBIGs are learnt to have been killed in the Myanmar civil war.”
The Indian government has refused to recognise the Chins or other Myanmarese as refugees and has declared them as “illegal migrants”. Many of these Chins have been arrested and they are in a desperate situation. The Mizoram government, in defiance of the Centre, has taken in Chin refugees and provided them with basic humanitarian assistance. But in Manipur, it is largely the Kuki-Chin-Mizo communities that have taken on the burden of looking after the refugees.
In the absence of a humanitarian policy of the Centre government to provide basic amenities to these desperate people under a brutal army rule, many have to resort to making Aadhar cards illegally. This becomes grounds for arresting them and many are detained in jails. The Centre should allow the state to issue identity cards to the refugees from Myanmar and register them; this would be a humane response instead of calling for a National Register for Citizens.
The Meiteis fear that the Chins from Myanmar will settle in their lands. They have expressed concern about the growth of illegal villages. A recent report in the Imphal Free Press states that in addition to the existing 2,803 villages in Manipur, another 966 villages are seeking recognition. Most of these villages are in the Kuki-Mizo-Chin inhabited hill areas. The burden of providing for these refugees has fallen on the Kukis.
Their situation has become even more precarious with the drive against poppy cultivation. With rising levels of poverty, many tribals, mainly Kukis, have taken to poppy cultivation. According to officials, 14,315 acres of illicit poppy, cultivated mostly in the hill districts of Manipur, were destroyed by security forces in the previous term of the present government. This means the poor tribals compelled to work in poppy cultivation are losing their only source of livelihood.
Churachandpur, which has been the site of terrible violence over the past few days, is one of the five districts of Manipur that share a border with Myanmar. Less than 10% of the 398-km Manipur-Myanmar border is fenced. As a result, it serves as the transit route for illegal drugs to North East India from the Golden Triangle, the tri-junction of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand borders – a centre of a thriving opium economy and narcotics. Manipur is not only a site for the trafficking of drugs but also for their production, controlled by drug lords across the border.
The situation is made even more unstable by the fact that every community in Manipur is backed by an armed group. The demands of these armed insurgents range from wanting independence of Manipur from India to calling for the reorganisation of states within India. The Nagas of Manipur led by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Muivah) want the integration of Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur with Nagaland state – as also the Naga-inhabited areas of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
The Kukis and Nagas have a conflict over territory: some Kukis want to integrate the Kuki-Chin-Mizo inhabited areas to merge with Mizoram. These insurgent groups are also linked to political parties, which makes any political resolution even more difficult.
These demands for breaking up Manipur have been opposed by the Meiteis and their armed groups. In a sense, their demand for Scheduled Tribe status is in part a response to these movements for self-determination.
There have been deadly conflicts in the past and there will be more in the years to come. Merely calling for peace will only serve to stop the violence, which has spread to Shillong and even Delhi. But how can we begin a political process that will lead to a resolution to the long and complex history of conflicts in the state?
The first thing that needs to be recognised is that the people of Manipur are victims of deadly identity politics that has kept them from having conversations across the community. The insurgents, the political parties and the intelligence agencies have all contributed to this growth of identity politics.
There is no political party that has not played into this and kept up the divisions alive to be exploited for narrow political gain. The BJP’s attempt to resolve the problem by backing the Meitei community and projecting them as Hindu will only exacerbate the situation. Many of the Meiteis and their armed groups have rejected their Hindu connection by going back and reclaiming their pre-Hindu culture and religion.
The people have voted in the BJP after years of disenchantment with the Congress and the regional parties. They are also critical of the insurgent groups that have no political vision for the future.
There is no mechanism in place that can address the genuine grievances of each community and there is no space for conversation or free and fair discussions.
Without having real conversations about the grievances, problems and criticisms, there is no possibility of resolution. There are people in all communities who do not approve of this violence. Even in the midst of the brutal attacks on Kukis where government officials were lynched, Kuki women protected Meiteis and helped in their evacuation. In other instances, Meiteis ensured the safety of Kukis.
The Centre has invoked Article 355 of the Indian Constitution and taken over the law and order in the state. In the past the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was used for the same purpose.
I do not think that the political parties can take the initiative to find a resolution because they are complicit in the identity politics that has poisoned the atmosphere of the state. It is the people of Manipur who must take the initiative. Perhaps, one way is to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Wounds cannot be healed without the balm of justice and justice begins by all parties acknowledging that identity politics must be replaced by a politics that leads to development and peace.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and award-winning author.
Read Scroll’s ground reporting from Manipur:
What the mobs left behind in Manipur’s hills – burnt homes, looted shops and thousands of displaced
Toll due to violence in Manipur rises to 65
Why Manipur’s tribes are alarmed by court push for Scheduled Tribe status for the Meitei community
India’s BSF pushes back tribals fleeing Bangladesh crackdown – even as Mizoram offers them shelter