Kuki, Naga, Meitei. Hills and valley. Inner line divide. The ethnic violence that broke out in Manipur around May 3 and claimed at least 73 lives has a long history. The tipping point was a push by the dominant Metei community for Scheduled Tribe status that was fiercely opposed by the state’s other tribal groups.

Since British times, Manipur has been shaped by policy and law that have sought to divide the state and its people – a legacy taken forward by the Union as well as state governments.

Veteran journalist Pradip Phanjoubam told Scroll that Chief Minister N Biren Singh, since his return to power in March last year after the state assembly elections with a majority government, has pushed rash policies, without consultation.

“He got arrogant,” said Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Review of Arts and Politics, told Scroll over the phone from Imphal. “He started pushing things around, not listening to anybody else because he knew his position was safe.”

How Singh tackled issues such as the drive against poppy cultivation and the proposed National Register of Citizens may have given members of the Kuki community the impression that they were being singled out.

“...Small things were seen as provocations in a much bigger way by the Kukis,” said Phanjoubam.

The journalist had intended to give Scroll an video interview and was at the Department of Information and Public Relations in Imphal where there is functional internet. But due to poor connectivity, he spoke over the phone.


For those not entirely conversant with Manipur’s multi ethnic setting, could you provide clarity on the main ethnic groups and tell us, where, geographically, do each of these groups predominantly reside?
The approximate population now is about 35 lakhs – 3.5 million. But otherwise we have the 2011 Census, which put the population at 28 lakhs. The major ethnic communities here are the Kukis, the Nagas and the Meitis plus a few others. But within the Kukis and Nagas there are many different tribes. The major groups of tribes are within the Naga umbrella, another group under the Kuki umbrella. Almost all of them are Christians, some Catholic, but mostly Protestants.

As for the Meiteis, mostly living in the valley, in the early 18th century the king adopted Hinduism and made it a state religion. So everybody had to be Hindu. I think it was around 1729. But before Hinduism came in, there was another original religion called Sanamahism, which is basically nature worship. And now what’s happening is there’s a bit of revivalism happening, and this is a growing kind of wave. And the older religion is also coming back.

But even otherwise, those who have gone into Hinduism, they have not totally abandoned the old deities. Hinduism being all embracing, you can still bring in those worships from the earlier religion. So it didn’t clash much. So even if you are a Hindu, you have the old deities still very much in your house besides the known gods and goddesses of Hinduism. But of course now with the growth of this revivalist cult, they say that the old religion only and nothing else. So that kind of division is also there within the Meitis.

Broadly, what are the long standing resentments on both sides?
There are quite a few layers to this. The divisions within the state, foremost, are between the hills and the valley. And this of course is profiled quite well in James Scott’s book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchic History of Upland Southeast Asia.

In the valley you have stable agriculture. So there’s an economy going, there’s a surplus building. And that actually caused the state’s formation. You have the little kingdoms in these valleys and then the population in the hills. That already planted the segregation between the non-state population in the hills and the state population in the valley. So that division was already there. Then, when the British came in, they always had to end up negotiating with the state because there’s no way you can do that in the hills.

Now it’s very different, but in those days you negotiate with the village and then the next village won’t agree. So there is no centralised bureaucracy, only the state has that. So that kind of thing was building up. The British were already there from 1826 onward. Very briefly in the history, Manipur and Assam came under Burmese occupation in around 1819 and then carried on until about 1826.

The British were concerned that this was too close to their Bengal province and also at the time the home kingdom was very weak, so they [the home kingdom of Manipur] appealed to the British. The British intervened and then the Burmese were thrown out. At the end of it, in 1826, they signed the Treaty of Yandabo. And that actually is a marker for the colonial period that you enter that new phase in your history, in that you are exposed to a new system.

Before that, the relationships were quite different between these different principalities in the entire region and the entire extended region of the North East as well as Southeast Asia. But after the entry of the British, things began changing. And the first thing is that when the British entered, they were a multinational company – they were not even a government – [the] East India Company. So they were looking for profit. They were looking for revenue. So the first thing they started doing was to demarcate the revenue and the non-revenue provinces. And the non revenue normally are the hills. And again, the revenue provinces are the valley.

The Hills-Valley Division happened in Assam and Assam was almost the entire North East, except for Manipur and Tripura. Plains and hills were marked out by something called the inner line, which they drew by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873. The hills were not really administered except for security reasons. This was considered to be the wild territory – wild unadministered territory – and the valleys were what they were taking care of. And what happened was when they came to Manipur, they brought in the same pattern and they made a division between the hills and valleys without actually drawing the inner line as Assam. And so the division between the hills and the valley came about.

In 1891, when there was a rebellion against the British...made it into a princely state under their tutelage. And what they did was the old rebellious dynasty they banished, and then from another dynasty, brought in a young boy named Churachand, and he was chosen to be the successor to the throne.

And they wanted to groom him in their way. So they sent him to Mayo College and educated him there. After he came back in 1907, the British implemented the land revenue administration mechanism from Assam whereby revenue plains were separated from the non-revenue hills by drawing an Inner Line at the base of the hills. So the central Imphal valley, the traditional home of Meiteis, came to be separated from the hills surrounding it. The plains were administered by the Maharaja, the hills were kept under the President of the Manipur State Durbar (PMSD), a British officer.

A doctor treats voilence-affected people from Manipur, at a relief camp in Cachar district of Assam on May 16. Credit: PTI.

Is this when protected and reserved forests were marked out for the first time?
Yes, during that time, they introduced the creation of reserved forests of several uninhabited stretches of forest, hill lands. And when Manipur became part of India in 1949, they [the Union government] brought in the same law.

In the meantime, what happened was in all the decades that have passed by there are so many villages established within these reserve forests. I just went and met some forest officials to clarify matters. They told me the government wanted to survey the land and all [the] villages within protected forests [that] are allowed to be there doing whatever they were doing, except things which are prohibited. And in reserve forests, which are very few, you can’t be there or do anything except those things that are permitted. That kind of norm they wanted to bring back to a straight line.

And in that process, there were many villages found within the protected forest and reserve forest, and many of them did not meet criteria and therefore the eviction had begun and this was felt mostly by the Kukis. You know, there is a difference between the traditional administrative pattern within a Kuki village and the Naga village – and we are talking about Kukis and Nagas because they are the main residents of the hills.

In the Kukis, the chief owns the village and the rest of the villagers are in a way landless. So what happens is [that] if there are some prominent people coming up within a village, they would part and start their own village, Or if the chief had three sons, one of them will inherit the village and the other sons will go out and found their own villages. So there is a tendency for Kuki villages to proliferate, and this often brings them into conflict with neighboring communities, especially the Nagas, because they share the same hills as home.

And as we have witnessed in the 1990s, Nagas, by a decision of the United Naga Council [Manipur’s apex Naga organisation], decided to evict Kuki villages, which they felt were in their territory illegally. So they started evicting and that was the cause of that particular conflict. And now what’s happening is the old narratives are coming back that the Kukis are nomadic. That they are immigrants. When you are a mobile population, the international boundaries don’t make a difference. According to the allegations, there’s a lot of movement from across the border into Manipur territories for the purpose of many things, including poppy cultivation.

That kind of narrative was being built up. And the language used was quite insulting to the Kukis and across the board, it wasn’t certain people who are doing this illegal business who were targeted but the community was being labeled that way. So that insult as well as the hurt got internalised. So on May 3, when the rally happened, small things were seen as provocations in a much bigger way by the Kukis. That’s how I read it. There was a rumor that a Kuki memorial was being burned down by people who were opposed to that rally. Then they started going on a rampage. And that’s how the riots actually began and how it spread.

Then the images of those villages being burned down, people running, those started floating. And there was no effort to actually control the violence at the time. There were no uniforms, no police, no army, no paramilitary. Everybody was on their own. It was a free for all. That’s the impression everybody got. So it was quite natural that this would inflame passions elsewhere. And that actually happened and that’s the cause of the tragedy.

Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh speaks with the media about his meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah, in Imphal on May 15. Credit: PTI.

Chief Minister Biren Singh’s critics say that his approach this time, unlike in his earlier term, has not been even handed, that he has branded Kukis as poppy cultivators, drug warlords and has blanket-targeted the entire community as illegal immigrants.
As they say, power corrupts, and I think that probably happened to him. He didn’t have that humility that he had in the past. In the past, of course, the BJP was not in a majority. Congress missed the halfway mark by just one or two – 31 is a majority. Congress had 28 and BJP had only 21. So they had to cobble a coalition to stay in power and that also made him [the chief minister ] be a little more diplomatic. Then he had to listen to people. He had to listen to partners. He had to listen to more opinions.

But this time [in March 2022] he came back with a majority. He got arrogant. He started pushing things around, not listening to anybody else because he knew his position was safe. So I think that also caused some of these arrogant and very rash kind of statements as well as policy when things could have been done in a peaceful way.

He rushed it and gave the wrong impression that, as I said, you have this eviction and then you have this anti-poppy drive and also the NRC [proposed National Register of Citizens]. We will determine the citizens of India, rest will be thrown out and all of that, as I said before, came to be seen as targeting the Kukis. And maybe he didn’t mean it that way 100%, but it did seem that way to many, and especially to those people who are feeling that they are at the wrong end of that kind of policy. And that actually caused much resentment.

Read Scroll’s ground reporting from Manipur:

What the mobs left behind in Manipur’s hills – burnt homes, looted shops and thousands of displaced

In Imphal, two families recount two days of horror that ended in death

‘Forever bond’: As Manipur burnt, ordinary people stood between attacking mobs and their neighbours