In the midst of endless news stories pouring in from strife-torn Manipur, a dispatch from Imphal by Aaisha Sabir of The Hindu caught my attention. It recounted the problems being faced by the small but economically-successful Tamil community living in the town of Moreh in the Tengnoupal district of Manipur that borders Myanmar.
According to the report, the community is caught in the crossfire of the Kuki-Meitei ethnic violence that has destabilised the state. Moreh is a Kuki-majority town.
About 25 years ago, while toying with the idea of writing a book on the migrants and refugees in South Asia, BG Verghese, one of the doyens of Indian journalism, alerted me to the presence of thousands of Tamils in Moreh who were running thriving economic activities, some of them illegal.
They had involuntarily migrated from Myanmar (then Burma) in the 1940s through 1960s under increasingly hostile pressures from that country’s government. The present crisis in Manipur may force them to move once again – though this time it may be within India itself, most likely to Tamil Nadu.
To understand the Tamil connection with Manipur, it is essential to recall the history of migrations within the British Empire. After the defeat of Burma by the British in the third Anglo-Burmese war of 1885, the country was a part of British India until 1937. That’s when Burma was separated from India.
During the period when India and Burma were one territory, Burma provided a land of opportunity for lakhs of Indians hungry for jobs and to carry out business activities. They included Bengalis, Sikhs, Marwaris and even Tamils of the Nattukottai Chettiar community, already known for their trading skills in the Malay peninsula. By 1937, there were about 900,000 Indians in Burma holding important commercial and professional positions.
After Myanmar’s independence in January 1948, citizenship laws were strictly enforced, demanding proof of ancestry in Myanmar from before 1823 and residence for eight of the previous 10 years. The government made Burmese the official language and civil servants were to be only Burmese citizens. Of the 150,000 applications for citizenship, only 28,683 had been granted by 1961.
In 1962, when the military government of General Ne Win nationalised trade, industry, banking and commerce, the Indian community was badly hurt. All this pushed many Indians to return to India.
It is estimated that between 1966 and 1980s, about 250,000 of the Indians in Myanmar – 90% of whom were Tamil – left for three destinations: their respective states of origin in India, which was primarily Tamil Nadu, but also West Bengal, Punjab and Bihar; the northeastern states of India (mostly Moreh in Manipur); and other countries in Asia or some Commonwealth countries.
Tamil Nadu had to bear the biggest responsibility for their rehabilitation. While the wealthier Chettiars gradually reestablished themselves through their business enterprises, others were provided relief and rehabilitation assistance by the Tamil Nadu government. By March 2001, the records show that 144,445 refugees from Myanmar had been rehabilitated either through land grants or through loan-based house-building schemes.
West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh also helped the Myanmarese refugees, though their activities were limited since the numbers to be looked after were small. In the northeastern states, the resettlement of the Mynamarese refugees was not always without conflict as they got entangled with the region’s complicated inter-ethnic conflicts and disputes. Still, Moreh became the hub of Chettiar business interests in the region as members of the community managed to revive their old contacts in Myanmar.
Since the North East is a security concern and the region is generally conflict-prone, this dimension got entangled with the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka. Reports, as indicated in BG Verghese’s 1996 book India’s Northeast Resurgent, suggested that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist outfit based in Sri Lanka, used the 17,000-strong Tamil community in Moreh to establish contact with the local insurgents.
In 1991, when the Indian government launched Operation Rhino against the United Liberation Front of Asom, it came across documentary evidence of the links between the Kachin Independent Army of Myanmar, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In one of its press interviews, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland admitted as much, according to Verghese’s book. The United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland are both separatist organisations.
Insurgency in the region has a close connection with drug trafficking in which Moreh plays an important role. Border trade between India and Myammar in 22 items was legalised in 1995 through Manipur’s Moreh, Champhai in Mizoram and Lungwa in Nagaland. Since then, narcotics, such as heroin, “Number Four”, ganja or cannabis, and more were smuggled into Moreh from where they reached other parts of India as well as the international market.
On account of this drug connection, insurgent groups considered Moreh a strategic transit point through which they not only got money but also arms and ammunition.
Returning to the start, The Hindu report, in between the lines, talks of three interconnections. One, since many of the Moreh Tamils are relatively rich, they are expected to pay the price for their safety to myriad militant groups. “I was asked to pay a Rs 30,000 ‘tax’ to militant outfits as support in the ongoing conflict,” one of them told the reporter. The so-called tax could go up to Rs 10 lakh. After the ethnic violence broke out in May, he left for Tamil Nadu.
Two, the Kukis, who are the dominant community in Moreh, expect the Tamils to be on their side, both in their demand for a separate administration as well as in their expression of solidarity with the Kuki cause. Three, however much the Moreh Tamils consider themselves as Manipuri, in these days of ethnic extremism that serves little purpose.
“Moreh belongs to everyone,” one of the Tamils told The Hindu. “We have built our lives there and lived there for generations. Our Tamil brothers in Moreh identify as Manipuri. They too have lived for generations.”
With its deafening silence, the Indian state is a conduit to this process of the de-Manipurisation of Manipur.
Partha S Ghosh, a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, is the author of Migrants, Refugees and the Stateless in South Asia. His email address is email@example.com.