The one invisible root cause of Meitei-Kuki ethnic clash

LB Singh *

The scale of violence against the Meitei community, arson, and the destruction of properties at Churachandpur by the Kuki-Chin tribes on the night of 03 May 23 was unprecedented.

The Meitei people in the valley were shocked and emotionally devastated by the scale of violence and atrocities. Some Kukis intentionally created the violence with a vested interest in dividing the people and justifying the demand for a separate administrative area or Territorial Council.

The Meitei fell into their trap and retaliated with the shameful action of violence and arson against the innocent Kukis in the Meitei- dominated area on 04 May 23. Over seventy precious lives have been lost, and thousands of people have been displaced, creating a tragic humanitarian crisis.

The Integrity of Manipur

The Meiteis are determined to maintain the integrity of the State at any cost, and it would be possible only if the innocent displaced people return to their homes. However, the displaced people donít trust the other ethnic groups anymore and are worried about the safety of their families. Therefore, it is essential to initiate Confidence-Building Measures (CBM) immediately, and every Meitei MLA, CSO, and womenís organization has a huge responsibility in the CBM.

Manipur High Court Directive

The directive of the Manipur High Court to pursue the recommendation for the inclusion of Meitei in the list of Schedule Tribed (ST) united the Naga and Kuki tribes. The All Tribal Studentsí Union Manipur (ATSUM) organized the Tribal Solidary Rally on 03 May 23.

However, there was no immediate threat to the interest of the STs, as the Union Tribal Affair Ministry would review the recommendation and require the approval of the Register General of India and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes. After that, if the Union Cabinet is satisfied with the case merit, a Bill would be introduced in the Parliament, and the process would be initiated to amend the Constitution.

Only the Kuki-Chin groups indulged in the violence after the rally on 03 May 23. The indigenous Nagas were not involved. Therefore, the root cause of the present ethnic clash is the problems specific to the Kuki-Chin groups.

Invisible Root Cause

Most Kuki-Chin tribes migrated from the Chin and Lushai Hills after the Seven Years Devastation of Manipur (1819-1826). The Maharaja of Manipur welcomed them as the population in the valley at that time was about ten thousand people. The king required people for the security of the kingdom and other works.

In February 1948, the institution of Chiefship was abolished in the Chin Hills of Burma (Myanmar), and the Government of Assam passed the Assam Lushai Hill District (Acquisition of Chiefís Rights) Bill in 1954; the Chiefsí rights were abolished.

However, the politically powerful lobby of Kuki Chiefs stalled the implementation of the Manipur (Hill Areas) Acquisition of Chiefís Rights Act 1967; even though the system had been abolished in the place of its origin. As per the Kuki tradition, the Kuki chief is the supreme authority and the owner of all the village land, including the forest.

The Kuki families are at the mercy of the Chief. The Kuki Chiefs have the authority to give the land in their area for cultivation to anyone, including outsiders, and the Kuki-Chin groups have close affinities with their kin in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

In the 2011 census, the percentage of population growth of the Kuki-Chin groups was much higher than the other ethnic groups. The Naga and the Meitei suspected that Kuki-Chin groups were sheltering their brethren who migrated from other countries and working for the alteration of the demography of the State. The Manipur Assembly adopted the resolution to set up the Population Commission and implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in August 2022.

Vulnerable Kuki Group

The ordinary Kuki individuals do not own any land; they are poor and at the mercy of their Chief. They are highly vulnerable to misinformation, and they believe the allegation that the Meiteis are after the tribal land. They fear land alienation, are highly volatile, and are incredibly hypersensitive to the policies of the State Government.

When the 7th Amendment Bill was introduced in 2015 to regulate the sale of land in the valley to the non-Manipuri, eight people died in the violence in Churachandpur district due to the rumour that the Bill was an attempt by the Meiteiís to snatch away tribal land.

This vulnerable Kuki group is a potent force available at the disposal of the Kuki Chiefs for deployment for any constructive or destructive task. The vulnerable Kuki groups also provide fertile ground for recruitment to the various Kuki insurgent groups.

The War against Drugs and drive against illegal encroachers

The Government of Manipur intensified the War on Drugs and the eviction of illegal encroachers. A few Kukis were apprehended in connection with drug business, and Kuki leaders started accusing the Government of targeting their tribe. The eviction drive also affected many Meitei and Naga families. However, the eviction of each Kuki family is projected as an attack on the Kukis by the Government.

The eviction of K Songjang village in Churachandpur as per the Indian Forest Act 1927 and the Manipur Forest Rule 2021 was projected by some Kuki leaders as actions targeted against the interest of Kukis and whip up the sentiments of the people against the Government and the Meiteis.

The Kukis have challenged the authority of the State Government to declare land in the hill district and Reserve Forest and as per the Kuki tradition, the Kuki Chiefs are the owner of the land, including the forest. Therefore, the root cause of the problem stems from different perceptions of forest land ownership. There is a conflict of interest between the institution of Kuki Chiefs and the State Government.

A Judicial Inquiry should be conducted to find out the facts about the ethnic clash, and the role of the Kuki Chiefs in the recent violence should also be thoroughly investigated. The Central Government should carefully examine the merit of continuing the institute of (Kuki) Chiefship in Manipur, which had been abolished in its place of origin.

* LB Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a retired Defence Officer, Retired Captain, Indian Navy
and can be contacted at bimollaishram(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on 07 June 2023.

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