TODAY -

Manipur's struggle for peace amidst ethnic tensions

Dipak Kurmi *



As the new year dawned in the serene North Eastern State of Manipur, a distinct shift marked the latest wave of violence, setting it apart from the previous chaotic mob clashes that had gripped the ‘Jewel of the East’ in May of the preceding year.

The initial phase of turmoil in Manipur, characterized by ethnic tensions, has evolved into a scenario reminiscent of the Wild West, with armed groups from the Meiteis and Kuki-Zo tribes engaging in gunfights. In the initial months of unrest, unseen ethnic boundaries emerged, prompting the Kukis and other members of the broader Zo community to depart from the Imphal valley, traditionally dominated by the Meiteis.

Simultaneously, the Meiteis sought refuge in the valley, leaving behind the tribal-administered hill districts. This unfolding dynamic echoed events reminiscent of the 1947 ethnic cleansing on religious lines in Punjab.

The often-criticized Assam Rifles and deployed army regiments in Manipur established buffer zones, strategically separating Meitei territories from those inhabited by Kukis, along with other tribal communities like the Paites. This delicate peace was occasionally disrupted by either community’s sporadic attempts to expand their sphere of influence.

The extensive web of Kangleipak rebel factions, once a persistent menace in the Imphal valley, has experienced a resurgence. Over the past two decades, these factions had been relatively contained, but recent developments indicate a revival, with some even acquiring weaponry allegedly “looted” from the State police force.

A portion of the faction-riddled Kuki militants in Manipur, who had previously surrendered and resided in camps under the vigilant supervision of the Assam Rifles, might have eluded surveillance. There are indications that they could have potentially joined armed village vigilantes in the hill district.

As the divisions along communal lines solidified in the State, factions on either side of the ethnic rift united into two overarching “armies” representing Kukis and Meiteis. Surprisingly, despite their differences, they found a common adversary in each other.

It appears as though a “war within a war” has erupted in the State, with factions not only engaging in direct confrontations but also exploiting the overall breakdown of law and order. Simultaneously, they capitalize on the chaos to partake in activities such as extortion, gun trafficking, and narcotics trade—historically familiar ventures that now further threaten and manipulate the general public.

Despite efforts to reconcile race relations through the establishment of peace committees, the reality persists that the formidable presence of heavily armed militants and vigilantes on both sides has significantly eroded trust between communities. This, in turn, has undermined the State’s ability to maintain peace and foster trust-building initiatives effectively.

The ongoing violence, coupled with the shortcomings of the State machinery in addressing the crisis, has tragically led to the loss of at least 180 lives. Additionally, the aftermath has seen the destruction of 1,700 structures and the displacement of nearly 40,000 individuals, with some seeking refuge in neighboring States.

The arrival of Kukis from Myanmar, seeking refuge from the conflict in the neighboring Nation, has further heightened the feeling of insecurity among the Meiteis.

While the Kuki National Organisation and the Kuki National Army (Burma) have consistently emphasized their exclusive focus on the conflict with the Myanmar State, and not engaging in any skirmishes in Manipur, the possibility of some of their members acting independently and participating in the training of village vigilantes cannot be dismissed.

Several analysts express dissatisfaction with the State Government’s decision to reinforce the presence of State police commandos, primarily consisting of Meiteis, in the Kuki hill areas. Incidents of clashes between these commandos and Kukis have been reported in Moreh, along with accusations of high-handed behavior by State policemen towards tribal communities.

Compounding the situation, the recent surge in violence has been accompanied by the arrest of two local newspaper Editors on charges of purportedly violating sections of the Indian Penal Code and, in one instance, the Officials Secrets Act. In a State already grappling with restricted reporting due to frequent internet bans and other obstacles, these recent arrests paint a concerning picture for the freedom of the press.

Throughout its history, Manipur has witnessed a complex interplay of conflict and camaraderie among its diverse communities. In the era of monarchs reigning over the Imphal valley, their influence in the hills, home to Nagas, Kukis, and other tribal groups, was rather precarious.

The tribals maintained a strong connection with the hills, adhering to their customs and resolving disputes through tribal laws. The kings acknowledged this arrangement, fostering a system of tributes and a symbiotic relationship, all while tensions between different communities lingered beneath the surface.

Since Independence, the interactions among the three primary communities of Manipur—Meiteis, Kukis, and Nagas—have been marked by conflict, tensions, and misunderstan- dings. Despite these challenges, the communities have coexisted, with instances of living together and even engaging in inter-marriages.

The potential for reconciliation and peace remains robust. In 1944, young men from the Meiteis, Kukis, and Nagas communities collectively joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army in their endeavor to advance into India from Burma. As the INA retreated, many of these individuals returned to Rangoon. Notably, Manipur’s inaugural Chief Minister was among those who volunteered for the war in the pursuit of freedom.

The introduction of education by Christian missionaries in the hills of Manipur elevated the prosperity of the tribal communities. Additionally, the reservation provided to them as Scheduled Tribes further contributed to their socio-economic well-being.

Conversely, the concentration of the most fertile land in the Imphal valley, historically under the dominion of the Meiteis, posed a unique challenge. This circumstance led to the tribals residing in the hill areas, which, while offering nine times more land, had significantly fewer cultivable or habitable regions.

Yet, due to their control over agriculture—the primary industry in Manipur— and their substantial population share, amounting to almost 53%, coupled with an early embrace of modern education, the Meiteis held sway over the majority of the State’s key institutions.

A recent surge in ethnic tension has been simmering since the installation of the BJP-led Manipur Government in 2022. The administration initiated a campaign to displace tribal villagers from areas designated as Reserved Forests by the State, while the Kuki-Zo community asserts these regions as their traditional tribal lands.

The catalyst for the ongoing violence was ignited during demonstrations by tribal groups in early May last year. These protests were in response to an initiative aiming to accord the majority Meiteis the status of a Scheduled Tribe.

While the recent initiative has been overturned, lingering suspicions suggest that Meiteis with Scheduled Tribe status may harbor intentions to displace tribals from their hills—where land ownership is exclusive to tribals—or compete for jobs and publicly funded higher education opportunities acquired through affirmative action.

Conversely, among Meiteis, concerns persist about Kuki-Zo people potentially bringing in relatives from Myanmar, altering the State’s demographic profile, and potentially exacerbating issues such as the illicit trade in narcotics and firearms—a trade that involves armed militants from various communities in the North East.

A potential solution could involve a truth and reconciliation initiative, akin to the approach undertaken in South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. However, embarking on such an endeavor requires waiting for the cessation of gunfire in the hills and vales of Manipur—a task that may best be undertaken by Central forces, given the accusations of partisanship directed towards the State police.

Until such a resolution materializes, it is likely that 2024 will usher in increased insecurity for the residents of this picturesque yet troubled State. The trend of families seeking refuge away from the challenges resembling a “near war zone” is expected to persist, continuing the exodus observed throughout the preceding year.


* Dipak Kurmi wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at dipaknewslive(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on 13 February 2024 .



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