Mr Kiren Rijiju is wrong about Manipur violence

Yenning *

As reported in NDTV on March 7, 2024, Shri Kiren Rijiju, Union Minister for Earth Sciences, blamed the High Court order recommending ST status to the Meiteis for the ongoing ethnic clashes between the two communities in the state. He said the conflict was triggered when the High Court delivered the judgment, telling the government that ST status should be given to the Meities within three months.

Shri Rijiju alleged, “Don’t you think that was a very unique kind of an order from the High Court? Determination of a community as tribal or non-tribal is the government’s job. It is a policy matter”.

Further, he added: “When the High Court passed a directive that ST status should be given within three months, naturally, there was reaction from the other side. So the clashes happened. If anybody says that the Centre is the reason for the clashes in Manipur, he can be described as a foolish person or the most unfortunate person to pass such comments”.

The report further mentions that on March 27, 2023, the Manipur High Court instructed the Manipur Government to consider the inclusion of Meiteis in the ST list of India. It concluded by stating that the Court directive triggered the ongoing ethnic conflict between the Meiteis and the tribal Kuki community in the state.

Shri Kiren Rijiju is factually wrong.

As far as we know, no High Court judgment has directed the Manipur Government to give ST status to the Meities within three months. In fact, the March 27 Manipur High Court directive stated, “The first respondent shall consider the case of the petitioners for inclusion of the Meetei/Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list, expeditiously, preferably within a period of four weeks from the date of receipt of a copy of this order in terms of the averments set out in the writ petition and in the line of the order passed in WP (C) No. 4281 of 2002 dated 26.05.2003 by the Gauhati High Court.”

As can be seen clearly from the order’s text, the High Court directed the Government of Manipur to “consider” the case of the inclusion of the Meetei/Meitei community, which has been pending for more than ten years, and send a recommendation to the Centre as required by the procedure.

Anyone with knowledge of the procedure for including a community is well aware that the State Government may recommend either a positive or negative response to the High Court’s directives. As such, alleging that the Manipur High Court “told the government that ST status should be given to the Meities within three months” is factually wrong.

Also, alleging that the High Court order “triggered” the violence in Manipur is incorrect and is an over-complication of the root cause of the present violence in Manipur. As it was a judicial pronouncement, any grieving party could have gone to the higher courts as later incidences show.

Consider this. In a judgement in November 2000, the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India remarked: “Courts cannot and should not expand jurisdiction to deal with the question as to whether a particular caste, sub-caste; a group or part of tribe or sub-tribe is included in any one of the Entries mentioned in the Presidential Orders issued under Article 341 and 342 particularly so when in Clause (2) of the said Article, it is expressly stated that said orders cannot be amended or varied except by law made by Parliament”.

Keeping in line with the Supreme Court observation, the Manipur High Court, in its order on February 22, 2024, held that its directive of March 27, 2023, admitted its error, stating that the court finds that paragraph 17(iii) of the single judge’s decision on March 27, 2023 contradicts a previous ruling by the Supreme Court of India in 2000. Therefore, a review of paragraph 17(iii) is necessary”.

This submission points to the fact that the Manipur violence has nothing to the High Court’s judgement regarding the inclusion of the Meetei/Meitei Community in the ST list. Otherwise, the Hon’ble Court would not have rendered the need for a review.

Instead of discussing unrelated matters, let’s focus on the root causes and nature of violence in Manipur. To gain a deeper understanding, it might be helpful to examine the situation of ethnic minorities in other Northeastern states, especially the status of Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh, Shri Kiren Rijiju’s home state.

To begin with, the exact number of Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh is contentious, with estimates ranging from 34,493 to over 60,000. The lack of consensus on population figures is compounded by allegations that “Chakmas have been excluded from census operations to deny them legitimacy in claiming Indian citizenship”.

The Chakmas and the Hajongs primarily reside in designated areas of Arunachal Pradesh. The largest concentration is in the Miao sub-division. The influx of Chakmas has led to demographic shifts in certain districts, contributing to tensions between indigenous tribes and migrant communities.

The statelessness of Chakmas stems from historical displacement due to projects like the Kaptai Hydroelectric Project in Bangladesh. Despite resettlement efforts in Arunachal Pradesh, Chakmas face discrimination, limited access to fundamental rights, and encroachment on land. Legal battles have ensued, with the Supreme Court ordering protection for Chakmas and consideration of their citizenship applications.

Despite legal victories, Chakmas continue to face discrimination and difficulty in accessing citizenship rights. Media coverage reflects polarised views, with national media advocating for Chakma rights while local media often portrays them negatively. Amidst these allegations, the Hon’ble Rijiju remains a mute spectator.

While Chakmas, who came as refugees and settled in Arunachal Pradesh, have yet to get Indian citizenship, the status of the Kuki-Zomi community in Manipur reveals another uncanny story.

For instance, 1500 “Burmese origin Kuki Refugee” families who came to Manipur in 1967 have all received Indian Citizenship. It is common knowledge that many Kuki illegal immigrants from Burma have settled in Manipur. “Granting” Indian citizenship to these communities has never been a problem.

It is worth remembering the controversy of May 2021. Prof. Nehginpao Kipgen was the executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. On becoming a COVID victim, it was declared that he was born in Myanmar (formerly Burma).

There were disagreements within the Kuki-Zo community about whether a burial site could be given to the late Professor in Manipur or not, even questioning how the Indian Government granted him Indian Citizenship. This is just one example. There are several more.

But the issue is: When Chakams in Arunachal Pradesh are deprived of Indian citizenship, how is it so easy for illegal Kuki migrants from Myanmar to get citizenship and settle? Will Shri Kiren Rijiju please speak on this matter of immigrants and citizenship?

Admit it. The Centre cannot shirk responsibility for the violence in Manipur. The violence started when the people belonging to the Kuki community attacked and burned down houses belonging to Meeiteis in Kuki-dominated districts as well as at the peripheries around the Imphal Valley region. It was not the case that the majority Meities attacked minority Kukis. However, minority Kukis attacked Meiteis in their dominant areas first with the support of the armed militants.

The armed militants who supported the violence are the Kuki-Zomi militant groups with which the Government of India has been on a Suspension of Operation (SoO) pact since 2005 informally and since 2008 formally. Under the support of these militant groups, various groups of people belonging to the Kuki community were not hesitant to hurt the sentiments of the Meeiteis.

Look at this again. On November 26, 2020, the Manipur Government declared Mt. Koubru and Mt. Thangjing as protected sites under Sub-Section (1) of Section 4 of the Manipur Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1976. The order intended to declare the sacred site of Lord Thangjing (approx. 2 hectares) located at Thangjing Hill range, and Lai Pukhri (approx. 4 hectares) located at Koubru Hill range as protected sites.

According to the cosmogony of the Meiteis, it is believed that the evolution of human settlement in Manipur originated from Koubru peak and later descended downward gradually to the foothills and the valley.

Archaeological evidence also shows that the Manipur valley was under water during the Quaternary period and part of the Tethys Sea. Therefore, the earliest human settlements in the hills gradually extended downwards to the valley over the centuries. In other words, Koubru and Thangjing are sacred sites of the Meiteis, and there are regular annual pilgrimages to these sites for ritual and prayer offerings.

Various Kuki organisations started claiming Thangjing and Koubru hills as their ancestral land. They even declared that pilgrims should get permission from the Kuki village chief to visit such secret sites.

While the Kourbru site falls under the reserve forest, and the Thaangjing site falls under the Churachandpur-Khoupum protected forest. This claim is despite the common knowledge that the settlements inside the Kanglatongbi Koubru Reserve Forest and Churachandpur Khoupum Protected forests are illegal encroachers. Look at the nerve of this now.

Recently, Kuki-Zomi militants erected an enormous Christian Cross at Mt. Thangjing, desecrating the holy place. However, none questioned the instrumental use of the Christian Cross to occupy a sacred site which belongs to another religious community. When Churches are burned, the Christian community rises up in union. But when the Christian Cross is used to defile and occupy another’s sacred site, they remain mute. It is simply outlandish!

When someone has the courage to falsely claim another’s sacred place as ancestral land simply because there is the backing of an armed militant group, whether they are in the SoO pact or not, the Government of India, including its ministers like Shri Kiren Rijiju, has the moral responsibility of declaring that they have failed.

Abrogate SoO, implement NRC and deport illegal Kuki immigrants instead of blaming the Manipur High Court order in 2023 for the deepening violence in Manipur. Shri Rijiju and the Government of India can rely on these imminent solutions to achieve lasting peace in Manipur.

We agree with Shri Rijiju that “peaceful negotiation is the only means to get normalcy in Manipur”. However, we reiterate that kindly listen to our voice, too.

* Yenning wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on 12 March 2024.

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