Manipur is a state in northeast India that has experienced several waves of ethnic violence in its history. The most recent outbreak of violence happened in May 2023, when the Meitei people, who reside in the valley region of the state, and the tribal communities, who occupy the hills, clashed with each other. The spark for the violence was a demand by the Meiteis for a Scheduled Tribe status under the Indian Constitution, which would grant them certain advantages and privileges. The tribal groups, on the other hand, resisted this demand, fearing that it would undermine their rights and resources. The violence resulted in at least 98 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and thousands of displacements. The Indian government deployed troops and paramilitary forces to restore law and order, imposed curfews and internet shutdowns, and initiated investigations and peace talks to resolve the crisis. Let’s understand about this ongoing tension in detail.
Manipur has a diverse population of about 3.5 million people, belonging to various ethnic groups and religions. The Meiteis are the largest group, accounting for about 53% of the population. They are mostly Hindus, but also have Muslims, Buddhists, and native Sanamahi followers. They are concentrated in the Imphal Valley, which covers about 10% of the state’s area. The tribal communities, consisting of predominantly Christian Kukis and Nagas, form about 40% of the population. They live in the hill districts, which cover about 90% of the state’s area. The remaining 7% are other communities, such as Bengalis, Nepalis, Marwaris, Punjabis, etc.
The history of Manipur is marked by periods of conflict and coexistence among these groups. Manipur was an independent kingdom until it was annexed by British India in 1891. During the colonial period, the British followed a policy of indirect rule in Manipur, allowing the Meitei king to retain his authority over the valley region, while administering the hill areas through local chiefs. The British also introduced a system of land revenue and taxation that favoured the Meiteis over the tribals. Later when India gained independence in 1947, Manipur became a part of India as a union territory in 1949, and later got full statehood in 1972.
Since then, Manipur has witnessed several movements for autonomy and secession by various ethnic groups. The Nagas have been demanding a separate state or a greater Nagaland that would include parts of Manipur and other neighboring states. The Kukis have also been seeking a separate state or a Kuki homeland within Manipur. The Meiteis have been demanding more political representation and economic development for their region. These demands have often led to violent clashes among these groups, as well as with the Indian security forces.
One of the major episodes of violence occurred in 1993-94, when armed clashes broke out between the Kukis and Nagas over land disputes in the hill districts. More than 900 people were killed and over 100 villages were destroyed in the violence. Another episode occurred in 2015-16, when protests erupted over three bills passed by the Manipur government that aimed to regulate land ownership and protect indigenous rights in the state. The tribal groups opposed these bills, claiming that they violated their constitutional rights and threatened their identity and culture. Nine people were killed and several others injured in police firing during these protests.
Current situation in Manipur:
The current situation in Manipur is a result of a long-standing demand by the Meiteis for a Scheduled Tribe status under the Indian Constitution. The Scheduled Tribe category is a form of affirmative action that reserves government jobs, college admissions, and elected seats at all levels of government for certain communities that have been historically marginalized and disadvantaged. This status also gives these communities access to forest lands and resources that are otherwise restricted by law.
The Meiteis have been demanding this status since 2012, arguing that they are indigenous to Manipur and have been facing discrimination and neglect by both the central and state governments. They claim that they are economically backward and socially vulnerable compared to other groups in Manipur. They also assert that they have a distinct culture and identity that needs to be protected and promoted.
The tribal groups have been opposing this demand by the Meiteis, fearing that it would dilute their existing rights and benefits under the Scheduled Tribe category. They contend that the Meiteis are not indigenous to Manipur, but are migrants from other parts of India. They also argue that the Meiteis are not economically backward or socially vulnerable, but are dominant and influential in Manipur. They accuse the Meiteis of encroaching on their lands and resources, and of trying to impose their culture and language on them.
The tension between the Meiteis and the tribals over this issue reached a boiling point in April 2023, when the Manipur High Court directed the state government to make a decision on the Meitei demand preferably within four weeks. The tribal groups reacted by organizing a solidarity march in all hill districts on 3 May, under the banner of the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur (ATSUM). The march turned violent, as clashes broke out between the Meiteis and Kukis in and around the Churachandpur district bordering the Imphal Valley. The violence soon spread to other districts, as mobs attacked homes, vehicles, churches, and temples belonging to both communities.
Response of Indian Government:
The Indian government responded by sending in thousands of troops and paramilitary forces to quell the violence and enforce curfews. It also suspended internet services in the state for five days to prevent the spread of rumors and misinformation. The government also announced a series of measures to address the situation, such as:
- Setting up a panel led by a retired Chief Justice to investigate the causes and consequences of the violence.
- Establishing a peace committee under the Governor and security advisor Kuldeep Singh, along with members of civil society, to facilitate dialogue and reconciliation among the communities.
- Assigning the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to probe six cases related to conspiracy in the violence, ensuring a neutral and impartial investigation.
- Providing relief and rehabilitation to the affected people, including compensation, medical aid, food, shelter, etc.
The Manipur violence is a reflection of the deep-rooted ethnic divisions and grievances that have plagued the state for decades. It also exposes the failure of the political system and institutions to address these issues effectively and peacefully. The violence has caused immense human suffering and damage to property and infrastructure. It has also tarnished the image of Manipur as a land of diversity and harmony.
The need of the hour is to restore calm and normalcy in the state, and to prevent any further escalation or recurrence of violence. This requires sincere efforts from all stakeholders, including the central and state governments, the security forces, the civil society, and most importantly, the communities themselves. There is a need for dialogue, trust-building, and compromise among the communities, based on mutual respect and recognition. There is also a need for development, justice, and empowerment for all sections of society, based on equity and inclusion.