Manipur: Is there a lasting solution?

Separately may be the only way to live together for the warring communities of the state, suggests Mercy V. Guite

At the relief camps in Manipur, where thousands of the displaced have taken shelter, the conditions are pathetic, with shortages of essentials such as medicines, food, sanitary pads and milk for babies (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @EastMojo)
At the relief camps in Manipur, where thousands of the displaced have taken shelter, the conditions are pathetic, with shortages of essentials such as medicines, food, sanitary pads and milk for babies (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @EastMojo)

Mercy V. Guite

It has been over three months now that Manipur was drawn into a seemingly interminable spiral of ethnic violence, and we are nowhere near a resolution, despite sympathetic noises in some quarters.

The central and state governments remain apathetic and are doing their damnedest to deflect attention, and there is no real effort to find a way to end hostilities and progress towards peace.

The political, socio-economic narrative only recently tilted towards the Zomi-Kuki tribes after the appearance online of a video showing women of the tribal community being abused by a Meitei mob.

Not much breaks through the internet ban curtaining Manipur. With the Centre claiming it’s ready to discuss issues—albeit on its own terms—and the Opposition too digging in its heels, we effectively have a stalemate.

Caught in this political-constitutional affray are human lives. Zomi-Kuki women and children are facing life-threatening health risks. Some observers will labour the point that there is suffering on both sides of the divide, but the worst the Meitei may have suffered since May 3, when this violent spiral began, is some disruption in life and business as usual.

On the other hand, losses that the Zomi-Kuki–Hmar tribes face, now and in the future, are a far more real thing. Their immediate worry, of course, is how to stave off attacks on their villages and on the Zomi-Kuki people by a majoritarian state machinery.

The immediate provocation that sparked the latest clash between the Meitei and Zomi-Kuki tribes was the Meitei demand for scheduled tribe (ST) status. The Meitei are already a privileged majoritarian group in Manipur, and come from the general, SC (scheduled caste) and OBC (other backward classes) sub-groups.

But the reasons for the Centre’s determined silence on Manipur lie beyond the immediate, or even historical sociological provocations, it is not about the Meitei demand for ST status.

At relief camps in Manipur
At relief camps in Manipur

The silence of the governments

What is it, then? What is the secret of Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh’s immunity? Why has the Centre not sacked him, after three months of an all-too-obvious administrative failure? Why wasn’t the failure of the state administration reasonable grounds to impose President’s Rule? Why, even after news of the atrocities against women caught in this violence became an open secret?

Manipur is extremely important to the economic and trade cooperation facet of the ‘Act East’ Policy. In 2003, there were reports of Jubilant Oil & Gas (a Dutch oil company) conducting a survey for the presence of hydrocarbons in the hill areas of Manipur—Jiribam, Tamenglong and Lamka (Churachandpur is a name imposed on the district later).

The total area granted for oil exploration was 3,850 sq. km, and it is estimated that Manipur has nearly 5,000 billion cubic feet of oil. The production sharing of Manipur Block–I was signed on 30 June 2020; it had already been signed for Manipur Block-II on 19 June 2010 and a licence granted by the Manipur government on 20 September 2010. This may suggest a context for an attempted land grab, perhaps?

However, even if these hill areas that are home to tribal communities are reserves of oil and natural gas, the current mayhem is still beyond comprehension. Why would the state government use its machinery for a largescale pogrom? Did the majority Meitei population have some deep envy of the tribal inhabitants of the hill areas? Would exploiting these oil reserves yield financial benefits to them? The answer to both those questions is ‘yes’.

Can this trigger hate crimes by the Meitei against the hill tribes, or nudge them into fanning false narratives that the tribals in these areas are illegal immigrants from Myanmar?  Yes, again, because it can make room for future claims that the Meitei are the ‘natural’ or ‘indigenous’ inheritors of these rich land reserves.

Even so, the atrocities against innocent tribal civilians in the Imphal valley, the killings and burning down of homes, businesses, churches and personal property seem excessive.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Manipur to lend an ear to the displaced and the kin of victims of violence.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Manipur to lend an ear to the displaced and the kin of victims of violence.

What more is there to consider? Well, Manipur is considered most important for the opium trade in the Southeast Asian countries, being on the border with Myanmar. If Manipur is an important junction in the opium trade both within and across the border, what does the state government and its majority population gain from violence against the tribal hill peoples of Manipur?

Yet even this does not explain the scale and intensity of the recent attacks. Are India’s geo-political, defence and trade and economic interests to be prioritised over civilian Kuki-Zomi lives? The silence is hard to explain—because surely this is a convincing alibi, should the government choose to speak.

How, then, do we explain the apparent support for Biren Singh and his government?

Meira Paibis vs Zomi-Kuki women

The monsoon session of Parliament has become a fruitless tug-of-war, even as media bytes and newspaper stories from both sides of the ethnic divide make headlines. The reality, however, is that the internally displaced Zomi-Kuki people are suffering daily in Lamka (or Churachandpur, its imposed name), Delhi, Guwahati, Aizawl and many other places. There are bodies lying abandoned in the Churachandpur district hospital morgue for over 80 days—families of the deceased have not been able to claim them without putting their own lives at risk.

The suffering of women and children is beyond comprehension. Many women have been sexually assaulted, even gang-raped. Openly. The disturbing video of the two Zomi-Kuki women paraded naked and groped is just one of many such incidents, which have gone unreported (or reported but ignored), thanks to the indefinite internet shutdown, especially in the peripheral areas of the state. 

There have been many incidents of Meitei mobs seeking out Kuki-Zomi people, even marking them for worse assault than, say, the Tangkhul, who are Naga tribals. These mobs have not even spared senior citizens and government officers, and are undeterred by the police or army.

They have hounded out tribal families living in the valley or in Imphal itself; have taken the attack to the villages in the hills; sought out students in their dormitories; blockaded roads, lain in wait for prey to come their way, even on the road to the airport (why not let them run away from the lands you so badly want—or was it more important to instil terror?).

They have ritually targeted women to bear the brunt of abuse, and often these mobs included women, who egged them on. The savage abuse of a woman, her body (because she is a tribal) sends a clear and chilling signal.

These ethnic clashes seem to have transformed the Meira Paibis into instruments of violence against tribal women. The Meira Paibi mobilisation has often been explicitly political. Civil society groups, including the Meira Paibi, must acknowledge their own ethnic and political inclinations in the perpetuation of violence against tribal women.

One important case in point is the horrific 2006 incident in Parbung village, where Meitei militants from the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) raped and molested 21 Hmar women, of which 10 were minors. It was the intervention of the Assam Rifles that eventually drove the valley-based insurgents from the Zo ethnic tribal areas.

The long-drawn-out conflict has even seen the Meira Paibi blocking an army convoy (on 20 June), carrying four arrested cadres of the banned valley-based UNLF (United National Liberation Front), who were caught the previous day in possession of 51mm mortars.

On 24 June, a similar incident took place in Imphal East, as 1,200 Meira Paibis blocked an army convoy carrying 12 KYKL (Kanglei Yawol Kanba Lup) cadres, at the suspected instigation of the local MLA. In both incidents, the Indian Army was forced by the women’s mob to let go of the arrested individuals.

Complex politics and geographies

The majoritarian Meiteis are apprehensive of the bifurcation of Manipur. The persistent demand to maintain the territorial integrity of the state, even after the Meitei have sought to wipe out Zomi-Kuki tribals in the Imphal valley, translates into a politics of ownership.

Manipur is a landlocked state. Topographically, it has three units—the Imphal valley, the Hills and the Jiribam basin—each with its own geographical personality. The population is distributed over these three distinct physical settings, spread over eight districts—five in the hill areas and three in the valley.

The Meiteis claim that they are 53 per cent squeezed into 10 per cent of the land. The Meitei vs Kuki-Zomi divide includes a fabrication that the Zomi-Kuki tribal groups are encroaching on the Meiteis’s just share of land.

Why is this deceptive? Firstly, the non-tribals, basically the valley-based majority groups, can buy land in the tribal hill areas—albeit with certain restrictions under Article 371(C), as the marginalised tribal communities will become further marginalised if their only source of livelihood is taken away from them, which are these hilly lands.

More than 80 per cent of the workforce in the hills are still engaged in agriculture. (In the plains, only about 35 per cent of the workforce are engaged in agriculture. So people in the plains have other means of livelihood.)

Second, the ecology of the hills being more sensitive cannot support a large human population. This trait is shared with other hilly areas in other parts of the country, including the far northern reaches, where unbridled ‘development’ has invited disaster. A few years ago, many people died during the Noney railway construction, as the area has loose soil and suffered a landslide.

Third, over 90 per cent of the terrain in the hill areas is not fit for human habitation. Most of the plains are habitable.

So, the Meitei claim of occupying only 10 per cent of the land is baseless as that is not a fair account of habitable land that can support livelihoods. Much of the remaining geographical area consists of forest reserves, which only grant access to the scheduled tribes for agricultural purposes.

Another root cause of the fault lines in Manipur is that development is concentrated in the valley—be it the construction of roads, or hospitals, medical institutes and educational institutions.

A possibility of peaceful co-existence?

A close reading of the Treaty of Sanjenthong (1873) and the Treaty of Moirang (1875) shows that in these agreements ‘Sumkam’s (son of Raja Goukhothang, a Zomi raja) territorial jurisdiction extends upto Moirang, and the (Meitei) Maharaja rules over the rest of the plains’.

This supports the historical Zomi-Kuki tribal presence in Moirang as a negotiated agreement. Article 371(C) of the Constitution, added via the 27th Amendment Act of 1971, divided Manipur into hill and valley areas, giving special protection to territories with tribal settlements keeping this early historical status in view.

So, what of the current tribal demand for a separate administration? Can a three-way division—along the geographies outlined above—ensure lasting peace and stability? Would that work? Is it even feasible? Maybe.

The Nagas’ and the Zomi-Kukis’ fight for separation from Manipur is a longstanding demand. Manipur has seen many wars among the region’s ethnic groups. The most recent conflict is, in some ways, a culmination of the irreconcilable differences between these populations.

To stop this repeating and seemingly unavoidable cycle of violence, the government of India must look at viable options. It must review not only what the tribes demand but also what the Meitei majority wants—an independent Kangleipak, concentrated in the central plains of modern-day Manipur, which is approximately 1,800 sq. km.

This may ensure peaceful co-existence with the Nagas, who will occupy the northern hill districts, as well as the Zomi-Kukis, who inhabit the southern hill districts of Manipur. All people can then live peacefully, and in turn work for the development of their respective regions.

(Mercy V. Guite is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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Published: 07 Aug 2023, 8:57 AM