Making Sense of Manipur: The history between the Meiteis and the hill tribes

The rivalry and mistrust between the state’s hill tribes and the Meiteis have a tortured history that successive governments have not been brave enough to address

People from Manipur's Meitei community staging a protest at Jantar Mantar against the ongoing violence in Manipur state (photo: Getty Images)
People from Manipur's Meitei community staging a protest at Jantar Mantar against the ongoing violence in Manipur state (photo: Getty Images)

Patricia Mukhim

On May 17, two weeks after rioting started in Manipur, the internet ban in the state was extended for five more days amidst allegations that the ban was selective and confined to the hill areas. After what happened in Kashmir following the revocation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019, people in Manipur are bracing for a protracted internet shutdown.

Attempts to restore normalcy till now have included the use of specialised drones or quadcopters, sniffer dogs, patrolling for area domination and reinforcement of armed personnel. Dialogues for peace have been conspicuous by their absence. How long can the security forces maintain peace?

The deep distrust between the Kuki–Chin tribes in the hills of Manipur and the Meiteis in the Imphal valley has deepened. While casualties as a result of the violence that flared up on May 3 include people from both Meitei and tribal groups, the hill tribes seem to have been worse affected, with a much larger number of displaced people. The number of those who died in the ethnic clashes is still not known for sure, and nobody seems to believe the figure of 50–70 the state government has put out.

With refugees spilling over into neighboring Mizoram and Assam and beyond, horrifying accounts of the clashes have been doing the rounds. With no internet ban in the neighbouring states, the ban in Manipur appears to have had limited success. Incendiary stories of tribals shot, raped and hacked have inflamed passions in the absence of credible narratives.

Mizoram being the closest neighbour and with the hill tribes of Manipur sharing ethnic ties with the people there, over 5,822 internally displaced people reportedly fled there. A large number of Kukis are now with their kin in Assam or Meghalaya, while those with relatives in Delhi and elsewhere have taken temporary shelter there after they lost the homes they had built over a lifetime, brick by brick.

Several of them have seen their businesses go up in flames. The mere thought of rebuilding what was built with sweat and tears over decades is numbing. People looking at Manipur from a distance can scarcely comprehend the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis—Manipur has rarely witnessed the like before.

And yes, this despite the fact the inter-community clashes are not new to Manipur. Between 1992 and 1997, the Nagas and Kukis settled in the hills of Manipur clashed repeatedly over alleged encroachment by the latter into what the Nagas claimed was their ancestral home. The Kukis claim that the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (IM), the Naga militant outfit in talks with the Government of India, had uprooted people from over 350 villages then and killed around 1,500 unarmed Kuki people. Several thousand Kuki people had been displaced even then.

This led to the rise of Kuki militant outfits as a defence mechanism. In terms of the scale of killings, therefore, the Naga–Kuki clash saw more lives lost, but the relationship between the two tribes never deteriorated to a point of no return. In Manipur, however, with 10 Kuki MLAs, seven of them from the BJP, writing to the Union home minister and seeking a separate ‘administration’—a thinly veiled reference to a separate state—for the Kukis, the divide appears to be wider than ever.

Ahighly skewed distribution of population and land is at the heart of the conflict. The Meiteis are said to comprise 52–60 per cent of the population, and yet live on 10 per cent of Manipur’s territory; the rest of the population, mostly various tribes, is scattered across 90 per cent of the state’s area.

The mayhem in May was triggered by fear among the hill tribes that if the Meiteis, most of whom are Vaishnavite Hindus, are given Scheduled Tribe status, they would not only corner even more jobs but would also be able to buy land in the hills, which they are currently not allowed to do because they are not recognised as a ‘tribe’. The apprehension was that the Meiteis, being better off, would take over much of the land in the hills in no time.

For the tribes, land is deemed a gift from the ancestors, and any form of alienation of such land to non-tribal persons is equivalent to desecrating that land. For the Meiteis, who only have the Imphal valley, which covers a little over 2,000 sq. km out of the 20,000-odd sq. km that make up Manipur’s area, land is a precious and dwindling resource with the population growing.

While the anger of the Meiteis and the apprehension of the tribes are both justified, little effort has been made at reconciliation. The tribal councils and the constitutionally mandated Hill Area Council (HAC) were not consulted by the state government in an effort to find a solution. Instead, the present Manipur government exacerbated matters by intruding into forest areas in the hills and converting them into reserved and protected forests or wildlife sanctuaries without consulting the HAC or the tribes.

Extant inequities in Manipur should have been resolved after the British left this country, because it was the imperial power that had first divided Manipur into ‘the hills’ and ‘the valley’.

Making Sense of Manipur The Kuki–Chin tribes, originally from the Chin hills of Burma (now Myanmar), are said to have migrated to escape the ruthless Burmese rulers. Indeed, the Burmese kings were quite formidable and they conquered and ruled over Manipur for seven years (1819–1825). That period is known to Manipuris as the Seven-Year Devastation.

In 1907, the British decided to hand over charge of the state to Raja Churachand by constituting the Manipur State Durbar, headed by the raja as president, under the Rules for the General Administration of the State (RFGAS).

The British rulers, however, separated the administration of the hills occupied by the Naga, Kuki and other tribes from that of the valley. The hills were under the charge of the vice president of the Manipur State Durbar, a British officer. The raja, therefore, had no control over the hills.

The British argued that the hill tribes were very different from the valley-based Meiteis and had very different customs, languages and ethnicities. It was this that sowed the seeds for the present discontent between the people of the hills and the valley, as outlined by Veronica Khangchian in a paper titled Understanding Conflict in Manipur: A Socio-Historical Perspective (published by Guwahati-based research institute OKDISCD under Social Change and Development, Vol. XVI No. 2, 2019).

I n 1947, there were 565 princely states in India, of which Manipur was one. It was in September 1949 that Maharaja Bodhchandra Singh signed the instrument of accession to India. Manipur became a Union Territory in 1962 and a full-fledged state in 1972. But the fissures between the valley and the hills were left unaddressed.

The skewed distribution of land and the inability to reconcile the differences led to discontent and distrust that has simmered for decades. It does not reflect well on the successive governments in the state and at the Centre to have left the conflict between the valley and the hills unresolved.

Much has been written about the war on drugs launched by the N. Biren Singh government and the reduction in area under poppy cultivation in the hills. This too is one of the triggers, and the role of drug lords based in Imphal valley stoking the current crisis cannot be ruled out either. While tribes stand to lose their livelihood, the drug lords and investors, mostly Meiteis, stand to lose a lot more.

While the demand for a separate state for the tribal peoples is certainly premature at this point and the Union home minister has declined to compromise with the state’s territorial integrity, a permanent solution cannot be put off for long.

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