Manipur impasse: Kuki leaders can't trust Meiteis, govt; can't join state assembly

Legislators from the Kuki community are calling for the creation of a separate administration for the districts where they are in the majority

A protest demonstration by Meitei women calling for the Assam Rifles (of the Indian Army) to "go back" from Manipur and equating them with "Kuki rifles" (photo: DW)
A protest demonstration by Meitei women calling for the Assam Rifles (of the Indian Army) to "go back" from Manipur and equating them with "Kuki rifles" (photo: DW)


The lawmakers of violence-riddled Manipur had gathered for a special session of the state legislature on Tuesday, 29 August.

But the session lasted less than an hour.

As a war of words erupted between ruling party and opposition legislators over the prevailing grim situation in the state, speaker Thokchom Satyabrata Singh adjourned the session indefinitely.

The brief session was slammed by the opposition. "This is a mockery," said Ibobi Singh, the Indian National Congress's party leader in the state and a former chief minister of Manipur. "Let us save democracy, let us save the Constitution."

Why this impasse?

Armed clashes between two of Manipur's three major ethnic groups—the (mostly Hindu) Meiteis and the Kukis (largely Christian, but also following indigenous practices)—first broke out in May.

The state has since fractured along ethnic lines. At least 152 people have been killed in the violence and tens of thousands displaced.

Rival militias have set up blockades to keep out members of the opposing community.

The Narendra Modi-led Central government has deployed tens of thousands of additional soldiers (there always was an Army presence, being a border state) to patrol towns and highways.

Authorities have also imposed a curfew and internet shutdown.

But rights groups have accused the state government, also led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of not doing enough to stop the violence.

They also allege that the BJP's policies promoting Hindu majoritarianism have contributed to the problem.

Kukis want a separate administration

Some Kuki members, including MLAs from the community, are calling for the creation of a separate administration for the districts where they are in the majority.

"The physical population of the Kukis has been transferred to the hill areas and we no longer have any connection with the [Imphal] valley people," Ajang Khongsai, president of the Kuki Inpi Manipur, told DW.

"Under such circumstances, what do you expect us to do but ask for a separate administration under the guidance of the central government?"

The 10 Kuki legislators in the 60-member assembly, including seven from the ruling BJP, refused to attend the assembly session on Tuesday.

They had earlier announced their decision to skip the session, saying, "Imphal Valley has become a valley of death and destruction for the Kuki people."

Imphal, the state capital, is dominated by the Meitei people.

"How can we attend the session in the prevailing situation? Who will ensure our security when we travel to Imphal?" a senior Kuki MLA from the BJP, who asked not to be named, told DW.

He cited the example of Vungzagin Valte, a BJP legislator and former tribal affairs minister who was brutally assaulted by a mob in Imphal in May.

The government's silence and inaction to bring about normalcy is a sign that the ongoing chaos is advantageous to the BJP.
a senior Kuki MLA from the BJP (name withheld)

Ginza Vualzong, spokesperson for the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum, shares a similar view about the security situation.

"Just a fortnight back, three Kuki villagers were gunned down by unidentified gunmen. What all this proves is the insincere government efforts to restore normalcy in the state," he said.

What sparked the violence?

The fighting erupted due to disagreements over access to educational, employment and other economic benefits.

The Meitei community, which accounts for over 50 per cent of the state's 3.5 million residents, has demanded that it be recognised as a scheduled tribe (ST).

This constitutionally defined status is a form of affirmative action intended to combat historical structural inequality and discrimination. India reserves some government jobs, college places and elected seats for those categorised as members of the scheduled tribes.

The Naga and Kuki tribes have opposed this classification for the Meitei. These two tribes account for around 40 per cent of the state's population together, and their scheduled tribe status gives them land rights in the hills and forests that cover around 75 per cent of Manipur.

The state's high court asked the government to consider the Meitei's demand and set a deadline of mid-May.

In response, the Naga and the Kuki tribes launched a protest against the possible extension of benefits to the Meitei, who they believe are already the dominant community in the state.

They argue that granting the Meitei more privileges would be unfair.

Amid the sharp ethnic tensions, Paotinthang Lupheng, president of the All-Tribal Students' Union Manipur (ATSUM), stressed the need for the government to come up with a comprehensive strategy to tackle the deepening distrust between the two communities:

The violence will worsen if the government is unable to come up with a holistic policy framework that would engage all groups, and not just the Meitei majority.
Paotinthang Lupheng, president, All-Tribal Students' Union Manipur (ATSUM)

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