Why Manipur is Burning

Tussles over land, forests, drugs and poppy cultivation plus an influx of refugees from Myanmar lie at the heart of the latest flare-up

The violence between the Kuki and Meitei communities in Manipur spilled over to Shillong in the neighbouring state of Meghalaya, 5 May 2023 (photo courtesy @MangteC/Twitter)
The violence between the Kuki and Meitei communities in Manipur spilled over to Shillong in the neighbouring state of Meghalaya, 5 May 2023 (photo courtesy @MangteC/Twitter)

Patricia Mukhim

Each time one of the seven states lumped together as ‘North-East India’ goes up in flames and when lives and property are lost, media from the so-called ‘mainland’ send reporters to interpret the chain of events for their audience/readers.

The term ‘mainland’ is one I first came across while on a trip to Maui Island in 1998. The islanders referred to the US as the ‘mainland’. Somehow the description ‘North-East India’ similarly makes those of us living in this region known more for its geography, rather than the peoples, histories, cultures, ethnicities, etc.

Let me then decode what is happening in Manipur this month, and why, for the ‘mainland’.

Who started the fire?

It has been a culmination of several things. Since 2019, this BJP-ruled state has been pushing an aggressive agenda to legalise cannabis/marijuana (gaanja) to be used for medicinal and industrial purposes only. Marijuana is already legalised in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.

In Manipur, large swathes of the hill areas—which are inhabited by various tribes—cultivate marijuana. I recall visiting Saikul in early 2000 and seeing the elders nicely bind up the harvested marijuana plants and keep them ready for buyers to collect.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) was at the time trying to wean villagers away from growing marijuana and introducing passion fruit, aloe vera, etc. But this just did not take off, because marijuana requires very little care while other plants need careful nurturing; and while marijuana already had a ready market, it would take a while for people to set up processing units for passion fruit and aloe vera. Common sense dictated that they take the path most travelled. It was all about a steady livelihood and a ready market.

This time, trouble has been brewing ever since the Manipur government tried to survey the forest in the hills on the plea of bringing them into the ‘reserved forests’ category. In the tribal states of India’s north-east, particularly in Schedule VI areas, the land, forests, rivers—in short, all natural resources—belong to the people, not to the state. These resources are under the custodianship of the district councils enacted under Schedule VI of the Constitution.

In Meghalaya, for instance, only 4 per cent of forests come under the ambit of the state. The rest are under the district councils and are managed by traditional institutions, by clans and communities. Similarly, in Manipur, 67.6 per cent of the forest land is in the tribal areas, and only about 8 per cent constitutes reserved forests or comes under the state’s stewardship.

Poppy is cultivated in forest lands by several tribes as a source of livelihood. But it's the drug lords in the Imphal valley who actually rake in the millions and make the most of the bonanza.

In a sense, chief minister Biren Singh’s attempts to legalise marijuana for medical and industrial uses can be argued to be good for the state, as it will yield revenue. Poppy cultivation, on the other, hand is illegal and the Biren Singh government has been systematically reducing the area under poppy cultivation from about 6,742 acre in 2021 to only 1,118 acre in 2022. So this would have pinched the drug lords the most.

The Manipur government has also begun evicting tribal citizens living in the forest areas, and this was one of the reasons for the flare-up. The tribes aver that they are indigenous to the place and have lived in these forests for decades.

What exactly transpired?

According to Land Conflict Watch, an NGO, the sequence of events is as follows:

In February 2023, the forest department of Manipur forcefully evicted residents of the Kuki tribal village Kungpinaosen Songjang with the help of the police. The village is located in Churachandpur district, near its border with the Noney district.

Recently, the Manipur Forest Department had issued a clarification that K. Songjang village is a new settlement, established in 2021, much after the notification of the protected forests in 1966, and is therefore in violation of the state’s forest conservation laws.

On February 15, the deputy commissioner of Churachandpur ordered a verification drive to identify ‘illegal immigrants’ in several villages under the Churachandpur and Mualnuam sub-divisions of south Manipur. These so-called illegal immigrants are said to be mostly refugees from Myanmar, who have been coming in droves after the violence in that country.

However, it’s natural that kinship ties would prevail over nationality. The Kukis, like other tribes, believe it’s illegal for the government to take over their ancestral lands by declaring them as reserved forests and wildlife sanctuaries, and to do that without any informed consent from the people is too much.

On February 20, K. Songjang village was notified of the eviction for being near the Churachandpur–Khoupum protected forest stretch. The government declared the houses that were constructed after 2021 as illegal and liable for eviction.

This eviction drive was executed on February 20 itself by the Noney Forest Division and state police officials.

A show-cause notice was also served to the ‘elder’ Kungpinaosen village in the same district, directing the villagers to vacate the land for the same reason. (Land is traditionally inherited by the eldest child of a Kuki chieftain; this eldest can allow younger brothers to establish further villages, which must include the name of the ‘parent’ village, such as K. Songjang, in this case.)

This created resentment since there was no prior state engagement with the people and their traditional institutions. Kuki MLAs say there is a procedural requirement to notify forests as reserved, but there is no record of such a notification given to pre-existing villages. In the 1970s, the land of 38 village chiefs was excluded from the protected forests by the forest settlement officer. In November 2022, the chief minister arbitrarily cancelled this order, they say.

Once the eviction drive was initiated, a complaint was filed before the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) on 5 March 2023, asking it to quash the notification declaring the area as forest land and against the wrongful use of police force. The NCST issued a notice to the Manipur government on 14 March 2023, asking it to share all the facts on this issue and report on the action taken within 15 days.

In the same month, the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF), a newly formed conglomerate of tribal groups, and the Kuki Students Union (KSO) organised rallies in all the hill districts of Churachandpur, Ukhrul, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal and Jiribam to protest the evictions. The protest was taken also to Jantar Mantar in Delhi.

In Kangpokpi district, the rally turned violent when police resorted to using tear-gas shells to disperse the crowd. The unguided protesters started pelting stones in response, injuring five people and police personnel too. Academics like Thongkholal Haokip of the Jawaharlal Nehru University have weighed in, saying, “The state government has declared a huge chunk of tribal-owned and inhabited hill areas as its land, circumventing the forest-dwelling communities by depriving them of a consultation.”

Who is Who?

  • Manipur has a population of 3.2 million (32 lakh), 52 per cent of whom are Meitei and 40 per cent various tribes

  • Meiteis are mostly Hindus who inhabit the Imphal Valley while many tribespeople have embraced Christianity

  • Meiteis occupy only 10 per cent of the land area, but 40 of the 60 MLAs in the state assembly are Meiteis, as is the chief minister; Manipur has had only one CM with a tribal identity

  • The tribes, which comprise 40 per cent of the population, occupy the hills and over 90 per cent of the state’s forests

  • Meiteis are seeking ST status so that they too can buy land anywhere in the state, like the tribal people, who can buy land in Imphal while Meiteis cannot buy land in the hills

  • The tribes are opposing the demand because they fear losing out on reservations and because the Meiteis embraced Vaishnavism in the 18th century

  • The Kukis are accused of harbouring refugees from Myanmar and cultivating poppy for a livelihood

Old bad blood

The politics of Manipur was already convoluted. In a legislative assembly of 60 members, the Meiteis—because of their larger population—make up two-thirds of the house, meaning that 40 out of 60 MLAs are Meiteis, while the rest are Kukis and Nagas. In short, the tribals feel excluded from the decision-making process, even though these decisions affect their lives and livelihoods. Kukis and Nagas allege that they are victims of forced displacement, of exploitation of their natural resources, especially their forests, and also of land grabbing by the majority community, because of which they are under threat of losing their cultural identities.

Following close on the heels of state intrusion into the forest lands, the single bench of the Manipur High Court ruled that the state government should take steps and follow due process to give Scheduled Tribe status to the Meiteis, which was a long-pending demand. This High Court order came on March 27 and added fuel to the fire.

Meiteis are Vaishnavite Hindus, having converted to the faith propounded by their king in 1724. Hindus across the country are not considered ‘tribals’ as such, and the tribes of Manipur feel that this is an attempt by the more progressive and otherwise better-off Meiteis to also take away their share of reservations.

The problem broke out when the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM) took out a solidarity march on May 3 and police resorted to firing tear gas even as the homes and churches of the tribal people were marked and turned into bonfires.

The correct course of action was to challenge the High Court’s order at a higher bench or at the Supreme Court, instead of turning the issue into a point of conflict that led to the homes of tribal people based in Imphal being burnt and vandalised. And sadly, in all of this, the voices of the elders from the other tribes is missing. It appears that all decisions are now taken by students’ bodies, without elders’ guidance. Hence the violent fallout.

The inherent problem with India’s north-east is that boundaries between its people and homelands were drawn by colonialists like Henry McMahon and Cyril Radcliffe, who were completely ignorant of and insensitive to the kinship ties on either side of the border.

McMahon drew the 550-mile (890-km) boundary between India and its eastern and northern borders—including China, Burma, parts of the boundary with Bhutan in the west to 160 mile (260 km) east into the Brahmaputra valley—and never really understood that he was dividing people of the same ethnicity and cultures.

So there are Kukis of the Zo ethnic group living in Myanmar and also on the Indian side, and they are undeterred by national or international boundaries. They are families separated by a whim of history. It’s the same with the Mizos of present-day Mizoram.

The violence in Myanmar brought so many desperate families of Zo origin to Mizoram. There are Nagas of different tribal ethnicities both in Myanmar and Manipur, and not just in Nagaland. These boundaries drawn by colonialists are therefore problematic, and every now and again, these thorny issues crop up.

However, it must be said that while ethnic ties between nations are of an emotional nature, the resources allocated by each nation for its people cannot possibly be used up by immigrants. That’s a hard reality, and it is this reality that the Manipur government is trying to balance. The border villages of Manipur have become a sort of Lebensraum project, and on top of it, there are the poppy fields that destroy lives. (Whether the state government is really concerned about the overwhelming drug problem among its youth or the intent is to increase the acreage under marijuana is difficult to assess at this point.)

The Meiteis on the one hand and the Kukis and Nagas on the other surely have to learn to coexist and resolve their differences amicably.

In the meantime, the Manipur government needs to strengthen the district councils by giving them Schedule VI status. Let the tribal peoples govern themselves and not feel alienated by the current perception that all decisions are taken by the Meiteis.

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