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Anarchy or a Forerunner to it? Discussing the Violence in Manipur

Socio-political Matrix


“Manipur” when translated from Sanskrit means ‘jeweled land’. It is a beautiful lush-green state in the Northeastern part of India and surrounded by the Indian states of Nagaland to the North, Mizoram to the South, and Assam to the West. Placed as delicately as a cocooned pearl.


It is important to note that the state has always been home to a variety of people who converge in more ways than one. In Manipur, the ethnic communities are by and large thought to be of the Mongoloid race. Languages or dialects spoken by these communities are from the same linguistic family, the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family. The love for sports and their state sport-persons have always gone far beyond their political and administrative differences.


Geographically, Manipur is divided into a centrally located valley and the surrounding hills. The hills constitute about 90% of the total geographical area of the state and 10% of the state’s population. 


The hills are administratively divided into five districts and six autonomous district councils, inhabited by 34 recognized tribes namely ‘Any Kuki Tribes’ and ‘Any Naga Tribes’. These communities are classed under the ST (Scheduled Tribe) category.


The Imphal Valley is inhabited mainly by Meities and Meitei Pangals who constitute 64.6% of the total population and about 10%  of the state's total landmass.


While these communities also have a torrid history of violence within the state, there are several socio-cultural ceremonies and festivals where they are indispensable to each other. For example, in the marriage ceremony of the Meiteis, the use of ‘Leurumphi’, a Naga shawl is mandatory. Without it no marriage is complete. 


Ethnic groups in Manipur are fed by the belief that adequate political power is a necessary means for retaining cultural identity and more so, for all-round development. And they might not be wrong.


However, of the 60 Legislative Assembly (Vidhan Sabha) representatives, 40 come from the valleys and 20 from the hill areas. This provides Meiteis with an overwhelming majority and decision-making power. 


It is interesting how despite having a large swelling population the Meiteis of the Imphal Valley are not allowed to acquire and settle in the hill areas as per India’s tribal policy. Their inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes category will enable them to secure reservations in government jobs, in educational institutions and would allow them access to forest lands. 


Communities already recognized as Scheduled tribes fear that granting tribal status to the Meitei community would not only dilute the opportunities and benefits currently available to them but would also endanger the forest lands they've lived on for centuries. 


A Timeline of Violence-choked Manipur 


The Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur (STDCM) has been demanding ST status since the latter half of 2012, citing the need to ‘preserve’ the community’s culture, language, and ancestral land.


An eviction drive sanctioned by Chief Minister Biren Singh - a member of the Meitei community himself - began in February when several areas in the hill district were declared as reserved and protected forests. This is after serving two notifications to the village chief on 10 August 2022, and another on 30 January 2023. One may therefore not be surprised at the eviction but in the way that it was executed.


A similar eviction drive was carried out in June last year that led to the demolition of 69 houses deemed ‘illegal structures’ by the state forest department.


Leaders of the ethnic Kuki community have alleged that the state government is targeting legitimate residents by carrying out evictions in villages which the government claims have sprung up on encroached reserve forest lands. 


While tensions were already simmering on the ground, on March 27, 2023, the Manipur High Court suggested that the state government consider including the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list. Like fuel to the simmering fire, the verdict sent uproars through the state causing widespread unrest.


On April 28, 2023, in southern Manipur’s Churachandpur a mob set ablaze a venue where Chief Minister, Biren Singh was scheduled to address a meeting. 


On May 3, 2023, clashes erupted at a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ organized by the All Tribals Students Union (ATSU) to protest against the demand for the inclusion of Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list. 


On 17 May 2023, the Supreme Court of India called the Manipur High Court’s verdict ‘factually incorrect’ and against the Supreme Court Constitution Bench judgments. 


Home Minister, Amit Shah, visited Manipur on 30 May but his visits yielded no breakthrough. And on the night of 13 June, nine people were killed in gunfire and arson. 


Now, almost two months since the violence first broke out and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Manipur government issued a ‘shoot at sight’ order in ‘extreme cases’, the loss of life and property in the lush-green north-eastern state of Manipur is another one for the history books. 


There have been more than 100 dead and over 300 wounded. Nearly 50,000 people have been displaced and taken shelter in some 350 camps. Some 40,000 security forces have been deployed. More than 4000 weapons have been looted by mobs from police armouries, of which only a quarter have been voluntarily returned. More than 200 churches and 17 temples have been destroyed and homes of local ministers and legislators have been attacked and set on fire. Schools are shut, highways are blocked, curfews have been put in place and internet services have been banned. 


Is this the consequence of anarchy or the forerunner to it?


What now?


There has characteristically been no word from the PM, Narendra Modi on the matter who recently made his maiden visit to Egypt. Geo-politics doesn’t stop even if politics at home has to. 


As busy and as efficient as the PM may be, his deafening silence on the matter has been highly criticized and called out by political parties across the spectrum. 


People in Manipur feel betrayed like “abandoned children” with high “trust deficits” that need immediate intervention. And rightfully so. The BJP-led state hopes for an intervention by the leader of their choice. The state seems to have an ardent need for an empathetic leader. But both empathy and the leader seem like a far cry from its current reality.


Home Minister, Amit Shah presided over an all-party meeting on 24 June that was attended by eighteen political parties including the BJP, four MPs from northeast India, and two chief ministers from the region. 


The matter was discussed in detail and useful solutions were proposed for peace in the state of Manipur. Many called for the dismissal of the state’s Chief Minister, Biren Singh over his failure in tackling the violence in the state. 


The Way Forward


It is important that moving forward, there is inclusive development throughout the state. A suitable legislation must be introduced after a detailed study of the bandh culture in Manipur.  Bandhs and blockades have to be kept in check and the rise of insurgency must be dealt with. 


Equal representation in government jobs and provisions of civil administration have to be brought about alongside, representation from the hill districts in the state government wherein a lot can be achieved by ensuring proportional representation in the ministries. 


Eviction drives must be carried out with utmost care for civilians and their property. Proper checks and rehabilitation centres are a must if the State wants peace to prevail. Clear communication and better administration are the need of the hour. 


There is an undeniable history of violence in Manipur but it is socio-cultural roots that have held the place and its people together through centuries. The State and the Centre must provide space and allow these roots to flourish. More space and recognition must be brought about for cultures and tribes in these areas.


Research about ethnicity and culture will not only provide a better perspective of the current-day milieu but also shed light on century-old similarities (and differences) of these communities helping them bridge decade-long crevices. 


Filling these gaps and joining in on a shared collective memory of a Manipur united in pluralism is what the State needs. But will these needs be fullfilled? If so, when?


Picture courtesy - Jagran English


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