By Arun Srivastava
Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh shirking of his moral accountability to resolve the differences between the two communities Meities and Kukis, and instead blaming the “prevailing misunderstandings between two sections of society” on the issue of inclusion of the majority Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category has been primarily responsible for the current genocide which claimed not less than 80 heads.
As the chief minister, having access to the vast sources of information, he should have ensured that the state is not caught in the trap laid down by the rightist forces and vested interest. Ironically he allowed himself to be dictated by the RSS leaders, who depends on the Hindu Meiteis for its survival in the state. His utter failure to comprehend the volatility of the situation got reflected in his avowal that long-term grievances of communities will be suitably addressed in consultations with them and their representatives. The recent opposition to Biren’s leadership from within the party also underlines his failure to keep the house together. This is not the first time MLAs within the BJP have risen against the chief minister.
Since he knows that the two communities had a long history of ethnic clashes, he should have taken prompt measures instead of allowing the situation to vitiate. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Manipur and its people became victim of the political machination of the saffron brigade. Singh’s inaction is also questionable as he was aware that a section of the BJP leaders would exploit the discontent prevailing in the Kukis against granting of ST status to Meities. While Kukis live in the hilly areas, Meities have dominance over the plain land. For some time Meities have also started shifting to the hills much to the dislike of the Kukis and Nagas.
A long history of mutual suspicion between ethnic groups in the Imphal valley and the surrounding hills ignited into a violent conflict after the BJP-led Manipur government started a drive to evict tribal villagers from reserved forests. The eviction drive, which began in February, declared the forest dwellers as encroachers and was seen as anti-tribal. It caused alarm and discontent not only among the Kukis, who were directly affected, but also among other tribals who have villages within reserved forest areas. The tribals say they have been inhabitants of the forests even before the forests were notified.
Manifestation of their anger against Singh and his government got reflected last week when just ahead of Biren Singh’s visit to Churachandpur, a mob vandalised and set on fire the venue where he was scheduled to speak. It also partially torched an open gym which Singh, an ethnic Meitei, was to inaugurate. The attack took place 11 hours before a “total shutdown” called by the Indigenous Tribe Leaders Forum in Churachandpur district. The Forum said that despite repeated memorandums against the drive to evict farmers and other tribal settlers from reserved forests, “the government has shown no sign of willingness or sincerity in addressing the plight of people”.
General secretary of the Kuki Students Organisation, Churachandpur, D.J. Haokip, said: “Several areas in the hill district have been declared as reserved forests, protected forests, and hundreds of Kuki tribals have been dislodged from their traditional settlement area. The anguish of the Kuki people is not about the evictions but the failure to provide rehabilitation to hundreds of those affected.”
In March, a violent clash occurred in Kangpokpi when protesters tried to hold a rally against “encroachment of tribal land in the name of reserved forests, protected forests and wildlife sanctuary”. In the incident five persons were injured. The Singh government instead of showing restrain withdrew the tripartite Suspension of Operations (SoO) talks with two Kuki-based militant outfits — the Kuki National Army and the Zomi Revolutionary Army. The SoO deal is a ceasefire arrangement inked by the Centre, the state government and Kuki outfits that began more than a decade ago. The cabinet reiterated that the “state government will not compromise on steps taken to protect the state government’s forest resources and for eradicating poppy cultivation”.
Just after this three churches in Imphal’s Tribal Colony area were demolished on April 11 for being “illegal constructions” on government land, leading to more discontent. Resorting to its tactics of calling the adivasis as vanavasis across India, the RSS in Manipur too did not identify the adivasis as Moolvasi. Instead they describe them as vanavasi.
The adivasis have been scared of the threat to their identity. Though RSS has been trying to penetrate the Adivasi population, they have not succeeded much in their mission. Kukis and Nagas are still closely identified with the churches. In fact the demolition of three churches was perceived as a direct attack on their religion and identity. With the growing presence of RSS in the region a simmering aggression is being witnessed between the tribals and Hindus. In recent years they have made some tactical change in their functioning. Their prime focus has been on Meities. But their leaders claim that consider all Vanvasisa part of this larger Dharma. RSS leaders believe the tribals are being guided to the right path through a holistic and nationalistic approach. In their quest they even did not hesitate to override the cultural norms of the Manipuri people.
In 2020 the powerful students’ umbrella group, Joint Students Coordination Committee (JSCC), had given the “boycott” call against the RSS from any occasion related to Manipuri history and warned it against hosting any event around the subject in the future. The JSCC comprises All Manipur Students Union, Manipuri Students Federation, Kangleipak Students’ Federation and Students Union of Kangleipak. It also sought “a public apology” from the right-wing outfit for distorting the state’s history. Early this year, the state government slapped National Security Act against a local journalist for criticizing the RSS and the chief minister for commemorating the Rani of Jhansi’s fight against the British, and linking it to the freedom movement of Manipur.
“Tribal Solidarity March” was organised by the All Tribal Student Union Manipur last week to protest the proposal to grant ST status to the Meitei community. This eventually led to tension and clashes. The controversy began on March 27, when acting Chief Justice of Manipur High Court directed the state government to “consider the case of the petitioners for inclusion of the Meetei/Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list, expeditiously, preferably within a period of four weeks from the date of receipt of a copy of this order”. Alacrity shown by the court is really intriguing. The issue should have been left to the government.
Violence erupted on May 3 during a rally and bandh organised by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur in protest against inclusion of Meiteis in the ST category. The tribals — Nagas and Kukis — make up 40 per cent of Manipur’s population and live in the hills. The Meiteis are 53 per cent of the population and live in the Imphal valley. The majority Meiteis, who are Hindus, now fall in the Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Classes categories. Nagas and Kuki-Zomis are mainly Christian. Manipur has equal populations of Hindus and Christians, at around 41 percent each.
Notwithstanding hills are guaranteed a certain measure of local autonomy and the local councils have specified powers and responsibilities including management of forests other than reserve forests Kukis have been demanding more autonomy. The hills dominated by Nagas, closer to Nagaland, have long been witnessing struggle for independence from India. The leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, Th Muivah, is from Ukhrul in Manipur. Those areas have been seeking an “alternative arrangement” outside the dominance of the Manipur government. Meitei pressure groups on their part have campaigned strongly for decades against any diminishing of Manipur state’s authority over the territories in its map.
What further aggravated the situation in the state is the Manipur government’s massive drive to end poppy cultivation. It targeted mainly the hill areas. In March, this led to a breakdown of a peace deal with two rebel groups, the Kuki National Army and the Zomi National Army, over their alleged support for poppy cultivation in the hills near Churachandpur. However this move of the government is viewed by the powerful Mizo students’ association, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl as an attempt to evict the ethnic Zo people. It said; “The MZP is closely monitoring the problems being faced by ethnic Zo people living under the government of Manipur. The origin of these problems is the Manipur government’s attempts to evict ethnic Zo people from their various settlements so that their lands can be taken from them and these lands can be declared reserve forest, protected forest, wildlife sanctuaries and wetlands.”
If the sources are to be relied the RSS is on the mission to expand its base. It has been using the Meiteis to accomplish its task. Obviously, it is not against Meiteis expanding their residential areas. This would help the RSS to checkmate the expansion of the Christian missionaries in the region. Demolition of three churches is the part of this design.
Under existing laws people living in the plains are not allowed to buy land in the hills districts where an elected Hill Areas Committee enjoys administrative autonomy. But now the Meiteis, after being conferred ST status can buy the tribal lands. The situation is more or less similar to the Kashmir, where the non-Kashmiris, after scrapping of article 370, have earned the rights to purchase land. This is purely a mechanism to eradicate the Christians from the region and force the Kukis and Nagas to accept Hindutva. In fact shrinking land and other resources in the Imphal Valley as well as protections given to hill areas and restrictions on non-tribals from buying land there led to a demand for ST status for the Meiteis.
Meiteis are better placed in terms of social, political, educational and economic parameters in the state than other tribes, particularly those from the Kuki-Zomi group. Therefore, there is a sense among the smaller tribes that the ST status is the only edge they have over the larger community. Now with Meiteis enjoying this privilege they would lose the advantage.
Yet another factor which added to woes of Manipur has been state government’s withdrawal from the process of talking to the Kuki militant groups. In 2016 the Modi government had shown interest in talking to these groups. The Kuki-Zo communities have been banking on the Union government to deliver a peace accord, and essentially, to get some form of self-governance akin to what the Bodo community was granted within Assam. The Kuki-Zomi armed groups have been under ceasefire since 2008.
What is worse is the Kukis are insulted and dictated by the Meiteis to leave Manipur on the plea that they are outsiders These people are even identified as refugees and illegal immigrants. Neither the government nor the Meiteis leaders are willing to listen to Kukis plea that their ancestors had fought against the British. There is an archival record of the Anglo-Kuki War (1917-19). The Meitei rioters shout: “Go back where you came from.” Where would we go? We are tribal people who have been living on this land for generations. They even allege that majority of Kukis villages located on the foothills of the Imphal Valley have been wiped out. Poor have no place to live. According to them they are fighting the battle for their survival. (IPA Service)