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Understanding the complex conflict unfolding in Manipur

Manipur is a state in the Northeastern part of India, which is rich in forests, minerals, rivers and other natural resources that have largely been untapped by corporate houses and the state due to its remoteness, underdeveloped infrastructure, strong resistance from the peoples’ movement and some legal protection of the land due to its Autonomous District Councils[1].

The Indigenous Nagas of the Northeastern part of India and across the border to Burma would, however, not agree to the term North-East India because they have fought for their independence from India since the colonial rulers left in 1947. Nagas were independent prior to colonialism and declared independence one day prior to India doing so in 1947. This claim has, however, never been recognized by the Indian state and the area has been riddled with conflict ever since. Several attempts at peace negotiations have taken place and agreements have been reached, yet peace has been illusive and might never arrive in this region as long as the claim for independence, autonomy or self-rule is not recognized and respected.

Violent clashes have again rocked the State of Manipur since May 2023. The conflict is complex and includes several layers and disparate interests – including a) the historical conflict over indigeneity and ownership of land, b) the divide and rule politics of the central government to quell the peoples’ movement for independence, c) economic interests in the illicit drug trade, and finally d) the potential economic exploitation by the state and corporate houses of the natural resources of this remote area.

The North-East Forum for International Solidarity (NEFIS) published a thorough analysis of the conflict on 1 June 2023, from which I draw on in this article to try and explain the conflict[2] in an attempt to spread more information about it as it has disappeared from international media.

What is happening in Manipur?

In Manipur state several ethnic populations live side by side. The three largest groups are the Nagas (24%), Kuki-Chin (16%) and Meitei (53%). Currently, the Nagas and Kukis are recognized as “Scheduled Tribes” under the Indian constitution, recognising their disadvantaged socio-economic status. The Meitei, however, are not.

Since India’s independence, the Constitution laid down the general principles of positive discrimination for the Scheduled Tribes who are given reservation status, guaranteeing political representation, government jobs, quota in universities, free education or stipends for it, and preferential government schemes[3].  A number of laws were enacted to implement the provisions in the Constitution such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996, and the Forest Rights Act of 2006.

In light of this, the conflict between the Kuki and Meitei communities started on 3 May 2023 when, at the end of a solidarity march called by the All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) in various districts of Manipur, clashes erupted. The march was called by ATSUM to protest the recent Manipur High Court order which sought the recommendation of Scheduled Tribe status for the Meitei community by the state government to be expedited. The 19 April 2023 court order directed Manipur “to submit the recommendation in reply to the letter dated 29 May 2013 of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India” and  “consider 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 the order in terms of the averments set out in the writ petition”.[4] This judgement to a case which stagnated in the system for ten years, triggered the riot.

The violence has affected all communities in the state.

Around 200 people have been killed and more than 70,000 people have been displaced, including at least 10,000 children. As per government data, over 220 churches have been destroyed (though the United Christian Forum claims destruction of over 500 churches)[5] and about 4,694 other properties have so far been destroyed. The capital, Imphal, has been cleansed of the Kukis, and the second largest town of Churchandpur has been cleansed of the Meitei. A few remaining Kuki families who were residing in Imphal’s New Lambulane area were forcefully evacuated by central and state forces on the night of 2 September 2023.[6] Approximately 5,600 weapons and 650,000 rounds of ammunition went missing from the State Armories[7]. Both Kuki and Meitei communities have been armed to the teeth with weapons from various insurgent groups, including from neighboring Myanmar.

The killings continue unabated.

To understand this current conflict, we have to go back to the history of the colonial period, as well as the time before that.

Colonialism and conflict over natural resources and power

In the North-East region of India diverse ethnic groups live in close proximity to each other, with a significant number of Indigenous Peoples residing in the hill areas. Many of these Indigenous communities lived in relative isolation, and the way of their economic life produced minimal social differentiation. The political organization of the Indigenous Naga communities was and is predominantly through direct democratic practices with collective decision-making practices — the Kuki are autocratic —, and independent self-rule for each village. Villages then came together on matters that affected all in a form of confederation. The modern state as a distinct organ of rule above the society and having absolute sovereignty became a problem for the Indigenous notion of self-rule.

The interests in the North-Eastern part of India of the colonial state were founded on the exploitation of the region’s resources, which again stood in harsh contrast to the values of Indigenous Peoples who see themselves as guardians of the natural resources on their lands and have strict and highly sophisticated rules and customary laws for how to use the resources sustainably, namely to never take more than one needs, and to take it for a purpose and with respect.

The British colonial government designated certain areas as non-regulated areas and codified them in the Scheduled Districts Act, 1874. From 1935, until the demise of the colonial order, these areas, populated by various Indigenous groups, were categorised into “excluded areas” and “partially excluded areas”, with the former being governed directly by the people (using a principle of non-interference), and the latter having a limited representative system. These areas were at the fringes of the British colonial empire and the predominant colonial view of these areas as problematic, unorderly and apart from the rest, continued to inform the actions of the post-colonial Indian state.

After colonial rule ended, Indian lawmakers at the time wanted to assimilate the North-East into a single domain to the rest of the country. As the Indian government tried to do this, the people in the area resorted to political movements and agitations demanding greater political autonomy and statehood within the North-East. The Indian government tried to suppress these movements through different means, for example by imposing the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) or by granting a type of self-government, the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) in the hill areas. When India’s constitution was promulgated in 1950, six regions comprising the bulk of the North-East Indian landmass were designated as ADCs, which have less power than states but more than local governments, and are intended to incorporate their predominantly Indigenous populations, as communities, into the Indian state. However, the issue of sovereignty has remained a problem, with the various Indigenous groups mounting stiff resistance to the nation-state which imposed its rule in the areas of the North-East without any regard for the local Indigenous traditions of self-rule.

India Manipur 2023 2

Intertribal conflicts

Looking only at the three major ethnic groups occupying Manipur territory (Naga, Kuki and Meitei), the root of the current conflict goes back more than 200 years and also revolves around control and ownership over land and natural resources.

In colonial records it is clearly described how the Kuki people came to the Naga hills in massive numbers around 1845, killing thousands on their way[8]. This brutal subjugation continued (more or less intensively) up until the quelling of the “Kuki Rebellion” in 1919. Clashes between Nagas and Kuki have taken place off and on since then and until now. While the Kukis and Nagas have come together against the issue of Scheduled Tribe status for the Meitei, they have yet to agree on the issues of the Naga peace process, separate administration, and land and forest rights.

In 1948, a merger agreement between Manipur State with the National Government of India was made. This agreement only covered the valley area, also known in pre-colonial times as the Princely State under which the Meitei were ruled. Historically and traditionally, the Meitei occupied the valley lands of the region while the Nagas and Kukis are hill people and have always wanted to remain independent. However, adding a level of complexity that continues to exist today, the Meitei claim that the entire territory of the region, including the hills, is the traditional territory of Manipur, whereas it is in fact only the valley, out of fear that this would bifurcate the administration of the areas, allowing separate political entities to remain in control of both the hill people and the Meitei’s land in the valley.

These issues remain unresolved, and the current conflict is directly related to that.

The Nagas have found it difficult to get involved in the current conflict because the Kuki raised the issue of separate administration, which by default involves administration and ownership of land. However, the Nagas are providing relief to Kuki victims as they are in agreement that the Meiteis should not receive Scheduled Tribe status and upend the delicate political balance in the area and lose the independence they have been fighting for centuries.

Unfortunately, this is not the only level of complexity related to the conflict.

Current situation of conflicting interests

Additional layers of interests threaten the communities today, including the shifting drug trade and the dirty nexus between the state and corporate houses.

Drug trade

Experts claim that the “Golden Triangle” of illegal drug trade has shifted from the Myanmar-Thailand-Laos trijunction to the borders of Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, which has led to the Governor of Manipur to start a “war on drugs” — a war many have criticized as being one only on paper.

Manipur borders Myanmar and has become a major route for drug smuggling through its border town of Moreh. Further, poppy growing, which is carried out by the poorest farmers with financial advances for fertilisers and pesticides from the drug mafia, has also shifted to Manipur from Myanmar. This shift has happened because of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s extensive illicit crop monitoring, including satellite observation, in Myanmar, which does not cover India as poppy growing is licensed in the country.

Even though illegal poppy cultivation for the purposes of drug production is done by all three major groups in the state — Kukis, Nagas and Meiteis — the Kuki are painted as villains who indulge in illegal poppy cultivation in the hills. In fact, Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh, who has begun his “war on drugs” due to this shifting drug trade, has contributed to this discrimination by popularising such epithets as “poppy cultivators” and “narco-terrorists”, which he only uses for the Kuki.

Civil society activists claim that the annual revenue from the drug business in Manipur is estimated to be to the tune of Rs.50,000 Crore (approx. 5.5 billion euro), nearly double that of the state’s Rs.30,000 Crore (approx. 3.3 billion euro) annual budget. The implication being that the drug network is extensive and cannot thrive without political support[9].

This claim has been backed up by the former assistant superintendent of police, Ms. Thounaojam Brinda, who bravely stated in an interview that the Chief Minister of Manipur (Biren Singh) is not fighting the illicit drug trade; rather he is part of it, serving as the drug mafia’s patron and protector[10].

Ms. Thounaojam Brinda was later forced to publicly apologize for her statements, and a group called the Meitei Leepun called for a boycott against her, urging her not to appear on any public platforms[11].

Regardless of who is behind the drug mafia and who allows for it to survive, what is clear is that the trade and production of illicit drugs in Manipur is adding fuel to the conflict, and since political elites are allegedly profiting heavily from this trade, they have no interest in intervening in the conflict as it diverts attention from the drug trade they wish to continue.

Dirty nexus between the state and corporate houses

In this context, one has to understand that many areas that are termed agriculturally backward and are populated by Indigenous communities have huge reserves of minerals and resources. Thus, corporate houses have an enormous interest in exploiting the resources in these areas[12]. This is why these areas are now a target of the state-corporate nexus.

Resource-rich land is being taken over, sometimes forcibly, for a pittance, without any regard for the lives and livelihood of Indigenous communities who have lived and cared for it for centuries. This is the main reason why these communities have continuously fought for the protection of their livelihoods and habitats. Due to the struggles of Indigenous communities against oppression and exploitation, in the post-colonial period they were granted special protection through a series of measures, and there are various provision provisions in the Constitution of India that safeguard the rights of Indigenous Peoples. For instance, the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution says that state governments must frame laws to “prohibit or restrict the transfer of land by or among members of the Scheduled Tribes” in the Scheduled areas. And the Sixth Schedule provides for the administration of tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram.

Tribal groups, especially the Kuki community in Manipur fear that granting Scheduled Tribe status to the Meiteis would lead to the loss of job opportunities and allow the Meiteis to acquire land in the hills, pushing the Indigenous Peoples out of their traditional homelands. The way the hill communities have historically been treated by the Manipur government has pushed these communities to see the demand for Scheduled Tribe status as a ploy to counterfoil the political demands of the Kukis and Nagas with a tacit strategy of the majority community’s elites to make inroads into the hill areas.

In Manipur there is a significant lack of educational and employment opportunities in general. Thus, the scant educational opportunities for all, including those in the hill communities in particular, are viewed as becoming reduced if the demand for Scheduled Tribe status is accepted.

Indigenous communities argue that granting Scheduled Tribe status to the Meitei community could dilute those already limited benefits and opportunities currently available to them. They further argue that granting Scheduled Tribe status is unconstitutional[13]. They also fear that the minimal resources and reservations of percentages of government jobs and access to education afforded to them as part of their constitutional protected stays could be further divided, affecting their representation and access to government schemes.

Such inter-community hatred is being sown and perpetuated for the political benefit of ruling political parties, propagating a larger agenda of sowing discord among the communities in the North-East through divide and rule politics and thereby garnering support in the majority communities across the region. This is being done to create the political space for the ruling RSS-BJP party’s brand of communal, anti-minority politics, thereby enabling the plundering of resources by corporate houses.

The present efforts of the Union government and state government in Manipur are to dominate the hills as part of a larger strategic design to acquire forests rich in minerals and other resources for the benefit of corporate houses. Ruling elites leading these efforts are keenly aware of the staunch resistance movements of the common people and the existence of a long history of insurgency in the region. And as such, the success of the present endeavor of the ruling elites to dominate the hills is dependent on exploiting differences among the communities through divisive politics and garnering acceptance for its aims in the majority community. Thus, the state government has fallen back on chauvinist forces within the majority Meitei community to legitimize its actions.

Against this backdrop, it becomes imperative for all the progressive and democratic forces of different communities to understand the contours of the present crisis and to prepare the people for the task of securing justice for all, which is the only strategy that can ensure the possibility of a lasting peace.

Government silence and Supreme Court interventions

The State of Manipur and the Union of India have remained virtually mute witnesses to the killings that continue as of this writing. That approximately 5,600 arms, including some of the most sophisticated weapons, and 650,000 rounds of ammunition went missing from State Armories[14] by design or default expose the complicity of State authorities either in the commission of the continuing killings or ommission in the form of not taking adequate action to bring the riots under control.

It took a horrific video, surfaced on 19 July 2023, of two women being paraded naked on a road by a group of men in Manipur on 4 May to shake the country,[15] forcing even India’s Chief Justice to speak publicly, calling on the State to stop the violence and protect its people.

The Supreme Court in its substantive direction on 7 August 2023 stated:

This Court must express its anguish of the manner in which women have been subjected to grave acts of sexual violence in the course of the sectarian strife in Manipur. Subjecting women to sexual crimes and violence is completely unacceptable and constitutes a grave violation of the constitutional values of dignity, personal liberty and autonomy, all of which are protected as core fundamental rights under Part III of the Constitution. Mobs commonly resort to violence against women for multiple reasons, including the fact that they may escape punishment for their crimes if they are a member of a larger group. In time of sectarian violence, mobs use sexual violence to send a message of subordination to the community that the victims or survivors hail from. Such visceral violence against women during conflict is nothing but an atrocity. It is the bounden duty of the state – its foremost duty, even – to prevent people from committing such reprehensible violence and to protect those whom the violence targets.” [16]

As part of the 7 August order, the Supreme Court constituted a three-member judge committee to enquire into the nature of violence against women that has occurred in Manipur since the beginning of the conflict on 4 May 2023. The committee was then required to submit a report on the steps required to meet the needs of the survivors including measures for dealing with rape trauma, providing social, economic, and psychological support, relief and rehabilitation in a time bound manner; ensure that free and comprehensive medical aid and psychological care to victims of survivors is provided; ensure conditions of dignity in relief camps set up for displaced  persons including suggestions for additional camps; and enquire into and take steps necessary for the disbursement of compensation.

It also set up an investigation team headed by former Director General of Police Maharashtra to supervise the investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the First Information Reports (FIRs) submitted to the investigative body.

The Deputy Inspector General was specifically directed to investigate the allegations that certain police officers colluded with perpetrators of violence (including sexual violence) during the conflict in Manipur and that the Union Government and the State Government shall provide any assistance required in order to carry out this investigation. These findings shall also be submitted to the Court in the form of a report.

The Supreme Court is monitoring the cases, holding several hearings.[17], [18]

So, what is next?

On 7 November 2023, six months after the start of the riots, five Kuki people travelling from Churachandpur to Kangpokpi (both Kuki-dominated districts) were allegedly intercepted and attacked by a group of Meiteis when they entered Imphal West (a Meitei dominated district) on the border with Kangpokpi. As news of the abduction spread, armed Kuki militants indiscriminately fired their arms towards a group of people in Kangchup area along Imphal West and Kangpokpi districts, resulting in injuries to seven people, including two policemen and a woman.[19]

This is instructive of the continuing violence.

The de facto separation of the Meitei and Kuki territories have since been clarified, when in June 2023 a decision was reached by the authorities that the Manipur Police would handle the law and order situation in the valley inhabited by the Meiteis, while Central forces will take responsibility for the same in the hill districts inhabited by the Kukis.[20]

The separation is even more evident by seeing that the ethnic cleansing operation is complete, with the valley having been cleansed of the Kukis and the hills being cleansed of the Meiteis, including  government officials and the members of the Legislative Assembly.

The de jure separation of the valley and hills of Manipur however remains the trickiest issue as it also involves the Nagas and other tribal communities in the State.

This issue compounds the many other levels of complexity explored in this article, including the long-term, historical conflicts over self-rule and land ownership, divide and rule political tactics to halt independence efforts, and the current economic windfall from the illicit drug trade as well as the potential future windfall of land and resource exploitation that are of interest to so many influential parties.

It is unlikely that either the Manipur government or the Central government will initiate any political process either for the separate administration for the Kukis or the granting of Scheduled Tribe status to the Meiteis. There is however all likelihood that the de facto separate administration shall continue in the near future for as long as the killings continue, which has been the case for seven consecutive months.

Meanwhile, as a long-term solution seems to be far in the future, IWGIA urges for the violence to stop, for dialogues to proceed toward finding a durable solution, and calls on State and national authorities to take peaceful action in stopping the conflict and hold those to account who are fomenting the conflict for personal gain.

 

Article written and photos of Manipur by Signe Leth, IWGIA Senior Advisor on Women, Land Rights & Asia

 

 

References

[1] Article 371(C) of the Indian Constitution provides for the formation and functioning of a committee of the Legislative Assembly of the State consisting of members of the Assembly elected from the Hill Areas of Manipur. It also provides for the Governor to annually (or whenever so required by the President) make a report to the President regarding the administration of the Hill Areas. The executive power of the Union extends to the giving of directions to the State as to the administration of the hill areas. Under the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act of 1971, six Autonomous Districts Councils were constituted on 14 February 1972. These are: Chandel Autonomous District Council, Churachandpur Autonomous District Council, Sadar Hills Autonomous District Council of Kangpokpi, Manipur North Autonomous District Council of Senapati, Tamenglong Autonomous District Council and Ukhrul Autonomous District Council. For more information see: “Government of Manipur, Comprehensive details about Manipur State and its Environmental & Social Sensitivities” at https://manipur.gov.in/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/annexure-01-manipur-comprehensive.pdf

2 On The Current Turmoil In Manipur – What We Need To Know And What We Need To Do: Nefis, Kafila Online, 18 June 2023, https://kafila.online/2023/06/18/on-the-current-turmoil-in-manipur-what-we-need-to-know-and-what-we-need-to-do-nefis/

[3] Article 342 of the Indian constitution section 1 and 2 states:
(1)
 The President may with respect to any State or Union Territory and where it is a State, after consultation with the Governor thereof by public notification, specify the tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within tribes or tribal communities which shall for the purpose of this Constitution be deemed to be Scheduled Tribes in relation to that State or Union Territory, as the case may be.
(2) Parliament may by law include in or exclude from the list of Scheduled Tribes specified in a notification issued under clause any tribe or tribal community or part of or group within any tribe or tribal community, but save as aforesaid a notification issued under the said clause shall not be varied by any subsequent notification.

[4] Order dated 19 April 2023 in WP(C) No. 229 of 2023.

[5] Leading to filing of 11,414 Zero FIRs, out of which 6,621 were converted to regular FIRs, and 4,766 were original FIRs filed within their original jurisdiction. FIRs are First Information Reports that are written documents prepared by the police when they receive the first instance of information concerning the commission of a cognizable offence.

[6] The Manipur Crisis in Numbers: Four Months of Unending Violence, The Wire, 9 September 2023, https://thewire.in/security/the-manipur-crisis-in-numbers-four-months-of-unending-violence

[7] Manipur: Almost six months after clashes began, only 25% of looted arms found, The Indian Express, 29 October 2023,  https://indianexpress.com/article/india/manipur-almost-six-months-after-clashes-began-only-25-of-looted-arms-found-9003876/

[8] Extract from the Diary of Major General sir James Johnstone, political agent in Manipur (1880).

[9] Editors’ Guild of India, Report of the Fact-Finding Mission on Media’s Reportage of the Ethnic Violence in Manipur, 2 September 2023, https://editorsguild.in/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/EGI-report-on-Manipur.pdf

[10] The Most Damaging Charge Against CM Biren Singh: Protecting Drug Lords Connected To BJP & His Wife, The Wire YouTube channel, 7 August 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0rZN3dQ51w

[11] Manipur human rights activist’s home vandalized, The Indian Express, 6 October 2023, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/manipur-human-rights-activists-home-vandalised-8970493/

[12] Similar to what has happened, and is happening, in other Indigenous territories in India, see the 2019 book “Adivasis and Their Forest” by Gladson Dungdung at https://iwgia.org/en/resources/publications/3524-adivasis-and-their-forest.html

[13] Becoming a Scheduled Tribe in India: History and Process, Tribal Intellectual Collective India YouTube channel, 19 May 2023, https://youtu.be/fwJD58VnMH8

[14] Manipur: Almost six months after clashes began, only 25% of looted arms found, The Indian Express, 29 October 2023,  https://indianexpress.com/article/india/manipur-almost-six-months-after-clashes-began-only-25-of-looted-arms-found-9003876/

[15] In Manipur Horror, 2 Women Paraded Naked On Camera, Allegedly Gang-Raped, NDTV, 20 July 2023, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/in-manipur-horror-2-women-paraded-naked-on-camera-allegedly-gang-raped-4223105

[16] Order of the Supreme Court of India dated 7 August 2023 in  Special Leave Petition (Civil) Diary No 19206 of 2023 Dinganglung Gangmei & others Versus Mutum Churamani Meetei & Ors, https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2023/19206/19206_2023_1_7_45953_Judgement_07-Aug-2023.pdf

[17] Order of the Supreme Court of India dated 7 August 2023 in Special Leave Petition (Civil) Diary No 19206 of 2023 Dinganglung Gangmei & others Versus Mutum Churamani Meetei & Ors, https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2023/19206/19206_2023_1_7_45953_Judgement_07-Aug-2023.pdf

[18] The case has been heard on 14, 18, 21 and 25 Augsut 2023, and on 1, 6, 15 and 25 Septemebr 2023, with the court reviewing the reports and passing various other new directions.

[19] Soldier’s kin among 4 abducted in Manipur; 7 injured in firing, The Hindustan Times, 8 November 2023, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/soldiers-kin-among-4-abducted-in-manipur-7-injured-in-firing-101699383390731.html

[20] Biren briefs Shah on Manipur situation, The Nagaland Post, 26 June 2023, https://nagalandpost.com/index.php/biren-briefs-shah-on-manipur-situation/

Tags: Land rights, Human rights

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