Over the past three days, reports of violence, arson, and mayhem have emerged from various districts in Manipur, including Churachandpur, Imphal East, Imphal West, Bishnupur, Tengnoupal, and Kangpokpi. In a move that was seen as being distinctly over the top, district magistrates were authorised by the Manipur government to issue shoot-at-sight orders.
The violence began on May 3, after the All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) held a solidarity march in all districts opposing the recent Manipur High Court order, which had asked the Manipur State government to send a recommendation to the Centre regarding the demand to include the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes (STs) list.
On May 4, as the violence escalated, the Centre invoked Article 355 of the Constitution, which is a part of emergency provisions. It empowers the Centre to take necessary steps to protect a State against external aggression or internal disturbances. In the last few days, convoys of trucks belonging to the Army, the Assam Rifles, the Rapid Action Force, and local police personnel have moved into the State and entered several affected areas.
Over a dozen people have been reported killed, hundreds have been wounded, and over 9,000 people belonging to the Kuki and Meitei communities, besides others, have been displaced so far. Defence sources said that around 9,000 people were rescued from violence-hit areas and given shelter. Buildings, homes, and other property, including vehicles, have been destroyed. There is no official confirmation of the number of fatalities yet.
As I write this on the third day of violence and chaos, authorities are struggling to control the situation, despite the flag marches conducted by the Army. Mobile data and broadband connections continue to be suspended. I dictated this piece to a Frontline reporter at the Chennai office over phone. I had to move my family out of our home in Khuman in Bishnupur after shots were fired less than a kilometre away, near a Village Defence Forces training centre.
As of now, some 5,000 people have been shifted to safe homes or shelters in Churachandpur, another 2,000 in Imphal Valley, and 2,000 people in the border town of Moreh in Tengnoupal district. According to police sources, an armed mob in the Torbung area of Churachandpur district attacked people of the Meitei community during the May 3 march. This led to retaliatory attacks in the Valley districts. Many shops and houses in Torbung were vandalised and gutted in violence that lasted more than three hours.
Chief Minister N. Biren Singh’s plea for calm has proved futile. Suggesting that the violence was the result of a misunderstanding, Singh said that the government was taking all measures to maintain law and order, including requisitioning additional paramilitary forces. Central and State forces have been directed to take strong action against individuals and groups found engaging in violence.
Indefinite curfew has been imposed in the Meitei-dominated Imphal West, Kakching, Thoubal, Jiribam, and Bishnupur districts, as well as in Kuki-dominated Kangpokpi and Tengnoupal districts. Latest reports said that around 500 people belonging to the Kuki community have sought shelter at the CRPF camp in Lamphelpat in Imphal.
In the Motbung area of Kangpokpi district, where the Kuki people have a significant presence, over 20 houses have been set on fire. More than 1,000 people belonging to the Meitei community have fled the Kuki-dominated Churachandpur district.
Violent incidents have also been reported from the border town of Moreh in Tengnoupal district, where many Meitei houses were set on fire. Incidents of violence have also been reported from many parts of the capital city of Imphal.
The real causes of conflict
The immediate provocation for the ethnic unrest appears to have been the demand for the Meitei community, which accounts for 53 per cent of Manipur’s population and primarily inhabits the Manipur Valley, to be included in the ST list.
But that is only a proximate cause. The underlying anger, simmering for a long time, has other reasons. These are linked not just to the government’s clampdown on reserved and protected forests in the State’s hill areas but also to the Kukis’ feeling of being persecuted. Several Chin, people of the same ethnic group from across the border in Myanmar, have entered India, fleeing violence and persecution, and the government’s tough stance against these so-called illegal immigrants has angered the Kukis, whose kin they are.
The BJP Chief Minister’s tough stance against what he calls encroachment of reserved and protected forest areas in the hills of Manipur by tribal communities stems from various causes, including the fact that many acres of land in the hills are being used for poppy cultivation. The government sees its crackdown on forest areas as part of a bigger war against drugs, but it is also guilty of using “drug lords” as a blanket term against all Kuki people.
Secondly, there is serious pressure on land in Manipur. As populations increase in the tribal villages, they tend to spread out into surrounding forest areas, which they consider their historical and ancestral right. This is contested by the government. Simultaneously, the Meitei, who live in the valleys, are angry because they are not allowed to settle or buy land in the hill areas, while tribal people can buy land in the valleys.
The government has no real policy about how it plans to recognise new villages. Nor is there any transparent forest policy in Manipur. This has led to resentment even within its own party.
BJP MLA’s protest
On April 12, Paolienlal Haokip, a BJP MLA, questioned the sudden revenue and forest survey undertaken in the Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest in Churachandpur district, which was designated a protected forest in 1966.
In a letter dated April 12 addressed to Biswajit Singh, Minister for Power, Forest, Environment, and Climate Change, Haokip, who represents the 59 Saikot Assembly constituency reserved for STs, described the forest survey as a matter of great public anguish and perceived injustice.
Haokip said that he had recently pointed out in the Assembly that the State government’s nullification of the orders of an earlier Assistant Settlement Officer (ASO) excluding certain villages from proposed protected forest areas was wrong. He wanted to know how the State government could nullify the orders of an ASO, the statutory authority under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 to settle any claims of pre-existing rights on land in the absence of a Forest Section Officer (FSO), a post that is currently vacant.
Haokip said that the delay in processing claims, cited as a reason, was the fault of the authorities concerned and not of the landowners. He added that it cannot be a reason for annulling any order that excludes lands claimed by the forum of tribal chiefs from the protected forest area.
Haokip pointed out that if there were no survey records with the State government, it would only prove that the Gazette declaring the Churachandpur-Khoupum forest area as a protected area was flawed and therefore void. He went on to request that further surveys be stopped until there is clarification in the issue.
The MLA, who is a Kuki, said that unless such surveys were conducted in all protected forests, they would be perceived as being selective and targeted in nature.
Defiant State government
Despite Haokip’s and other tribal people’s protests, Biren Singh remained unfazed, and has stridently pushed back against the tribal people’s protests against expanding reserved forests. It has been reported that Singh said that his government uses satellite mapping to learn about changes in forest compositions in the hill districts. And that it takes encroachments very seriously and would deal with it accordingly. According to Singh, anybody who protests against this goes against the Constitutional provisions, which provide for protecting forest lands.
On April 11, 2023, at least two of 26 houses were demolished inside the Langol Reserve Forest. On February 21, 2023, residents of K. Songjang village in Churachandpur were evicted after a Google Maps image showed no settlement in the area in 2020. The eviction came after the forest department issued a notification in November 2022, derecognising 38 villages in the Churachandpur and Noney districts, claiming they fell within the Churachandpur-Khoupum protected forest. The notification said that the permission for settlement was granted to the villages by an officer who was not qualified to do so.
But according to the Kukis, the 38 villages, with a population of over 1,000 people each, have existed for the last 50-60 years. The Kuki Inpi Manipur or KIM, the apex body of the Kukis in Manipur, alleged that Biren Singh’s statement about the issue was false and intended to divert attention from the dissent of the tribal communities against the “authoritarian rule” in Manipur.
The anger within the Kuki community against what it sees as its “selective targeting” by the BJP-run State government appears to have spilled over during the current protest march as well, leading to the violence.
The Centre has backed Singh’s stand. During a recent visit to Manipur, Bhupender Yadav, Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, asserted that the 1927 Forest Act became a State subject after Independence but that after the 1976 Amendment, forest land came under the jurisdiction of both the State and Central governments. The State government retains ownership of the forest and was solely responsible for protecting reserved and protected forest land, he said.
Previous protest rallies
On March 10 itself, mass rallies had been held across hill districts, including Churachandpur, Ukhrul, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal, Jiribam, and Tamenglong. Thousands of members of the Kuki tribe had then protested the BJP-run government’s so-called selective targeting of Kukis. They had raised slogans against the eviction of residents from K. Songjang village.
The Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF), a recently formed conglomerate of tribal groups, which includes the Kukis, had called for the rallies.
On March 11, the State government retaliated by withdrawing from the ongoing tripartite talks. It withdrew the Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreement with two armed political groups, the Kuki National Army and the Zomi Revolutionary Army, accusing them of inciting protesters during the rallies.
The SoO agreement is a ceasefire agreement that the Central and State government signed with the two conglomerates of tribal armed outfits in the hills, the United People’s Front and the Kuki National Organisation, in 2008. The Kuki National Army and the Zomi Revolutionary Army are both part of the Kuki National Organisation. These are all armed organisations.
KIM had asserted that the rallies were a result of public discontent over the “extreme disregard” by the government of the Scheduled Hill areas and of Articles 370 and 371 C of the Constitution, which applied to Manipur. The organisation said that it took exception to the Chief Minister’s terming of the rally participants as “encroachers, poppy cultivators, drug smugglers, and illegal immigrants”.
Flawed government responses
Given the existing tensions in the State, the High Court order asking for a government recommendation to grant ST status to Meiteis is being seen as provocative. Even among the Meiteis, there is opposition to it. Their history asserts to the Meiteis being a settled agricultural community for over 2,000 years.
Invoking Article 355 in the State also seems a rather extreme response, and points to other motivations for the Centre to keep the tension simmering in Manipur. The excessive build-up of security forces in the State, purportedly in response to the violence, might be indicative of a larger game plan that is more likely related to Manipur’s status as a border State.
Meanwhile, there are signs of normalcy returning, but one must wait and watch to see how well the BJP-ruled Centre and State succeed in bringing in a long-lasting agreement that is acceptable to all.
Dhiren A. Sadokpam is Editor of The Frontier Manipur.