Chief Minister Biren Singh and the Central government have a lot to answer for the widening Kuki-Meitei divide.
The air was growing thicker as we approached the Bishnupur-Churachandpur district boundary in conflict-ravaged Manipur along National Highway 2. Settlements on both sides of the highway had been abandoned and what was left was shells of burnt houses and rubble. The residents had been rescued from the mob and shifted to relief camps in Imphal town.
At multiple locations of the highway that connects Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram, the Army and paramilitary forces personnel stopped our vehicle and checked it thoroughly. They also asked our driver Hefazuddin to get down and enter the details of the car and the passengers in their register. We stopped our car near an Army checkpost after the formalities and as we waited for members of a Kuki organisation to arrive, an armyman advised us to not stop near affected villages. He said: “There was a heavy gun battle last night; both the sides kept firing through the night, it is not safe to wait here.”
Even at the time of filing this report, Kuki and Meitei groups, armed with arms and ammunitions snatched from government armouries, were engaged in gun battle in different parts of the State despite the deployment of over 40,000 security personnel, including those of the Army, Assam Rifles, the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, and the Sashastra Seema Bal, immediately after clashes broke out on May 3. The Central government has also invoked Emergency provisions of Article 355 in the State.
Our contacts informed us that two of their associates would be arriving in a white car to escort us. After a while we spotted a white car approaching from the Churanchandpur side. We resumed our journey, after a brief introduction and confirmation of our identities, with their car moving ahead of ours. Close to the bunkers of security forces, bunkers set up by residents of Kuki villages displayed the national flag and were manned by volunteers.
Destruction and displacement
Since May 3, the violent conflict has displaced over 50,000 people and claimed over 100 lives, apart from leaving scores of people belonging to both the Kuki and Meitei communities injured. As we crossed the district boundary and passed through Churachandpur, at two locations Kuki women could seen guarding barricades set up by villagers along the highway; the villagers stopped the car escorting us and after a brief enquiry allowed us to proceed. At one of the barricades, men and women were erecting bamboo fences with sharp split bamboo woven into them to secure the boundaries of houses near the barricades. Similar fences to stop intruders from moving closer to the boundary were seen at different locations on the highway and at a village entrance too.
The Anglo-Kuki war memorial gate en route reminds visitors of the historic Kuki rebellion against the British in 1917-1919. The memorial gate is located at Leisang inside Churachandpur district, about 2 km from Kangvai area on the boundary with Bishnupur. While Churachandpur is a hill district with Kukis in a majority, Bishnupur is a valley district with Meiteis in a majority.
More than 40 days after the clashes broke out, the stretch of highway with ghost villages along the boundary of the two districts has virtually turned into a symbol of the deep ethnic fault lines between the hills and the valley in Manipur. It also brought to the fore the festering issue of land rights in the hills and the valley.
The issues remain hidden behind the immediate triggers for the clashes: an order passed by the Manipur High Court to consider granting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meiteis. There have been demands for a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Manipur to distinguish “old Kukis” from “new Kuki immigrants” from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Other issues include the Manipur government’s war on drugs and poppy cultivation and its eviction of people from protected forest areas.
Kukis, Nagas, and other ST groups live in the hill districts that account for 90 per cent of the State’s geographical area, while Meiteis, who comprise 53 per cent of the total population, live in the valley districts.
Trigger for conflict
The immediate trigger for the current conflict was an order passed by the Manipur High Court on March 27 on a petition filed by the Manipur Tribes Union directing the State government to consider the demand for inclusion of Meiteis in the ST list within a month. Kuki and Naga groups were unhappy with the court order. They took out a protest rally under the aegis of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum at Churachandpur, which turned violent and sparked off clashes between Meitei and Kuki groups. Armed groups began attacking each other in the hills and in the valley districts, including the capital Imphal. Houses, churches, temples, shops and other properties were destroyed, bringing to the fore pent-up anger on both sides over a long period over the issue of land ownership.
On June 19 the Manipur High Court issued a notice to the Central and State governments seeking their response on a review petition filed by the Meitei Tribes Union. The review petition was filed after the Supreme Court said that inclusion or exclusion of any community in the reservation list was Parliament’s prerogative and that the President and the High Court had no say in the matter.
The petitioner wanted the High Court to review its March 27 order and issue a direction to the Manipur government to respond to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs’s 2013 letter seeking a specific recommendation from it on the inclusion of Meiteis in the ST list (see story on page 21). Manipur has been witnessing agitations on the issue ST status to Meiteis since 2012.
Narratives and counter-narratives over Bills passed by the Manipur Assembly on land rights in the hills and valley have added to the growing mistrust between the communities, who coexisted peacefully as neighbours for hundreds of years.
Jagat Thoudam, Adviser, Indigenous People’s Front of Manipur, and former human rights activist, while speaking to Frontline at his office in Imphal, said: “The conflict started when some groups, not the entire Kuki community, became aggressive towards the majority community, violating mutual respect required for coexistence. For, example Mount Koubru, which is 30 km from Imphal and is part of a reserved forest that falls under Kangpokpi district, is a sacred place not only for Meiteis but for various other communities. Meiteis and other communities believe they originated from there. Suddenly some people started claiming that it is their land and that no one can go on a pilgrimage without their permission. Meiteis face a similar problem at another sacred place at Thangjin near Moirang. Originally, Meiteis also came down from the hills.”
He also said that the controversy over land allotted by the previous Congress government for the establishment of a National Sports University at L. Thangwan village near the district boundary of Imphal West (a valley district) and Kangpokpi (a hill district) made Meiteis take a closer look at the “changing landscape” of land ownership near the foothills.
He alleged that Kuki villagers opposed the move and accused the government of grabbing their land, but satellite imagery showed that the village was set up only in 1991 by clearing the jungle.
He echoed the fears of most Meitei organisations that the creation of many new Kuki villages by immigrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh had aggravated the land situation in the State. According to him, the absence of a mechanism to check the influx of Kuki-Chin people from Myanmar had precipitated the conflict over land.
- Since May 3, the violent conflict has displaced over 50,000 people and claimed over 100 lives, apart from leaving scores of people belonging to both the Kuki and Meitei communities injured.
- The immediate trigger for the clashes was an order passed by the Manipur High Court to consider granting ST status to Meiteis.
- Kukis, Nagas, and other ST groups live in the hill districts that account for 90 per cent of the State’s geographical area, while Meiteis, who comprise 53 per cent of the total population, live in the valley districts.
- Narratives and counter-narratives on land rights in the hills and the valley districts have added to growing mistrust between the communities.
At the core of the land issue lies the legal frameworks under Article 371 C of the Constitution and the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (MLR&LR) Act, 1960.
Article 371 C is a special provision relating to Manipur which provides for the constitution and functioning of a Hill Areas Committee (HAC) by 19 elected ST legislators from hill areas in the Manipur Assembly. The executive powers of the HAC with respect to 13 subjects shall extend to issuing directions to the State on administration of the hill areas. Meiteis are not allowed to buy land in the hills without the HAC’s approval.
The MLR&LR Act passed by Parliament in 1960 after Manipur joined India in 1949 and prior to Manipur getting Statehood in 1972 is applicable to the whole of Manipur, except the hill areas. Apart from land administration and land revenue in areas where it is applicable, the Act has special provision regarding the rights of STs. It states: “No transfer of land by a person who is a member of the Scheduled Tribes shall be valid unless—(a) the transfer is to another member of the Scheduled Tribes; or (b) where the transfer is to a person who is not a member of any such tribe, it is made with the previous permission in writing of the deputy commissioner; or (c) the transfer is by way of mortgage to a co-operative society.”
The growing clamour among the Meitei groups for ST status has triggered an apprehension among Kukis that their land rights protected by Article 371 C and the MLR&LR Act could be taken away since Meiteis would also be eligible for the same rights and privileges if they are included in the ST list.
Dr T.S. Haokip, Chairman of the Kuki Zo Intellectual Forum, speaking to Frontline at the Information Centre of his organisation in Lamka area in Churachandpur, denied that Kukis were encroaching reserved forests or protected areas and setting up new villages.
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He said: “In Kuki villages, land belongs to the chiefs and there is no individual ownership of land. Chiefs, according to tradition, establish new villages. This has been our tradition since the pre-British period. During 1993, 360 Kuki villages were uprooted during Kuki-Naga clashes from Naga-majority areas in Tamenglong, Senapati, and Ukhrul districts. All the villagers resettled in Kuki-dominated areas.” He said that the attempt to extend the MLR&LR Act to the hill areas and demand for ST status to Meiteis have made Kuki people apprehensive.
Haokip pointed out that the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015, passed by the Manipur Assembly, proposed an amendment to the MLR&LR Act seeking to dilute the provision relating to ST rights.
The Bill stated that since 60 per cent of the State’s population lived in the valley districts, accounting for 10 per cent of the geographical area, there was “tremendous pressure” on land and with the increase in population in the immediate future, “there are likely to be many families without any residential plots”. It sought to “regulate the sale of land to non-Manipur persons” so that limited land available in the valley is available to “all permanent residents of the State”.
Two other bills, The Protection of Manipur People’s Bills, 2015, and the Manipur Shops and Business Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill, were also passed by the Assembly.
During protests sparked by the Bills in the hill areas, nine people were killed in police firing in Churachandpur district; the protesters refused to bury the dead. The then Manipur Governor referred the Bill for presidential assent. The then Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, promised a delegation from Manipur under the aegis of Joint Action Committee (JAC), the All Tribals Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM), and the Manipur Tribal’s Forum, Delhi (MTFD), that all stakeholders would be consulted before taking a decision on the three Bills.
Haokip and other members of the Forum categorically stated that they had no problem with the compilation of the NRC but strongly objected to levelling false accusations against indigenous Kuki people of being “illegal immigrants” and “outsiders” in the name of raising the bogey of infiltration.
Impact on business
After the latest clashes, burnt houses and business establishments in Kuki colonies of New Chekon area of Imphal present the new reality. Entry into these colonies was completely sealed, blocked by wooden planks when this reporter visited the areas on June 12, with security forces guarding the entrance.
A striking similarity between affected areas in Churachandpur and Imphal was the marking of shops and business establishments with names of communities so that mobs did not attack, burn, or destroy shops and business establishments belonging to own communities or to with whom they have no quarrel.
A Meitei woman running one of the very few shops that were open in the area said they always had good relations with the residents of Kuki colony just near her locality. “They have all gone, shifted to their villages or relief camps, but the pets were left behind in some houses. I sometimes give food to their pets.”
Aftermath of violence
Uncertainty continues to grip thousands of families displaced by violent clashes and currently taking shelter in relief camps. The nights have become longer for them as they are haunted by the trauma of their houses being set ablaze and family members and neighbours being gunned down by attackers.
They long to return to their villages but are afraid as there has been no end to attacks and retaliation and news of new incidents reach them almost every day. Despite an Internet shutdown for more than a month and a half, unverified photos and video clips of houses being set ablaze and display of sophisticated weapons are circulating among volunteers and inmates at relief camps. Bluetooth technology has replaced WhatsApp for disseminating photos and videos from one phone to another.
The Thongju Kendra camp in Ideal Girls College in Imphal East has 734 inmates displaced from their villages in Churachandpur and Moreh (a border town on the international border with Myanmar). Some of them expressed the hope of returning to their villages at the earliest and rebuilding their lives.
The stories they narrated were the same. “On May 3, around 4.30 p.m., Kuki militants suddenly attacked with petrol bombs. They were fully armed and torched houses with petrol bombs and burnt tyres. We fled and took shelter in the police station from where we were taken to a nearby Assam Rifles camp. It was on a hilltop so we could see the attackers setting our houses ablaze. On May 8 we were were shifted to the relief camp at Khuman Lampak and brought here on June 10,” said Shamananda Singh (39) of Moreh. His 35-year-old wife, 11-year old son, and six-year-old daughter are also in the camp.
Rajen Huirem (37) recollected that around 3.30 pm on May 3, 10-20 houses of Meiteis in Torbung village in Bishnupur district were burnt down by a mob. Recounting the events of the day, he said: “Between 6.30 pm and 7.30 pm, they started firing in our localities with sophisticated weapons. They asked people to come out. We had two licenced double-barrel guns and fired in a bid to stop them. They started torching houses in the village. We captured one of the arsonists and handed him over to the police. We also asked the police to provide security, but they police said they were helpless”.
He added: “Around 3 a.m. on May 4, security forces came to our village and said they were rescuing us. After the women, the elders, and children got into the vehicles, some of us wanted to stay back to protect our properties. But they did not allow it and promised to protect our properties. We were taken to Imphal. Later we came to know that the remaining houses were also burnt down.” He showed a clip of burnt houses which he claimed his friend belonging to another community in the village captured and shared with him. Altogether, 1,557 houses were burnt down in 19 Meitei villages.in Churachandpur until May 23, he added.
Local Meitei volunteers rendering service in the relief camp and general public in valley areas were critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his silence over the situation. Some people broke radios in Imphal during the airing of Modi’s “Mann ki Baat” on June 18, as he did not mention Manipur.
The ordeals of Kukis who were displaced from Chandel and Kangpokpi districts and were taking shelter at a camp in Churachandpur College, was no different.
The trauma of witnessing houses being burnt down by armed Meitei groups was writ large on the face of Nemkhohat, (50). “We want to return home, but we are afraid of our security,” she said. Lunjang Doungel (60), an ex-serviceman of SSB, narrated how armed Meitei groups came to their village in Chandel district and started burning their houses. “We fled to the jungles atop the hill from where we saw attackers in commando fatigues coming in Gypsy vehicles, firing, throwing bombs, torching houses and other properties,” he said.
Those displaced by the violence have taken shelter in 349 relief camps and some in accommodation provided by relatives or members of their community. In Mizoram, 11,785 displaced people have been provided shelter by the government.
T.S. Haokip alleged that on June 4, a total of 19 Kuki villages were burnt down in Sugnu area in Chandel district and these were inhabited by “old Kukis like Lamkag, Muyon, and Monshang and new Kukis like Thadou, Mate, and Zou.” He said that there were eight major groups of Kuki-Chin—Kuki, Chin, Mizo, Zomi, Hmar, Komren, Khurmi, and Manmasi (Manasseh). “Our political identity is Kuki. We are spread over India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Israel.”
Members of the Zomi Students Federation have provided psychological counselling to people in the camp to help them overcome the trauma. “The inmates told us they could not sleep at night and suffered from hallucinations, lost appetite, and mental health issues. We are counselling them and guiding them on how to overcome the trauma,” said Nunhoih, a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai.
Allegations that some attackers targeting Kuki villages were wearing uniforms similar to those worn by two “radical” Meitei organisations—Meitei Leepun in white shirts and the recently dissolved Arambai Tenggol in black shirts with their insignia—have been denied by the two organisations.
The Meetei Leepun chief, Pramot Singh, said their volunteers were engaged only in evacuating affected villagers to safer places and the injured to hospitals.
As of June 13, security forces had recovered 1,040 units of arms, 13,601 pieces of ammunition, and 230 bombs. Some 4,000 arms and over five lakh pieces of ammunition and mortar were reportedly looted from State armouries since the outbreak of violence.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Chief Minister N. Biren Singh made a fervent appeal to the people to return the weapons and warned of operations by security forces against illegal possession of arms. “I also appeal to Meitei people with arms not to attack anything. Please maintain peace,” Biren Singh told mediapersons on June 19.
A convention organised by the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integration (COCOMI), a conglomerate of major valley-based civil society orgnisations, passed a resolution at a convention held in Imphal on June 7 opposing the recovery and demanded that arms be first recovered from “aggressors who are narco terrorists and Kuki rebel groups under Suspension of Operation (SoO)” and only then from “defenders”, namely, Meitei villagers.
The Kuki Zo International Forum and other Kuki organisations denied the allegations that Kuki rebel groups under SoO attacked Meitei villages.
Chungjalen Haokip, a member of the forum, said that attackers from Meitei villages in Tuibong areas used sophisticated weapons looted from police armouries, and “that is why some of our boys ransacked the police station and took some arms to defend”.
As hundreds of Meitei and Kuki villages wore a deserted look in the affected areas, with most shops shut, business owners at Kawkta, an area dominated by Muslim Meiteis and a major stopover for people from Churanchandpur travelling to Imphal, told another story of how the clashes have crippled daily business activities.
Nasir Hussain, owner of the Al Kareem Hotel at Kawkta market, said: “Prior to the violence, I did business worth at least Rs.35,000 a day, sometimes Rs.40,000-45,000. But after the clashes, my daily sales are not more than Rs.1,500. On a normal day, I need at least 50 kg of rice to meet the demand for biriyani, but these days barely 1.5 kg is required. Our main customers are Kukis from the hills travelling to Imphal for office duty and other work. But after the trouble broke out, they have stopped coming this side. We are also not going there, except during medical emergency.”
Reacting to allegations by Meitei organisations of “poppy cultivation in Kuki areas in the hills at the behest of narcoterrorists”, Haokip said: “Of course some villagers are cultivating poppy but fully financed by Meitei capitalists and drug kingpins.”
Asked why villagers were engaging in it, he said that rather than cut down trees and burn them to make charcoal, which is hard work, the poor villagers in remote areas are finding growing poppy an easy livelihood option.
A tweet by Lt Gen (retired) L Nishikanta Singh (@VeteranLNSingh) gives an impression of the ground realities in Manipur. He said: “I’m just an ordinary Indian from Manipur living a retired life. The state is now ‘stateless’. Life and property can be destroyed anytime by anyone just like in Libya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria, etc. It appears Manipur has been left to stew in its own juice. Is anyone listening?”
The clamour for a “separate administration for Kukis” has been growing after 10 Manipur legislators, seven of them from the ruling BJP, including two Ministers in the N. Biren Singh government, submitted a memorandum to the Central government.
The Zomi Students’ Federation (ZSO), Lamka, and Kuki Students’ Organisations (KSO) have published a booklet titled “The Inevitable Split: Documents on State-Sponsored Ethnic Cleansing In Manipur, 2023”, in which they have argued that since there already exists a vertical split between the hills and the valley dwellers—emotional and now physical and geographical—separate administrations were “inevitable”.
In the valley, the slogan “One Manipur, One Administration”, to oppose the demand for a separate administration for Kukis, is growing louder.
The hill-valley divide in Manipur has widened much more than anyone can perceive.