Manipur Is No Longer a Melting Pot But a Boiling Cauldron. But There is a Peaceful Way Forward.

After the recent breaches of trust between Manipur's communities, it is up to the Union government to take action – perhaps of utopian proportions – to allow the state's communities to live together peacefully again.

Manipur is constituted by three major groups: the Meitei, the Naga tribes and the Chin-Kuki-Mizo tribes. The Meitei are predominantly Hindu, represent about 51% of the state’s population and dwell in the Imphal valley that occupies roughly 10% of the state’s land. The latter two groups represent 21% of the state’s population each, are predominantly Christian, and and live in the hills surrounding the Imphal valley that occupy about 90% of Manipur’s land.

These three groups live in exclusion from each other. The remaining 7% of the state’s population is made up of Muslims and other, smaller communities.

The Naga and Kuki tribes have a history of conflict. The first significant clash occurred during the Kuki rebellion against British labour conscription for the First World War, when a large number of Naga laborers were in Europe. The Naga villages bore the brunt of Kuki attacks from 1917 to 1919 as there were fewer men in the villages. The Meiteis also clashed with the Muslims (Meitei Pangal) in the 1990s, with the Muslims bearing the brunt of the violence.

The main difference between that clash and the ongoing one between the Meiteis and the Kukis is that the latter is taking place in Imphal, the capital city. Unfortunately, it has destroyed the fragile bond that held all groups together.

There is a huge trust deficit.  Manipur is truly a fractured state now, with conflicts taking place amongst the three ethnic groups every now and then. In order to live together again as good neighbours, every right thinking individual in the state should work towards healing the wounds from the recent conflict.

The government in Imphal

Manipur has a sixty-member assembly, in which 40 legislators are elected from the valley and 20 from the hills. By virtue of having the larger number of elected representatives, the Meiteis wield more political power and consequently, administrative authority. From the late 1990s, Manipur has seen chief ministers only from the Meitei community. Before that, one chief minister was from the Muslim community and two were from the state’s tribal communities.

There have been tall leaders from the Meitei community who were respected by people from all ethnic groups. However, with the chief minister only coming from the Meitei community in the last few decades, the state’s tribes have lost the feeling of belonging to a single entity called Manipur, as they cannot think of occupying the chief minister’s chair. In other words, the Meitei will always be the king, and the tribes his subjects.

Coming to the ongoing conflict, lawlessness prevails because the state government has not been firm right from the start is seen by the mobs as soft and weak. It is increasingly coming across as helpless to tackle a situation that involves the life and property of so many people.

The Union government could have fixed responsibility on the state government’s failure to tackle law and order right at the time the clashes started, but it did not do so on account of the Karnataka elections. Had it taken firm action early on to pacify both feuding parties and made them sit across the table to bring about calm and normalcy, the present lawless situation may not have arisen. It could have imposed President’s Rule to hold the administration accountable and show that it meant business.

Watch | Kukis Demand President’s Rule in Manipur as Violence Continues

But now with the violence continuing in the state, no one seems to be in control. The mobs rule the streets and are clearly not listening to anyone. The monster created by some high-ranking leaders has gone berserk.

Anxiety about numbers

Politics in Manipur has also turned into a numbers game between different ethnic groups. The Chin-Kuki-Mizo tribes are seemingly trying to increase their numbers by settling their kin from Myanmar in Manipur. The Meiteis fear that this will alter the state’s demographics and upset its political equation. Settlement by a large number of immigrants could reduce the Meitei to less than half of Manipur’s population, which, at 51%, is only precariously perched in their favour.

But the government must realise that evicting immigrants from the state may still not stop the natural, decadal population growth in the hill areas, where the birth rate among the tribes is higher due to their poverty and backwardness – characteristics they perceive as resulting from the government’s policies. Plus, on account of the typical power structure in the state, the recent eviction of villages from the forests in Churachandpur district is viewed by the tribes as a ‘Meitei’ policy.

A Manipur-government led eviction drive in Awangching, Imphal East, in 2022. Photo: Twitter/@pyc_manipur

The Meitei, on the other hand, have a lower decadal population growth rate as they are more educated, have more employment opportunities and have more professionals in the workforce – and a result of which they may lose the numbers game in a decade or two.

The Meiteis’ ST gambit

By concentrating all major institutes at the Union and state level in and around Imphal, the Meitei-dominated political administration has  created pressure on land not only for the establishment of various institutions but for roads, utilities and residential houses for the increasing population in the urban centres. As a result of this short-sightedness, the pressure on land in this area has increased exponentially. This pressure likely has fuelled the debate amongst a section of the Meiteis about the question of land ownership in the state’s hill areas.

Land in the hill areas is protected under Article 371C of the constitution. Wealthy Meiteis could get easy access to this land if they were Scheduled Tribes (ST), lending credence to the suspicion that this is the reason behind the demand for ST status.  Tribals believe job quotas are unlikely to be the motive behind those in the Meitei community asking for ST status – and thereby 7.5% reservation at the Union level – since some of them who are classified as Scheduled Castes (SC) or Other Backward Classes (OBCs) already enjoy 15% and 27% reservation respectively.

Also Read: ‘Completely Factually Wrong’: SC Slams Manipur HC Order on Meiteis and ST List

In law, an elaborate mechanism of processing the demand for ST status by a community has been laid down. There has to be a recent socio-economic survey and an ethnographic study based on criteria laid down by the Lokur Committee. It will need detailed consideration at the state level, specific recommendations to the registrar general of India, consideration by the government of India and the Union cabinet, enactment of law by parliament and then finally a presidential order. A high court judgment cannot be the route.

Meanwhile, the cauldron is boiling – not turning into a melting pot of Manipur’s communities, but instead producing a fractured society. Worse, the fractures are widening. No conversation has started between the state government and the ten angry tribal MLAs who demanded a ‘separate administration’. No sincere and concrete efforts have been taken by the Union government either to cool down tempers or bridge the trust deficit. The conflict is quickly slipping out of hand and has degenerated into an armed conflict between Kuki insurgents and security forces, making it all the more necessary that the Union government defuse the situation as soon as possible. It  seems reluctant to go ahead lest it exposes the failures of the state leadership.

Can the three communities continue to live together?

What Manipur needs is for the Meitei leadership to show more fair play, justice and magnanimity. They are in a commanding position with Imphal as the seat of power. Everything of importance is located in the valley, namely the Raj Bhavan, the assembly, the secretariat, the high court, the airport, national-level sports infrastructure, universities, a Union-level medical hospital and college, a state-level medical hospital and college, central institutes of learning, central offices, etc. The Meiteis have more MLAs, doctors, engineers, high court judges, lawyers, professors, government employees and businessmen.

The Meitei leadership has to learn to share power and the fruits of development with the tribes, and henceforth agree to locate all new state and Union-level institutions as well as major infrastructure facilities in the hill districts.

They must share executive power by giving at least half the ministerial berths to elected representatives from the hill areas. They must allow the district councils in the hill areas to govern themselves under Article 244 and the sixth schedule of the constitution. They should enable the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) in the legislative assembly to function effectively for assisting the state and district administrations, and allow them to frame laws on various matters for the hill areas.

They should give 50% of airtime in the local electronic media to promote the rich and diverse culture of the tribes and make them feel firmly part of Manipur.

They should build and maintain sports infrastructure in the hill districts, and give equal opportunities to train and encourage sportspersons from the tribes.

They should, with financial assistance from the Union government and its agencies, propose and implement a special program to construct highways, inter-village roads, water and power supply, schools, colleges, health services, veterinary services, irrigation facilities, cultural activities, tourist infrastructure in the Hill Areas, provide economic activities schemes to uplift the poor to bring the Hill Areas at par with the development indices of valley districts.

They should allow funds to be distributed fairly to the hill areas through transparent budget arrangements, revision of the reservation quota for STs based on the latest census and ensure strict adherence to the state reservation policy, and allow the next delimitation of constituencies to take place on an equitable distribution system.

The Manipur legislative assembly building in Imphal. Photo: assembly.mn.gov.in

Maybe these are demands of utopian proportions. But they are also what the tribes will want if Manipur is to be sustained as a single entity.

The failures of the state government are numerous. But if new policies and programs to bring about fair play, equity and justice are charted and implemented for the tribes on the lines suggested herein, there may still be hope of keeping Manipur intact and maintaining the state’s integrity.

Ngaranmi Shimray is a New Delhi-based social activist.