The Tribal Politics Behind the Manipur Conflict

Over the last decade, particularly until the CAA-NRC issue riled up states in the Northeast, ethnic tensions were beginning to subside while communities were collaboratively progressing towards realising better developmental opportunities.

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After 70 days of apathetic silence, after tens of thousands were displaced and hundreds have been killed in the Manipur conflict, PM Modi finally spoke after a video of Kuki women paraded naked and sexually assaulted by a mob in Kangpokpi on May 4 emerged, which shook the “conscience of the entire nation”.

The PM claimed that he was distressed and angered, and that “all states” must protect “our mothers and sisters”. He made a deliberate attempt not to single out Manipur – where his party is still in power – while also naming Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan as states with violence against women. 

Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Twitter/@NBirenSingh

The BJP government can hardly claim any major progress in this department, especially in states where the party is in power. Manipur has been burning and the state and central governments have done little to ensure peace among warring ethnic communities. 

There is tremendous anger against the N. Biren Singh government. Kuki groups have reiterated that they have no faith in Singh, a Meitei who, they believe, is allowing armed Meitei groups to target and kill them. Meitei groups too have accused him of not doing enough to safeguard lives and property. 

There have been multiple calls for his resignation, but Singh continues in his post. Though even BJP allies have questioned this, PM Modi had nothing to say about why his party and its leaders have been unable to control a volatile situation – and have even been accused of making it worse for political gain.

Intricacies in tribal relations

To understand the ground situation and the historical context of much of the violence in Northeastern states, not only Manipur, one needs to carefully view the complex layers of tribal and ethnic relations that have bordered around chaos, insurgency, and violence in the past. Over the last decade, particularly until the CAA-NRC issue riled up states in the Northeast, ethnic tensions were beginning to subside while communities were collaboratively progressing towards ensuring/realising better developmental opportunities. Those who couldn’t find them migrated, including women. 

Historical context matters 

Nestled within the enchanting landscapes of Northeast India lie the captivating tales of tribal communities, each weaving its own unique thread into the region’s cultural tapestry, fostering distinct social and political systems which are often at odds with the modern state’s governance. Here, we explore the historical backdrop and modern challenges that have fuelled conflicts and aspirations for autonomy and self-rule.

Tribal groups in Northeast India have nurtured diverse forms of social organisation. The valleys, with their surplus-producing agricultural activities, gave rise to centralised authorities and social differentiation, while the hills fostered egalitarian societies. Leadership in these tribes would often emerge during times of conflict, while peacetime saw the absence of a permanent ruling institution.

Colonial influence and post-colonial struggles

British colonialism had a long-lasting impact on the region, as the Northeast became a distinct entity within the empire. The colonial government classified certain areas as ‘excluded’ or ‘partially excluded’, subjecting them to different laws and regulations. The echoes of this categorisation continued to shape post-colonial policies, resulting in perceived discrimination by tribal communities. Seeking assimilation, the Indian government’s efforts led to political movements demanding greater autonomy and statehood, fueled by a sense of cultural preservation and self-rule. 

The incorporation of tribal societies into the framework of the modern state further strained the ethnic fabric of Northeast India. Many tribal communities felt underrepresented, sparking aspirations for separate states or increased autonomy based on ethnicity. Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) were established to address these concerns, yet some tribes argued that the state failed to recognise their indigenous traditions and self-governance. 

Land rights and migration: challenges on the landscape

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, sought to protect tribal communities and their livelihoods. However, the exploitation of loopholes by state and central governments led to the alienation of tribal lands and forced migrations, exacerbating tensions between communities and the state. These struggles were etched into the very soil that held the stories of ancestral heritage.

Van Mahotsav celebrations under the Churachandpur Forest Division at Tuilumjang, Henglep Range in Manipur, on July 3, 2020. Photo: Twitter/@Ccpurforest

The Meitei community, flourishing in the valleys of Manipur, was historically better developed than the hill-dwellers. This distinction, rooted in fertile lands and past kingdoms, created unique challenges in granting the Meitei community special protections akin to those afforded to tribal communities. Legislative efforts such as the Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill triggered concerns among hill tribes, which perceived it as a threat to their cultural standing.

Unveiling the present: recent events and ongoing struggles

In 2015, the quest for autonomy simmered in Manipur, triggering clashes between the state government and hill tribes when the government introduced three controversial Bills aimed at curbing Autonomous District Councils (ADCs). Passed in an emergency session, these Bills faced protests from the hill tribes, leading to brutal suppression by the state government, in which several died. The protests endured for over 600 days and ceased only after the centre’s intervention. 

In the year 2021, where the hills echoed the voices of tribal communities, a pivotal moment emerged. The Hill Areas Committee (HAC), fueled by a burning desire for greater autonomy, once again sought to table a bill that breathed new life into the 1971 District Councils Act. It aimed to bestow more power upon the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs), a significant step toward realising the dreams of self-governance.

The state government turned a deaf ear to the plea of the HAC. Frustration has rippled through the hills, and the All-Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) emerged from the shadows to enforce an economic blockade, a potent expression of the tribes’ determination to reclaim their rights and to challenge the status quo.

Peel back the layers of Northeast India’s tribal politics, and a rich tapestry of diverse cultures, traditions, and struggles is unveiled. The clash between traditional tribal governance and the modern state has ignited conflicts and sowed aspirations for autonomy and self-rule. In the quest for a more inclusive and equitable society, striking a balance between preserving indigenous traditions and accommodating the aspirations of tribal communities remains a paramount challenge.

This is part of a series of field-based reports spotlighting lesser-known cross-cutting humanitarian issues that are emanating from the ongoing conflict in Manipur. In addition to understanding the socio-economic impact of the conflict, the series also seeks to map out instances of resilience, local innovations in humanitarian action, and examples of community peacebuilding in the context. This series is being undertaken by the Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES) in close collaboration with field collaborators, social organizations and civil society partners in Manipur and the Northeast. Deepanshu Mohan is Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University. Amisha Singh, Samragnee Chakroborty, Shalaka Adhikari and Aditi Desai are Research Analysts with CNES.