Dispelling Some Misleading Claims About the Violence in Manipur

A section of Meiteis have justified the violence, claiming that it was the result of action taken by the state administration to check illegal influx from an open border with Myanmar; poppy cultivation by the hill tribes; and Kuki militant groups unleashing violence. This needs to be checked.

New Delhi: Violence in Manipur since May 3 has killed dozens and rendered thousands homeless. After three weeks of violence, unfortunately, peace is nowhere in sight. Since day one, the two clashing groups – the Meiteis and the Kukis – have been trading charges against each other as to how the violence began and who was responsible for it. On various media platforms, a section of the dominant Meitei group have justified their position on the violence, claiming that it was the result of action taken by the state administration to check illegal influx from an open border with Myanmar; poppy cultivation by the hill tribes; and Kuki militant groups unleashing violence.

While a wide section of mainstream media is flooded with this narrative, it appears to have neglected the other side of it. Here is an attempt to dispel some of the claims made about the continuing violence in the Northeastern state. 

Claim: The Kukis started the conflict on May 3  

In protest against the Manipur High Court order directing the state government to recommend inclusion of Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list, All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) called for a peaceful protest on May 3. It was objected by some valley-based Meitei civil society groups. In protest against the ATSUM rally, a counter protest was carried out from May 2 afternoon onwards where mobs blocked roads leading to hill towns and villages. On May 3, while a peaceful protest was underway at the Kuki-majority Churachandpur town, news had reached the hill areas that the Anglo-Kuki Centenary Gate at Leisang-Monglenphai was set on fire by unidentified Meitei miscreants. According to eyewitness accounts, many Meitei volunteers who were held up at Kakwa areas started moving towards Torbung and Kangvai areas and began torching Kuki houses. The first victim of that mob attack was Haopu Kipgen from Torbung Village; he was bludgeoned to death. The first casualty with torching of houses, therefore, was a Kuki. 

Claim: Meitei women were raped in Churachandpur

On the May 3, news spread about a Meitei student and daughter of Dr Achouba from Uripok raped by Kuki men at the Churachandpur Medical College. The news was widely circulated with an image of dead woman. The Quint, while conducting a fact-check, discovered that the viral picture was not of any Meitei woman but that of a 21-year-old woman killed by her parents in Mathura in 2022. The following day, Dr K. Achouba clarified in the local Impact TV that his daughter is safe. 

Claim: Non-Manipuri Hindus in Kuki areas were attacked

Allegations about Kukis who are predominantly Christians, attacking Hindu temples in tribal-dominated areas were circulated in social media since May 3. However, on May 9, the Bihari Society, the Bengali Society and the Marwari Society of Manipur issued a joint statement that non-Manipuri Hindus were not attacked or harmed in the Kuki areas.

Photo: By arrangement

Claim: Kuki militants are responsible for communal violence

Retaliatory attacks by Kuki village volunteers did not happen for 24 hours after violence erupted in Churachandpur. When the community felt that the state police force wouldn’t protect their people and were of no help while Kuki houses were being burnt, volunteers from the respective villages took up arms in defence against the Meitei mobs and the state police force. There is a strong allegation that Manipur state policemen escorted Meitei mobs to burn down Kuki houses in Imphal and the adjoining areas, thus raising the question, is the police force for one section of the society? Enraged by such conduct, Kuki village volunteers did cause casualties on the mobs and the policemen.

Still, there is no solid evidence yet to suggest that the Kuki militant groups under suspension of operation (SOO) have violated any ground rules. State chief minister N. Biren Singh had made it clear that all arms of the Kuki groups under SOO are intact at their designated camps.

Claim: Kukis and Meiteis have suffered equally

Though no official stocktaking of the death and destruction due to the violence has taken place yet in terms of data, there is no doubt that Kukis had suffered more in terms of human casualties and loss of properties. Scores of Kuki houses in Imphal and its surrounding villages were burnt by mobs. Looting of houses left by the fleeing Kuki residents in Imphal continues. To counter such acts, the state authorities have issued a strict notice. 

The prevailing breakdown of law and order situation and the unavailability of internet services have made it impossible to come up with an exact number of deaths and cases of assaults. However, thus far, four counts of rape of Kuki women by mobs have been reported. Since the evening of May 3, Kukis have been pleading for central intervention and deployment of the Army in sensitive areas. However, this was never taken seriously by New Delhi. Attacks have continued till May 24.

If Meiteis have suffered equally, the community should also seek the Union government’s intervention urgently through the imposition of President’s Rule, but such a demand is not yet on the horizon. Just to give an idea about the ground situation, the Rapid Action Force (RAF) contingent deployed by the Union home ministry could not cross the Imphal airport after it landed due to a blockade by the mob. 

Claim: Kukis are not indigenous people in Manipur

The Kuki settlements in India, Myanmar and Bangladesh predate British rule. Also identified as Chin and Zo, the Kuki settlements cover an approximate area of 50,000 square miles. However, without their consent, the British colonisers made the Kukis and their territory part of British India (Manipur) and British Burma (Chin state) in 1894. In 1947, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was carved out of British India. A set of arbitrary man-made boundaries were created. However, the hill area of Manipur has remained a part and parcel of Kuki ancestral land. Therefore, it is not the Kukis who crossed into Manipur territory. Kuki indigeneity in the region predates the Manipur state. 

Claim: Kukis are illegal immigrants in Manipur

There is no legal basis as such to determine who is an illegal migrant in Manipur. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify illegal immigrants is yet to be adopted by the government of Manipur. So, any allegation of someone to be an illegal citizen is devoid of law and condemnable. No Kuki leader has thus far opposed in principle any move by Manipur government to implement NRC in the state. 

The community’s only concerns are how far has the government maintained records of the remote and interior areas of the hills prior to its attainment as a full-fledged state. Even today, after 50 years of attaining statehood, basic infrastructure requirements such as all-weathered roads are still a distant dream in the far-remote areas of the hills. Notably, Manipur achieved 100% electrification of villages in 2018. Imagine how remote such locality could be in the 1950s and 60s. How reliable are the records of those localities maintained by the state half a century ago? With the clamour for NRC rising among the majority community, this has become a pressing concern for the Kukis and the Hill areas.

Representative image of Manipur. Photo: Flickr/shankar s. CC BY 2.0

Claim: Kuki population exploded from 1% in 1901 to 29% in 2011

The census of 1901 records the population of Manipur at 2,84,488. Of it, the Kuki population accounted for 41,262, which meant the tribe constituted 14.5% of the state’s total population in 1901. According to the 2011 census, the population of the Kukis stands at 4,48,214 persons as against the state’s total population of 28,55,794. In 110 years, the growth rate of Kuki population is less than 2%.

Claim: Kukis are involved in drug trade

According to the data made public by the Superintendent of Police, Narcotics and Border Affairs, Government of Manipur, the number of people arrested by state enforcement agencies (2017-2022) on cases of illegal drug trade were:

Kuki-Chin: 824
Meitei-Pangal: 1067
Meitei: 367
Others: 180

Drug menace is a serious threat to Manipur’s society as a whole. It should be fought together, by all communities. Pointing fingers at only one community will not solve the menace. 

Claim: Kukis harbour drug-lords

In 2018, there was a high profile arrest by the additional superintendent of police Thounaojam Brinda. However, the accused was immediately freed by the state police. According to the police officer, the drug-lord was freed after strong instructions from state chief minister N. Biren Singh.

In 2019, an Australian, Reza Borhani (50) was arrested by police in Bandra (Mumbai) along with a Psychedelic drug LSD worth 1.8 crore. On further investigation by the Frontier Manipur, chief minister Biren Singh was said to have granted licence to Borhani for transport of seeds, flowers and leaves of cannabis from Manipur.

More recently, an Imphal-based legislator belonging to the Meitei community raised a serious doubt on the sincerity of the state government on the “War on Drugs”. On May 19, 2019, MLA Kh Raghumani Singh wrote to Union home minister Amit Shah regarding the seizure of 50 kg of opium from two Meiteis by the Delhi Police in February 2023. He felt that “a well connected family and very powerful political families (were) involved” in the menace of drug business in Manipur.

From these instances, can one claim that Meiteis harbour drug-lords in Manipur?

Claim: ‘War On Drugs’ is achievable if Kukis stop Poppy cultivation

Kukis, Nagas and other communities residing in the hills of Manipur do cultivate the poppy crop. However, targeting those poor cultivators alone would be a futile effort at controlling the menace. Social scientists like Dhanabir Laishram have felt that targeting its cultivators alone won’t bring any solution. “Poppy planters are one; transporters are another; the sellers are another,” he had underlined. Laishram had made an assessment that for one acre of poppy plantation, farmers were being paid Rs 1.2 lakh. He had blamed a rich section of the Meitei community as one of the biggest funders of poppy cultivation.

Claim: Kukis are a threat to Manipur’s integrity

Having come from the Kuki community in Manipur, I can say with some authority that Kukis believe in peaceful co-existence with their neighbours. Throughout history, they have shared close relationships with the Meitei kings. There were no successful expeditions without the involvement of Kukis in the king’s forces. The Kukis stood by the Meiteis during the Naga integration movement too. 

Indeed, May 3 seems to be a turning point for Kukis. Compelled by the treatment meted out to the community, ten Kuki MLAs recently issued a joint statement seeking a ‘Separate Administration’ for the Kuki people. Consequently, the Kuki Inpi Manipur (the apex body of the Kukis in Manipur) denounced any negotiation with the state government on the matter. 

Claim: Meitei is a tribe; they are the same as the hill tribes from the past

Tribes in Manipur can be broadly classified into Kukis and Nagas. They occupy the hill districts surrounding the Imphal valley. Their land is protected under Article 371C of the Constitution. Buying and selling of land in the hill districts is limited to the tribals. On the other hand, Meiteis who settled in the valley have a civilisation of over 2,000 years. They are advanced races of the Manipur valley with a rich cultural heritage. To empower the backward sections within the community, the constitutional provision of Other Backward Classes (OBC) and the Schedule Castes (SC) have already been put in place. 

If the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status is granted to the entire community, will they not have the right to own land in the hills reserved for the tribes? Kukis and Nagas are, therefore, strongly opposed to this demand. The two tribal groups felt that the hill areas of Manipur have never been a full-fledged part of Manipuri kingdom. Even during the British period, they were governed separately. The valley kingdom came under the State Darbar whereby the Meitei king assumed the presidentship, while the Hill areas were specifically under a British officer. 

Claim: Internet services have been taken down as precautionary measures

Internet has been shut down since the evening of May 3 in the state as a measure to control further escalation of violence. A wide section among the Kukis sees the internet shutdown as a ploy to conceal the failure of the state machinery to protect the life and properties of Kuki civilians in the heart of Imphal city. 

Claim: Violence was a result of intelligence failure

There is a wide consensus, at least among the hill tribes, that violence appears to be a premeditated one, carried out by Meitei extremist groups Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun. These groups have hundreds of recruits in the Imphal valley. On several occasions, there is evidence of the chief minister Biren Singh and Rajya Sabha MP and Manipur’s titular king Leishemba Sanajaoba sharing moments with these two organisations. On multiple occasions, the volunteers of Arambai Tenggol are known to have taken oath at Sanajaoba’s residence, which indicates his close links with the group. Still, it will be wrong to implicate Biren Singh and Sanajaoba for every plan and actions of these organisations. However, their association with these outfits raises a question mark.

Photo: By arrangement

To my mind, an impartial and time-bound investigation under the supervision of the Supreme Court will only shed light on any involvement of politicians in the violence against the Kukis in Imphal.

Lien Chongloi is the founder-director of Pu Chengjapao Foundation. He can be reached at: [email protected].