An ethnic group’s demands for tribal reservations have become a trigger for protests against the backdrop of long-simmering tensions
The remote north-eastern Indian state of Manipur has been on the boil since May 3 amid widespread reports of violence, arson and wanton looting.
Violence in several districts has left at least 73 people dead, 243 injured, 1,809 houses burnt down and more than 30,000 rendered homeless.
Indian Army and paramilitary forces were called in to restore law and order in a state that has been living in the shadow of the gun for a long time. The district authorities were empowered by the Manipur government to issue shoot-on-sight orders in “extreme cases,” to bring the situation under control.
Article 355 of the Indian Constitution, which empowers the federal government to declare a state of emergency, was imposed in the violence-hit state. The federal government has also assigned a security advisor — retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officer and former Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) chief Kuldiep Singh — to the state government to restore normalcy.
But what caused this outbreak of violence in a state of three million belonging to diverse ethnicities and faiths that often collide against each other because of meager state resources?
Reasons for the conflict
The riots in Manipur began after a rally by the state’s national minority organizations, against plans to give the same legal status to the main ethnic group in the state – the Meitei community. They demand to be recognized as the Scheduled Tribe (ST), the most disadvantaged socio-economic group in the country.
In India’s rich, complex and diverse social fabric STs are the lowest point on the totem pole, followed by the Scheduled Castes (SCs), who are last in the four-class hierarchy in the Hindu religion.
Similarly, there are the other backward classes (OBCs), who are ‘socially and educationally backwards classe’ in the Hindu pantheon of caste and class structure. All these socio-economic groups are beneficiaries of affirmative action for jobs, admission to educational institutions in the government sector amid demands to extend similar facilities in the private sector as well.
However, the economically weaker section (EWS) goes beyond the purview of the Hindu faith and is determined only on the basis of their socio-economic status.
In this backdrop, the Manipur tribal and caste conundrum that snowballed into a raging ethnic conflict comes into play.
Patchwork of Manipur
Manipur, which shares its international border with Myanmar, was a nominally-sovereign princely state under colonial British rule. It merged with India in 1949 — two years after the nation gained independence from the British. The union with India was resented by several ethnic groups amid loud protestations over a lack of consensus. The birth pangs led to decades of insurgencies as multiple militant groups fought for self-determination and secession from India. The internal security challenges have snowballed into a full-fledged ethnic conflict. The ethnic groups have been clamoring for peaceful coexistence, despite a bloody past.
Manipur has 16 districts, where the majority Meitei community, who constitute 53% of the state’s population largely live in the non-hilly areas, which are only about 10% of the state’s landmass. Other local tribes, the Nagas and the Kuki/Zomi, which account for 24% and 16% of the population respectively, mostly live in the state’s more mountainous areas.
The Meitei community is Hindu and belongs to the OBC, while the Nagas and Kuki/Zomi tribes are Christians and enjoy ST status.
The Nagas and Kuki/Zomi tribes are an ethnically diverse group of 34 Sino-Tibetan communities — each known for their distinct language, culture and religion.
Though the majority Meitei community enjoys the maximum political representation in the state, as 40 of the 60 members in the state legislature are from the mostly Meitei-inhabited Imphal Valley region, they have been pushing for ST status since 2012.
K Bhogendrajit Singh, general secretary of the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur, has said, “Any citizen of India, including our own hill people, can come and settle in Imphal Valley.” That’s the nub of the communal conflagration, where the tribals are allowed to buy land in the Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley, but the majority ethnic group is denied similar rights in the hills.
The Kuki/Zomi tribes and the Nagas have always resisted the ST status for the Meitei community on grounds of their majority population and by extension dominance in political representation. They worry that they could lose control over their ancestral forest land if the Meitei community’s demand is accepted by the state government.
How was gunpowder ignited?
On April 19, the Manipur High Court (HC) — the state’s apex court — heard a plea, where the representatives of the Meitei Tribe Union argued that they were a recognized tribe before the merger of the princely state of Manipur in 1949. They argued the demand for ST status is an all-encompassing one and it is independent of affirmative action in jobs, educational institutions and income tax relief. It seeks to “preserve” the community, and “save the ancestral land, tradition, culture and language” of the Meitei community.
The HC issued a directive to the state government, led by Nongthombam Biren Singh, a member of India’s ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to consider the request of the community for its inclusion in the reserved category within four weeks. The court ordered the state government to send a recommendation regarding the Meitei community’s demand to the federal government.
Professor Kham Khan Suan Hausing, the Head of the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, Telangana, and a tribal native of Manipur, has told Indian digital outlet scroll.in that, “If the Meitei community is successful in including themselves in the ST list, they will arguably become the only community in India to corner all the benefits of protective discrimination along the four axes of recognition — ST, SC, OBC and EWS.”
Besides, the Meitei community’s language, Manipuri, is included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.
The matter came to a head when the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM), an influential tribal body in the state comprising the Nagas, the Kukis/Zomis, opposed the HC’s April 19 order — an “ex parte judgment that only heard the interests of the petitioners” — dubbing it a “black letter day” for them.
On May 3, the ATSUM called a “Tribal Solidarity March” against the HC order. Clashes broke out between members of ATSUM, spearheaded by armed Kuki fighters, and Meitei, which gradually spread across the state. The Naga tribes have largely steered clear of the spiraling violence, as battlelines have been drawn between the Kuki/Zomi tribes and the Meitei community.
These clashes eventually led to casualties, violence, arson, wanton looting and an extremely harsh reaction from the authorities.
Speaking to an Indian media outlet on May 8, Home Minister Amit Shah, who is in charge of internal security, appealed to the people in Manipur to maintain peace while saying that the situation was under control.
He assured that the state government would consult all stakeholders before a decision on the Scheduled Tribe (ST) — the most disadvantaged socio-economic group in the country — demanded by the majority Meitei community is taken.
What will happen?
The HC ruling was an immediate trigger as the tribal groups were upset with Chief Minister (CM) N. Biren Singh, a Meitei himself, for a while. The CM ordered the destruction of large poppy fields — a contraband substance — in the tribal-dominated hills and evicted alleged illegal immigrants from reserved forests in his all-out war against the narcotics trade.
Cultivation of the poppy, which is used in making drugs, including morphine, is a major source of livelihood in the hill districts of Manipur. The Kukis/Zomis were furious at the state government’s move, as they alleged legally-constructed churches and homes were also destroyed in the “war on drugs” campaign.
Amid an “information vacuum” as journalists were unable to enter Churachandpur district due to the violence and suspension of internet services, a desperate tweet by Manipur’s poster woman, Olympic boxing medalist MC Mary Kom, caught global attention.
The Supreme Court has expressed concern over the violence and asked the state government to submit an updated report on relief and rehabilitation measures last week.
On Sunday, CM Singh and his four cabinet colleagues reached New Delhi and held talks with federal minister Shah to discuss the eruption of fresh violence in the state’s Bishnupur and Churachandpur districts as unidentified miscreants torched a few half-burnt houses the previous night.
However, there are little signs of restoration of normalcy, as both the Scheduled Tribes Demand Committee (STDCM) and Tribal Solidarity March, a hurriedly cobbled umbrella outfit of the hill tribes, have hardened their stand. The STDCM has said it would continue and intensify the demand for the Meitei communit’s inclusion in the ST list. However the hill tribal body has threatened to scuttle the move amid a looming specter of further social unrest.
Helplessness and anger is overpowering the displaced, as the future looks uncertain for the affected.
The victims belong to both the tribal and non-tribal communities in the state, where the fault lines run deep because of the deep-seated Hindu-Christian religious divide.
India’s apex court has urged both the federal and Manipur governments to file updated status reports before it hears the plea regarding the violence on Wednesday (May 17). It has also directed the authorities concerned to take adequate steps for safeguarding places of worship, irrespective of faiths.
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