It’s About Manipur Violence – Perceptions and Principles

  • Manipur has been on the boil for close to three months: Over a hundred people have been killed and thousands displaced with little hope of returning home.
  • The sexual assault of Kuki-Zomi women on May 4 — an FIR was filed on May 18 — has to be seen in the context of this extended run of violence and the impunity mobs have enjoyed for months.
  • The barbarity of the crime — one of the survivors told this newspaper that policemen were present when the incident took place — and its video shook the nation

What Sparked the Latest Violence in Manipur?

  • The most recent violence began after the Manipur High Court asked the state government to consider Scheduled Tribe status for the Meitei community, which is the majority population in Manipur.
  • This status would ensure protection within the Indian Constitution and allow the Meitei expanded access to benefits, including reserved seats in government.
  • The Meitei community in Manipur had long requested this status.
  • However, there were strong concerns that such a move would deepen ethnic divisions, particularly with the Kuki and Naga Indigenous communities.
  • Indeed, soon after the court announcement, a rally was held in protest by the All-Tribal Students Union of Manipur on May 3.
  • The violence began that same day, when reports surfaced that the Anglo-Kuki War Memorial Gate had been burnt down.
  • This led Kukis to burn several villages inhabited by Meitei communities in Churachanpur, which in turn prompted retaliation by the Meitei, who reportedly torched several localities belonging to the Kuki community in the Imphal Valley areas, leading to several casualties.
  • Meanwhile, another point of contention is the current land imbalance between Indigenous communities: Meiteis cannot buy lands in the previously mentioned hill regions, but Kukis and other tribal communities can buy lands in the valley.
  • Additionally, the influx of refugees following the 2021 military coup in neighboring Myanmar — particularly those from Sagaing region, who have strong ties with the Kukis — has also created a greater sense of insecurity for the Meitei Indigenous community.

Meitei Community Demands for ST Status

  • Since 2012, there has been a constant demand led by the Scheduled Tribes Demand Committee of Manipur (STDCM) for granting the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meitei community.
  • The Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union had filed a petition before the Manipur High Court and had argued that the Meitei community was once recognised as a “tribe” before the merger of the princely state of Manipur with the Union of India in 1949 and that it lost its identity as a tribe after the merger.
  • Petitioners argued that the ST status must be extended to the community in order to preserve the community and save their ancestral land, tradition, culture and language.
  • According to STDCM:
    • The Meitei community has been victimised without any constitutional protection. 
    • They have been gradually marginalised in their ancestral land. 
    • And the population of the Meitei community has reduced from 59% of the total population of Manipur in 1951 to 44% as per 2011 Census data.

Manipur High Court’s Judgement

  • The Manipur High Court on April 19 this year asked the Manipur government to submit a 10-year-old recommendation to the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry for the inclusion of the Meitei community in the ST list within four weeks.
  • The High Court referred to the Union Tribal Ministry’s letter to the State government in May 2013 which had sought recommendations along with the latest socio-economic survey and ethnographic report.

Opposition by other tribal groups

  • The demand for ST status for the Meitei community has been opposed by the other tribal groups of the state.
  • These tribal groups opine that the individuals of the Meitei community already have a demographic as well as a political advantage.
  • They further argue that the Meitei community is more advanced than the tribal groups academically and in other aspects. 
  • According to the various tribal organisations, granting ST status to the Meiteis would result in the loss of employment opportunities and would also allow Meiteis to acquire land in the hills which would ultimately push the tribals out.
  • Additionally, groups like the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur also argue that the Manipuri language of the Meiteis is included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution and that various sections of the community are already enjoying various benefits associated with the Scheduled Castes (SC) or Other Backward Classes (OBC) status. 

Manipur’s Ethnic Composition

  • There are 16 districts in Manipur and the State is said to be divided into “valley” and “hill” districts. 
  • The Imphal Valley lies at the centre of the State and is surrounded by hills.
  • Four highways act as the access points to the valley from the rest of the region out of which two highways are regarded as the “lifelines for the State”. 
  • The valley accounts for about 10% of Manipur’s landmass and is dominated by the non-tribal Meitei.
    • People belonging to the Meitei community account for over 64% of the State population and yield 40 out of the 60 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) of the State.
  • Meanwhile, the hills that account for close to 90% of the geographical area of the State are inhabited by about 35% recognised tribes but are represented by only 20 MLAs.
  • The majority of the Meiteis are Hindus followed by Muslims and the 33 recognised tribes who are broadly categorised as “Any Naga tribes” and “Any Kuki tribes” are mainly Christians.

Protests during Manipur Violence

Way Forward

  • Need for the central government to achieve an “optimal positioning” by demonstrating sensitivity, innovative thinking, and willingness to make concessions.
    • Understanding cultural factors and sociological dynamics in finding a solution.
  • Significance of dialogue, avoiding an adversarial approach, and communicating the neutrality of Delhi in conflicts.
  • Finding a mutually agreeable agreement, acknowledging the magnitude of the problem, ensuring security for all communities, and acting based on overreaching moral principles while maintaining a weak democratic resolve and shared national interest.