By Chetana Goud
Since May 2023, the streets of the Jewel of India turned crimson for all the wrong reasons, propelling Manipur into a perpetual state of fear and bloodshed. However, this Northeastern state is not alien to violence and has a history of armed aggression between its various ethnic groups.
Manipur is divided into two regions– the river valley or plains covering 10% of the total area of State and the hilly areas covering 90%. Manipur is characterised as an ethnocultural heterogenous society comprising three main ethnic groups- Meitei, Kuki and Nagas. The Meiteis mostly populate the valley area of Manipur while the Nagas and Kukis are the two main tribal groups of the hill tribes in the state based on differences in dialect, culture and ethnic origins.
These ethnic groups are often embroiled in violent identity and power struggles in the background of historical injustices, controversial legislative enactments, demands for autonomy, fear of majoritarianism and preservation of culture and resources.
Here are some of the major political issues that constitute the root of violence in Manipur:
A. Extension of Sixth Schedule to Manipur
The administrative set-up of manipuri hill tribes has been a contentious issue since independence. In order to ensure fair and just administration of the people of the hull region of Manipur, two administrative instruments were set up- The Hill Area Committee and the District Councils. The Hill Area Committee was constituted in 1971 by the insertion of Art 371C in the Indian Constitution, which provides that matters related to the administration of hill areas shall be referred to the committee. Consequently, the central government enacted the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act,1971(MHADC), which established six Autonomous District Councils in Manipur, empowering such tribal areas with administrative autonomy.
The sixth schedule, on the other hand, is a similar instrument of decentralisation which provides provisions for legislative, judicial and administrative autonomy to tribal areas via the Autonomous District Councils.
The District Councils in Manipur are fundamentally different from the ones under Sixth Schedule as the former has no judicial or legislative autonomy and is only limited to particular executive and financial functions.
Thus, since 1974 the tribal communities have been demanding the extension of the Sixth Schedule to the hill areas of Manipur. According to them the Councils under the MHADC Act,1971 have been ineffective and must be replaced by councils under sixth schedule to protect their interests and autonomy. Notably, the sixth schedule covers only a few areas, i.e., the valley areas of Manipur but not any hill areas.
B. Inclusion or non-inclusion of groups in the list of Scheduled tribes
According to Art 342(1) of the Indian Constitution prescribes the procedure for determining various groups as Scheduled Tribes and such power has been conferred upon the President. Several conflicts and protests have occurred over the inclusion or non-inclusion of ethnic groups in this List.
The major ethnopolitical conflicts that arose from these political issues are:
- The Naga tribes of Manipur demand to integrate themselves with the State of Nagaland to establish ‘Nagalim’, a State consisting of all the areas belonging to the Naga people.
- The Kuki tribes’ demand for separate statehood, i.e., ‘Kukiland’, which comprises of all the areas with Kuki majority such as Churachandpur district, Chandel district and others.
- Intra-ethnic conflicts between the various sub-tribes that constitute the larger tribe. For example, various tribes such as the Zous, Simtes, Vaipheis, Paites etc., identified themselves as the ‘Zomis’, disowning the Kuki name, which resulted in the Kuki-Zom violence.
- Inter-ethnic conflicts between the hill tribes and the valley people of Meitei due to the latter’s discrimination against the former communities in areas of political representation and economic development.
- Inter-ethnic conflicts between the Nagas and Kuki due to historical prejudices dating back to the colonial government’s forceful suppression of Naga tribes with the aid of Kuki tribes and claims over the disputed area of Sardar Hills.
- Political conflicts as a result of demands of unrecognised tribes such as Pournai, Mate, Taroa etc. to be recognised via their inclusion in the list of Scheduled Tribes.
- Metei insurgency groups’ demand for independence from the dominion of India.
- The opposition of various groups in Manipur to the imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA).
These major ethnopolitical issues and minor conflicts are active catalysts to the ongoing violence in Manipur.
Further, the use of force, violence and anarchy is deepened by the formation and existence of various insurgent groups representing the numerous ethnic groups of Manipur. These insurgent groups have reduced the elected government’s control over its people and have established parallel governments, often exercising duress over various elected political representatives of the state. These insurgent groups further exacerbate Manipur’s weakening territorial integrity and security through their involvement in drug trafficking, illegal narcotics trade and extortion to secure financial aid for their organisations.
A direct consequence of the surge of insurgency was the imposition of the AFSPA, 1958, through which special powers were given to the armed forces in disturbed areas in Assam and Manipur. Soon, the act was deemed by many Manipuris as a grave violation of their human rights. Controversial provisions of the act, which gave powers to officers to cause death, prohibition of prosecution of officers acting under the Act etc., resulted in the indiscriminate killing of several innocent people leading to further violence.
Meitei-Kuki violence 2023
In the context of the background above, the violence raging between the Meitei and Kuki is again a result of multifaceted reasons that have amalgamated due to the existing ethnopolitical realities of Manipur. The violence began when a peaceful protest by the All Tribal Students Union Manipur turned violent on 3rd May 2023.
Three significant events led to the gruesome bloodshed, resulting in the loss of lives and property.
Firstly, order passed by the Manipur High Court directing the Manipur state government to recommend the inclusion of the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes list. It provoked a sense of fear and anxiety among the already marginalised hill tribes as they felt threatened due to their identity and resources in comparison to the majority and, economically well-off Meteis.
Secondly, the arbitrary actions of the state government, which declared vast tribal lands as ‘protected forests’, directed eviction of the tribal inhabitants from such lands. Further, the unauthorised demolition of certain Churches also ignited ethnic clashes.
Thirdly, the withdrawal of the state government from the ‘Suspension of Operations’ Agreement, 2008, a tripartite ceasefire agreement between the Indian Government and Kuki militant groups, dissatisfied the Kuki tribes.
These events solidified the anxieties of the hill tribes regarding the increasing domination of the valley people on social, economic and political fronts, thus unfolding into a series of ongoing violent attacks on innocent people from both sides.
Thus, the situation in Manipur is worsened by the existence of a military state and the illegal governments run by the insurgents. These groups stand unchecked and are emboldened due to the laxity of the elected government of Manipur and the widespread inter-ethnic conflicts that necessitate peaceful, just and fair solutions.
Chetana is a third year law student pursuing B.A. LL.B. (Hons) at Himachal Pradesh National Law University. Her major areas of research interest lie in culture, politics and society.
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