In various cities and hamlets throughout Manipur, a state in the north-east of India, certain dwellings have been burnt to the ground while adjacent properties remain unscathed, following a sudden outburst of ethnic violence that resulted in the deaths of over 70 individuals and forced 30,000 others to flee their homes. Although the violence that erupted on May 3rd has largely subsided, prospects of a speedy return to normality are bleak.
Food is scarce, the army and paramilitary forces continue to enforce a curfew, internet services remain suspended, and numerous establishments, including schools, offices, and shops, are shuttered. Thousands of people are still stranded in overcrowded and unsanitary refugee camps. Furthermore, reports of new violence over the weekend have led to additional displacement.
Why The Violence Happened
On 3rd May, Manipur witnessed widespread unrest as tribal groups protested against the Meitei community's demand for ST status. The protests quickly turned violent, resulting in large-scale arson and loss of life and property. In response, the Manipur CM, N Biren Singh, declared curfew in eight districts and suspended mobile internet services in the entire state. The army and paramilitary forces have been deployed to control the situation.
The unrest began on 27 April in Churachandpur district when the Indigenous Tribal Leaders' Forum (ITLF) burned down a newly built gym-cum-sports facility scheduled to be inaugurated by the Chief Minister. The protesters were angry about the state government's proposed survey of reserved and protected forests and wetlands and the demolition of three unauthorised churches.
Although the security forces initially managed to contain the situation, things spiralled out of control on 3 May when the All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) organised a 'Tribal Solidarity March' in the Torbung area of Churachandpur district. The protesters started burning tires and other objects, leading to widespread arson and violence.
Similar protests supporting the 'Tribal Solidarity March' occurred in other parts of Manipur, with many turning violent. The violence spread to Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, and Tengnoupal districts, as well as non-tribal-dominated districts like Imphal West, Kakching, Thoubal, Jiribam, and Bishnupur. Social media played a role in fueling the unrest, with authorities suspending mobile internet services for five days.
Despite the tribal communities' long standing opposition to the Meitei community's ST status request, the recent demonstrations and unrest were sparked by a directive from the Manipur High Court on March 27th. The court ordered the Manipur state government to submit recommendations to the central government for the inclusion of Meitei in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list, following numerous petitions filed by Meitei activists seeking such action.
Furthermore, the court chastised the state government for delaying the matter for more than a decade. In May 2013, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs requested that the state government submit a formal recommendation, as well as the most up-to-date socio-economic survey and ethnographic report, but the Manipur government failed to do so.
Who Are Rivals And Protest Against Meitei ST Status
As per Meitei communities, the recent protests against the demand for ST status are merely a cover-up for a more sinister motive by the tribal groups. They assert that the actual objective behind the protests is to prevent the survey of forest land and the eviction of illegal immigrants from protected areas.
According to the Meitei groups, Manipur is experiencing an unusual surge in population growth, with a growth rate of 24.5%, which is higher than the national average of 17.64%. This, they claim, is due to illegal immigration. They have observed a rise in the number of villages in the hill areas of Manipur, which they believe is the result of migration from neighbouring countries, rather than natural birth.
Meiteis claim that Kuki people are migrating illegally from Myanmar and occupying forest land in Manipur, with the support of the local Kukis. The government has launched an eviction drive to address the situation, which is being opposed by the tribal groups.
Chand Meetei of the All Meitei Council has stated that the Kukis are the only ones protesting against the eviction drive, despite it being conducted in areas inhabited by Meiteis and Muslims as well. Meiteis are calling for the implementation of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state to identify illegal immigrants.
The state government has identified 38 villages in the Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest area as "illegal settlements," and its residents as "encroachers." The government has launched an eviction drive and announced a survey of forest areas to identify encroachments, which is being opposed by tribal groups.
The tribal groups, primarily Kuki groups, claim that the eviction and survey violate Article 371C of the constitution, which grants administrative autonomy to the tribal-dominated hill areas of Manipur. Chief Minister N Biren Singh has stated that the protesters are challenging constitutional provisions, and the encroachment of reserved forests, protected forests, and wildlife sanctuaries for poppy plantation and drug businesses is unacceptable.
Conclusion And Government Response
The Centre's decision to invoke Article 355 in the State is seen as an extreme measure, indicating that there may be other motivations behind the Centre's desire to maintain tension in Manipur. The excessive deployment of security forces in the State, allegedly in response to the violence, may be part of a larger strategy related to Manipur's status as a border State.
In the meantime, there are indications that things are returning to normal, but it remains to be seen how successful the BJP-led Centre and State will be in achieving a long-term agreement that is acceptable to all parties involved.