Fault lines grow deeper as ethnic violence continues to roil Manipur
A high court order asking the state government to consider the Scheduled Tribe status for the dominant Meitei community opened old fault lines
On May 3, All Tribal Students Union Manipur took out what it called a solidarity march in Churachandpur against a high court order asking the state government to consider the Scheduled Tribe status for the dominant Meitei community. The march sparked ethnic violence that continues to roil the state five months later and has left 178 dead and over 50000 displaced.
Eight petitioners moved the court seeking the status to save Meitei ancestral land, traditions, culture, and heritage. They argued the Meiteis enjoyed the status before September 1949 when the princely state of Manipur merged with India. They sought the restoration of this status.
The high court order opened old fault lines between mostly Hindu Meiteis and predominately Christian Kuki and Nagas tribal communities residing in the state’s hill districts.
The tribal communities opposed the status to the Meiteis, who account for around 53% of Manipur’s population and live mostly in Imphal Valley, saying it would deprive them of government jobs and admissions to educational institutions. Meiteis have the Other Backward Class status. They have had an upper hand politically as the Imphal Valley region they dominate sends 40 of the 60 lawmakers to the state assembly even as the region accounts for around 10% of the state’s total land area. The tribal-dominated hill districts account for nearly 90% of Manipur’s landmass but have fewer seats in the assembly.
People living in the plains are not allowed to buy land in the hills districts where an elected Hill Areas Committee enjoys administrative autonomy. Shrinking land and other resources in the Imphal Valley as well as protections given to hill areas and restrictions on non-tribals from buying land there led to a demand for ST status for the Meiteis.
Tensions were also brewing over the state government’s survey of the Churachandpur-Khoupum protected forest region covering 490 square km. Locals alleged the survey was conducted without their consent with the intent of evicting them.
Security officials say it would have been easier to contain violence if the mobs, belonging to both Kuki and Meitei groups, did not have access to a large cache of arms and ammunition. In the first few weeks of the violence, mobs stole weapons from police stations, gun shops, and armouries of the India Reserve Battalion.
Security forces have found evidence of militants using the same weapons in their attacks. Most weapons were stolen in the first few days of violence and between May 28 and May 31.
Officials aware of the matter said that nearly 4500 weapons and around 650000 pieces of ammunition were robbed. The state government told the Supreme Court it would submit a report on the loot of weapons and ammunition in a sealed cover because making it public would cause panic. Security forces have recovered only about 1,500 arms and 15000 pieces of ammunition.
The fault lines have only grown deeper since May 3. Meiteis, who lived in hill districts, have fled to the valley areas. Kukis, who lived in the valley, have found refuge in the hills.
Kuki groups have accused Manipur Police of bias and urged the Union government to retain Assam Rifles to restore peace in the state. Assam Rifles reports to the Union government and Manipur Police to chief minister Biren Singh, a Meitei.
Assam Rifles in August sent a legal notice to a Manipuri leader for his alleged remarks accusing the force of siding with Kuki militants during the clashes with Meiteis. The Manipur Police filed a first information report accusing the Assam Rifles of stopping them from pursuing Kuki militants across a buffer zone.
Assam Rifles has maintained its troops were only following the buffer zone guidelines in place to restore normalcy. It filed a sedition case against the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), a collective of Meitei groups, for allegedly discouraging the return of weapons stolen from police armouries.
The central forces are posted in the buffer zones or areas adjoining the foothills to ensure that armed people from both the Kukis and Meitei sides do not cross them to launch attacks.
Central forces have been directed against allowing even state police to cross the buffer zones without taking them along. The directive was issued against the backdrop of allegations of bias against the state police.
A Meitei couple was killed on July 6 after they ended up in a Kuki-controlled village after eloping. Armed Kuki militants passing by the village spotted the couple, abducted them in a vehicle, and took them to an unknown destination before executing them.
According to photographs that emerged in September after the state reinstated mobile internet, the couple seemed to have been murdered as the five-month-long civil war-like situation continued to roil Manipur.
The police cited an agreement with the central government and said the places of abduction and areas of operation of the alleged accused were not accessible to the State Investigating Agency due to the heavy presence of the armed Kuki militants.
The killing of the couple triggered fresh protests and forced police to resort to firing tear gas shells. At least 25 students sustained injuries. The state government announced the closure of all schools.
Earlier a video surfaced online on July 19 showing three women being stripped naked and paraded in Manipur. It provoked outrage and disrupted the monsoon session of Parliament.