Manipur’s ethnic fault lines: Kuki-Meitei divide & recent unrest

Manipur’s ethnic fault lines: Kuki-Meitei divide & recent unrest

Context- Manipur is no stranger to violent protests, but the ongoing violence between the Kuki-Zomi tribals and the largely Hindu Meiteis is the first time in three decades that the state has witnessed direct clashes between two ethnic groups.

(Credits- Indian Express)

The Manipur valley is encircled by skirts of low hills that spread into Nagaland and Mizoram. In these hill areas, which comprise the bulk of Manipur’s geographical area, live 15 Naga tribes and the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi group, which includes the Kuki, Thadou, Hmar, Paite, Vaiphei and Zou peoples.

Kuki-Meitei divide

  • Ethnic tensions between the hill communities and the Meiteis have existed from the time of the erstwhile kingdom, but the friction started escalating with the advent of the Naga national movement in the 1950s, and the call for an independent Naga nation. The Naga insurgency was countered by the rise of insurgent groups among the Meiteis and Kuki-Zomi.
  • In the 1990s, as the NSCN-IM pushed harder for self-determination, the Kuki-Zomi groups began to militarise, and the Kukis launched their own movement for ‘Kukiland’ — unlike the Naga movement, however, the Kuki-Zomi demand was for a state within India, not a separate national homeland. Even though the Kukis had started out as protectors of the Meitei people, the Kukiland demand created a rift between the communities.
  • During the Naga-Kuki clashes of 1993, NSCN-IM cadres allegedly went from village to village in areas they claimed as belonging to Nagas, emptying them of Kuki residents. Many Kukis fled to Churachandpur, a district dominated by the Kuki-Zomi people.
  • Analysts have pointed out that the cornering of Kukis in one district (although pockets of Kukis villages can be found in other parts of Manipur as well), increased their sense of insecurity.

Meitei fears

  • The Naga and Kuki movements fuelled Meitei nationalism, and numerous groups sprung up in the valley. Concerns over demographic change and shrinking of traditional Meitei areas started to surface in the 1970s. There were some demands for Scheduled Tribe status for Meiteis, but the discourse remained largely muted.
  • In 2001, the Indian government’s decision to extend its ceasefire with the IM to states other than Nagaland led to widespread violence in Manipur In Imphal, protesters set the Assembly building on fire.
  • The demand for ST status became a mass movement from this point onward, as an increasingly insecure Meitei population feared the possible creation of Greater Nagalim would lead to shrinking of Manipur’s geographical area.
  • During the period 2006-12 came the demand for an Inner Line Permit (ILP) in Manipur, which would bar outsiders from entering the state without permission.
  • The free movement of the Kuki-Zomi across Manipur’s porous border with Myanmar — communities belonging to this group of tribes are bound by strong links of ethnicity, customs, language, and dress, and often see themselves as a fluid population living uncircumscribed by boundaries of country and state — fanned fears of demographic change.
  • The Federation of Regional Indigenous Societies, which spearheaded the ILP demand in 2006, claimed that the growth rate of Manipur’s population had jumped from 12.8% in the 1941-51 period to 35.04% during 1951-61 and to 37.56% in 1961-71 after the permit system was abolished.
  • The Meiteis contend that in a state where the government is the largest employer and there are very few other opportunities, reservation for STs in jobs amounts to an unfair advantage.
  • Also, they point out, while tribals can buy land in the valley, Meiteis are prohibited from buying land in the hills. News of infrastructure development — such as the coming of railways that would open up Manipur further — have made insecurities worse.

Why Churachandpur

  • Kuki-Zomi-dominated Churachandpur in the state’s south-western corner sprawls over 4,750 sq km of plains and hills, with a population — 2,71,274 according to the 2011 Census — that is mostly Christian. The Panchayati Raj Ministry in 2006 named it among the country’s poorest districts — and it remains abjectly poor.
  • In 2015, as the Meiteis of the valley protested demanding ILP in Imphal city, equally intense protests were seen in Churachandpur countering the demand, and protesting the introduction of laws by then Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, one of which said the state would determine who was a Manipuri and who wasn’t.

The recent unrest

  • While the forest eviction and demand for ST status for Meiteis have been the most prominent recent triggers, the divide between the Meiteis and tribals on a number of issues has widened over the past decade.
  • In 2020, as the Centre began the first delimitation process in the state since 1973, the Meitei community and its leaders cutting across party lines, including from the Congress, BJP, and CPI, alleged that the Census figures used in the exercise did not accurately reflect the population break-up.
  • Tribal groups on the other hand said they had grown to 40% of the state’s population, and were underrepresented in the Assembly.
  • The February 2021 coup in Myanmar and the following widespread unrest has led to a refugee crisis in India’s Northeast. Meitei leaders have alleged that there has been a sudden mushrooming of villages in Churachandpur district.

Conclusion- Kukis and Nagas point out that tribal areas are 90% of state’s geographical area, but the bulk of its budget and development work is focused on the Meitei-dominated Imphal valley. Each of these groups has its aspirations and insecurities, and old grievances have been triggered by new developments. Honest Political dialogue involving all communities should be the way forward.

Syllabus- GS-1; Society

Source- Indian Express