The recent and ongoing ethnic conflict of such magnitude and grievous nature which started on May 3, 2023, in Manipur, cannot be attributed to a monocausal. It is a product of multi-causes and the explosion of pent-up anger, emotion, and historical wrong. The mistrust among the ethnic groups is not a recent phenomenon but it is a deeply rooted issue that has prevailed for a long period of time. Hemochandra, the former Manipur Assembly Speaker, pointed out that “the recent conflict does not come in a sudden spark but it has a long-standing historical structural wrong that connects to the land, to the laws, and the colonial legacy when we join the Indian union in 1947 and later.” (Hemochandra Singh in an interview with Karan Thapar, The Wire)
Manipur is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious state. Hill areas are occupied by 33 tribes categorized broadly into two ethnic groups: Naga tribes and Kuki-Chin-Zo tribes. The Naga tribes do not have a common language among themselves, yet based on the common myth and historical fact their political aspiration is integrated with the Nagas of Nagaland, Assam, Arunachal, and Burma and demanded a separate nation which began before the independence of India. The Kuki-Chin group has a common language to communicate among themselves yet is unable to establish a common political platform until recently. The fertile valley of Manipur is occupied by the Meitei (a conglomeration of seven clans) and Meitei-Pangal (Manipur Muslim) speaking Meitei-lon (Meitei languages) which is one of the 22 official languages of the Indian Republic.
The Manipur-Pangal who came from Sylhet became a significant part of the Manipur society from the early part of the 17th century. The Meitei from the first quarter of the 18th century adopted Hindu Vaishnavism. Before the advent of Hinduism they followed indigenous religion called Sanamahi. The spread of Christianity among the tribes began in the last decade of the 19th century.
Almost all the ethnicities of Manipur have their counterparts across the borders in neighboring Myanmar. A sizable population of Meitei (known by the name Kathe in Myanmar) is in Myanmar, the Indo-Myanmarese Fraternal Alliance, an Imphal-based organization, attempts to restore the old ties between the Meiteis of Myanmar and Manipur recently. As many as one-third of the total Naga population resides in Myanmar. The Zomi and Kuki have close social, cultural, and shadow political ties with some of the 40 or more Chin sub-tribes of Myanmar. Different ethnic groups came to the region at different points in the historical period, some of them came as early as prehistoric days, and some others even in recent periods.
Hills-Valley divide: The hills-valley dichotomy cannot be simply understood in terms of geography alone, it is clearly visible in the cultural, religious, and psychological realms. The roots of the hills-valley divide are much older than what is imagined. Prior to the colonial period, the hill tribal people had developed their own polity, this traditional polity has a clear-cut boundary of the village, a well-regulated land ownership system, and a judiciary system based on the customary laws. Therefore, the hill villages are autonomous political, social, and cultural units. The valley which was ruled by Meitei Raja has no direct administration in the hills. The claim made by Bimol Akoijam, that before the independence, Meitei could buy land in the hills is based on the wrong assumption (Bimol Akoijam in an interview with Karan Thapar, The Wire). No historical records are found of the Meitei buying land from the hills in pre-colonial or colonial times. The hills came under the indirect control of British Political Agents only after 1891. Prior to 1891, the hills never formed part of the Manipur kingdom. In 1907 government was handed over to Raja Churachand Singh, and he was made the President of Manipur State Durbar (it was reorganized in 1913, and the Raja ceased to be the President). The hills were excluded from the jurisdiction of the State Darbar. The authority and jurisdiction of the Raja and his court were confined to the valley only, the hills continued to be looked after by the Political Agent.
Recognizing the necessity of the separate administration for hills and valleys, two important legislations were promulgated in 1947: Manipur State Constitution Act and Manipur Hill People Regulation. The former was for the valley and the latter relates to the Hills. With the merger of Manipur with the Union of India on 15th October 1949, Hill People Regulation was replaced by Manipur Village Act 1956 in the hills.
With the full attainment of the state on 21st July 1971 to safeguard the interest and deal with the problem concerning the hill people of Manipur, the Union Government inserted Article 371 C into the Indian constitution. With this constitutional provision Hill Areas Committee (HAC) was formed to monitor the law-making and the administration of the hill areas (the dominant majority Member of the Legislative Assembly undermines the smooth functioning of HAC).
Ethnic allegiance: What does the term ‘Manipur’ signify? Does it refer to the people from Manipur? For many tribal groups from the state, it is rather an identification of the Meitei tradition, culture, and the Meitei community. To cite an example, Manipuri dance (Raas Leela which is one of the eight major Indian classical dances), and Manipur language (which include in the Eight Schedule of the Indian constitution as one of the 22 official languages of the Indian Republic) are the exclusive beautiful dance form and language of the Meitei; it is difficult for any tribal group to take pride in the rich cultural heritage of ‘Manipur’ and many Meitei have no taste for the tribal folk songs or folk dance!
The history of Manipur’s co-existence of a plurality of ethnic groups, languages, and religions is not a happy existence. Allegiance to ethnicity is particularly prominent in Manipur, different ethnicities were pitted against each other. Community attachment and significance surpass state loyalty, attachment, and significance. The tribal loyalty to the state was often questioned while the Meitei attachment to Manipur was beyond doubt.
Ethnic polarization is seen on various fronts. The state witnessed several ethnic conflicts in the recent past, the Naga-Kuki conflict in 1993, Meitei-Meitei Pangals (Manipur Muslims)- in 3rd May, 1993, Kuki-Paite conflict in 1997-98. There has been mistrust between the Nagas and the Meiteis on many occasions and erratic attacks on Nagas who reside in the plains were witnessed though there was no open confrontation between the two communities.
On many occasions, the Nagas were forced or compelled to pack their belongings and move out from the valley in an exodus. Ethnic tension significantly affected the overall ethos of the state by decimating social trust and encouraging human flight. There are several armed opposition groups professing their own political goals making one of the most disturbed areas of the region and of the country. The notion of ancestral lands and homelands of different communities overlap one another.
Chronic economic disparity: For many years tribal people were unhappy over the lopsided economic health and uneven development in the state. The economic progress, education and health services of the hill districts are at the bottom ladder when compared to the valley districts. The valley of Manipur which is dominated by the Meitei community is one of the most developed districts in the entire northeast India.
North East Region District Development Infrastructure Index 2009 shows that Imphal West Ranked at number one as the most developed district in the entire northeastern states, Imphal East Ranked six, and Thoubal ranked eleven, whereas the Infrastructure Index shows that hill districts such as Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Churachandpur, Chandel ranked sixty-eight, seventy-five, seventy-six, seventy –eight respectively.
The Development Infrastructure Index was based on seven indicators, viz., transport facility, energy, irrigation, banking facility, communication, infrastructure, educational institutions, and health facilities.
The tribal people of Manipur are the most deprived as compared to other tribal groups of the northeast. The sixth schedule of article 244 of the Indian constitution was provided to the hill areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tripura. However, the state of Manipur is yet to provide any meaningful constitutional guarantee for its tribal population.
The concentration of economic development, educational institutions, and government offices in and around the capital could be one of the factors of the high density of population in the valley as it is quite natural that human movement follows the more developed areas. The eight universities of the state: Central Agricultural University, Dhanamanjuri University, Manipur University, Manipur University of Culture, Manipur Technical University, National Sports University, Sangai International University, and Manipur International University are concentrated in the valley alone.
Two Medical Institutes: Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, and the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences are in Imphal. Three technical institutes: Manipur Institute of Technology, Indian Institute of Information Technology, National Institute of Technology are all in Imphal. The lone university established on the hill is Indira Gandhi National Tribal University which is located just 22.8 km from Imphal. This lopsided development has impacted negatively on every facet of the tribal people.
The hill people of the state have been suffering for so many years in terms of budget allocation. The Manipur budget allocation is grossly valley centric, the total budget allocation from 2017-2021 was Rs. 21,900 crores, out of this Rs.21,481crores were allocated for the valley and Rs. 419 crores for the hills (Source: Alfred Arthur, Ex-Hill MLA). The fund allocation for the valley amounted to 98.08% and just only 1.91% was allocated for the hills which comprised 43 % of the state population. In this given situation, it is impossible for the tribal people to catch up with the valley. Such economic disparity also widens the hills-valley divide.
The current pandemonium in Manipur has resulted in the killing of more than 100 people, the burning down of more than a hundred villages which resulted in the displacement of 45,000 people, and more than 200 churches have been vandalized or burned down, value of crores of properties have been reduced to ashes. The turmoil of such magnitude will take years to heal the wound. Manipur as a state has been retarded socially, economically, and politically due to these perennial ethnic problems for decades.
The demand and aspiration of one community is an anathema for the other community. The movement for Naga integration is seen by Meitei and Kukis as an agenda to disintegrate Manipur, the demand for Kuki homeland (which overlapped Naga’s demand for greater Lim) is both opposed by the Meitei and Nagas, the Meitei demand for the ST status is being seen suspiciously as an attempt to grab the land of the tribal people both by the Kukis and the Nagas.
The living together of multi-ethnic, language, and religion has been marred by mistrust for too long, the presence of one community causes a sense of insecurity for the other. The call for peace as a short-term remedy will turn out to be a preparation for conflict of a bigger magnitude in the future.
Protecting the integrity of the state for the sake of integration will only deepen the wounds of different communities. The central government must find a long-lasting solution even at the cost of physical restructuring of the state to avert another ethnic conflict in the state.
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com)