What are the Reasons for violence in Manipur ?
In 2014 I spent ten days in Manipur for the Sangai Festival and fell in love with its culture and people. The state is extremely rich in cultural traditions, people down-to-earth and is a region waiting to be re-discovered. I got to know that POLO was founded in Manipur in the 1850s and also travelled to Loktak Lake and Moreh (border town with Myanmar) during which got to see its rich forest cover. Its sportsmen are also inspired by the indigenous games tradition.
Since then my heart beats for Manipur. I was disturbed to read about the current violence. This article looks at related issues and tries to do so in a factual, unbiased way.
During my Moreh (border town) visit I saw many locals driving Yamaha motorcycles. I was told these bikes would be delivered at the Myanmar border because they were in great demand there. Similarly, saw truck loads of consumer items being taken from Moreh to Imphal. The trucks were checked by security forces esp. for drugs and arms.
Besides current wave of violence, the region earlier got national attention when in 2015 a attack by Naga militants in Chandel district of Manipur resulted in the death of 18 jawans. Note that Nagas have a dream of a Greater Nagaland including areas of adjoining states (Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Assam etc) and Myanmar.
On inquiry with resident Manipuris was told that violence was mainly by the Kuki Tribe who are illegal immigrants from Myanmar.
This Express report states, “The Kuki-Zomi tribes are originally from Kuki-Chin hills in Myanmar.”According to a retired fauji the British brought Kukis from Burma, settled them all along the road (now highway) from Dimapur (in Nagaland) to Moreh so that Kukis could protect them from the Nagas. Note that Burma was part of British India administratively till 1937.
Sources said that, “Unlike districts dominated by other communities, they control and dominate everything keeping the local belief and law as the first priority.”
Like in Assam with Bangladeshis, tribal population has increased over the years causing concern. Local sources state they are a majority in six districts namely Churachandpur, Pherzawl, Chandel (border town Moreh is here), Tengnoupal (enroute to Moreh) and Kangpokpi.
Further, notwithstanding that Kukis have converted to Christianity they are classified as Scheduled Tribes (ST). Note that current laws give benefits to ST, even post conversion unlike for Scheduled Caste.
Actually, this ST is a British construct that came into being around when the Constitution was adopted in 1950. Thus, in Tripura members of the former Royal Family are ST today as was music director R D Burman who belonged to that family. And to drive home that point, a bust of Ambedkar adorns the Ujjayanta Palace (Agartala) entrance today. In Rajasthan, the Meenas (now ST) were rulers before Rajputs in the region around Jaipur.
Further, sources say protesting Kukis seek to control forest land and grow Poppy. Violence could be a protest against the recent state government moves.
Excerpts from an Indian Express report, “The district’s resident Kuki tribe was protesting a government land survey in the Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest region, as well an earlier eviction drive carried out as “part of the government’s initiative to protect and preserve protected/reserve forests.”
Anuradha O wrote in Claws, “Drug trafficking is not a new trend in the state; however, the unprecedented rise of poppy cultivation raises a red signal that adversely impacts the northeast regions (NER) and the rest of India.”
As per a March 2023 Outlook report, “Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh on Friday said that elements from neighbouring Myanmar are involved in narcotic business in the state. His statement came after the state police seized 20.26 kg of poppy seeds, four two-wheelers used in Myanmar. At a time when the government machinery is actively engaged in destruction of poppy plantations, the recovery of poppy seeds meant for sowing of poppy plants and employment of vehicles brought from the neighbouring country has shown that anti-social elements are challenging the administration and the people,” Singh said.
Some are blaming violence because of a Manipur High Court April 2023 order which states that Meitis (mainly Hindus) be declared a Scheduled Tribe.
Can large-scale violence be attributed to a court order is the moot point?
Some argue how can a majority community be a ST. According to the 2011 Census Manipur had a population of 28.56 lakhs, Hinduism and Christianity followed by 41% each. Population growth as compared to 2001 was 24.5% and decade before that was 30%. Meitis reside (mainly Hindus), reside in Imphal Valley (accounts for app 10% of total area) and Tribals (mainly Christians-Nagas and Kukis) reside in the Hills. Thus, Meitis can hardly be said to be in a majority, a term not defined in the Constitution.
Utpal Parashar wrote in Hindustan Times, “The present administration system provides administrative autonomy to the elected Hill Areas Committee. At present Meiteis can’t buy land in the hill areas as per provisions of Article 371C of Constitution and other notifications.”
Why do Meitis wish to be declared a ST?
1. According to this Telegraph report, “The driving force behind the demand for inclusion in the ST list appears to be a desire to protect the “Meiteis’ ancestral land and ethnic identity”. L. Lokendra Singh, working president of the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur, said that now outsiders can buy land in the valley districts which cover only eight per cent of the state’s geographical area.”
Allowing Meitis the right to buy land across the state would allow a level-playing field between Meitis and Tribals. Being declared a ST would allow Meitis to protect their ancestral land, culture and tradition as was seen during the Sangai Festival.
Wonder why tribals should protest against provision of a level playing field!
2. Income of ST’s is exempt from income-tax. Imagine two Manipuris, one Meiti and another Kuki ST Christian working in the same place. One pays income-tax, another does not. If you were a Meiti how would you feel?
3. As population of tribals increases, due to reservations they will get a larger share of government jobs and control the bureaucracy. This is the unexpressed fear of the Meiti community. As we saw in Kashmir Valley minorities, when in power are unable to protect others.
What are the benefits of being declared a Scheduled Tribe (ST)?
They get reservations in government jobs, exemption from paying income-tax, seats in educational institutes and scholarships.
Outsiders cannot buy land in the hill areas but tribals can buy land in Imphal Valley.
Viewed thus, to control illegal immigration from Bangladesh and Myanmar, a serious thought to the introduction of Inner Line Permit should be introduced as is the case in Nagaland and Mizoram (both Christian majority). In 2014 I had to make ILP before entering Nagaland.
Under what provision do the ST of Manipur get income-tax exemption?
Note that section 10 (26) of the Income-Tax Act (excerpts), “A member of a Scheduled Tribe, as defined under clause 25 of article 366 of the Constitution, who resides in the States of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura is exempt from paying income-tax on any income which accrues or arises to him in these States.”
Aside, income-tax exemption to tribes of northeast could be misused for money-laundering. I recalled this media report of a Bihari based businessman who flew into Nagaland from Haryana with 3.5 crs of old notes post demonetization.
Is it not time to re-look at this tax exemption?
Finally, as population of Christians has gone up from 12% in 1951 to 37% in 2001, Hindus are demanding equality before law. This division of society based on British concepts is a hindrance to social cohesion and has created friction.
Read, reflect and decide for yourself. Dialogue, not violence, is the way forward.