Kuki-Meitei conflict in Manipur: What ails the ‘Bejewelled Land’?

Accounting for 47% of the insurgency-related violence in the North East, Manipur is today caught in a cycle of insurgency, ethnic strife and intra-state dissonance

Jaideep Saikia August 09, 2022 20:42:37 IST
Kuki-Meitei conflict in Manipur: What ails the ‘Bejewelled Land’?

Uneasy ties betwen the Kuki and Meitei community in Manipur. Image courtesy PP Yoonus/Wikimedia Commons

Manipur has always been one of the most disturbed states in the North East. Accounting for 47 per cent of the insurgency-related violence in the region, the state is caught in a cycle of insurgency, ethnic strife and intra-state dissonance. Additionally, the state’s economy has not received the fillip that it was gearing up for in recent years. The primary reason for the lack of development in the state is the manner in which the hill-valley divide continues to fester. Periodic economic blockades that are regularly engineered by almost all the ethnic groups as well as the parallel economy that is being run by the insurgents have added to the malaise.

Although New Delhi has improved its annual outlay for the state the economy has not shown signs of improvement. It is reported that only about 15-20 per cent of government expenditure is utilised for development. Allegedly, the rest is siphoned away by nefarious forces and insurgents. Indeed, Manipur’s fortunes have largely been confined to the institution of military strategies against myriad insurgencies that are billeted across the border in Myanmar. To that end, Manipur regretfully remains resistant to all possible counter insurgency interventions.

In any event, civil strife has raised its malicious head once again in Manipur. Yet another page out of the hill-valley divide, the unrest this time centres around a legislative bill that the Hill folk of the state were expecting the Manipur Assembly to table and pass. Indeed, if the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill 2021 had been introduced and made into an Act, the Hills would have been heir to far more robust financial and administrative autonomy and could have developed in a manner that would have put them at par with the Valley. However, the Hill grouse — primarily of the Kuki community — is that the government introduced instead the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council 6th and 7th Amendment bills which the Kukis feel cannot fulfil their aspirations.

It is in this backdrop that the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) imposed an indefinite “economic blockade” along the national highways in the hill districts after “rejecting” the aforesaid bill that was introduced in the Assembly. The Meiteis of the Valley retaliated by blockading the Hill districts. The state administration fearing a spiral clamped down by severing internet and mobile network connection across Manipur. However, even as there is talk (at the time of writing on 9 August 2022) that a compromise is being sought to be reached by releasing the arrested ATSUM leaders and taking a “relook” at the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill 2021, the economic blockade is causing untold misery to the common people of the state.

This author had visited Manipur in April this year and one of reasons for the hill-valley divide is geography as also the fact that the Kukis are considered to be outlanders in Manipur. The community’s history, including the Anglo-Kuki war of 1917-19, has been “rubbished” by other communities of Manipur. But what is more glaring is the manner in which the geographical setting of Manipur acts as the most important contributor to the great divide. With a total area of 22,347 square kilometres, Manipur divides itself into Hills and a Valley.

The Valley accounts for only 2238 square kilometres, a mere 10.02 per cent of the total area. But it houses 58.85 percent of the total population of the state, which, according to the 2001 Census is 2,388,634. The state’s hill area with 20,089 square kilometres represents the rest 41.15 per cent. Of the three main ethnic groups, the Meiteis, who primarily inhabit the Valley, constitute the largest section of the state and are a non-tribal group. The hills are the abode of the Nagas and the Kukis with their 29 sub-tribes. Muslims, who are mostly immigrants from pre-partition East Bengal, erstwhile East Pakistan and present Bangladesh, and who are known as Pangals, are mostly residents of the Valley. This grouping forms around eight per cent of the state’s population. The remaining non-tribal population, known as Mayang (outsiders), are from different parts of the country.

The manner in which the physical setting plays itself out to conflict can be seen from one instance. The Meiteis, the Vaishnavite Hindus, are not only debarred from special constitutional privileges granted to the Scheduled Tribes of Manipur, but are not even permitted under the state’s “Land Reform Act” to settle in the hill districts.  On the other hand, there are no restrictions on the Nagas and the Kukis, who are largely Christians, to settle in the Valley. This is one of the primary reasons for the distrust and hostility between the Meiteis and the hill tribes.

Furthermore, in the absence of a homogenous social architecture the different ethnic groups continue to maintain their respective distinct identity without a commonality of Manipuriness that could have formed the basis for harmonious existence. Indeed, this phenomenon is largely becoming a pan-North East problem, with every ethnic group in the region asserting their identity and seeking separate status.

If the setting as described above provides the framework for the hill-valley divide, which continues to be the core of the problem, history provides the rendition that furthers the divide.

Historically, Manipur was a principality until the British annexed it in 1891. However, the colonial rulers provided it the privilege of a princely state under its dominion, as was the case with other territorial monarchies in the subcontinent. But, the imperial rulers, despite their “policy” of superficial non-interference utilised Christianity in its divisive game. The Christian missionaries, who followed the Union Jack and arrived in Manipur in 1894, gradually began to convert the animistic tribes into Christianity.

This was achieved through a variety of allurements such as provision of basic medical aid and education. In the 1901 Census there were only 8 per cent Christians as against 60 per cent Hindus. But by 1991 the number of Christians in Manipur had increased to 34.11 per cent. Indeed, if 12.81 percent of decadal growth (1991-2001, as projected in the 2001 Census report) in the overall state population is taken into account the Christian population of the state might have exceeded 36 per cent. As a result, the increasing Christianisation of the tribes widened the socio-cultural gap between the Hindu Meiteis of the Valley and the Christian tribes of the Hills. This, over time, became a permanent source of socio-political rivalry.

The scenario in Manipur is grim to say the least. It is time New Delhi took stock of the situation and obtained a particular note of the de-Indianisation process that is gripping the state. The latest incident of internecine strife between the Meiteis and the Kukis should act as a warning call for New Delhi. There has also been the long shadow of NSCN (IM) over the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur. This has added to the apprehension among the Meiteis that passage of the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill 2021 could be a precursor for the balkanisation of the state. Fissures in Manipur, therefore, are manifold, indeed ones which inimical foreign powers can take advantage of. With an ambivalent Myanmar abutting it and housing a plethora of insurgents, the setting could be ripe for a Chinese intrusion.

A careful study and course correction exercise have to be embarked upon immediately. A task force should be constituted to comprehensively examine the overarching malaise of Manipur, including the possibility of accord of ST status to the Meiteis, the grant of which might assuage the community. In sum, it must be comprehended that Manipur is a “bejewelled land” land. This is despite the vagaries of geography and ethnic dissonance that fate has characterised its existence as a proud province of India. Heads must be put together to ensure that matters are set aright and immediately. It is then that the Sangai, the dancing deer in Keibul Lamjao, would rightly prance in delight.

The author is a conflict analyst and author. Views expressed are personal.

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