Ethnic Confrontations in Manipur: A Journey Through History

Manipur violence

Picture this: a land where diverse ethnic communities coexist, each with unique identities and aspirations. Yet, the interplay of social, political, and economic factors has often ignited tensions, transforming Manipur's paradise and tranquillity into a battleground of violence and insecurity.

Manipur's tale of strife stems from a complex root of grievances, a symphony composed of centuries of marginalisation, land disputes, and political ambitions. These factors have conspired to spark hatred among the communities calling this land their home.

Contrary to the narrative circulating in the media and online, the clashes here have not erupted due to religious differences. The underlying cause of the conflict lies in a longstanding and deeply entrenched ethnic dispute that has permeated the state.

The current clashes manifest the deep-rooted tensions that have plagued the region for an extended period. Ethnic conflict has been an ever-prevailing issue intricately woven into the state's history. The struggle for tribal lands, encroachments on ancestral territories, and resource disputes have been key factors driving this conflict.

While outside forces with ulterior motives may use religious differences to exacerbate the tensions, it is essential to recognise that the root cause is the complex interplay of various ethnic communities vying for control, resources, and rights within the state. The thirty-plus tribal communities in Manipur, in India's northeast, have distinct cultural identities, histories, and aspirations, often clashing and creating a volatile environment.

The clashes should be understood within the broader context of the ethnic fault lines that have persisted for generations. The issues surrounding land ownership, the status of different communities, and the struggle for representation are deeply intertwined with the conflicts unfolding today.

To understand the origins of these clashes, one must delve into Manipur's rich history, where migrations, invasions, and the shaping hands of time weaved the threads of its destiny.

When the British set foot on Manipur's soil, they brought a wave of administrative reforms and redrawn boundaries. Little did they know that their actions would unintentionally sow the seeds of division among the diverse people of Manipur. Or maybe it was intentional – in line with their Divide and Rule policy.

With the advent of India's independence, the stage was set for a new chapter in Manipur's history. Ethnic tensions began to simmer as different communities emerged from the shadows, eager to safeguard their interests and assert their unique identities. The demand for separate administrative units or autonomous regions became a rallying cry, symbolising pride and a source of contention.

As aspirations clashed and grievances festered, the once harmonious land of Manipur found itself at the crossroads of conflict. Communities that had long coexisted now found themselves pitted against one another, each vying for their piece of the proverbial pie.

Within the intricate heritage of Manipur's ethnic landscape, the Meitei-Naga conflict stands as a profoundly etched fault line. The Meiteis, primarily residing in the valley region, have long grappled with marginalisation and perceived threats from the dominant Naga community in the hills. This has fuelled violent clashes and enduring insurgency, leaving behind scars of loss and displacing communities caught in the crossfire.

Another significant flashpoint is the Kuki community, an indigenous group inhabiting the hills and the valley. The Kukis have bravely fought for recognition and autonomy, often finding themselves at odds with the Naga community over contentious land disputes.

This protracted struggle has spawned cycles of violence, forced displacements, and entrenched hatred that continues to resonate in Manipur's collective memory.

Among the myriad complexities are the Pangals, a minority in Manipur who have faced marginalisation and discrimination. Cultural differences and historical grievances have ignited tensions between the Pangals and other communities, resulting in sporadic clashes that further complicate the delicate social fabric.

The repercussions of these ethnic clashes have cast a long, sad shadow over Manipur and its people. Lives have been tragically lost, families uprooted, and an omnipresent fear and mistrust have permeated the region. To resolve these conflicts and pave the way for lasting peace, it is imperative to grasp the intricate roots underlying them and commit resolutely to fostering understanding and harmony among the warring factions.

Recognising the urgency, the Government of India has taken steps to address the ethnic conflicts in Manipur. Security forces have been deployed, and laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) have been implemented. Dialogue with various groups has been initiated, while civil society organisations, local leaders, and peace activists have played pivotal roles in bridging gaps and nurturing understanding among conflicting communities.

However, despite the earnest efforts made to address the ethnic conflicts in Manipur, recent events have thrust them back into the spotlight, reigniting the embers of tension that- continue to smoke. The clash between the Meitei people and tribal communities, including the Kukis, has become a focal point of renewed conflict.

At the heart of this dispute lies the Meiteis' demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status under the Indian Constitution, granting them certain privileges comparable to those enjoyed by tribal communities.

Though driven by a desire for recognition and equal treatment, this demand has encountered vehement opposition from tribal communities who fear that granting ST status to the Meiteis would lead to encroachments upon the hilly regions and the usurpation of their ancestral lands. The situation escalated rapidly when the All Tribal Student Union of Manipur (ATSUM) organised a solidarity march, unintentionally sparking clashes between the Meitei and Kuki populations in the Churachandpur district.

To restore law and order and quell the escalating violence, the Indian Army and paramilitary forces were deployed, imposing curfews and suspending internet services. Recognising the gravity of the situation, the government established investigative panels and peace committees to delve into the root causes of these clashes, aiming to uncover the underlying factors through impartial investigations.

Earlier this year, the Manipur state government took action to remove illegal immigrants from settlements in reserve forest areas. While officials claimed an influx of illegal immigrants from Myanmar had occurred since the 1970s, tribal groups expressed concerns that these efforts were a smokescreen to drive the tribal population from their lands. Eviction drives in districts like Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, and Tengnoupal were seen as anti-tribal, further fueling tensions.

In another turn, the Manipur Cabinet withdrew from Suspension of Operation agreements with three Kuki militant groups in March. However, the central government did not support this decision, leading to demonstrations in New Delhi by Manipuri organisations demanding the creation of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) with 1951 as the base year. They voiced concerns about abnormal population growth in the hill areas, further exacerbating the ongoing tensions.

Against mounting tensions, the initial sparks of violence were ignited as clashes erupted in the Kangpokpi district. Protesters had gathered to rally against the encroachment of tribal lands under the guise of reserved forests, protected forests, and wildlife sanctuaries.

The tension further escalated when a judge of the Manipur High Court instructed the state government to consider the Meitei community's request for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list on 20 April.

This decision fuelled fears among the Kukis that granting ST status to the Meiteis would enable them to purchase land in the prohibited hilly areas.

In response, various tribal groups called for a total shutdown as a protest on 28 April, coinciding with Chief Minister N. Biren Singh's planned visit to Churachandpur to inaugurate an open-air gym. Before the visit, an angry mob set fire to the gym, resulting in chaos and disorder. Section 144 was invoked to maintain control, restricting public gatherings, and a five-day internet shutdown was imposed.

Protesters clashed with the police, while tear gas shells were deployed to disperse the crowds.

These incidents serve as reminders of the deep-rooted tensions and conflicts gripping Manipur. The issues of illegal immigration, encroachment on tribal lands, and demands for inclusion in the ST list have only stoked the fires of ethnic divisions.

To achieve lasting peace and harmony, it is imperative first to understand that this is a clash of ethnic identity, not of religion, and then address these concerns through open dialogue, empathetic understanding, and inclusive policies that respect the rights and aspirations of all communities.

Xi Lao is a freelance journalist based in Taiwan.

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