On the surface of it, Manipur is limping back to normalcy after two weeks since an unprecedented explosion of communal violence between two of the state’s major ethnic groups — Kukis and Meiteis.
However, the undercurrents of tension are still palpable, considering that there are still an estimated 45,000 displaced people on both sides of the communal divide roughly running along the foot of the hills dividing Manipur into two broad geographical categories — a small central valley and the hill tract surrounding it.
This central Imphal Valley, at roughly about 2,000 sq km, forms less than 10 per cent of the state’s total area, and is the traditional home of the Meiteis. Here modern revenue administration is in vogue, making it open to settlement by all Indians. More than 60 per cent of the state’s population of 2.8 million (2011 census) live here. The hill territory constitutes 90 per cent of the state’s area but less than 40 per cent of the state’s population, mainly Nagas and Kukis, live here and has come to be treated as exclusive for them.
Here, in a tradition inherited from the British demarcation of “Excluded” and “Partially Excluded” areas, no systematic modern land law is applicable. Hence, the customs of each tribe in matters of land and community become the norm in each’s sphere. The trouble is, these customs are not only varied, but often inimical to each other. If for shift cultivators wherever they decide to halt becomes their land, this is not tolerated by settled agriculturists. Indeed, the many ethnic clashes Northeast region has seen, and Manipur is witnessing now, have a lot to do with this inability to develop a common legal denominator on outlook to land.
Hence, the Meteis, who are about 52 per cent of the state’s population, came to be restricted within this small valley, sharing it with all Indians who wish to settle here. In modern times, as their living space gets increasingly crowded, the Meitei psychology has come to be gripped by a peculiar sense of siege, made more complex by their layered relation with the hill tribes, which on the one hand is marked by fraternal feelings and on the other deep mistrust. This mutual mistrust is accentuated by usual development disparities between the hills and plains, which the hills see as a result of discriminatory development policies.
The Meiteis’ demand for Scheduled Tribe status in recent times is born of this insecurity. But this demand has set off a chain of related insecurities amongst the existing ST communities, who fear their slice of the reservation pie thinning down if Meiteis enter the competition. They also fear Meitei incursion into the hills if they too become STs. This latter apprehension is, however, a fallacy, for even within the existing ST communities, incursions into each other’s traditional territorial boundaries are not tolerated. The bloody Naga-Kuki conflict in Manipur, when the Nagas decided to evict Kukis from land they consider theirs in the 1990s, is evidence of this. It is also unlikely Meiteis would be eager leave the valley to settle in the hills even if they were free to do so, but the very knowledge that they are prohibited to do so has heightened their claustrophobia.
Although not stated in their demand, it should also not be difficult to understand the Meitei’s sense of injustice at the absence of a “creamy layer” clause in the existing ST reservation, thereby seeing colleagues from similar or better educational and economic backgrounds given preference at job entry points, promotional avenues, tax exemption, etc. This perhaps is a point of intervention even if their ST demand does not fructify.
The state government did not take a decision on the Meitei’s ST demand for over 10 years, one, probably because not all Meiteis want it, and two, in anticipation of the opposition from those already in the list. Things took a new turn on March 27. Responding to a petition, the Manipur high court directed the state government to forward its recommendation on Meitei’s ST inclusion to the Union government. But even if this were so, the fight should have remained as a battle of legal litigation within the walls of courtrooms and not taken to the streets. But this was not to be. The May 3 rally of the Nagas and Kukis against the court’s decision thus became the spark for the fire that followed.
But the spark would have meant little if there were no dry tinder to burn. It is also intriguing that this tinder seemed to be there only in the case of Kukis, not Nagas. What then is exactly the background which can explain this.
Like the Meiteis suffering from a siege mentality, circumstances have made the Kukis suffer from a sense of persecution in recent times. An old narrative that they are nomadic began recently being pushed from certain quarters. It is true that because of a peculiar land-holding tradition among them, Kuki villages have a tendency to proliferate, often causing friction with their neighbours. This being so, Kuki villages, most of them very small, are spread thin practically in all the 16 districts of the state. As a result, even normal government initiatives such as eviction from reserved forests or fight against poppy plantation or a push for citizenship registration, etc, came to be seen by Kukis as targeting them.
This sense of persecution would have made the community more touchy, making them prone to the explosion of the kind seen at Churachandpur on May 3, which spread to several other townships.
Conspicuous by its absence was any meaningful anticipatory intervention by the government. The question remains: what next. If these underlying reasons for the current violence are not addressed and resolved, there can be no guarantee that more such explosions will not happen in future.
Land pressure in the valley will only grow with population increase, and the shifting Kuki population can upset democracy’s power balance in the hills, probably setting the stage for another violent conflict between the Nagas and Kukis. For instance, three decades ago, of the 20 hill constituencies in Manipur’s 60-member Assembly, Nagas generally returned 12 and Kukis eight. Today, it is 10 each. In the event of the continued trickling in of Kuki-aligned tribesmen from Myanmar, this balance can still change, and it is predictable where the resistance will come from.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author