Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Dept of Environment and Climate Change
Kuki people stage a peaceful rally to restore peace in Manipur during the visit of Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Churachandpur on May 30. ANI

Meitei-Kuki Violence in Manipur: Wounds of History

The suddenness and scale of the communal violence which erupted at several townships in Manipur on May 3 took everybody by surprise, but the authorities should have known the steam for this was building up for years. Developments on May 3 just happened to provide the spark to cause the explosion. The answer to the intriguing question as to why the violence was only between the Kukis and Meiteis, not the Nagas or any other, throws some light on the matter.

The immediate cause for the bloody clash was a tribal solidarity rally held in all hill districts by both the Nagas and Kukis, opposing a proposal for the Meiteis’ inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes list. Since the initial spark for this explosion came from Churachandpur district, where Kuki-aligned tribes are concentrated, it is again obvious the Kukis were more sensitive to the friction.

For some time now, two parallel and provocative narratives in the portrayal of Manipur history were being pushed from certain quarters. The first and more recent is that Kukis are illegal migrants. This at best is a half-truth. This narrative is often taken advantage of by rivals to humiliate the Kukis as “refugees”, “foreigner” etc., and it is imaginable the latent anger from this would have made Kukis ultrasensitive.

Hence on May 3, as the rally in Churachandpur was concluding, at about 2 pm, a rumour broke out that a Kuki war heroes memorial complex in a place bordering the valley district of Bisnupur had been burnt down by Meiteis opposed to the rally. A mob went on a rampage, burning down several Meitei settlements around Torbung village. The memorial site is intact, although some say a small tyre was found burning outside the gate and this was read as a message of violent intent.

Images from these burning villages soon began circulating, and the impression was also that the government was doing nothing to take control. Expectedly the violence began spreading. In Imphal, until well after 6 pm, things were normal. The first news of violence came about 7 pm, with the report of a house and several cars being set on fire at New Lambulane. At the time, news and images of the razing of two Meitei colonies in the Kuki-dominated border town of Moreh also began filtering in, adding fuel to the fire. The government was still conspicuous by its absence, and violence by marauding mobs continued till the afternoon of the next day when a “shoot at sight” order was given and the Central government took over the state’s law and order upkeep using the provisions of Article 355 of the Constitution.

The casualty figures from Imphal or from all the other places which saw violence are not officially confirmed, but the next day’s newspapers reported 12 bodies at the Regional Institute Of Medical Sciences (RIMS) mortuary. the tally is now 50 in three mortuaries, two in imphal and one in churachandpur. In Imphal city where the Meiteis are dominant, several properties, Kuki churches and motor vehicles have been torched.

It is true that a peculiar land-holding tradition amongst Kukis, coupled with unstable subsistence swidden farming, which cannot support large populations, has meant a tendency for Kuki villages to periodically splinter and proliferate. Kuki villages are owned by chiefs who established them, not the villagers, therefore adding to this proliferation tendency, with the chief’s male children, as well as capable villagers, often parting to establish their own villages. This often brings them into conflict with their neighbours in the hills, the Nagas.

In recent times, other than social media trolls, even government institutions, using insinuation, have used this to humiliate Kukis. The sensitivity has come to be such that even normal policies such as eviction drives from reserved forests, or the fight against poppy plantations, have come to be seen as targeting Kukis, adding to their hurt. Then on March 10, in an arbitrary move, the state cabinet took the decision to pull out of a tripartite Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with two Kuki militant groups, KNA and ZRA, from among the 24 who had signed this agreement, again implying they were party to encroachments into forests for poppy plantations etc. Since SOO is a tripartite truce including the Union government, it is unlikely this rash decision will be okayed, but the additional hurt that the Kukis would have felt is clear.

The other party in this spell of violence, Meiteis, too have been on the receiving end of a peculiar turn of history since colonial days putting them in an unenviable corner. In 1891, after its defeat, the British banished the ruling dynasty and installed Churachand as ruler, a young prince from another dynasty. Churachand was still a minor and the British sent him off to Mayo College for education.

Churachand was crowned upon his return in 1907 but the British also brought in their tried and tested land revenue administrative mechanism from Assam whereby revenue plains were separated from the non-revenue hills by drawing an Inner Line at the base of the hills. In the same pattern, the central Imphal valley, the traditional home of Meiteis, thus came to be separated from the hills surrounding it. Again, while the plains were to be administered by the Maharaja, the hills were kept under the President of the Manipur State Durbar (PMSD), a British officer — the same way that the hills beyond the Inner Line in Assam were kept under the Governor, and not the legislature.

Amongst the administrative measures the PMSD undertook in Manipur hills was the creation of reserved forests of several uninhabited mountain stretches. These reserved forests were continued by a decision of the then Union Territory government after Manipur became part of India in 1949. The current controversy over forest encroachments has this antecedent. But the animus has since transformed into a tribal-nontribal conflict.

The Meiteis now find themselves restricted in the central valley forming 10 per cent of the land area of the state which is open to settlement by all indians. Over 60 per cent of the state’s population lives here. The hills which form 90 per cent of the state are out of bounds for them and only 40 per cent of the population live here. The growing sense of siege amongst Meiteis has this basis. Like the Kuki being mocked, Meiteis are also often provoked by some Kuki scholars in their writings that Meitei kingdom of old which merged with India was only 700 sq miles. The reason cited for the demand for ST inclusion of Meiteis also has this insecurity of their becoming marginalised in their own home ground.

This article was first published in The Indian Express. the original can be read HERE

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