New Delhi: Since early May, when an intense wave of violence and ethnic strife convulsed Manipur, everyone has said practically everything about the north-eastern State. There is a frenzied rush to identify the immediate triggers of the violence. But few have spent time discussing its broader context.
There is a mistaken belief among large sections of the mainstream policy and media community outside Manipur that this is a petty brawl between two ethnic groups in the “remote north-east” that can be resolved only if both sides make some concessions, says Frontline fortnightly of The Hindu group. This liberal imagination ignores the gross imbalance of social and political power between the Meitei and Kuki—specifically, how the former enjoys greater agency in decision-making and discourse-setting processes over the latter.
Media ignoring the elephant in the room
The dominant media outside Manipur has also failed to sustain the focus on how the N. Biren Singh government and Meitei civil society deployed problematic tropes to other-ise the Kukis who have lived in Manipur for many centuries. It has also avoided an honest discussion on how the government dismissed serious Kuki grievances for years, allowing their discontent to reach boiling point. Instead, the media continues to obsess over guns and drugs, as if all of Manipur’s problems would disappear if one removes these two from the equation.
Sure, a lot of what is going on in Manipur is to do with M16 assault rifles and poppy. Two phrases currently in circulation amongst conflict intellectuals are “sophisticated weapons” and “narco-terrorists”. But these are just the outer shells of a conflict whose roots lie elsewhere. Thus, there is a need to recentre the debate on Manipur. We can start doing that by placing the events leading up to the current wave of violence in the right context.
There is a certain view amongst mainstream commentators that the Manipur violence was triggered by a single event—the Manipur High Court’s April 19 order to grant Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the majority Meitei community. That is not entirely the case. In the months leading up to the order, a series of brash policy decisions and divisive political iterations had already soured the atmosphere and frayed the delicate social contract of Manipur.
Peaceful rally to protest forced eviction
On March 10, the Kuki civil society, led by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF), organised a peaceful rally in several hill districts, including Churachandpur, Tengnoupal, Kangpokpi, Ukhrul, and Jiribam. It was a State-wide, non-violent agitation against the Biren Singh government’s policy of arbitrarily evicting Kuki villages under the garb of expanding reserved forests—a move that many community voices argued was in violation of The Indian Forest Act, 1927, and Forest Rights Act, 2006. They were particularly protesting the forced eviction of some 16 Kuki families from the tiny village of K. Songjang, located in Churachandpur district, on February 20. One such rally in Kangpokpi turned violent when the local police used force on the protesters, reportedly injuring 20.
But, instead of inviting the protesters for a dialogue and making a proactive effort to de-escalate tensions, like any impartial government should do in such cases, the Biren Singh administration dialed up the heat. First, it imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in the hill districts. Then, in the late hours of March 10, it withdrew from the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with two Kuki armed groups—the Kuki National Army (KNA) and Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA). To a lay observer, it might have seemed like the State government was conflating two different issues. But it was a deliberate move designed to discredit the protests.
By revoking the SoO pact, the Singh government did two things at once: it walked out of the tripartite peace process between Imphal, New Delhi, and the Kuki armed groups, and it told the people of Manipur that the Kuki protests were directly linked to militant groups. This was an absurd and precipitous response to what was essentially a civil society rally. The Chief Minister even went to a news channel from the north-east and blamed “illegal immigrants from Myanmar” who are “doing poppy plantations and drug business” for the protests. He linked the rallies to the KNA and ZRA, making sure to highlight that the ZRA was led by an ex-MP from Myanmar and the KNA by a “Haokip from Nagaland” (Haokip is a common Kuki clan name).
'Unrest orchestrated from beyond India's borders'
Imphal’s message was clear, although wholly unsubstantiated and deeply troubling—the unrest in the hills was remote-controlled from beyond Manipur’s and even India’s borders. This despite the Kuki leaders who organised the March 10 rallies—such as the ITLF Secretary, Muan Tombing—publicly distancing themselves from political parties and armed groups. They insisted that theirs was a purely civil society-led movement meant to vocalise the genuine and organic discontents amongst Manipuri Kukis.
In fact, one day after Chief Minister Singh gave his provocative interview, Seilin Haokip, spokesperson for the Kuki National Organization (KNO), a coalition group of 17 Kuki SoO groups, went to the same channel and confessed that the ITLF had asked his group to stay away from the protests.
Both communities, the Meiteis and the Kukis, are now bound together by a shared sense of existential insecurity. This, in turn, is creating endless cycles of violence today.”
Biren Singh Government incapable of handling Manipur issue
For anyone closely following the recent pathologies of Manipuri politics, the Imphal government’s dismissal of Kuki grievances by using the fig leaves of militancy, illegal immigration, and poppy cultivation would certainly not have come as a surprise. Over the last few years, especially since it returned to power in 2022, the Biren Singh government has pushed Manipur’s delicate ethno-political consensus closer to the cliff-edge by steamrolling policy initiatives without wider consultations and deploying a bewildering mishmash of issues to create an insider-outsider divide.
First, the Biren Singh government has liberally used the influx of Chin-Kuki asylum seekers fleeing brutal attacks by the junta in Myanmar, which attempted to snatch power from an elected government in February 2021 through a coup d’état, to reanimate Meitei nationalism and give it an antagonistic edge. It did so by using a classic ethno-majoritarian tactic: amplifying a pre-existing fear psychosis amongst the Meiteis that they would soon be overrun by Kuki “illegals” from Myanmar.