By – M. Bobby Meetei
One could have never imagined that Manipur, which less than a month back hosted the hugely successful Miss India contest, will become a battleground for violent ethnic clashes that now threaten peace in the entire North East. A bigger concern is that the law and order situation in the state is getting worse every day since the High Court’s verdict (May 3, 2023) to add Meitei community to the list of Scheduled Tribes (ST).
The High Court judgment engulfed Manipur in a colossal wave of violence and destruction of public and private property. The brute savagery began in the Christian-dominated district of Churachandpur, by Kuki tribes. A more worrying development is the involvement of insurgents or militant groups allegedly close to Kuki tribes, who are using sophisticated arms and ammunition to destroy centuries-old Meitei Hindu temples and Sanamahi abodes. They torched local shops owned by Meiteis and their houses on the intervening night of May 3 and 4.
Also Read: Decoding the turmoil: What’s behind the ethnic strife in Manipur?
The violence is still continuing with a curfew in maximum districts of the state coupled with a ban on internet and broadband since May 3. The origin of this blood-thirsty conflict lies in history.
Manipur was a Princely state with a history dating back centuries. Many embracing the Hindu faith believes that Manipur finds a place in the sacred epic, Mahabharata. No wonder, the state is dotted with Hindu temples dating back centuries.
During this recent bout of violence in the state, militants and anti-social elements allegedly supported by Kuki militant groups destroyed and burnt down houses in Meitei settlements in Churachandpur and adjoining areas, built long back. This Meitei settlement area is as old as 250 AD, from during the reign of Khoyum Tompok.
The Meiteis have become homeless refugees in their own ancestral land, taking refuge at the DC office of Churachandpur district headquarters before they were moved to the mainland with the help of Army and paramilitary troops. Many lives are still at stake as victims claim that Kuki militants armed with sophisticated weapons are hiding in trenches and bunkers and are preventing the entry of Indian armed forces to evacuate Meiteis.
These militants have been attacking and kidnapping Meiteis to fulfill their demands. These militants are armed with sophisticated weapons and are attacking civilians from their hideouts in the hills, especially at the foothills surrounding the Imphal valley. On Thursday (May 11, 2023) also, a young Meitei Commando was shot dead by Kuki militants, besides injuring three more when they were going for breakfast early morning.
Also Read: Manipur violence claimed 60 lives, says CM Biren Singh, announces ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh
Why are these Kukis so aggressive and violent? Is it because of the High Court’s order to include Meiteis in the ST list? Also, why are they involving Kuki militants who are currently in Suspension of Operation (SoO) from the Government of India and the Manipur government?
The main reason behind this is the sharing ownership of tribal land. The Kukis think if Meiteis are accorded ST status, then 90 per cent of the land which is currently owned by tribals—Kukis, Nagas, Kabuis, Paites, etc–-would have to be shared with Meiteis as well.
However, this narrative does not capture the true picture. There is another aspect to this, which is more dangerous and can adversely impact India’s national security. It is a well-established fact in North East that many Kuki villagers supported by the militant groups indulge extensively in illegal poppy cultivation and the development threatens to wipe off their investments in drug trafficking. They are not concerned about protecting the forest land for environmental reasons, but in fact, they are allowing illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar to settle down in these border areas and help them in poppy cultivation.
There are several Google images as proof and anyone can make out how these green forests looked in 2006 and how they look now– bereft of greenery. They are now illegally occupied and converted into villages (settlements by these illegal immigrants) where they now indulge in poppy cultivation.
These illegal immigrants have become more aggressive and are involving more people in the drugs business, especially after the “War on Drugs” Campaign initiated by the BJP-led Manipur government in November 2018. The primary aim of the campaign is to check drug trafficking, illicit poppy cultivation, and narco-terrorism in the hills and to contain drug abuse.
The campaign has impacted the Kuki drug traffickers, illegal poppy cultivators and their investors. This is a key reason behind the involvement of militant groups and the use of sophisticated weapons, which they could only afford from the border areas as they have enough money to buy ammunition from illegal drug money. During the campaign, it was discovered that there has been a massive deforestation exercise in the hills for poppy cultivation. Secondly, SoO militants are involved in the poppy and drug trade spreading narco-terrorism. And, thirdly, the Reserved & Protected Forest (RF&PF) areas are occupied by illegal Kuki immigrants from Myanmar.
As per the Government of India report on “Forest Survey of India” 2023, Manipur recorded a loss of 758 sq. Km of forest and tree cover between 2017 and 2021. Therefore, one can easily summarise that the present crisis is related to the “War on Drugs” which also involves land, forest areas and ecological/ environmental protection.
In 2019, the Chief Minister of Manipur, N. Biren Singh along with all the leaders of the apex bodies of every tribe in Manipur also took a pledge to stop illegal poppy cultivation and support the “War on Drugs”.
However, when the time came for the eviction of illegal encroachers from RF & PF (Manipur Government undertook eviction drive in April–May 2022), it was met with violent opposition in the name of protesting for not allowing new settlements in protected forest areas.
It is worthwhile to note that villagers inside protected forests can settle inside the forest with a host of rights and there is no question of eviction of the genuine forest settlers if they were settlers before declaration as Protected Forest, but the settled villages cannot expand without government permission.
In February 2023, the Manipur government evicted illegal (15) temporary Kutcha houses near the National Highway at K. Sonjang village in Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest (C-KPF), which was met with violent opposition in the name of protest for not allowing new settlements in the protected forest areas.
On March 10, 2023, Kuki Student Organisation organised a rally in Kuki-dominated areas including in New Delhi. According to Kuki Inpi, Manipur, “The purported peace rally was an earnest appeal to the Governor of Manipur to intervene on the policies of the Government (sic. Manipur) on Reserved Forest, Protected Forest, protected sites, wild-life sanctuaries and the extension of land revenue in the Scheduled hill areas of Manipur”.
In this rally in New Delhi, they appealed to the Prime Minister to “Stop Eviction”. The same video of the Churachandpur rally was shared by Paolienlal Haokip, MLA Saikot AC, Churachandpur district, with the following words: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity”. So, the statement can clearly be interpreted as the appreciation of the MLA, supporting his tribe to continue inhabiting illegally in the RF&PF areas. It also implicates an undeterred opposition against the implementation of land use policy and modern land laws.
All these points indicate the fact that vested interest groups are keen on discouraging the government machinery to carry out village boundary demarcation inside RF&PF. Over and above, it is to discourage the Manipur government from taking action against poppy cultivation and drug trafficking.
In order to put a stop to the violence, the Manipur government has deployed extra police personnel to Churachandpur to maintain law and order as well as to facilitate village boundary demarcation inside C-KPF. The arrest of arsonists by police took a sinister turn and exposed the true nature of a politician who came out to defend the culprits.
So, the fact of the matter is that Kuki militant groups and these illegal immigrants are encouraging drug trafficking in the forest lands of this state with the help of armed militants and possibly from foreign funds to destabilise the peace-loving Meitei population. It is true that many churches and temples have been burnt down and many lives were also lost during the last few weeks, but it is also true that Kuki militants are the ones who instigated this unwarranted event and are playing the blame game on social media and are also circulating fake news of their people getting assaulted or beaten up to get sympathy on the humanitarian grounds.
But, truth takes time to come out, and we Meiteis, who are peace-loving people from centuries and generations, know that we shall overcome this someday. And, not only organise more Miss India contests in this beautiful state but also welcome more tourists – from other states of India as well as from around the world – to come and see the history, the battles we won against many wars including for the freedom of India. Till then Jai Hind!
(The author is President, People’s Alliance for Peace and Progress, Manipur)
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