Explained: The many triggers behind the violence that erupted in parts of Manipur

A myriad of reasons including the demand for ST status for the Meiteis and political decisions on issues of migration and 'illegal encroachments' in forest areas have contributed to the violent flare-ups.
Explained: The many triggers behind the violence that erupted in parts of Manipur
Explained: The many triggers behind the violence that erupted in parts of Manipur

After the state witnessed unprecedented violence, the Manipur government, on May 4, Thursday, authorised District Magistrates to issue shoot-at-sight orders in extreme situations. Several districts in the multi-ethnic state saw violent clashes and arson on Wednesday and people belonging to tribal and non-tribal communities had to flee from their villages. 

Violence first broke out during a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ on May 3, Wednesday, organised by the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM) in Churachandpur, which spread to other parts of Manipur. The state government has also imposed curfew in parts of the state. Visuals of the violence and arson have flooded social media with the hashtag #Manipurisonfire. There are several reasons why this is happening in the northeastern state.

A court directive as trigger

There are a myriad of reasons including the demand for Scheduled Tribes (ST) status for Meiteis and political decisions on issues of migration and alleged 'illegal encroachments' in reserve forest areas that have contributed to the violent flare-ups in Manipur. However, this spate of violence started after allegations that some Meitei youths set fire to a portion of the Anglo Kuki War Memorial Gate at Churachandpur. The Meitei people are the predominant ethnic group in Manipur. The Kuki people are an ethnic group which has many tribes and inhabit the northeastern states.

On March 27 this year, the Manipur High Court directed the state government to consider the request by Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union to accord them Scheduled Tribe status within four weeks, and send a recommendation to the Union government for its consideration. The petitioners argued that they had ST status prior to 1949. This court order was uploaded on the HC website on April 19, following which multiple meetings and discussions were held between other tribal communities.

The march undertaken on Wednesday by the ATSUM was to oppose this order.

Ethnic composition of Manipur

While the Meiteis are the largest community in Manipur, there are at least 34 other recognised tribes, including Nagas and Kuki-Zomis, who predominantly inhabit the hills. Imphal Valley Is dominated by the Meites and Meitei Pangals, who constitute around 64.6% of the state’s population. The rest of the region is populated by other recognised tribes. Right now, Imphal West, Kakching, Thoubal, Jiribam, and Bishnupur districts, and tribal-dominated Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, and Tengnoupal districts are under curfew. The non-tribals are not allowed to buy land in tribal areas (meaning that Meiteis and other non-tribals can only own land in the plains) while tribal people can own and buy land in the plains. The land rights of tribal groups in states like Manipur are protected by the Constitution.

Kukis and Nagas practise Christianity and live in the surrounding hilly areas. Meiteis are mostly Hindus and several castes under Meitei ethnic group can be found in the Schedule Castes list of the state. For over a decade now, there has been a strong demand from a section of the Meitei community to get ST status. 

The Scheduled Tribes Demand Committee of Manipur (STDCM), which has been leading the demand for inclusion of the Meiteis in the ST list, state that the community has been victimised without any constitutional safeguards. “The Meitei/Meetei have been gradually marginalised in their ancestral land. Their population which was 59% of the total population of Manipur in 1951 has now been reduced to 44% as per 2011 Census data,” said an Indian Express report, quoting STDCM.

Why is the inclusion of Meiteis in the ST list opposed?

The primary reason for the tribal groups to oppose the inclusion of Meiteis in ST list is because of their demographic advantage and population. Their inclusion would not only lead to loss of job opportunities and other benefits, but fuels the fear that they would be pushed out of their lands in hills.

Talking to TNM, Lien Haokip, leader of Churachandapur Kuki's Students Organisation said Kukis are frustrated by the decision of the government and he also alleged that the Hill Area Committee (HAC) was not consulted on this. 

The HAC is the nodal committee for implementation of any project in the hill station. The Committee, which is empowered by Article 371C of the Constitution of India, comprises legislators elected from the hill areas of Manipur.   

Lien Haokip, speaking on the issue of ST status, said Meitei people from the valley enjoy all the privileges including employment in the government sector. "All we have is mountains and our own land. If they are elevated to ST status, we may lose the grip on our own land and they [Meitei] will occupy our hills too. We will be left with nothing if they get the ST status, he said.

Current situation in Manipur

As the army and Assam Rifles arrived in the state in numbers, more than 11,000 people were rescued from the places where violence broke out. Magistrates in the state have been authorised by the Governor of Manipur to issue shoot-at-sight orders, if warranted, in a bid to stem the violence.

The state government has also ordered an internet shutdown. Despite the ban in place, videos and photographs of the current situation, from the areas including Churachandpur, continue to emerge on social media. The extent of the damage and the number of casualties are yet to be ascertained though some reports put the death toll at 11.

On May 4, BJP MLA Vungzagin Valte was attacked by a mob after he returned from a meeting with Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh. Vungzagin represents the Thanlon constituency in the Pherzawl district of Manipur. The incident occurred on RIMS road while Vungzagin was returning from the Secretariat where he had attended a high-level meeting. 

Even as clashes erupted in many areas between the Kukis and Meiteis, some reports showed Kukis, especially women, trying to save the Meiteis from being attacked by rioters. In a ground report from the Churachandpur by the EastMojo, women from the Kuki tribal community are seen forming a human chain to protect the Meiteis, stranded after the attack in Churachandpur,  from an angry mob. 

The army personnel deployed to mitigate the tension between communities started patrolling on May 5 and also took to firing blanks to control the situation, according to reports.

Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, and party leaders Rahul Gandhi and Jairam Ramesh on Thursday slammed the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Manipur government for the deteriorating law and order situation. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi expressed concern about the current situation in Manipur and said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should take action in this regard. “Deeply concerned about Manipur’s rapidly deteriorating law and order situation. The Prime Minister must focus on restoring peace and normalcy. I urge the people of Manipur to stay calm,” he said.

Kharge tweeted, "Manipur is burning. BJP has created fissures among communities and destroyed the peace of a beautiful state. BJP's politics of hate, division, and its greed for power is responsible for this mess. We appeal to people from all sides to exercise restraint and give peace a chance."

Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Thursday, May 4, held two virtual meetings and spoke with the chief ministers of Manipur and neighbouring states. The Manipur government appointed retired IPS officer and former CRPF chief Kuldiep Singh as its security advisor following the meeting. The Ministry of Home Affairs has also asked for 12 companies of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), including six companies of the Rapid Action Force (RAF), to be airlifted to Manipur, Indian Express reported. 

Watch: Here's how Kuki women protected the Meitei from angry mob in Churachandpur

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