Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

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Violence has broken out across BJP-ruled Manipur between the Meiteis and Kukis. The government in the northeast state has issued a shoot-at-sight order and has snapped mobile internet to defuse tensions and control the spiralling violence.

Videos show properties burning, even in the state capital Imphal, where the situation is now calm after violence broke out in Churachandpur district, 65 km from the valley city of seven lakh people.

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What exactly is happening in Manipur?

There are broadly two factors that led to dormant anger manifesting in violence in the state that has mostly left behind its insurgency-tainted past.

First, the BJP government led by Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who is a Meitei, has destroyed large tracts of poppy fields in the tribal-dominated hills and has evicted alleged illegal immigrants from reserved forests to crack down on the narcotics trade. This has caused deep resentment among tribals, particularly the Kukis, who alleged churches and homes that were not illegal construction, too, have been razed in the state government’s “war on drugs” campaign.

Second, the Meiteis, who are Hindus and historically have been under the “general” category, have been demanding to be categorised as Scheduled Tribes (ST). This has alarmed tribals, who are ST, as Meiteis becoming ST from “general” would stretch government benefits that are reserved for ST in jobs and other areas.

In short, the root cause of the crisis in Manipur is the result of the communities’ anxiety over the share of resources.

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A majority of the Meiteis – who are Hindus – live in Imphal valley and surrounding areas, but few Meiteis live in hill areas of the 16 districts in the state. The tribals – who are Christians – including Kukis, Nagas and other communities, are the majority in almost all hill areas in Manipur.

The composition of political parties and leaders in the Manipur government for decades has been largely Meitei-dominated. This created an uneasy situation of a hill-valley divide, or in other words, a tribal-Meitei divide, whether perceived or not, for decades. The current crisis is the result of this uneasy situation coming to a head.

Many tribal MLAs, however, have always been part of the government and played kingmakers in forming governments. Even former Chief Minister Rishang Keishing, who belonged to the Congress party, was a Tangkhul Naga, not a Meitei.

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A section of the Meiteis, who want to be categorised as ST, has cited two key points to back the demand.

First, they say there are many financially weak Meiteis, as in any other community, who are at a disadvantage when they compete in the “general” category.

Second, this section of Meiteis – citing their culture before they were converted to Hinduism in the early 18th century, specifically Vaishnavism – say they are not so different from tribals, only that they were converted from their animistic religion ‘Sanamahism’ to a major religion whose syncretic version they follow now.

The tribals, however, are convinced the arguments by this section of Meiteis are only excuses to grab government benefits meant for ST. The tribals say the Meiteis have enjoyed political and economic power in Manipur for a long time, but as the population increases and resources become limited, the Meiteis want easy access to benefits, even at the cost of rejecting the “general” category and losing their perceived hold on state affairs.

The other immediate trigger of the current crisis is the destruction of poppy plantations in hill areas.

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The Manipur government has destroyed thousands of acres of poppy plantations in the hills since 2017, when the first term of the BJP began in Manipur. Eastern Manipur’s five districts share a 400-km border with Myanmar and less than 10 per cent of its international border with Myanmar is fenced, leaving the region wide open for drug smuggling. Poppy cultivation is a major issue in five hill districts of Manipur – Ukhrul, Senapati, Kangpokpi, Kamjong, Tengnoupal and Churachandpur. Growing this plant in remote areas in the hills ensures an easy source of income as it is used in making drugs, including morphine.

Amid tension over lands and livelihoods, the demolition of a few churches in Imphal valley – which the authorities said were illegal construction – gave a communal tone to the matter and drew battle lines between the Hindu Meiteis and the Christian tribals.

The fuse of this powder keg was lit in April, when the Manipur High Court told the BJP-led state government to send a request to the centre to check if Meiteis can be categorised as ST.

Different tribes, including the Kukis and Nagas who had bitterly fought against each other in the past, coalesced around their common faith and called a “united tribal protest” against the state government, which they see as predominantly Meitei.

The active participants in the current crisis, however, are only a section of the Kukis and Meiteis, whose actions have dragged in their entire communities.

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Many tribals other than Kukis, such as the Nagas in Manipur, have objected to being clubbed together as “tribals” in the context of the protest as they say they are not participating on the streets.

Similarly, only a section of the Meiteis wants to be categorised as ST. Most Meiteis want to be in the “general” category and retain their syncretic identity, i.e. a blend of the animist Sanamahism and Hinduism.

What appears to be hate-fuelled ethnic tension on the surface is really the insecurity among communities for a good future as more and more people make claims on limited resources and benefits.

(Debanish Achom is Editor, News, at NDTV)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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