Ethnic violence in Manipur is far from over, four months after it began. Reports of shootings and deaths come in almost every day. Security forces have established security zones, dividing the areas where the Meiteis, the majority in the valley, and the Kukis, the majority in the hills, live.
What started as a protest by the Chin-Kuki tribes against the demand of the Meiteis to be included in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category has now transformed into a demand by the Kukis for “separate administration”, whatever that is. means.
Why is it taking so long for the violence in Manipur to completely stop?
There could be five main reasons for this.
First, narcoterrorism and drug cartels are believed to be the driving forces behind the Manipur crisis. Worldometer, the real-time statistics site that rose to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic, reported that drug trafficking, poppy cultivation and the heroin trade are estimated to be worth $110 billion globally. .
India is located right between the two largest opium producers: Afghanistan and the “Golden Triangle” (Myanmar, Thailand and Laos). India’s western border is well protected due to the active threat from Pakistan, but the eastern border with Myanmar remains largely unprotected so far, making it the preferred route for drug cartels to transport their products “.
Manipur’s five eastern districts share a 400 km border with Myanmar and less than 10 percent of its international border with Myanmar is fenced, leaving the region wide open to drug trafficking. The total length of the India-Myanmar border is 1,600 km.
There is no alarming reason to accelerate border fencing as Myanmar is a friendly nation. But the center of Indian insurgency is also in this region. So the question is: did we take this lightly?
The shift of the “Golden Triangle” is well documented with large-scale opium cultivation growing in Manipur. Media reports have reported the direct involvement of Myanmar drug cartels. More than 18,000 acres of opium crops were destroyed, the majority in areas dominated by the Chin-Kuki.
The N Biren Singh government in Manipur has arrested over a thousand people in drug cases in the last five years, following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s zero-tolerance policy towards drugs. All these factors reinforce the allegation that narcotics are one of the main reasons behind the violence in Manipur.
Instability in Myanmar
Second, instability in neighboring Myanmar, where a military junta government runs the show, has forced many of its citizens to flee to India. Armed rebellion, junta crackdown, and airstrikes against anti-junta forces are occurring in Myanmar.
A United Nations report on March 6 this year – almost two months before ethnic clashes erupted in Manipur – estimated the number of internally displaced people in Myanmar at 17 lakh, of whom 10.8 lakh were refugees and asylum seekers. The 16-km “free movement region” policy between India and Myanmar also facilitates the entry of refugees into Manipur via the border trading town of Moreh. Chin-Kuki-Zo insurgents from the western region of Myanmar bordering India are mainly present in Manipur.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, but Mizoram has openly hosted refugees from Myanmar, as many as 40,000 of them, according to Ministry of Health data. the Interior of the State. Mizoram also officially registers them as “refugees,” who can be deported later.
In neighboring Manipur, the government has taken some steps to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees, the actual number of which is yet to be determined. But the Chin-Kuki-Zo community would not grant refugee status to those who fled Myanmar because they belong to the same ethnic groups, which the Meiteis say shows that ethnicity is prioritized over Nationality. For this reason, asylum seekers prefer Manipur, as they would not be labeled as refugees and would be denied the same support as Indian citizens. Many Myanmar citizens possessing fake Aadhaar and other documents have been arrested in Manipur.
Lingering effects of colonial division and domination
Third, a masterstroke of the British that allowed them to control people was the zamindari system, a form of “divide and rule”. Under the pretext of protecting the Manipur kingdom from Burma, the British started resettling the Chin-Kuki-Zo in the southern part of Manipur and introduced the feudal system, particularly chieftaincy.
After the departure of the British, India passed the Zamindari Abolition Act of 1951 and ended the zamindari system, but in Manipur, the Chin-Kuki-Zo tribes still practice it. Even the Chin-Kuki-Zo dominated state, Mizoram, gave up chieftaincy.
The chiefs of the Chin-Kuki-Zo villages of Manipur are the sole rulers of their settlements and own entire villages.
The feudal system follows nepotism and autocracy: when the current leader dies, only his son can become the next leader. Lust for power and disloyalty among brothers and sisters have led to the proliferation of many villages in Manipur, especially in the areas they dominate. They have been accused of carrying out massive deforestation because the new villages are in the hills and forest areas. With the influx of Burmese refugees and illegal immigrants into Manipur, the creation of new villages becomes easier as the new arrivals can live as subjects.
The Times of India, in a report on June 6, 2022, said that Manipur had some 934 unrecognized villages. The Manipur government has carried out eviction campaigns to reclaim forest land in recent years, sometimes leading to violent protests. The forest department offices in Churachandpur district were the first to be set on fire by miscreants before large-scale violence broke out on May 3 evening. One of the offices was wrongly identified as a “Kuki house” by the Editors’ Guild of India in its recent report on media coverage of the Manipur violence. The guild later corrected the error.
Questionable agreement with insurgents
Fourth, Chin-Kuki-Zo insurgents belonging to nearly 25 armed groups in Manipur are under close surveillance for their alleged participation in ethnic clashes, despite signing a tripartite peace accord in 2008 with the Center , the state government and the army, called to suspend operations. operations (SoO).
The South Asian Terrorism Portal, a repository of terrorist incidents, has recorded extortion against ordinary people and commercial drivers on highways, kidnappings and other illegal activities by the insurgents, even after the signing of the SoO agreement. There are records of signed “memos” sent by leaders of some insurgent groups, citing another group’s violation of the basic rules of the SoO agreement.
In Churachandpur, the epicenter of the violence that began on May 3, images of a rally show people, apparently from SoO groups, in camouflage combat gear and carrying assault rifles. An insurgent group that signed the SoO agreement also called for an end to a two-month blockade of a national highway. The effectiveness of the SoO agreement is questionable if insurgent groups carry out illegal activities.
Insufficient constitutional protection
Fifth, the constitutional protection afforded to ethnic groups in northeast India appears insufficient to meet today’s realities. After all, more than 76 years have passed since independence. There is no denying that the northeast experienced slow growth compared to the rest of the country, until development picked up over the past nine years. The people of the northeast are ethnically and culturally diverse, distinct with their own customs and practices.
All major ethnic groups in each northeastern state are protected under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The Mizos of Mizoram; the Khasi, Jantia and Garo in Meghalaya; The Nagas of Nagaland and the major indigenous ethnic groups of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Tripura and Sikkim are protected under this important law.
But in Manipur, only Nagas and Kukis are protected. The Meiteis, who are also a major ethnic group in Manipur, are not protected.
This exclusion is a clear case of discrimination against the Meitei community. Without legal protection, the Meitei community has access to only 6 to 8 percent of the total area of the state, confined to the valley region. This is the real area where Meiteis can live, own land and call home, while the remaining 92 to 94 percent of the state is denied to them.
Recognized tribes can, however, own land and live in the valley.
The reservation system, which is 31 per cent for Scheduled Tribes (STs) in Manipur, has not been in favor of the Meiteis. With similar opportunities offered, the representation of the Meitei community in employment and education is declining. Data from the latest two results of the Manipur Public Service Commission shows that many ST candidates from the Chin-Kuki-Zo tribes were selected on the basis of merit plus 31 per cent reservation.
Many members of the Meitei community have migrated to other cities to struggle to support themselves and their families, due to the lack of opportunities and support in their own state.
The first British census reports of 1901 recorded the Meiteis as “tribes”. Surprisingly, this disappeared from the same list after independence. There has been no explanation or consensus as to how the disappearing act occurred.
Each of these five factors is interconnected, so one solution may not fit all. What is certain is that decisive action is the only way forward. At the very least, the Meiteis need constitutional protection against all these factors and forces.
They are not asking for additional protection, but to be treated and protected like other tribes in the northeast.
(Debanish Achom is News Editor at NDTV)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.