A ground report from Manipur
For many in Imphal, the key question is whether the clash between members of the Kuki tribe and the Meitei community was waiting to happen
Leaning against a wall at an army relief camp near Imphal, Letlunthang Haokip, recounted how he ran for life when a mob set fire to the Anglo-Kuki War Memorial gate at Churachandpur on the afternoon of May 3, the day violent clashes started there.
The flashpoint triggered a spate of ethnic violence, killing 71 people and leaving close to 17,000 people homeless in Manipur, a small state of 3.6 million people in India’s North-East that is struggling to recover from sporadic violence that continues.
“I was among those who took part in the solidarity march called by the All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) in protest against the April 19 Manipur high court directive to the state government to propose the Centre Scheduled Caste (ST) reservation for the majority Meitei community. Our rally was peaceful. People were returning home when suddenly all hell broke loose,” recalled the 29-year-old.
“The attackers were shouting slogans against the Kuki tribe,” said a Kuki school teacher who, like most people from the 33 tribes in Manipur, have embraced Christianity and is now living in an Army camp near Imphal. He claimed that many of the attackers were in black shirts and some fired in the air from rifles.
Like this teacher, who refused to be named, many in the hills said the incident was similar to the 1993 Naga-Kuki clashes in which 115 Kuki villagers were allegedly killed by National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) insurgents.
A Meitei community leader, however, refuted the claim and blamed the Kukis for the violence saying the “heavily armed” people first attacked their community members in the series of attacks across the hill districts, including the worst-hit Churachandpur.
Cheikaba Aheibam, a member of the Metei community evacuated by the army, said: “The Kukis attacked our homes without any provocation. I had to flee Churachandpur with my wife and two children leaving everything behind.”
In Manipur, the Meitei community — which predominantly comprises of Hindu Vaishnavs — account for 53% of the total population as against 44% represented by 33 tribes, including Kukis and Nagas.
Manipur chief minister (CM) N. Biren Singh met Union home minister Amit Shah in Delhi on May 14, 2023, and apprised him of the current scenario. Shah directed strict action against the perpetrators of violence and assured complete support of the Centre in ensuring lasting peace in the state, according to an official statement issued in Delhi. After returning to Manipur on May 15, Singh stated that peace and justice will be provided to all.
What happened in Manipur
According to the officials, during the ATSUM protest rally, a forest office was first set on fire at about 10.30 a.m. in Churachandpur district on May 3, followed by a series of attacks on the forest offices and Meitei villages across the district. The state police had recorded 19 major violent incidents in the district on May 3.
Letlunthang Haokip said the Churachandpur district, dominated by Kukis, was the first target on May 3. “In no time, we started receiving frantic calls from Kukis in Imphal East and West districts and even Imphal city. They shared videos which showed houses and churches on fire,” Haokip said.
As the news of the violence spread across social media and through Whatsapp messages, a retired Meitei soldier from Torbung village in Bishnupur district, said he watched as his two shops, that he had set up after his retirement, were burnt to ashes on the afternoon of May 3. “They just went on the spree targeting our community,” he said, requesting anonymity, describing the attackers as “outsiders.”
According to Manipur police officials, the wave of arson simultaneously engulfed Bishnupur, Jiribam, Thoubal, Kakching, and Tengnoupal by the night of May 3 as videos and messages shared on social media fuelled panic and anger. “There was wide-spread arson where villages and homes of both communities were burnt,” said a senior Manipur police officer, who was not willing to be named.
By the morning of May 4, arson had spread to several parts of Imphal valley and several buildings belonging to tribal communities were burnt in the state capital. On the same evening, the state government clamped on a state-wide curfew and authorised shoot-at-sight orders in extreme cases. Fifty-five army columns were deployed across Manipur and all internet services, including broadband, were shut down.
“Why were the shoot-at-sight orders not issued on May 3?” questioned a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA, who belongs to Kuki tribe. A government official said they reacted as “fast” as possible as the ground situation was grim.
More than 1,000 firearms and a huge quantity of ammunition were looted by the mobs from around a dozen police armouries over a few hours between May 3 and 4, officials said. Kuldiep Singh, security advisor to the state government, told the media on May 10 that more than half of these firearms had been recovered.
The measures, however, did not quite work as deterrents.
On May 3, a central paramilitary force personnel who had gone home on leave was killed by a mob at Churachandpur. The Indian Revenue Service Association said an Income Tax Department officer was killed in Imphal the same day.
On May 4, four people were killed in police firing at Churachandpur when security forces were evacuating Meiteis, whereas on May 5, Vungzagin Valte, a Naga and BJP legislator from Thanlon, suffered severe injuries when he was attacked by a mob in the state capital while returning from a meeting called by the chief minister. Valte was airlifted to Delhi for treatment.
The clashes continued but on a smaller scale.
An Assam Rifles soldier sustained bullet injury at Dolaithabi in Senapati district on May 10 and a Manipur police commando was killed by militants at Tronglaobi in Bishnupur district on May 11. Five policemen were injured in the second incident. On May 12, another Assam Rifles personnel was injured while defusing an improvised bomb in Bishnupur.
The on-ground impact of Manipur clashes
In Manipur, where literacy rate is almost 77%, living with a ban on all internet services and making the most of a few hours of relaxation in curfew have become part of life. The ban is yet to be lifted and curfew relaxations have extended from a couple of hours initially to about six hours every day in some areas.
The state, which stretches across 22,327 square kilometres, now has around 17,000 people living in camps — 9,000 in Manipur, 6,520 in Mizoram, 1,400 in Assam and about 1,000 in Nagaland. There is no figure on exact number of persons who have fled to Myanmar. “We are trying to take people back to their homes from camps. Most are reluctant because of the fear that clashes will start again,” said a senior Army official deployed in one of the worst affected districts.
A Manipur government spokesperson said that, in all, about 1,700 properties were burnt including a couple of malls, temples and churches in Imphal. CM N. Biren Singh has assured that everyone will receive compensation for property and human loss as per government rules. However, the government has not specified the timeframe within which the compensation will be paid.
How the clashes hail back to a historical division
Of Manipur’s nine districts, five are located in the hill areas where the tribes live and primarily earn their daily bread by pursuing the traditional jhum (slash-and-burn) cultivation. Most of the Meiteis live in the four districts spread out across the valleys.
Although a section of Manipuris claim that Kukis arrived from Burma (Myanmar) around 300 years ago and served in the army of Meitei kings who fought foreign invaders including the British, the tribal people refer to themselves as indigenous.
In 1947, prior to Independence, the king of Manipur promulgated two laws to help administer the Imphal Valley and the hill districts. One was the Manipur State Constitution Act for the people of the valley and the other, the Manipur State Hill (Administration) Regulation, mainly for those residing in the hills. The difference in administration of both areas remained even after Manipur joined the Indian union in 1949. The two laws provided that those living in plains cannot buy land in the hills.
In 1971, a year before Manipur became a state, Parliament passed a law Manipur (Hill Areas) Districts Councils Act providing separate administrative set up for the hill districts. This mechanism has continued till date.
Was there a simmering tension leading up to the clashes?
For many in Imphal and other parts of the state the key question is whether the clash between members of the Kuki tribe and the Meitei community was waiting to happen?
Local observers say the divide intensified because of a series of developments since early 2022 when the BJP, under CM Singh’s leadership, won the assembly elections for the second time. Soon after becoming the CM, Singh launched a drive against drugs and poppy cultivation in several hill areas. Since these villages are inhabited by Kukis, the government action added to the ethnic strife, they said.
“The drive was not targeted against any particular community. Please see that drugs have destroyed the lives of 1.4 lakh people in a state with 2.8 million population,” said a senior Manipur government functionary. The official said of the total 291 encroachments removed between January 2, 2017 and April 18, 2023, 160 belonged to Meiteis. “Kuki tribes were not exclusively removed,” the official said.
Lamtingthang Haokip, a spokesperson of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF), one of the apex bodies representing the tribes, called the allegations of poppy cultivation and drug smuggling, a "propaganda".
“We will fight back legally against the propaganda. Jhum cultivation is our traditional right. Poppy is not cultivated on every hill. Maybe it is done in 0.1% areas by people not having other means to survive. The kingpins who sponsor poppy cultivation are rich people from the valley,” he said.
Asked about the alleged arms smuggling, Haokip said: “It might have happened but I have no idea. Let me put it this way. What about sections of the Meiti people, who are state-sponsored extremists and who captured arms and ammunition of state forces following a meticulous plan?”
Ajit Das, a Meitei activist, who campaigns against conversion of local people to Islam and Christianity, said: “It is known to all that Kukis are involved in poppy cultivation and arms smuggling. We Meiteis are not warmongers. We only want to protect our culture.”
Thanks to a trade agreement between India and Myanmar, citizens from both countries can cross the border without a passport and move freely within 16 km of each other’s territory. The movement was suspended in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some Meitei organisations now want the facility scrapped saying it was promoting poppy cultivation and arm smuggling by Kuki tribes.
Locals say there were other triggers also.
In February 2023, the state government asked people to submit their weapons in local police stations.
“The government wanted people to submit their guns and licences at local police stations. Many people in the hills suspected that something was wrong and refused to comply,” said a BJP MLA, who was not willing to be named.
On March 11, 2023, the Manipur government withdrew from the tripartite Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreement signed with Kuki National Army and the Zomi Revolutionary Army. These two militant groups of the tribals, had signed the agreement in 2008.
The state cabinet chaired by Singh decided to withdraw following the violent mass rally organised by various tribal organisations in the hill districts against the drive to remove encroachments from forest areas. A statement said that the state government will not compromise on steps taken to protect the state’s forest resources and eradicate poppy cultivation. “The Centre rejected the decision,” said the BJP legislator, who is a Kuki, quoted above.
On Monday, Singh promised to implement the ground rules of the SoO agreement to ensure that Kuki insurgent groups that are signatories to the pact do not violate its provision and stay inside the designated camps. “A joint monitoring committee along with the Army and the state police inspected many camps to check for violations,” he said, amid reports that those living in these camps had indulged in violence.
On April 19, a single judge bench of the Manipur high court asked the state government to send a proposal to Centre to provide Scheduled Tribe (ST) reservation to Meiteis on a petition filed by the community stating that they were recognised as a tribe before the kingdom was merged with the Indian Union. Regaining the tribal identity will help Meiteis preserve ancestral land and culture, the petitioners argued.
The tribal groups opposing the reservation claimed that a section of Meitei already enjoy Scheduled Caste (SC) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) status because not all of them belong to higher castes. The tribal groups have moved the Supreme Court against the high court directive stating that the ST reservation for Meiteis will further marginalise them in the state, where only 14 of Manipur’s 60 assembly constituencies are reserved for STs.
“ST reservation is a long pending demand of Meiteis. However, a section of Meiteis do not want ST status,” said Prof Deben Laishram, director of Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, the biggest medical college and hospital run by the Centre in Manipur.
On April 28, the locals burning down a gymnasium in Churachandpur district, a day before it was to be inaugurated by the chief minister, was the last major incident before the May 3 clash. “This incident brought to the fore the simmering discontent among the tribal people. But no effort was made by the state to stop further escalation,” said a senior security officer, who was not willing to be named.
An uncertain future lies ahead
After the clashes, on May 12, ten tribal legislators — seven from the BJP, 2 from Kuki’s People Alliance and an independent law-maker — demanded a separate administration for the hills under the Constitution, a demand rejected by CM Singh on May 15 after a meeting with union home minister Amit Shah.
“The unabated violence that began on May 3, perpetrated by majority Meiteis, tacitly supported by existing government of Manipur against the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi hill tribals, has already partitioned the state and effected a total separation from the state of Manipur,” the statement said.
Letzamang Haokip, the BJP MLA from Henglep in Churachandpur termed the conflict “well-planned”. Another BJP MLA said a certain group wanted to project the incidents as a conflict between Christians and Hindus. “That is not the scenario in Manipur. No rape was committed and rumours were spread to incite violence,” he said.
Echoing an allegation raised by Kuki groups, the All India Congress Committee member in charge of Manipur, Bhakta Charan Das, said in Delhi on May 11 that two valley-based organisations, Arambai Tengol and Meitei Leepun, are similar to the Hindu nationalist organisations Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal. He accused both organisations of spreading terror.
Meitei Leepun president M Pramod denied the allegation, while a spokesperson from Arambai Tenggol told a section of the Manipuri media that the outfit was not involved in any violent activity. “This is a baseless allegation. We have no role to play in the violence,” the spokesperson had said.
L Basanta, Manipur BJP’s spokesperson, expressed confidence that the issues will be resolved and the state will soon return to normalcy. “Prime Minister Modi has done a lot of good work for Manipur. Despite Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh being bigger states, Manipur got the National Sports University. Boxer Mary Kom (from a family of jhum cultivators in Churachandpur) was made a Rajya Sabha member. People have a lot of faith in the party,” he said.
State Congress president K Meghachandra, a Meitei, said: “The looted weapons will give rise to more underground outfits. These are not confined to the hills anymore. Groups are coming up in the valley as well.”
Meanwhile, ITLF’s Haokip said: “Everything is uncertain. The tribes, especially the Kukis, cannot trust the government. They don’t want to dine with people from the valley.”