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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 21, May 20, 2023

Manipur at the Crossroads after Inter-Ethnic Clashes of May 2023 | Ajailiu Niumai

Saturday 20 May 2023


by Ajailiu Niumai *

How can we negotiate for peace in Manipur in the aftermath of brutal violence that has left thousands of people homeless, 1,700 houses burnt, 221 churches and numerous vehicles burnt, 72 people including women and children were killed, thousands still suffers from traumatic experiences, hundreds of people in the relief camps, and 35,000 people internally displaced? An internet connection was shut off and curfew was imposed. The conflict between the Meitei and Kuki tribes broke out on 3rd May in Manipur after a peaceful protest march which was organised by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) against the Manipur High Court’s order on 27th March directing the State government to submit a recommendation for the inclusion of Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list within four weeks. The local media reported that 1041 guns and more than 7000 ammunition were taken by the miscreants from the Police Training Centre at Pangei and Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) prior to the outbreak of violence and these guns are not returned to the government except 300 plus guns till today. The Meitei are the dominant majoritarian political class who hold 40 of the 60 seats in the State Legislative Assembly. They comprise of 53% whereas the Kuki/Zomi tribe account for 16% of the total population. This conflict is not a simple Hindu-Christian communal conflict, but it is brewing for the past many years with a long disenchantment.

The Meiteis lay claim to 2,500 years old civilization but they feel that they are left behind from getting top government jobs, and access to land in the hills because tribes are protected by Article 371 (C). The Meiteis are categorized into General (GE), Other Backward Caste (OBC) and Lois (SCs) residing in the valley, and they occupy around 10% of the land whereas the tribal people reside in the hills, owning 90% of the land. A point of contention is that the tribes can buy land in the valley, but the Meitei cannot buy land in the hills as it’s protected by Article 371(C). The Meitei hold political power and some Kukis have institutional positions of power in bureaucracy and walk in the corridor of power. Some Meitei ruling political class have less educational qualifications and hence, the bureaucracy mostly occupied by Kukis seems to have an upper hand. Hence, there is tension between the Meitei ruling political class and Kuki tribal bureaucracy. Both Kuki and Meitei formed their armed groups to protect their interests. The state government declared some tribal-owned forests as reserved forests and, the tribals who depend on it as their means of livelihood felt threatened by this new policy of exclusion.

And, there is a rise of radical right-wing Meitei organisations who focus on neo-Meitei nationality that promote Sanamahi religion, not Vaisnavite Hinduism. The rise of neo-Meitei Sanamahi religious identity confronted the conflict of interest of the tribal Christian identity. Each of these groups has demands and the state has played identity politics to manage them. In the eventuality of the Naga and Kuki political arrangement, the Meitei felt the need to have ST status and it’s almost like a pre-emptive measure.

Another cause of tension is the poppy plantation by tribal people in the hills. The poor tribal farmers can’t afford to invest capital worth Rs.1.2 lakh and above in such plantations. It is alleged that some elite class often invests to make the surplus value from the poppy plantation and timber but the poor tribal farmers were blamed. These existing problems intersecting caste, tribe, religion, class, and the like were facilitated by the political class and hence, the solution to the problem needs to be made through political settlement. Ten Kuki-Zomi MLAs (seven of them from BJP) have urged the Union government to carve out a ‘separate administration’ under the Indian Constitution. Kuki’s demand for a separate administrative district is going to create a problem since there are several interlocking processes and internal problems. There is a possibility that the Nagas may also ask for their aspiration for greater Nagalim. Metaphorically, the current situation in Manipur is like a pressure cooker that is about to blow it’s whistle. Epistemic violence is imposed by both communities and the conflict is full-blown and it’s extremely difficult to talk about peaceful co-existence at this juncture.

Failure of the state

The idea of India is grounded in the principle of social justice, inclusivity, and diversity and it’s rooted in Enlightenment philosophy. However, the idea of India has failed again in Manipur as AFSPA is still in the state although revoked in some parts. And, violence against the Kukis has been justified by the infiltration of the Kukis from Myanmar, drug smuggling, and the like. The infiltration of Kukis from neighbouring country is another national security problem but the state has proven to be ineffective to protect it’s international borders. If the state is seriously concerned about the infiltration of the Kukis, the international borders must have been sealed a long time again. It’s the failure of the state to identify people without borders and attempt to deport them. This is the immediate trigger for violence.


It is for the government to reach out to the victims and offer them not just relief packages but security, and permanent peace for both parties. Secondly, the affected victims suffer from trust deficient and hence, the state must build the ‘trust’ factor to be restored. All community representatives have to negotiate for an amicable solution. The state has to assuage the Kukis and assured them of complete security. Thirdly, the challenge for the state is that Kukis may not come forward for a peace talk unless they get their demands. Maybe a tripartite agreement may appease the tribal people. There is a tough task ahead for the state. Peace cannot be achieved by coercion, but it can only be achieved by understanding and negotiation between the parties. The future is an open moment, and it depends on our collective effort to learn from mistakes and usher in a new era.

(Author: Ajailiu Niumai teaches at University of Hyderabad)

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