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The Manipur Story

The Manipur Story
In the famous Manipuri folklore, Moirang Shayon is the story of epic cycles of rebirth of two divine lovers in Moirang. It is based on the concept of love and unity of the two lovers despite hardships and hurdles in their way. This Love transcends all barriers. This is the story of Manipuris.

Manipur, the land of jewel, has a distinct topography and various tribes living together making Manipur a microcosm of India. Any conflict in this state is a reality check for the citizens about the administration and the competence of the government in times of crisis. This article is an effort to assess the situation in Manipur and understand it's cause.

This article precisely focuses on the issue between the Meitei and the Kuki tribe. Since the naga tribe has maintained a neutral stand on the issue despite being a major stakeholder, it has not been included in this article.

Why This Story?
While the death toll as of 3rd May, 2024 stands at 221 with numerous cases of rapes, the Meiti and Kuki leaders are firm in their demands, which will later be discussed in the article in detail, it seems that their demands are slowly aligning with the demands of their respective militant groups. This is a dangerous development in the issue because it means that the militant groups are influencing the general public and youngsters with their ideologies, which is clear with the active involvement of the student groups like the All-Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM).

This can have extremely damaging effects in Manipur's future. Coupling the growing violence and air of animosity with rampant unemployment and lack of opportunities in Manipur, the situation is favourable for large-scale encouragement of the youngsters to join regional militant groups in hope of a better future, taking things into their own hands, and further deteriorating the governing mechanism there. It becomes extremely important for the youth of India to know about the situation in Manipur and understand the impact it has on the country.

Manipur's significance for India is undeniable. Yet, the actions by the government on the issues of the north east are disproportionate to their gravity. Manipur is neglected by the News channels, it is underreported, we don't see 'intellectuals' analysing this imbroglio and there is no help coming from anywhere for Manipur. We are left to wonder, why is that? The government will not address the monstrosity of this issue unless the people of the country urge them to. Thus, a broader national awareness is needed about the issues of north east because, ignorance of injustice is denying justice and that is what the government is doing.

The Manipur conflict was triggered by the illegal settlement clearance drive by the Manipuri authorities in the churachanpur district, a Kuki dominated area on May 3rd,2023. Kuki tribes, who were already agitated with the Manipur HC decision directing the state to grant Scheduled Tribe status to the Meitei's, saw this as the last straw. And this is how the year-long conflict started�by a protest by the student groups of the Kuki and Naga tribes. The active student groups protesting for the cause of their tribes tells a lot about their active presence and stakehold in the matter.

The Manipur conflict is considered a complex issue, but in my opinion, it is very simple. In fact, I believe this issue particularly arises because of one thing alone- the hill valley divide. We can also call this divide as division of 'the state' and 'non state' as explained by anthropologist James C Scott in the Art of Not Being Governed. He outlines how certain sections of people in a state often run away to the hills to evade state's prod and modern society's responsibilities forming a 'non-state'. In the book, he necessitates the formation of non-states as imperative for the preservation and development of the marginalised section of people. but the question is, for how long? Such seclusion and restriction of people and the land�for how long?

Meites originate from the Tibetan region; they settled in Manipur at around 330AD. The Kukis are believed to be an Israeli Jew tribe who originated from the Assyrian kingdom and later migrated to Manipur. The 'new Kukis' were called by the British from the chin region of Myanmar to settle in the bordering regions of Manipur acting as a buffer zone for the Meiti and naga tribes who were always fighting.

The 'old Kukis' are centuries old residents of Manipur who got assimilated to the naga tribe, the 'new Kukis' are those who currently live as the 'Kuki' tribe. The British considered the tribals unruly and unsophisticated, ghettoising them in the hills, to live out and administer themselves. The hill-valley divide is not just a consequential remedy of the dichotomy of the tribes but was also a calculated decision to concentrate the Kukis in the hills to protect their state from bordering kingdoms of Myanmar and Assam, leaving a long-lasting impact on the administrative structure of Manipur.

The Mental Divide
As if the topographical divide was not enough to entrench the feelings of the tribes, there is more to come in the story and that is, the mental divide.

When Meitis first entered Manipur, they settled in the valley region since they wanted to have fertile land for a stable life. Meitis' idea of land is 'sacred'. In the Meitei sacred pantheon, there are eight sacred directions, believing this 'space' as their 'frontier'. Thus, to Meites their land is very important to them and is a part of their culture. The Kukis, on the other hand, are a nomadic tribe; they search for fertile land to settle and, when the land turns infertile, they migrate. Thus, both the tribes are clearly distinct in character.

It is noteworthy here that this cultural dichotomy could also be one of the reasons for the topographical segregation apart from the Britisher's strategy of buffer zone and James Scott's theory of non-state. When the people of a state are divided in culture so deeply, further division of land gives rise to an entrenched and deep-rooted individualism within them.

The Demands
As mentioned above, the two tribes are contrasting, and so are their demands.

The Meitei tribe's central stance is to grant them Scheduled Tribe status, which was taken away from them after the Manipur merger with India in 1949. Meitis assert they were not included as a Scheduled Tribe by the Kalekar commission. The Kalelkar Commission, formulated in 1953, was the first commission made for the classification and inclusion of tribes throughout India as Scheduled Tribes.

However, others say the Meitis had voluntarily chosen not to have their name added since they did not want to be one of the "hau" (a derogatory term used by Meitis for the Kukis). With the rising entry of illegal migrants from Myanmar, Meitis feel marginalised and unprotected becoming a minority in their own state. The solution lying only in securing a Scheduled tribe status which would protect their culture, ancestral land and traditions.

However, the real cause of their indignation is Section 158 of the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960 which says,

158. Special provision regarding Scheduled Tribes:
 No transfer of land by a person who is a member of the Scheduled Tribes shall be valid unless�
  1. the transfer is to another member of the Scheduled Tribes; or
  2. where the transfer is to a person who is not a member of any such tribe, it is made with the previous permission in writing of the deputy commissioner; or
  3. the transfer is by way of mortgage to a co-operative society.

This section restricts the non-tribals from directly purchasing tribal land except through the consent of district councils. This tribal land covers the hill area which amounts to 90% of the total state land. The valley region, where Meitis reside amounts to only 10% of the Manipur land area. Securing a Scheduled tribe position would mean that they could purchase land in the hilly areas and use that land for entrepreneurial purposes as well.

Naturally, there is resentment among Meites for being confined to the valley area, however allowing forward tribes like the Meitis in the backward tribes' community, could lead to an automatic diminishing of the latter because of the obvious differences in their forwardness. Along with land rights, inclusion as a Scheduled tribe would give them reservation benefits which would increase job opportunities, enhance their representation in politics enabling them to run for election from Scheduled tribe seats.

Article 371C of the constitution states:
Special provision with respect to the State of Manipur:
  1. Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, the President may, by order made with respect to the State of Manipur, provide for the constitution and functions of a committee of the Legislative Assembly of the State consisting of members of that Assembly elected from the Hill Areas of that State, for the modifications to be made in the rules of business of the Government and in the rules of procedure of the Legislative Assembly of the State and for any special responsibility of the Governor in order to secure the proper functioning of such committee.
  2. The Governor shall annually, or whenever so required by the President, make a report to the President regarding the administration of the Hill Areas in the State of Manipur and the executive power of the Union shall extend to the giving of directions to the State as to the administration of the said areas.
In furtherance of Article 371C, the president of India had promulgated an order on 20th June,1972. According to this order, the president formulated the hill areas committee or the HACs laying down special provisions for administration in the hilly areas, granting them power to legislate on the particular schedule matters. All those who are elected from the scheduled areas become the part of HACs, who then legislate on the matters. These HACs form Autonomous district committees or ADCs which look after the legislations in hill areas.

This order was crafted keeping in mind the minority's right to equal say. The valley region forms two-thirds representation in the state assembly. To not let the minority interests and opinions be superseded by the majority, this separate legislation was designed for the hill districts. It would protect the interests of the minority thereby bringing them to the mainstream of the affairs and accelerating their development.

However, it is the opinion of people in the hill areas that the powers granted to the HACs by the constitution have not been implemented in spirit. The ADCs have been made toothless and their performance narrow. Kukis demand proper implementation of the presidential order, 1972, absolute implementation of article 371 C and inclusion of Manipur in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Their inclusion in the Sixth- Schedule of the Constitution would give the ADCs in Manipur wider powers and a constitutional basis of the ADCs as against the present legislative order over which they have power to implement in their own design.

Drugs And Illegal Migration
This issue has also brought light to the increased illegal migration and poppy cultivation in Manipur.

Meitis claim that rampant illegal migration from Myanmar has caused them to become a minority in their own state. Illegal migrants from Myanmar train the people in hills either in cultivation or in militancy. They blame Kukis for this problem asserting that the illegal migration is supported by the Kukis to facilitate poppy cultivation in the hill areas and the reason of opposition by Kukis against granting them the Scheduled Tribe status stems from their insecurity of being unable to peacefully carrying out this illegal cultivation.

The Golden Triangle is the region of Burma, Thailand, China and Laos. This Golden Triangle is the centre for opium cultivation forming one of the world's 'biggest drug trafficking corridors.' Ever since the army coup in Myanmar and following the reduction of Thailand's opium production due to ethical reasons, Myanmar has taken the lead in the opium production and consumption, for its financial advantage and leisure purpose.

Migrants from Myanmar coming to Manipur exploit the hilly land here, training rural tribals in poppy cultivation resulting in large-scale production and smuggling of drugs to the golden triangle. Tribals in hilly areas, majorly Kukis are involved in this illegal cultivation due to unemployment and lack of opportunities, since opium harvest takes place later, it provides a good off-farming season employment for them. It has also seriously aggravated the problem of deforestation in Manipur and increased smuggling and illegal activities.

Drug exporting and illegal migration are serious problems in Manipur, but it has nothing to do with the ongoing conflict. Sole dependence on clearance drives to combat this problem is meaningless, instead the root cause should be uprooted, i.e. unemployment. If people have job opportunities and good source of income they would not engage in the illegal cultivation.

The government's stance is exactly what is wrong in the situation, it is vague and unclear in its intentions to pacify the situation, seeming almost disinterested. The issue completes a year, the violence in the state was handled by the state police. Despite extreme escalation, presidential rule was not enacted. It is only recently, in a meeting that the CM of Manipur confirmed that article 355 is enacted. Article 355 of the Constitution says that it shall be the duty of the Union to protect every State against external aggression and internal disturbance and to ensure that the Government of every State is carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.

The United Nations's human rights experts press release dated 4th September, 2023, raised concerns over the human rights violations in Manipur. What came as a surprise was the Indian government's reply to the UN's remarks calling them to be "unwarranted, presumptive and misleading."

It is astonishing that no news media is reporting about this issue, maybe it is true, we care about the issues of the northeast only when it is about their army cadre, Naxals or land dispute.

At first, I believed that it is the threat of both the tribes of being excluded from one thing or the other which is the root cause. But now I have come to the conclusion that it is in fact the divide which is the root cause, more specifically the topographical divide. British's way of dealing with the tribals as unsophisticated, apart from the rest, unorderly and problematic' still continues. Even after 76 years of independence, we have not been able to understand that this policy of the british is extremely problematic and divisive.

It is the 'look out for yourself' policy, which the British was always an expert in. Before cleaning off colonial acts and colonial names, such colonial policies must be the ones replaced with a better planned and inclusive system. The government must take measures to ensure justice, equality and equity for all regardless of their identity. The government must take quick action to rewrite the policies of Manipur with a fresh vision of unity, acceptance and inclusivity of all.

Bringing Manipur into the mainstream, setting up industries and creating job opportunities for the people is the only solution to the ongoing conflict. Unemployment is a major reason why people engage in conflicts in the hope of a better future. The responsibility of integrating Manipur into the national Mainstream lies with the entire country. The tribal conflict would resolve if there is hope of upliftment. When people's life improves their concerns shift, as increased responsibilities compel different groups to coexist peacefully. This peaceful coexistence is necessary for the complexities of division of labour to yield positive results.

The time is ripe for the of divine lovers of Moirang to reborn and transcend all barriers of race and identity when faced with violent barricades of civil conflict and unite in their shared love for the state and its legacy. This love must transcend all barriers of tribe and geography and embrace each other at the Kangla fort. The divine lovers who are of distinct tribes and of different place.

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