Manipur turmoil - Dynamics and misgivings

Ngangom Junior Luwang (Advocate Supreme Court of India & Corporate Lawyer)
The current communal imbroglio in Manipur presents a few intriguing aspects –Who initiated the violence ? Was it Tribals Vs. non-Tribals or Christians Vs. Hindus ? Whether it is justified for the Kukis to oppose ST tag for the Meities ? Whether it breaks Constitutional propriety for the Chief Minister of Mizoram to demand unification of Zo tribe settlement areas (impliedly “Greater Mizoram”) ? Whether proposed NRC regime, war against drugs or drive against deforestation are targeted against a particular community ? What about demand for a separate administration for the Kukis ? What is the best possible win-win situation for all the communities for the way forward ? It would be politically incorrect for me to address these issues only from a Meitei perspective just because I am a Meitei. The idea is to give a fair and subjective assessment.
As to who started the violence, the best and usual way to determine such a factual issue is to constitute a Special Investigation Team–judicial or otherwise, members of which belonging to none of the two communities involved. The issue has been already raised in Writ Petition No.540/ 2023 filed by the Manipur Tribal Forum, Delhi and in Writ Petition (c) No.574 of 2023 filed by the Manipur High Court Bar Association of Manipur and All Manipur Bar Association before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, though in different forms. If the Hon’ble Supreme Court feels that it is beyond the judicial domain to order such an investigation or refuses to do so for other reasons, either the Central Government or the State Government should constitute a Special Investigation Team for impartial determination of the facts involved, accountability fixation and better mutual understanding in the future. As on today, it is one version against the other.
The above having said, history is a testimony to the fact that Meiteis do not usually indulge in violence unless provoked. The Anglo-Manipur War happened because some Britishers with their Gorkha soldiers deemed it prudent to attack the palace one fine Spring morning ie March 24, 1891 and even during the “No Territorial Limit” civil unrest, more specifically after the June 18, 2001 incident when 18 Meities were killed by security forces, no Naga tribe member was touched nor was any of their houses or Churches in any part of Manipur burnt, howsoever upset the Meities were with the Government of India-NSCN (IM) ceasefire extension agreement. Of course, there were some sporadic protests by the Meitei community reportedly with inflammatory slogans against the Naga community (howsoever unwanted) in some Naga settlement areas in Imphal, but there was no violence against the Naga community nor did the Nagas did.
Truth be told, even the Meitei Pangal-Meitei communal flare-up during May 3-5, 1993 was not arguably started by the Meiteis, the same having been traced to incidents of violence at Lilong (communality of which is being unresolved till date), but what matters in such wildfire situation is public perception and speed of communication/miscommunication. Nonetheless, coming to the point, one aspect of inquiry ought to be whether the violence on May 3, 2023 was ignited at the Indo-Kuki war memorial gate, Churchandpur or was it the burning of Meitei houses at Torbung or any other such incident on the same day. Only a Special Investigation Team (judicial or otherwise) can find out and such an investigation should also certainly finger point the community and political leaders, who had given inflammatory statements and incited violence–pre and during the violence. Violence on the basis of guess work or social media uploads would serve no purpose.
Nonetheless, Kukis ought to ask themselves-whether the burning of two tyres at the Anglo-Kuki War Memorial gate on May 3, 2023 was serious enough for some Kuki members to come all the way to burn houses (even presuming for the sake of argument that the burning was initiated by some members of the Meitei community)! Even the Meities ought to ask themselves–whether the Meiteis ought to have indulged in the violence that followed and painted all Kukis with the same brush. But everything was presumably in the spurt of the moment and as they say–everything is fair in love and war (howsoever one hates the term)!
Convenience of narratives has led many to project the violence as Tribals Vs. Non-Tribals and/or Christians Vs. Hindus. Both, to my understanding, are wrong since it is between the Kukis (other tribe members being arguably neutral, though Tribal Solidarity Rally of May 3, 2023 was called by ATSUM) and the Meities and Meitei places of worship and Kuki Churches were targeted not out of hatred for the Meitei religion or Christianity.
 It would be safe to presume that such places of worship were targeted since such places of worship are usually identified with the Meities or the Kukis and it was only for optimum retribution that such places of worship were attacked, but certainly not out of religious animosity.
Coming to the issue of ST tag demand by the Meiteis, it would be prudent to leave the issue to the executive discretion of the Central Government. Many Meiteis are demanding what they believe they deserve for themselves, not to deprive our tribal brothers of their ST status. This is without prejudice to the possible outcome of the ongoing litigation before the Hon’ble High Court of Manipur [MC (Writ Appeal) No.88/2023]. It is understandable for any group to demand what it desires for itself, but opposing any other group’s demand goes little beyond logic and fair play. Of course, such a demand seems to have created some flutters and insecurity amongst our Tribal brothers, but the same could be resolved by having different reservation systems–separately for the Hill Tribes and plain Tribes. One thing is sure – the Central Government will certainly consider the possible long time law and order inferno, should the decision be for or against ST tag for the Meiteis, but this is something we better leave to the wisdom of our elected representatives.
On the land front, one MLA from Churchandpur (Paoleinlal Haokip) has gone on record in his The Wire interview with Karan Thapar that Kukis could consider divesting their right to own land in the valley, since the Meiteis are not allowed to own land in the tribal areas and this is certainly one step forward, though it may arguably fail to satisfy the 15 lakh strong Metei community, who have been boxed in only around 8-10% of the total land area under the Manipur Land Revenue & and Land Reforms Act, 1960, to give up their ST tag demand as a concession.
The Hon’ble Chief Minister of Mizoram, Zoramthanga, has certainly ruffled feathers and has committed Constitutional impropriety, when he called for unification of Zo tribe settlement areas (impliedly “Greater Mizoram”) and this certainly amounts to incitement to the present inferno and seeking to alter the existing Constitutional boundary of Manipur. It’s time to explore possible legal action against the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Mizoram before a Court of law for his blatant act of interference in the affairs of another State and stirring the hornet’s nest and that too in a riot situation, when he should have minded his own business.
Just as the demand for Greater Mizoram is unjustified, the demand for separate administration for the Kukis by 10 Kuki MLAs also calls for equal condemnation, its impracticability apart. Though short of demanding a separate Kukiland, the same is the narrative for Kukiland by some militant Kuki groups including the proscribed Kuki National Front. Creating mountains out of molehills at this point of time and demanding a separate administration by the 10 BJP Kuki MLAs smack of a possible hidden agenda, already hijacked by some Kuki militant groups and now, the mischievous attempt at validation by these 10 Kuki politicians !
Coming to the issue of the present Government’s ongoing war on drugs, possible NRC in Manipur and drive against deforestation, Meiteis should concede that unwittingly, a wrong message has seemingly gone to the Kuki community that such campaigns are Kuki targeted, thanks to some irresponsible reporting and banter of a few loud-mouthed and equally irresponsible intellectuals. When it comes to NRC, it is community neutral since an illegal immigrant is an illegal immigrant and he/she has to be deported and there is nothing Kuki or Meitei or Naga about it. The issue is the base year and my opinion is that we have to have a common base year for migrants across all communities and one can emulate the Court-sanctioned NCR prepared for the State of Assam, which has adopted March 24, 1971 as the base year, a date reflected in the Assam Accord of August 15, 1985 and in the otherwise quashed Illegal Migrants Determination (by Tribunals) Act, 1983.
Howsoever the desire of many to go for a lower denominated base year for illegal migrants (1951 or 1961), the safest bet would be to adopt the judicially-sanctioned NRC policy adopted in Assam, though we can be much more organized in coming up with a foolproof NRC for the State of Manipur and avoid the infirmities the Assam’s NRC data published on August 31, 2019 is associated with.
Since NRC is for purposes of identification of illegal immigrants by setting up a base year across all communities, one fails to see any good for any community to be alarmed and misconceptions to this effect should be dispelled to the extent possible. Same should be the case for clearing reserved forest areas of unlawful settlements without any discrimination whatsoever and such an exercise should be done after all required formalities including due written notice to the settlers.
On recent demolition of some Churches in Imphal, the same have been somehow perceived as community-specific demolition and authorities ought to have worked little harder to clarify that such demolitions were in terms of judicial Orders of Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in Union of India Vs. State of Gujarat and Ors. [SLP (C) No.8519/2006). The Hon’ble Supreme Court has clearly directed for demolition of places of work built on authorized public or Government land. For instance, in terms of an Order dated April 4, 2023 of the Manipur High Court in MC (WP) Nos. 88 and 89 of 2023, two Churches had to be demolished by the Government of Manipur. Such places were demolished since the same were found constructed on Government/public land, not because such places of worship were Churches or belong to any specific community.
The way forward would be certainly more challenging, but when Nagas and Kukis can live peacefully and if Meities and Meitei Pangals can co-exist, despite what happened in 1993, why not the Meiteis and Kukis can reconcile and live peacefully. Community leaders and Civil Society members can lead from the front to restore mutual trust. Time will be a great healer.
It was on May 17, 2023 that a group of Meitei friends including me had a day-out at Khan Market, New Delhi and when we were looking for a good place to dine, I was speaking to one of the receptionists in English and finding out whether that restaurant had enough empty dining space for around 15 people.
In between, some of my friends started speaking to me in Meiteilon, inviting a very innocent query from the receptionist in Meiteilon (with a warm sense of camaraderie and sense of belongingness) – “Meiteira, eisu Churachandpur dagini?”. My heart sank and I told her that whatever was happening in Manipur was very sad and she coyly nodded her head.