Catalysts and solutions to the ongoing ethnic clashes : A quest

PS Meitei

In the last few days, our State has been experiencing violent clashes between two different ethnic groups following the Manipur High Court's recent order to the State to send recommendations to grant Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meitei community. As a result, internet data service has been suspended, curfew has been imposed  and shoot-at-sight orders have been issued. The army, CRPF, and Rapid Action Force have been deployed to control the situation, and Article 355 has been invoked. Tragically, there have been multiple deaths and casualties.
To understand the reasons behind the ongoing conflicts in the State, it is important to consider the ethnic differences that exist in the State. These conflicts have been fuelled by political, economic, and cultural grievances that have existed for a long time. The Meitei community, which constitutes more than half of the State's population and dominates the valley region that covers only 10% of the State's geography, has a significant political presence with 40 out of the State's 60 MLAs.
On the other hand, the tribes, who inhabit the hilly areas that comprise 90% of the State's geographical area, have limited political representation with only 20 MLAs in the State Assembly. Many people from the hill districts feel that they are being neglected and most of the budget and developmental work is focused in the valley districts. It is also important to consider the historical context that has led to the current ethnic tensions in the State. These tensions have existed for a long time between the hill and valley communities, dating back to the time of the erstwhile kingdom. The situation escalated with the emergence of the Naga National movement in the 1950s, which sought an independent Naga Nation. This movement was met with opposition from insurgent groups among the Meiteis and Kuki-Zomi.
In the 1990s, Kuki-Zomi groups also began to militarize and demand a separate State within India called "Kukiland," which further deepened the divide between the communities.
Now, coming to the demand for ST status. The demand for ST status for the Meitei community has been a topic of debate and contention between the Meiteis and the tribal communities of the State. The Meiteis, who constitute the majority population of the State and inhabit the Imphal Valley, have been demanding the ST status for over a decade. Their argument is that they are the indigenous community of the State and are facing a threat to their land, culture and identity due to influx and assimilation of outsiders. They believe that ST status will provide them with the necessary protection to preserve their ancestral land, tradition, culture and language.
However, the demand has always been opposed by the tribal communities who fear that it will reduce their political representation, reservation benefits and land rights, given the dominance of Meiteis in social and political spheres. The tribal communities see the demand as a threat to their existence and an attempt by the Meiteis to control the entire State.
The demand for ST status may have been the immediate cause of the recent violence, but there are other underlying issues that have fuelled the recent conflict between the Meitei and Kuki communities. For example, tensions rose when the State Government launched an anti-drug campaign targeting poppy cultivations in the hill districts, which was seen as targeting the Kukis. There was also discontent over the Government's notice claiming that more than 30 villages in the Churachandpur Khoupum Protected Forest area were "illegal settlements" and their residents "encroachers". The Kuki groups claimed that this was a violation of Article 371C, which grants administrative autonomy to the hill areas, and accused the Government of discriminating against them and favoring the Meiteis. This fear and tension within the Kuki community was further inflamed by the High Court's order to expedite the recommendation for granting ST status to the Meiteis. All of these issues are intertwined with other social and economic grievances, leading to a complex situation that has now erupted into violence.
We must also need to discuss the weaknesses in the State Government that led to the outbreak of violence. The State Chief Minister was scheduled to inaugurate an open gym in the area, which was burned down. Despite suspicions that a major incident might occur, the Government failed to anticipate the violence, indicating a weak State intelligence. Although the Government claims to be a champion, it failed to anticipate and handle the conflict between the two communities. The Government's excessive focus on the "War against Drugs" resulted in eviction drives, including one that affected many Kuki villages, which prompted some BJP MLAs to raise concerns about perceived governance bias and demand a change in the party's State leadership. Evictions ostensibly carried out for forest protection and to remove "outsiders" can inflame passions among those who depend on the hills for their livelihoods. Without resettlement and compensation measures, this only increases the sense of injustice among those affected. The State Government needs to establish a mechanism to communicate with people across ethnic divides.
Moving towards the conclusion, the unrest in the State is a clear indication of the deep-rooted ethnic divide and mistrust among different communities residing in the State. It is necessary to find a political solution to such issues. The use of armed forces and restrictions will only worsen the situation, especially in a State where diverse communities have faced long-term measures of repression. The State and Central Governments need to initiate political dialogues with all stakeholders, including different communities, and address their concerns in a fair and transparent manner to maintain law and order in the state and prevent any further harm to innocent lives. Civil societies and media should also play a constructive role in promoting peace and harmony among different communities and prevent the spread of misinformation and rumors. People living in the State should understand that violence is not the solution to any problem, and it is important to coexist peacefully with respect and tolerance towards each other's culture and identity. Peace committees can be formed, in which individuals belonging to different communities can work together for peaceful coexistence. Moreover, there is a need to strengthen the cybersecurity architecture and regulate social media platforms to prevent the spread of hateful content and generate awareness about rumors and other content that may ignite communal tension.
The writer can be reached at [email protected]