Manipur’s struggle for peace amidst ethnic tensions

Dipak Kurmi
Contd from last Saturday
The tribals maintained a strong connection with the hills, adhering to their customs and resolving disputes through tribal laws. The kings acknowledged this arrangement, fostering a system of tributes and a symbiotic relationship, all while tensions between different communities lingered beneath the surface.
Since Independence, the interactions among the three primary communities of Manipur—Meiteis, Kukis, and Nagas—have been marked by conflict, tensions, and misunderstan- dings. Despite these challenges, the communities have coexisted, with instances of living together and even engaging in inter-marriages.
The potential for reconciliation and peace remains robust. In 1944, young men from the Meiteis, Kukis, and Nagas communities collectively joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army in their endeavor to advance into India from Burma. As the INA retreated, many of these individuals returned to Rangoon. Notably, Manipur’s inaugural Chief Minister was among those who volunteered for the war in the pursuit of freedom.
The introduction of education by Christian missionaries in the hills of Manipur elevated the prosperity of the tribal communities. Additionally, the reservation provided to them as Scheduled Tribes further contributed to their socio-economic well-being.
Conversely, the concentration of the most fertile land in the Imphal valley, historically under the dominion of the Meiteis, posed a unique challenge. This circumstance led to the tribals residing in the hill areas, which, while offering nine times more land, had significantly fewer cultivable or habitable regions.
Yet, due to their control over agriculture—the primary industry in Manipur— and their substantial population share, amounting to almost 53%, coupled with an early embrace of modern education, the Meiteis held sway over the majority of the State’s key institutions.
A recent surge in ethnic tension has been simmering since the installation of the BJP-led Manipur Government in 2022. The administration initiated a campaign to displace tribal villagers from areas designated as Reserved Forests by the State, while the Kuki-Zo community asserts these regions as their traditional tribal lands.
The catalyst for the ongoing violence was ignited during demonstrations by tribal groups in early May last year. These protests were in response to an initiative aiming to accord the majority Meiteis the status of a Scheduled Tribe.
While the recent initiative has been overturned, lingering suspicions suggest that Meiteis with Scheduled Tribe status may harbor intentions to displace tribals from their hills—where land ownership is exclusive to tribals—or compete for jobs and publicly funded higher education opportunities acquired through affirmative action. Conversely, among Meiteis, concerns persist about Kuki-Zo people potentially bringing in relatives from Myanmar, altering the State’s demographic profile, and potentially exacerbating issues such as the illicit trade in narcotics and firearms—a trade that involves armed militants from various communities in the North East.
A potential solution could involve a truth and reconciliation initiative, akin to the approach undertaken in South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. However, embarking on such an endeavor requires waiting for the cessation of gunfire in the hills and vales of Manipur—a task that may best be undertaken by Central forces, given the accusations of partisanship directed towards the State police.
Until such a resolution materializes, it is likely that 2024 will usher in increased insecurity for the residents of this picturesque yet troubled State. The trend of families seeking refuge away from the challenges resembling a “near war zone” is expected to persist, continuing the exodus observed throughout the preceding year.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])