Sunday, May 28, 2023

Manipur: An Uneasy Calm Prevails As The State Faces Long Road Ahead To Peace

Manipur: An Uneasy Calm Prevails As The State Faces Long Road Ahead To Peace

A set of post-violence developments may end up preparing the ground for the widening of the rift. The continued blame game is keeping the atmosphere tense.

Chaos and Confusion: Army personnel rescue people from a violence-hit area in Manipur
Chaos and Confusion: Army personnel rescue people from a violence-hit area in Manipur Photo: PTI

Manipur is limping back to normalcy after nearly two weeks since violence broke out, but not without the prospect of future conflicts already looming large. The state’s all-Kuki MLAs’ demand for administrative separation from Manipur, blaming the N Biren Singh government and the majority Meitei community solely for the violence, is one such post-violence development that is meant to prepare the grounds for widening of the rift.

The recent violence over 10 days displaced around 45,000 people, claimed more than 70 lives, and resulted in the destruction of innumerable houses and other properties. So far, as many as 2,759 people, mainly students, have left Manipur by air following the outbreak of violence.

Yet, the continued blame game between individuals and organisations claiming to represent the communities is keeping the atmosphere tense.

“To live amidst the Meiteis again is as good as death for our people,” said all 10 Kuki MLAs of the state in a joint statement issued on May 12, while calling for a separate administration outside the purview of the Manipur government for the people belonging to the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi-Hmar hill tribes, commonly referred to as the Kukis. The majority of these MLAs belong to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

This demand is being seen as a direct challenge to the state’s integrity and the newly-launched Meitei Resurgence Forum (MReF) responded with a strongly-worded statement, blaming Kuki militants involved in ‘suspension of operations (SoO)’ agreement for the “pre-planned attack” targeting Meiteis. Under the SoS agreement signed by the Union government, the state government and the insurgent groups, the members of such groups are supposed to be lodged in designated camps.

According to MReF general secretary Oinam Doren Singh, the violence was a show of “narco-terrorism unleashed by the SoO Kuki militants at the behest of the Kuki drug mafia, politicians, intellectuals and frontal organisations”. The attacks were “funded by drug money and illegal migrants from Mizoram state and Myanmar and Bangladesh”, he alleged.

Apart from ethnicity, religion has emerged as a major point of conflict. Responding to the Kuki MLAs’ allegations of vandalism and arson of churches by Meitei mobs, the MReF said: “When a Meitei house is burned down, three church-like sacred abodes within the household are des­troyed—the Sanamahi abode, the Imoinu abode and the Tulshi Brinda at the front courtyard.”

Besides, organisations like the World Meitei Council have started pressing for the implementation of an Assam-style National Register of Citizens in Manipur to identify illegal immigrants, especially those from Myanmar. The Kukis have been opposed to such an exercise in the state, as many in the community are believed to have settled here from Myanmar. The Kukis in Manipur live mostly in the hills adjacent to the Myanmar border.

An Assam Rifles soldier was injured while trying to defuse a locally-made Improvised Explosive Device (IED). The use of IEDs in communal or ethnic clashes is a novelty.

Clearly, stages for future conflicts are getting ready even as the wounds inflicted over the past few days wait to heal. A deceptive calm prevails over Manipur days after the violence started, with reports of sporadic violence in various districts of Manipur, particularly from areas dominated by Kukis and Meiteis, continuing to pour in.

It is one of the worst cases of large-scale violence in the state in recent years. Internet services remained suspended for over a week, shoot-on-sight orders were issued, and the Army and other paramilitary forces had to be deployed to bring the situation under control. Indefinite curfews are still imposed in the Meitei-dominated Imphal West, Kakching, Thoubal, Jiribam, Imphal East, and Bishnupur districts, as well as in Kuki-majority Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal, and Churachandpur districts.

One of the most worrying trends was the looting of arms and ammunition from the security forces—miscreants, including suspected members of extremist groups— snatched a total of 1,041 weapons and 7,460 rounds of ammunition. Out of it, 423 firearms and 6,697 rounds of ammunition have been recovered till May 15. A total of 339 cases have been registered.

The maximum brunt of the violence has been borne by the Meiteis in Kuki-dominated Churachandpur, Tengnoupal, and Kangpokpi districts, whereas the Kukis were the main victims in Meitei-majority Imphal Valley and its peripheries.

The relative calm one sees since May 12 can be attributed to the arrival of personnel of the Army, the Assam Rifles, and the Rapid Action Force, apart from the state police. The Army also deployed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in sensitive areas.

The clash between Meitei and Kuki-Zomi groups of people began on May 3, after the All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM)—which represents both Naga and Kuki students—held a solidarity march in all districts opposing the recent Manipur High Court order, which had asked the state government to send a recommendation to the Centre regarding the demand to include the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list. The members of the Meitei community, who account for 60 per cent of the state’s population, are largely concentrated in Imphal Valley. They are Vaishnavite Hindus. However, there has been a demand for over a decade to include the Meiteis in the list of STs to protect their indigenous culture, identity and land. The community claims that despite being Manipur’s indigenous population, its members face difficulties due to large-scale illegal immigration from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The Meiteis are not allowed to settle in the state’s hilly areas, which are reserved for the tribal people, predominantly of Naga and Kuki ethnicity. The tribal hill districts of Manipur enjoy special protection under Article 371C of the Constitution, which says that all laws affecting the districts must be vetted by the hill areas committee of the Manipur Legislative Assembly.

The gravity of the present situation can be estimated from the fact that an Assam Rifles soldier was injured while trying to defuse a locally-made Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Manipur’s Bishnupur district. The use of IEDs in communal or ethnic clashes is a novelty. A policeman was killed during firing by suspected Kuki militants.

The involvement of Kuki insurgents in the violence directed against the Meiteis is under thorough scrutiny. According to state security advisor Kuldeep Singh, a verification drive was on at all 14 camps designated for insurgents involved in the SoO tripartite agreement to ascertain if the number of members who are supposed to be there were actually at the camp or had sneaked out.

Primary inquiries revealed at least two camps had fewer weapons and ammunition than officially recorded, indicating that such weapons might have been used during the clashes, Singh says. What implication the findings from such inquiries have on the peace process with Kuki insurgent groups remains to be seen. One should not forget that the state is home to multiple insurgent groups, some active, some on ceasefire, claiming to represent all ethnic groups.

Nevertheless, that the demand for administrative separation of Kuki-dominated areas is going to stay here for now became evident when Chief Minister Biren Singh and the Kuki MLAs met Union Home Minister Amit Shah separately in New Delhi on May 14 and 15. While Singh ruled out any separate authority for the Kukis, the Kuki MLAs handed over a letter to Shah, in which they wrote: “The need now is formalisation of the separation through the setting up of a separation of administration for the hills inhabited by our own people.”

(Views expressed are personal)

Paojel Chaoba is executive editor, The Frontier Manipur

This appeared in print as "An Uneasy Calm"