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May 3, 2023 : Day of Separation

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The saga of unfettered violence

By Dr. Jangkhohao Hangshing

May 3rd, 2023, stands out as a deeply harrowing and unforgettable day in the annals of Manipur’s history. On this day, violent clashes erupted in Manipur following a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ organized by the All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) across the 10 hill districts of the state. The Kuki and Naga tribal communities in various hill districts protested against the Manipur High Court’s recommendation to include Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category. This recommendation faced strong opposition from the tribal communities, fearing potential land and job losses due to perceived competition from the more developed Meitei community. There were concerns that the Manipur government, led by Meiteis, might exploit this order to acquire tribal lands in the hills, historically under tribal ownership. Concurrently, Meiteis conducted a counter-blockade in the valley against the Tribal Solidarity March on May 3rd.
The outbreak of violence occurred in the Torbung area of Manipur after some individuals, allegedly Meiteis, set fire to the Anglo-Kuki War Centenary Gate, provoking the Kuki protesters. The situation escalated in Imphal Valley when false information about Meitei women being raped in Churachandpur spread on social media. While both the Naga and Kuki communities protested against the Manipur High Court’s directive, the Meitei community predominantly targeted the Kukis. By nightfall, radical Meitei mobs attacked Kuki colonies in Imphal, forcing Kuki residents to flee, leaving behind their homes and belongings. The ethnic violence between the Meitei and Kuki communities persisted for several days, both in the valley and peripheral areas, overwhelming central forces tasked with protecting and evacuating people from both communities. The situation deteriorated to the extent that even state forces aligned along ethnic lines. Unpleasant incidents such as looting arms from police academies, hate speech, killings, beheadings, burnings, and instances of sexual violence occurred, leading to physical and demographic separation between the Meitei and Kuki communities by the end of May 2023.
In the current scenario of Manipur’s ethnic division, the Meiteis primarily inhabit the valley around the state capital, while the Kuki community resides in the surrounding hill districts. A partition line has been established, and a buffer zone is now under the supervision of neutral central forces to prevent escalating communal violence. Volunteers from both communities guard these buffer zones, employing trenches for defense against potential attacks. Many individuals have volunteered to protect and defend their communities and land. Rumors suggest that the Meitei radical militia group ‘Arambai Tenggol’ boasts a personnel strength exceeding 65,000. Basic military training is provided to village volunteers who take turns safeguarding the buffer zone. The Kuki volunteers accuse state forces, along with Meitei militias, of ongoing attacks on Kuki areas, leading them to arm themselves in defense. Despite the formal separation, clashes and violence persist between the Meiteis and Kuki communities in Manipur, with sporadic incidents of death and gunfights reported almost weekly. According to a report from the KSO Media & Documentation Cell dated April 30, 2024, the Kuki death toll has risen to 176 individuals, with 200 villages, over 7,000 houses, 360 churches burnt, and 41,425 people displaced.
The confused Chief Minister
Chief Minister N. Biren Singh’s performance in leading Manipur has been heavily criticized, with many pointing out his consistent inconsistency and biased behavior regarding the ongoing ethnic violence. Initially, after the violence erupted, Singh stated on May 4, 2023, that the conflict stemmed from misunderstandings between two communities in Manipur. However, his stance shifted on May 21 when he implied that the conflict was not between communities but between one community and the state government. He later altered his position again, claiming that the conflict was between armed groups under the Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreement and security forces. Towards the end of May, Singh asserted that the fight was between the state and central forces combating terrorists attempting to destabilize Manipur.
On June 15, 2023, Chief Minister Biren Singh attributed the ongoing unrest in Manipur to ‘illegal infiltrators,’ emphasizing that the situation was not merely a law-and-order concern but a complex issue requiring careful review and resolution. However, by June 25, he had reversed his stance and alleged that the conflict was between two communities. In July 2023, he admitted his confusion about the reasons behind the violence. In a recent tweet (X), he accused illegal immigrants of encroaching on resources, job opportunities, land, and rights of indigenous people, announcing measures such as collecting biometric data and geotagging their settlements.
These statements highlight Singh’s confusion and apparent helplessness in addressing the issue. His continued tenure is attributed to the federal government’s double engine governance strategy, despite criticism of bias and deceitfulness towards his constituents. Singh’s labeling of Kukis as ‘illegal immigrants, drug peddlers, narco-terrorists’ has further strained trust, particularly among Kukis who no longer recognize him as their leader. Many believe that peace is unattainable as long as he remains in power.
Independent forces
Meitei Leepun stands accused of fostering hostility and conflict between the two communities under the guise of preserving Meitei culture and tradition. During an interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire, Pramot Singh, the head of Meitei Leepun, openly stated their intention to incite a civil war, asserting that the Kukis would be defenseless. He also discussed the idea of wiping out the entire Kuki population in Manipur. Despite a complaint filed by the Kuki Students Organisation regarding his radical remarks, Singh dismissed concerns in an interview with The Hindu, stating that he is ‘not bothered’ by it.
Arambai Tenggol, led by Manipuri King and Rajya Sabha MP Leishamba Sanajaoba, is portrayed by Caravan magazine as a sociocultural organization aiming to restore Sanamahism as Manipur’s official religion, which was replaced by Hinduism in the 18th century. However, it functions as an armed militia deeply involved in the ongoing ethnic conflict. The group is accused of widespread harassment, extortion, and violence, targeting not only Kuki and Naga tribes but also Meitei Christians, Meitei Muslims, and even Meitei Hindus who oppose them. Biren Singh’s close association with Arambai Tenggol grants them free rein to oppress anyone who challenges them. Article 14 highlighted their rise to prominence in January 2024 when they forced over 37 Meitei members of Manipur’s legislative assembly and two MPs, from various parties, to swear allegiance to Sanamahi, an indigenous Meitei deity.
Manipur is experiencing a complete collapse of law and order, with armed radical groups wielding unchecked power in the state. Despite accusations of extortion and murder leveled against Arambai Tenggol by the police and other communities, the authorities have chosen to remain silent observers. These independent forces are permitted to move about openly with weapons and have effectively become an illegal extension of CM Biren Singh’s authority.
Solution not within the control of Manipur Government
The Manipur government under Biren Singh’s leadership has lost control over the escalating violence in the state, marking May 3rd, 2024, as a grim milestone of one hundred days of unrest. Amidst the ethnic clashes, more than 6,000 FIRs have been filed. Reports indicate that 249 churches in the Valley and over 100 Hindu and Sanamahi temples in the hills were destroyed. Meitei Christians also faced attacks. The conflict has evolved into a civil war, resulting in numerous casualties and displacing over 60,000 people. This turmoil stems from the politics of hatred propagated by the Manipur government against the minority Kuki community. The dominant Meiteis perceive the Kukis as a threat, possibly because many high-ranking positions in Manipur are held by Kuki officers. There’s a suspicion that Kukis are seen as rivals to Meiteis across various domains. Kuki colonies in Imphal, housing influential Kuki figures, were dismantled as part of Biren’s agenda, leading to a significant decline in Kuki social and economic standing. Additionally, important Kuki religious and social institutions were destroyed in the Imphal valley, making recovery challenging for the Kuki community. Exploiting this situation, the Manipur government advertised numerous recruitment opportunities across sectors, seemingly to marginalize Kukis. Most available jobs were filled by Meiteis, given that Kukis were unable to compete effectively in the job market. Government schemes and relief efforts have largely bypassed Kuki-dominated districts, leaving Kuki people reliant on aid from NGOs and philanthropic organizations across India. Considering these circumstances, the Kuki community’s demand for separate administration appears legitimate as they struggle to rebuild and regain their footing amidst the ongoing crisis.
Prime Minister Modi finally spoke out about the Manipur violence following the viral video of two Kuki women being paraded naked by a Meitei mob. However, his statement lacked a comprehensive address of the wider issues surrounding the ethnic conflict in Manipur. While PM Modi verbally assured that peace would be restored soon in Manipur, the Kuki community has now positioned themselves beyond mere peace talks with the Manipur government led by CM Biren Singh. Despite the Central government’s lack of attention to their demands, the Kuki community is unwilling to consider living under the rules of the Manipur government again. They have a significant trust deficit regarding the Manipur government and are open to accepting a solution only through negotiations involving Delhi.
The Kuki Inpi Manipur, through an executive resolution, designated May 3, 2024, as “KUKI-ZO AWAKENING DAY” after careful consideration of the repercussions of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing against the Kuki-Zo people. They also discussed the way forward for their community and encouraged their people to observe this day on May 3. Conversely, the Federation of Civil Societies Organisation (FOCS) and 13 other Meitei CSOs labeled May 3 as the ‘Black Day of Manipuri History.’ Rumours suggest that the Kuki Students’ Organisation Delhi NCR and the Meitei Global Solidarity Committee have been granted permission to hold peaceful protests at Jantar Mantar on the same day (May 3, 2024), marking the one-year anniversary of the Manipur violence.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, USTM- Email: [email protected])

 

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