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Genesis of Manipur crisis: Ethnic cleansing in India’s Manipur since May 3, 2023

The SoO has been advantageous to both the Indian armed forces and KNO and UPF. While KNO and UPF posed no sign of an immediate threat to India’s territorial integrity or sovereignty, Indian armed forces reportedly use them as strategic allies in counter-insurgency against Naga and Meetei insurgents, writes Dr Malem

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By Dr Malem Ningthouja  

I Introduction

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(1) In Manipur, a province/state in India’s northeast bordering Myanmar, for a long time a section of the Meetei ethnie has been demanding inclusion in India’s Schedule Tribe Lists. To become a Schedule Tribe (ST) has been a coveted dream for many indigenous peoples, as it would give them special land rights and protections, economic packages, job opportunities, and other facilities. As they persisted in demanding ST status, the “Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India wrote a letter on May 29, 2013 addressed to the Government of Manipur, asking it to submit “a specific recommendation along with the latest socio-economic survey and ethnographic report.” Since the Manipur government had not responded, a writ petition was filed in the High Court of Manipur. The High Court of Manipur, vide its order dated March 27, 2023, directed the Government of Manipur to submit its recommendation to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs regarding Meetei’s demand for inclusion in the Schedule Tribes List.

(2) The All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur (ATSUM), an organisation of Kuki ethnie, does not want Meetei to become a ST. It resented the High Court order, decided on a protest march, and called upon several tribal organisations to participate. Thus, on May 3, 2023, a “Tribal Solidarity March” under the theme “Come now let us reason together,” was organised by ATSUM in all hill districts of Manipur. It was endorsed by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF), Joint Co-Ordination Committee on Tribal Rights Manipur (JCCOTR-M), and others. ATSUM’s march infuriated those Meetei who demanded ST status, considering it to be the only solution to economic progress, prevent the transfer of land to immigrants/outsiders, and defend Manipur’s integrity. Therefore, Meetei pro-ST activists organised a “counter-protest” in the adjoining border areas of Churachandpur and Bishnupur districts.

(3) ATSUM’s protest march was very effective in Kuki-dominated districts of Manipur, particularly in Churachandpur town. But Churachandpur on May 3 had not yet lifted the prohibition order under Section 2 of Section 144 of the CrPC that was enforced on April 27 by the district administration. The question is: how did the district administration allow the march to happen without lifting the prohibition order? Why were the organisers parading gun brandishing militants in combat dress at the march which was meant to be a peaceful one? Why didn’t the Director General of Police, who is a Kuki, and the ADGPs (2 out of 3 were Kuki) take up effective pre-emptive security measures against potential violence? What were the district administrators doing? Was there intelligence failure or deliberate support to violence?

(4) ATSUM’s march at Churachandpur, attended by several thousand people, reportedly started around 10:30 a.m. Very early into the march, Kuki miscreants vandalised and burned Forest Beat Offices at Bungmual village (10:30 a.m.), Mata Mualtam Village (12:30 p.m.), and Saikot Village, (13:30 p.m.). Two mortal bodies were found at Kangvai Village at around 13:30 p.m. At around 2:30 p.m., the concrete base of one of the iron poles of Kuki’s emotive “Centenary Gate: Anglo Kuki War 1917-19” at Laisang village was reportedly set ablaze by some unidentified persons. The question is, “Who did it?” The “gate” is an unauthorised structure erected across National Highway 2 which would have to be pulled down by a court’s direction sooner or later. Why would some people hurriedly place rubber tyres to set ablaze the concrete base? Who were they risking their lives for in a Kuki dominated area? Other than provoking Kuki’s sentiment, burning tyres at the concrete base could not have any devastating impact on the entire structure, as Kuki would discover it sooner and douse it. But Kuki blamed Meetei for it.

(5) The rumour of Meetei destroying the Centenary Gate went viral. It added fuel to Kuki’s violence. A group of Kuki scuffled with a group of Meetei counter-protesters. Both sides reportedly retreated after suffering some casualties. At around 3:00 p.m., Kuki militants possessing sophisticated guns attacked those Meetei counter-protestors. They attacked innocent Meeteis and destroyed their villages at Torbung, Bangla, Kangvai, and Phougakchao Ikhai. Around 3:30 p.m., Meeteis in Bishnupur district attacked churches. Around 4:30 pm, violence spread to Tengnoupal district with the burning of Meetei houses by Kukis at Moreh town, bordering Myanmar. Around 5:00 pm, Kukis in Churachandpur vandalised and burned the Forest Beat Offices at Muallam and Singhat Mission Veng. Around 5:30 p.m., they looted hundreds of arms and thousands of rounds of ammunition from Singhat Police Station and the Meetei-owned Churachandpur Gun House. They vandalised and burned Meetei village Khumjamba. From around this time on, there were Kuki attacks on Meetei villages in Motbung in Kangpokpi district.

(6) To control the situation, the Manipur government immediately imposed a curfew under CrPC Section 144 in several districts and suspended mobile phone data services for five days in the late afternoon. However, video clips, photos, and messages/information/rumours of Kuki’s armed attack on Meetei, killing, injuring, raping, plundering, taking hostages, burning, or destroying villages, had already gone viral on social media. It added to the pent-up communal resentment against Kuki that has been building for some years. Meetei mobs retaliated. They attacked Kuki houses or neighbourhoods. Despite the imposition of curfew, attacks on either Meetei or Kuki neighbourhoods/ villages continued throughout the night and the following day. News was widespread among Meetei about armed aggression by Kuki militants backed by Indian armed forces. Meetei lost trust in security forces for their safety. They looted arms and ammunition from police stations, security forces, built defensive posts, and repulsed Kuki aggressors up to certain strategic distances. The situation became volatile. The Manipur government suspended internet broadband services and authorised the civil authority to shoot at those who defied the law. The responsibility of the overall command to restore normalcy was transferred from the DGP to a non-local retired IPS officer by appointing the latter as Advisor (Security). It also opened up helplines and relief centres for victims. The Government of India deployed additional military and paramilitary forces. But normalcy could not be restored even now. Kuki militants continued their armed aggression against vulnerable Meetei villages. In all these incidents, hundreds of Meetei and Kuki have lost their lives or suffered casualties. Thousands have been forced to disappear, rendered homeless, impoverished, and physically and psychologically affected.

Media misinformation

(1) Is it a clash between Non-Tribal (Meetei) and Tribals?

Some media have tried to depict it this way. But, no! It is incorrect information. Let’s see the population composition (2855794 heads in the 2011 census count) of Manipur.

(a) Meetei speaking people are 1522132 heads. Among these, assuming that those who practice Islam are Meitei Pangal (239836 heads, 8.39% of the total population), the Meetei population is 1282296 heads, that is, about 44.9% of the total population.

(b) There are 39 Scheduled Tribes in Manipur. Those who organisationally identified with Naga (674058 heads, 23% of the total population) are; Anal, Angami, Chiru, Chothe, Inpui, Kabui, Kacha Naga, Lamkang, Liangmei, Mao, Maram, Maring, Monsang, Moyon, Poumai, Rongmei, Sema/Sumi, Tangkhul, Tarao, Thangal, Zeme. Those who organisationally identified with Kuki (360314 heads, 12.61% of total population) are; any Kuki tribes, Gangte, Hmar, Koirao, Mate, Paite, Ralte, Simte, Suhte, and Thadou. Those who maintain separate identities but act as Kuki’s allied cognates (136275 heads, 4% of the total population) are; Any Mizo Tribes, Hmar, Mizo, Paite, and Zou. Those who want to maintain separate identities (25489 heads, 0.89% of total population) and shift organisational affiliation depending on time and situation (intermediary communities) are; Aimol, Kharan, Koireng, Kom, Purum, and Koirao.

(c) There are Scheduled Castes in Manipur. They are; Loi, Yaithibi, Dhobi, Muchi or Rabidas, Namsudra, Patni and Sutradhar. Among these, Loi and Yaithibi belong to Meetei.

(d) There are other linguistic groups living in Manipur. Some of those with populations above 500 are; Ao, Assamese, Bengali, Dogri, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Garhwali, Kumauni, Khasi, Marwari, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Odia, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Bishnupriya, and Chakhesang.

(e) The clash is between Meetei and Kuki communal forces. ATSUM, ITLF and JCCOTR-M are Kuki organisations. There are other tribal organisations that attended the “solidarity march.” But Nagas, intermediary groups, and other linguistic groups mentioned in (d) are not involved in ethnic cleansing of Meeteis in Kuki dominated areas. The overt role of some Kuki allied cognates cannot be verified for now.

(2) Is it a majority (Meetei) attack on minorities (tribes)?

No. It is one-sided misinformation. Such generalisation is completely wrong.

(a) One needs to see which community is dominant in which local setting. The Meetei speaking population is minority in the hill districts (Census 2011). In Kangpokpi district, the Meetei speaking population is 1476, compared to 190988 Kuki and 4911 Kuki allied cognates. In Nungba in Noney district Meetei speaking population is 79 compared to 4212 Kuki and 10 Kuki allied cognates. In Churachandpur district, the Meetei speaking population is 6594 compared to 116163 Kuki and 107490 Kuki allied cognates. In Ukhrul district Meetei-speaking population is 764 compared to 9279 Kuki and 90 Kuki-allied cognates. In Tengnoupal district, the Meetei speaking population is 4663 compared to 20259 Kuki and 1536 Kuki-allied cognates.

(b) On May 3, 2023, minority Meetei and Kuki dominated hill districts were attacked by Kuki. It was followed by attacks on minority Kuki by Meetei and Meetei dominated valley districts. At the same time, microscopic teams of Kukis militants with sophisticated arms continuously attacked vulnerable Meetei villages on the peripheries of Meetei-dominated valley districts. So, generalisation of majority as always responsible for attacks on minorities and identifying the majority with Meetei is wrong.

(3) Is it a religious strife where Hindu majority attacks Christian minorities?

No. It is biased information. But there were attacks on religious structures and symbols both by Meetei and Kuki. Such attacks cannot be justified. But Meetei retaliation, though an unjustifiable action perpetrated by short sighted mobs, needs to be understood by placing it in the correct context. It may be explained as follows;

(a) Meetei follow different religions such as Hinduism, Sanamahism, Christianity, Buddhism, Bahaism, etc. Therefore, to portray the entire Meetei as Hindu is wrong.

(b) Kuki follows Christianity. Meetei never questioned Kuki’s religion. But Kuki Christian missionaries have been converting Meetei to Christianity since the late 1970s, by spreading hatred for Meetei’s traditional faith, if not Hinduism. But there was no reaction against them. But Meetei’s religious sentiment was hurt when Kuki miscreants attacked Meetei religious shrines and abodes on mountains or in the foothills. In the recent past, Kuki miscreants attacked Mahadeva Mandir at Koubru Leikha (Saitu Gamphazol subdivision of Senapati district), goddess Nungthong Lairembi at Serou (Kakching district), God Lainingthou Sanamahi temple at Thinungei (Bishnupur district), and goddess Kondong Lairembi at Moreh (Tengnoupal district). They attempted desecration of goddesses Langol Lairembi, Tongak Lairembi at Langol (Imphal), etc. They obstructed the construction of Meetei religious shrines and temples at the abodes of Thangjing and Koubru mountains. But Meetei did not attack Kuki churches.

(c) On April 29, 2023, Kuki miscreants desecrated the Meetei seven-colour flag and damaged the God Ibudhou Pakhangba shrine in Churachandpur district. When Kuki Chairman of Thingkangphai Village Authority condemned it, Meetei settled for peace. But when on May 1, 2023, Kuki’s Tribal Churches Leaders’ Forum (TCLF), Manipur, openly supported the “march,” Meetei Churches’ Advocacy for Peace and Development Manipur (MCAPDM) condemned it as they felt the church’s involvement in political issues was very unfortunate and not a right step in the eyes of the people as well as God’s.

(d) But on May 3, 2023, Kuki attacked Meetei shrines at Khumujamba Meitei Leikai, Maikeingakpa temple at Zoveng Meitei Leikai, Ima Panthoibi (Durga) temple at Torbung in Churachandpur district and Lainingthou Temple at Thinunggei. They did not spare the Meetei churches. When they destroyed Meetei traditional homes, it was akin to destroying temples as abodes of the supreme deity Salailen Sidaba (at the foundation pillar of the house), Lainingthou Sannathong Apanba (at the extreme southwest corner of the innermost room), Ima Leimarel Sidabi, Ibendhou Imoinu, etc. were destroyed. On May 4, they attacked Ingourok Mahadeva at Leimakhong (Kangpokpi district), Mahadeva temple at Koubru Leikha (Senapati district), temples of goddesses Kondong Lairembi and Ireima at Moreh (Tengnoupal district), etc.

(e) Kuki attack on religious shrines, temples, and homes of traditional faith added to Meetei’s pent-up religious fury against Kuki. They retaliated by burning down some churches where Kuki supposedly played important roles. But all those were not for a religious war, as misinformed by the media.

Is it a clash for or against Meetei Scheduled Tribe demand?

(1) Violence occurred on the occasion of a protest against Meetei ST demand. But resentment against Meetei ST Demand was not the main cause. If they were purely against the High Court order of March 27, why would they attack forest beat offices and Meeteis? They had other larger issues that they might have decided to settle violently. This is partly explained by the content of the statements released by Kuki organisations in support of the “solidarity march.” While solidarity statements by other non-Kuki tribal organisations exclusively focused on opposing the Meetei ST demand, Kuki statements went beyond it.

(2) For instance, on May 1, Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum warned, “No individual or organisation within the district [Churachandpur] should voice anything against the ongoing movement for our rights… The ongoing fight for our rights and the protest against the Manipur Government’s unlawful exertion of power be continued with full vigour until our demands are met.” The Joint Co-ordination Committee on Tribal Rights Manipur asserted to stand against “the stepmotherly treatment of the tribals by the BJP-led Government of Manipur, underestimating tribal rights, including demolition of churches, making more than 500 tribal villages overlapping valley districts, illegally evicting tribal villages, and cancellation of village gazettes where the list is unaccountable.” Tribal Churches Leaders’ Forum, Manipur, asserted, “This Solidarity March … is to collectively protect the social, political, and religious interests of the tribal people of Manipur.” On May 2, Joint U-NAU Delhi Tribal Students’ Forum stated, “We are also extremely dismayed by the highly discriminatory policies adopted and being implemented by the Government of Manipur under the guise of lawless laws and legal processes, including through the declaration of constitutionally protected tribal lands as protected forests, reserved forests, or wetlands.”

(3) The above texts exemplify multiplicity of vexed issues that they had decided to settle violently. The nature of violence and target explains that the solidarity marches in Kuki dominated areas were not meant to be peaceful. They seemed to be preparing for an ethnically violent showdown. They violently agitated on March 10, and April 27–29. The Kuki Independent Army’s huge arms loot on April 8 was for violence. The “solidarity march” in all the hill districts was designed to portray it in a larger frame of all tribal manifestations, to gather solidarity by concealing a diabolically premeditated violent agenda. They launched ethnic cleansing of minority Meetei from Kuki dominated districts. The retaliations by Meetei mobs were equally communal.

Why Kuki Propaganda Against Meetei?

Kuki has been spreading anti-Meetei propaganda for many years. Some of the major issues are as follows:

(1) On structural inequality and deprivation: Kuki communal propaganda says that valley developed while hills remained neglected and deprived. It says that Meetei in the valley prospered at the expense of tribals in the hills. Such propaganda covered up the facts.

(a) Manipur is a mountainous territory. Valley districts (excluding Jiribam bordering Assam), a bowl-like lowland located at the centre, constitute merely about 10% of the geographical area. For several centuries, Kangla, at the heart of present-day Imphal, has been the nerve centre of governance, administration, commerce, politics, migration, etc. During British rule and after independence, Imphal continued to be the state’s capital. As a result, important government infrastructure, businesses, commercial hubs, etc. grow faster in Imphal. But some tribal communal propagandists have been pointing fingers at this and blaming Meetei for not allowing tribal dominated hill districts to develop at par with Imphal. Such propaganda can mislead innocent people, but it doesn’t have rational grounds. A community cannot be held responsible for inter-regional disparities in infrastructural growth. As for Imphal, if those infrastructural growths are not happening in the centrally located capital city, where should it be? Should a state/ country’s capital be constructed everywhere, wherever communal propagandists would point fingers at it? All the hill districts are also showing growth of district headquarters and commercial hubs at their central points. Should all these be located everywhere in all subdivisions and villages so that all tribal clans/ villages do not feel deprivation?

(b) The growth of government infrastructure and commercial hubs in Imphal or the valley is largely in the economy’s tertiary sector. There is a lack of investment in the primary and secondary sectors to make the valley of Meetei’s economy self-reliant. There is a lack of Government’s investment to develop forces of production, technology, skill, production or value creation, and employment. Whatever infrastructure, commercial hubs, and allied sectors that have been developed in the valley have been questioned for their lack of sensitivities to sustainable development and social equity. Meetei’s traditional, self-reliant valley economy has been completely destroyed as the capital city grows. Many Meeteis are victims of land grabbing by the government in the name of public interest. Meanwhile, infrastructural growth either manifests or adds to the burden of migration that causes pressure on land, congestion, pollution, crimes, etc. The number of Meetei landless and poor has been steadily multiplying.

(c) Meetei are numerically dominant in the valley. But they do not absolutely own it. Meetei are paying taxes to the government for owning private plots. The gazetted wetlands, rivers, roads, highways, hills, government infrastructure, government lands, lands occupied by security forces, etc. in the valley are not owned by Meetei. The Manipur Land Revenue and Reforms Act, 1960, allows the transfer of land from a Meetei to a non-Meetei. The Land Acquisition Act, 1894 empowers the government to evict a Meetei from his/her land in the public interest. Other communities, such as Meitei Panggal, Naga, Kuki, Gurkha, Hmar, Paite, intermediary tribes, and linguistic groups, own land and live in the valley. They have all contributed to the growth of private infrastructure, including commercial hubs. If the valley has to be blamed for depriving people in the hills, why blame only Meetei?

(d) Overall, Manipur’s neo-liberal system hasn’t resolved the problems of underdevelopment and structural inequality. It is financially dependent on central funding for economic sustenance. However, there is a section of people who could extract maximum benefit from the system. They are those who collaborate with the kleptocratic regime and favour crony capitalism. They withhold progress. To accumulate private wealth, they are responsible for the systematic neglect, deprivation, and marginalisation of many across communities. But who are they? They could be among the legislatures, bureaucrats, communal elites, and agents from across communities who work in collusion to prosper at the cost of many. Why cover up the community composition of the collisions? Why not question the functioning of the system? Why not join hands to build up a common democratic force to address grievances? Why always play with minority or tribal victimhood cards to target a particular community? These are meant to mislead innocent tribal populations to cover up the loot and exploitation by their respective communal elites.

(2) On checking migration and infiltrators:

(a) Should not a territory, state, or country maintain a record of territorial demarcations, citizens, migrants, asylum seekers, etc.? Shouldn’t the government conduct population surveys for policymaking and effective governance? Shouldn’t the government enforce laws and mechanisms to regulate the entry and exit of migrants? All these will remain valid as long as a “country” remains a legitimate unit in the comity of international relations.

(b) Manipur is not an overnight post-independent mechanical territorial creation. It is the homeland of the people that pre-existed the Republic of India. After the takeover in 1949, the Government of India became fully responsible for protecting Manipur’s boundary, and the rights, security, and interests of Manipur’s indigenous people. Unfortunately, the responsibility has not been fulfilled.

(c) Manipur’s boundary has been left open to an unrestrained influx of migrants from other Indian states and infiltrators from Nepal, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. The migrants became a threat by outnumbering several small indigenous communities, disturbing ethno-demographic balance, occupying /owning land and immovable properties, competing for jobs, supplying cheap labour, controlling trade, influencing administration and electoral politics, etc.

(d) Manipur’s indigenous people, therefore, began fighting for a regulatory mechanism to detect foreign infiltrators and stop the unrestrained inflow of migrants / infiltrators. In this, Meetei played leading roles in the agitations of 1980 and 1994, and the movement for the Inner Line Permit System (ILPS) from around 2002 to 2019. Since the ILPS, extended on December 12, 2019, is applicable to Indian citizens only, it does not affect foreigners.

(e) Many believe that for several decades the Foreigners Act, 1946 has not been effectively implemented. Refugees and infiltrators, through backdoor channels in collusion with host tribal elites, have gotten permanent citizenship and are causing threats of various kinds. Threatened people, therefore, demand a population survey and updating the National Register of Citizenship to identify citizens, foreigners, refugees, and illegal infiltrators. In response, the incumbent government of Manipur attempted to conduct a population survey. It opened designated shelters for Burmese refugees and arrested some Burmese infiltrators.

(f) Kuki communal elites are not happy with it. But why? Historically, Kuki is a generic term coined by the British while referring to some tribes that they thought to have certain linguistic and cultural affinities. The British did not consider them as original inhabitants of Manipur. As claimed by many among themselves, they belong to Bnei Menash, that is, one of the 10 lost Jewish tribes whose original homeland is traced in Israel. As such, many of them have migrated to their promised land, that is, Israel.

(g) British writers in the 19th and 20th centuries wrote that Kukis were not the original inhabitants of Manipur. They classified Kuki tribes into two; old and new. The old tribes, according to British writers, started appearing around the 16thcentury. But those tribes are now either organisationally affiliated with Naga nomenclature or remain intermediaries between Naga and Kuki. The new tribes, which are now referred to as Kuki, started migrating to Manipur around the 1840s as either refugees or marauders. Those who were subdued and became the subjects of Manipur’s king were settled by the British in designated villages.

(h) Unrestrained Kuki infiltration in different phases has continued after independence due to either political instability or economic compulsion in neighbouring Mizoram (till mid 1980s) and Burma in the late 1948s, 1960s, 1980s, and the last few years. Foreign infiltrators, by hook or crook, became Indian citizens in Manipur, became Scheduled Tribes, took advantage of the Constitution’s Article 371(C) and Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act 1960, and entitled to all privileges enjoyed by indigenous tribes enlisted in the Scheduled Tribes List of Manipur.

(i) The growth in Kuki migrant populations and expansion of territorial control strengthened their agenda to create a separate territory by bifurcating Manipur. They hope to subsequently merge it into a larger project of Zo-land. This agenda is threatened by Meetei’s demand for an Inner Line Permit System, population survey, and updating the National Register of Citizens. Therefore, they violently protested in Churachandpur when the Manipur State Assembly on August 31, 2015, passed the Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, 2015, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015, and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015. Though the issue was temporarily settled in 2017 when the BJP came to power in Manipur, Kuki resumed agitation when the incumbent Manipur government attempted to carry out a population survey and NRC update. They seemed disappointed when some illegal Burmese infiltrators were arrested and some were confined to designated shelters, as it restricted their free movement in Manipur or assimilation with the host communal elements.

(3) On the question of narco-terrorism.

(a) Since the mid-1970s, Meetei civil organisations, followed by valley-based insurgents, have been fighting nasha or intoxication (alcoholism and drug addiction). Due to their pressure, the Manipur Government adopted the Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act, 1991, in April 1991. Though Manipur was officially a dry state, local and imported liquors continued to flourish in the black market. In August 2002, the Manipur government partially lifted prohibition on liquor in hill districts.

(b) Meetei organisations continued the fight against alcohol. From the mid-2000s, the fight expanded to include drugs (narcotic and psychotropic substances) to control widespread illicit business in and abuse of drugs. Meeteis fight drugs because they have been causing irreparable and disastrous impacts on society; death, health problems, medical expenses, drug-related social crimes, severe environmental destruction by opium plantations, etc. Drug became a hub for the export of narcotic raw materials (opium) to Myanmar and a transit route of semi-processed, processed and improvised narcotic substances coming from Myanmar. Manipur’s drug menace has been spreading to other parts of India. Meetei is devoted to fighting the menace.

(c) Manipur government joined the fight and in November 2018, declared a “War on Drugs.” In December 2020, it adopted the Manipur State Policy on Psychoactive Substances Policy 2019. This war focused extensively on supply control, i.e., seizure of drugs, arrest of drug peddlers/ smugglers, and destruction of poppy farming. Between 2017 and early 2023, Manipur police, along with civil volunteers, destroyed 19664.5 acres of poppy plantations. District wise destruction of poppy plantations in acres was 733.9 acres in Imphal East, 395 acres in Bishnupur, 39.5 acres in Kakching, 2699.8 acres in Churachandpur, 12 acres in Noney, 77 acres in Tamenglong, 4397.4 in Kangpokpi, 1682 acres Senapati, 30108 acres in Ukhrul, 1048.5 acres in Kamjong, 2575 acres in Tengnoupal, and 1982.5 acres in Chandel (1982.5). Community wise approximate poppy cultivation area destroyed between 2017-2023 was; (a) Kuki-Chin, 13121.8 acres, (b) Nagas, 2340 acres, and (c) others, 35 acres. These were small portions of the vast areas under poppy farming, which could not be accessed due to lack of fund and manpower.

(d) Meanwhile, Manipur police carried out an extensive drive against illicit drug businesses. Items and quantities of drugs seized by Manipur police between March 1, 2017 and May 2, 2023 were; No. 4 (Heroin) Powder (270.4 kgs), Ganja (7993.083 kgs), Opium (1744.193 kgs), Spasmo Proxivon (SP) (471.011 kgs), Nitrosun (N-10) (48,740 tabs), WY Tablets (1695.854 kgs), Cough Syrup (84268 bottles), Brown Sugar (1116.424 kgs), Pseudoephedrine (215.499 kgs), Crystal Methamphetamine (229.431 Kgs). Community wise number of persons arrested between 2017 and 2023 under Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act was; (a) Kuki-Chin, 873, (b) Muslims (possibly Meitei Pangal), 1083, (c) Meitei, 381, (d) Others, 181. Total 2,518. Altogether, 2,518 people were booked under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985.

(e) But many, particularly Meetei anti-drug activists, felt that the war on drugs was not successful for the following reasons. (a) A collusion of drug lords, political elites, high ranking bureaucrats and police officers, and some armed groups. As a result, powerful drug lords or kingpins could not be arrested and drug business continued. (b) Overall, the rate of conviction among those arrested under the NDPS Act was low due to alleged tampering with evidence or manoeuvring by officers in charge of the cases. (c) Despite assurances by Kuki village authorities and civil organisations, poppy plantations by Kuki continued on a wide scale. Despite all these weaknesses, the war on drugs dealt a severe blow to a vast chunk of drug peddlers and poppy cultivators.

(f) Unfortunately, there was widespread communal profiling of either illicit drug business and poppy cultivation or war on drugs. Kuki, instead of joining hands with Meetei, took a communal tone, saying that the war on drugs was meant to communally project and target them. Some of them justified poppy cultivation by citing economic reasons. Some of them openly protested against Meetei anti-drug activists who demanded the conviction of a politically powerful Zomi leader who was allegedly caught red handed with huge drugs worth Rs. 27 crores from his quarter in June 2018, got bailed, escaped, absconded, surrendered, and got acquitted in a controversial manner in December 2020.

(g) All these added to Meetei’s perception of Kuki’s communal agenda of narco-terrorism. Suspicion grew stronger about powerful Kuki drug cartels operating in collusion with various cognate forces in the Indo-Myanmar borderland. Allegations are widespread about Kuki drug lords funding Kuki militants or Kuki militants directly involved in the drug business to raise funds for raising militias and purchasing arms and ammunition. Allegations are widespread that poor Kuki migrants from Myanmar have been assigned to poppy plantations for extracting opium, expanding territorial occupation, and increasing the Kuki population to assert chauvinist geopolitical agendas. If all of these are true, it would be obvious that Kuki communal elites (political, intellectuals, bureaucrats, etc.) would mobilise resources and organise their people against Meetei and the Government of Manipur to sabotage the war on drugs.

(4) On Forest and Encroachers

(a) Manipur is eulogised as an ecosystem founded on a well-knit natural configuration of hills/ mountains, valleys, rivers, and wetlands marked by favourable climatic conditions and soils that enabled the flourishment for centuries of a rich biodiversity with many endemic flora and fauna. However, unregulated anthropogenic actions in the last few decades have been causing steady destruction of the ecosystem. Out of the identified 169 wetlands (2021 report), many are facing the danger of either gradual extinction or being unfavourable to human beings. Indications of the destruction of ecosystems are the steady destruction of forests and frequent droughts or flash floods. Forests have been gradually destroyed to the extent of causing destruction to flora, fauna, water sources, and those who are dependent on it for socio-economic livelihood. Two main correlated causes of forest destruction are; (1) unregulated migration of people, which has a corresponding impact on the unnatural growth of villages in the hill districts, and (2) large scale illegal poppy plantations sponsored by narco-terrorists. The trend of forest destruction is alarming. According to the Indian Forest Survey Report (2019), forest cover in Manipur decreased by 499.10 square kilometres with respect to the 2017 assessment. In 2021, it further decreased by 248.63 square kilometres with respect to the 2019 Assessment.

(b) What should the government do? It must check the unregulated influx of migrants. It must check the unnatural growth of villages. According to the Census report (2011) the number of increase or decrease of villages against the report of 2001 in the corresponding districts are as follows; Senapati (Hills; increase from by 61 from 625 to 686), Tamenglong (Hills; increase by 4 from 171 to 175), Churachandpur (Hills; increase by 54 from 546 to 600), Bishnupur (Valley; 0 at 49), Thoubal (Valley; 0 at 103), Imphal West (Valley; decrease by 10 from 134 to 124 ), Imphal East (Valley; decrease by 9 from 204 to 195), Ukhrul (Hills; increase by 17 from 196 to 213), and Chandel (Hills; increase by 76 from 361 to 437). A report covered by Imphal Free Press on May 23, 2022 says that “in addition to the existing 2803 villages another 966 villages are seeking fresh recognition. The new villages are reported to be 308 from Kangpokpi [HillsKuki dominated area], 281 from Churachandpur [Hills; Kuki dominated area], 205 from Chandel [Hills; Kuki dominated area], 130 from Tengnoupal [Hills; Kuki dominated area], 27 from Senapati [[Hills; Naga dominated area], 14 from Pherzawl [[Hills; Hmar dominated area]], and 5 from Ukhrul (Hills; Tangkhul dominated area].” A news article published by the Times of India on June 6, 2022 says that there were 934 “unrecognized villages” in the five hill districts of Manipur. The increase is considered unnatural and perceived as a sign of danger to indigenous population.

(c) The government took seriously the correlation between the unnatural growth of villages, the expansion of poppy plantations, and the destruction of forests and ecosystems. The government took up correlated measures, such as (a) discouraging unnatural expansion of villages, (b) destruction of poppy cultivation, and (c) conservation of State’s Reserved Forest (1,467 square km.), Protected Forest (4,171 square km.) and Unclassified Forest (11,780 square km.). For instance, Manipur’s Tribal Affairs & Hills Minister Letpao Haokip, in March 2023 appealed to village chiefs in the hill district not to establish new villages with less than 50 households. Meanwhile, the government has intensified the destruction of poppy plantations since November 2018. At the same time, the government also attempted to fully survey Reserved and Protected Forests so as to identify and evict encroachers. Evictions were carried out in Reserved Forests and Protected Forests from January 1, 2018 to April 18, 2023. The total number of evicted encroachers was 291. Community wise number of evicted encroachers was; Meetei Pangal (116), Meetei (56), Kabui (Naga) (35), Nepali (22), Kuki (59), Chiru Naga (3). These evictions were carried out in few areas of the valley districts such as Imphal East, Imphal West, and Thoubal districts. Only few areas could be touched in Naga dominated Noney and Kuki dominated Kangpokpi districts when Kuki was obstructed with violent protests.

(d) Manipur Government’s eviction drive was not confined to encroachers in Reserved and Protected Forests alone. It carried out wide scale eviction drives reportedly to conserve wetlands, river beds/ banks, highway roadsides, paddy fields and unauthorised constructions in government’s land in the valley districts. As a part of the drive, the government issued eviction orders against nine unauthorised churches on government’s land. In this, the government was following the Supreme Court’ Order, dated September 9, 2009 [Special Leave to Appeal (Civil) No(s).8519/2006]. The nine unauthorised churches were; (1) Tangkhul Baptist Church (Pending in Court), (2) Peniel Church (Evangelical Lutheran Church Manipur), (3) Holy Spirit Church (Catholic Church), (4) Evangelical Baptist Convention Church, (5) Zo Christian Bible Church, (6) Meitei Baptist Church, (7) Zou Presbyterian Church Synod, (8) Evangelical Organisation Church, and (9) Knesseya Beith Shalom Church. Out of these, the last five churches were voluntarily demolished. The case of the first has been pending. The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th churches were evicted on April 11, 2023 as per the order of the High Court against WP(C)No.658 of 2021. But Kuki bureaucrats, political elites, and organisations stood up in anger against the eviction. They played victim card and charged that minority tribals cum Christians have been targeted.

(5) On Suspension of Operations.

(a) From the late 1980s many Kuki armed organisations emerged. They have a common objective to militarily expand territorial occupation to assert a homeland either within India or outside whichever might be possible. The expansionist course led to violent ethnic clashes with Naga (1992-1996 approx.), Paite (1997-98), etc. All these strengthened their militarisation zeal. To fulfil common objectives step by step, Kuki armed organisations came to terms with grouping under broader united fronts, such as the Kuki National Organisation and the United People’s Front.

(b) First, Kuki National Organisation (KNO) comprised; (1) Kuki National Front (Military Council), (2) Kuki National Front (Zogam), (3) United Socialist Revolutionary Army, (4) United Minority Liberation Army (Old Kuki), (5) United Komren Revolutionary Army, (6) Zomi Reunification Front, (7) Zou Defence Volunteer (KNO), (8) Hmar National Army, (9) Kuki Revolutionary Army (Unification, (10) Kuki Liberation Army (KNO), (11) Kuki National Army will abide by the Constitution of India, the laws of the land and the territorial integrity of Manipur. Second, United Peoples’ Front (UPF) comprised; (1) Kuki Revolutionary Army, (2) Kuki National Front, (3) United Kuki Liberation Front, (4) Kuki Liberation Army, (5) Zomi Revolutionary Army, (6) Kuki National Front (S), (7) Hmar Peoples Conference / Democratic, (8) Zomi Defence Volunteer (UPF).

(c) These two broad fronts entered into Suspension of Operations (SoO) Agreements with the Indian army on August 1, 2005. They entered into separate tripartite agreements involving Government of India and Government of Manipur, “to formalise these Suspension of Operations and cease hostilities with effect from August 22nd, 2008.” The SoO has been advantageous to both the Indian armed forces and the KNO and UPF. While KNO and UPF posed no immediate threat to India’s territorial integrity or sovereignty, the Indian armed forces reportedly used them as strategic allies in counterinsurgency against Naga and Meetei insurgents. Both KNO and UPF took advantage of “peace” to clandestinely pursue its hidden agendas of expanding mass bases, increasing manpower and territorial occupation, increasing resources or revenue, and accumulating arms and ammunition.

(d) While pursuing its agendas, both KNO and UPF reportedly broke the ground rules of SoO from time to time. For instance, under SoO they were to “completely abjure the path of violence and will not engage in violent or unlawful activities like killing, injuries, kidnappings, ambush, extortions, intimidations, carrying of arms in public, and imposing of “taxes” or ‘fines.” Their weapons were to be “held within the camp’s central armoury in a double locking system, with one key being with the group and other with the concerned security force.” They would “not carry out fresh recruitment of cadres or raise additional military/ civil outfits/ front organisations or try to run their own sovereign government.” They would “not construct memorials, hoist flags, or carry out parades of armed cadres.” These rules were not strictly followed. They reportedly indulged in extortion, kidnapping for ransom, killing, display of arms, etc.

(e) There are allegations Kuki militants under SoO were responsible for promoting and protecting illegal and expanded settler colonialists for geo-strategic control, narco-terrorism (including poppy plantations) for revenue, electoral politics to capture power, and communal propaganda to create instability. The Manipur Government alleged that militants under the SoO were responsible for instigating Kuki agitation against the war on drugs, surveying forests and populations, evicting illegal structures from government land, etc. Based on a prima facie video clip of the KNO leader’s public speech in support of Kuki’s violent protest on March 10, 2023, at Kangpokpi, the Manipur Government recommended abrogation of the SoO with the Kuki National Army (KNA) and the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA). KNO and some mass organisations refuted the charges and protested the decision.

Why Kuki Armed Aggression?

(1) Kuki’s dream to create Zalen’gam (Kuki homeland) or Zogam (Zomi homeland where Kuki homeland would be a part) has always been active. To achieve it, they have adopted two correlated strategies; (a) Armed insurrection, and (b) Manipulate governance to their advantage. For the second strategy, Kuki elites are part of the collusion of forces across communities that collaborate with the kleptocratic regime and extract maximum benefit for personal gain and communal agendas. They are amongst the powerful legislatures, bureaucrats, communal elites, and agents who work in collusion for gain at the cost of the general masses. While in collusion, they work with the hidden agenda of manipulating the administration to covertly carry forth the agenda of Zalengam or Zogam. Within the system, they trumped up tribal or minority victimhood cards both as bargaining mechanisms to extract the maximum share of gain for themselves and for communal mobilisation. This is how a section of them could promote foreign infiltration, transplantation of settler colonialists, cross-border narco-terrorism, poppy plantations, etc. without effective obstruction by Government for many years. As such, Kuki militants could freely operate, conscript more cadres, expand mass fronts, and increase armed power.

(2) But the recent initiatives by the government to check cross-border infiltration, population survey, war on drugs, the destruction of poppy, afforestation measures, and the eviction of encroachers in Protected and Reserved forests, have threatened both the two correlated strategies mentioned above. They challenged the genuine demand from indigenous communities to arrest illegal infiltration and to regulate unrestrained migration. They could not tolerate any prospect of Meetei getting Scheduled Tribe status as it would affect their decades old domination in the State’s bureaucracy using ST quota at the cost of other deserving minority or underprivileged tribal candidates. They therefore play aggressive communal politics to obstruct the government from taking the actions that affected Kuki elites’ vested individual opportunism and chauvinist communal interests. They devised tactics to create instability so that the incumbent chief minister is thrown out of the chair and replaced by someone who would kowtow to their trumped-up tribal victimhood card. This tactic is significant because Manipur has never had a Chief Minister in the past who has ever confronted the status quo on all these sensitive initiatives. If he is overthrown, it is quite uncertain if anyone who may come to power in the near future would dare to take the risk of hurting the Kuki elite’s opportunist aspiration and chauvinist communal goal.

(3) Meanwhile, the valley districts also noticed counterpart Meetei communal forces (organisations and individuals) who would not remain silent on the Kuki communal agenda. They are different from the conventional Meetei mass organisations, which have always played the role of big brothers’ role to defend Manipur’s collective identity by avoiding direct confrontation with any aggressive communal forces. These new organisations are as aggressive and provocative as Kuki’s communal protagonists. They are being dragged into communal browbeating by the systematic fabrication of Manipur’s historical facts, twisted misinterpretation of historical events, and communal propaganda by some Kuki organisations, intellectuals, and social media bloggers. In fact, the growth of aggressive communal forces and provocative individuals has escaped the radar of the government’s vigilance, intelligence, and other democratic forces. Social media became a site of online confrontation and communal campaigns. Against the backdrop of all these communal browbeating and Government’s actions cited above; Kuki communal elites must have lost hope in the strategy of manipulating governance to their favour. The abrogation of SoO, if not stopped by some pressure tactics, would be a big blow to their covert but deferred tactic of armed insurrection. If premeditated communal violence did not immediately unite Kuki people and other allied cognates; Kuki elites’ parasitic roles at the cost of common people would soon be exposed by Meetei propaganda. It may cause divisions along Kuki clan lines to get sharper. In such a crucial situation, Kuki communal forces might have expected that Meetei would retaliate against violence with violence. Such retaliation would create a spiral of communal violence and unite Kuki and its allied cognates. Therefore, they decided on armed violence.

(4) Kuki militants are confident in a surprise armed aggression on Meetei. They are confident because taking advantage of SoO they have built up strength and arms power. They are probably aware that Meetei insurgents are not active in Manipur. They cannot immediately enter Manipur and attack Kuki, as they would have to first penetrate the powerful security defensive walls erected by the Indian armed forces along the international border. They might be aware that Meetei were rendered armless by the government’s order in February 2023 that forced them to submit their arms license along with the arms registered on or before March 1, 2023. They might be expecting that by using trumped up minority or tribal victimhood cards and fabricated information, they would convince the Government of India to deploy more forces against potential armed retaliation by the Meetei. At the same time, as they did with Nagas (1992–96), their armed aggression and ethnic cleansing would create exclusive and contiguous Kuki dominated areas freed from Meetei. They would create a de facto boundary between Kuki occupied territory and Meetei settlement areas. Any retaliation by Meetei would be construed as an attack on a minority or tribal group. Such propaganda would be used to claim a separate administration for Kuki. This is what the 10 Kuki MLAs exactly did when they released a press statement on May 12, 2023, demanding the separation of the Kuki homeland from Manipur. This is what the Zomi Chiefs Association did when they submitted a memorandum to India’s Home Minister demanding a separate territory for Kuki based on the invention of fabricated facts, the twisting of facts, the misinterpretation of history, and the ongoing ethnic cleansing. Overall, Kuki elites have a premeditated and coordinated misinformation campaign to cover up the facts, mislead public opinion, and project Meetei and the Manipur government in the wrong image.

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