Why is India's Manipur embroiled in ethnic violence?

Cultural, linguistic and religious differences contribute to the conflict, as well as control over land

Women burning the house of one of the men accused of parading two women naked in front of a mob during ethnic violence in India's Manipur state. AFP
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For the past three months, India’s Manipur state has been in the grip of brutal ethnic violence.

More than 180 people have been killed, including five on Sunday, after warring tribes – the majority Meitei Hindus and minority Christian Kukis – clashed, burning several villages and leaving tens of thousands homeless.

The violence was triggered by a proposed government policy that would benefit the majority Meitei community. Experts say the conflict could lead to outright rebellion against the state.

Tens of thousands of security personnel have been sent to the region, where villagers are arming themselves to guard their property and militias engage in daily battles.

But the hostile relations between local groups did not build up overnight.

India's diverse north-east

The north-east is one of the most diverse and distinct parts of India, with eight states in the region stretching across the foothills of the Himalayas surrounded by China, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

People here have distinct languages, religions, customs and ethnicities, and are classified as Indo-Tibetan.

Stark cultural and linguistic differences mean the people of Manipur are often discriminated against and remain largely unassimilated with “mainland” India.

But even within the state, there are strong divisions between groups that inhabit the mostly hilly areas. Tension has occasionally devolved into all-out conflict, mostly over land.

“It has not happened suddenly. If we look into the background of the incidents, the history, during British rule, the divided rule was applied on Manipuri people – they divided the state into hills and plains and it has continued,” Lanchenba Meetei, associate professor of Hindi at the state’s Dhanamanjuri University, told The National.

Land and political dominance

Manipur is predominantly a hilly state dotted with fertile valleys that over the decades have become major population centres, triggering a land crunch.

The state has a population of 3.2 million and about 34 ethnic groups. Meiteis form the majority, with 53 per cent, while the other major groups are Kukis and Nagas.

About 40 per cent of the population, mostly tribes such as Kukis, have traditionally inhabited the hills that make up 90 per cent of the state.

Meiteis, meanwhile, dominate the valley areas, confined to only 10 per cent of the land.

Indian law bars non-tribal people from owning property or land in the hills – putting the Meiteis at a disadvantage, because they are not included on the tribal list.

“Some try to portray it as a religious conflict but that is not true. The sole reason is land,” Mangcha Haokip, assistant professor of history at Rayburn College, Manipur, told The National.

Kukis argue that the Meitei are already a dominant force, controlling both political and economic aspects of the state.

Of 60 legislators in the state assembly, 40 are Meiteis while only 20 represent other groups. Two legislators are Kukis.

“If you look at the infrastructure, medical schools [and] other institutes are located in Imphal [the capital city of Manipur],” Mr Haokip said.

“They are the majority in the state assembly, they can introduce and make laws. There is an imbalance.

“They say 90 per cent is hills, but 65 per cent of land in the hills are not arable which means there is not much difference. Meiteis think their population is growing and want to extend their living space.”

Historic undercurrents

Kukis share ethnic ties with the Chin tribes of Myanmar who live on the other side of the border. There is also a belief that the tribe was brought over by the British from what was then Burma to Manipur.

Manipur became a British protectorate in 1824 and by 1891, after dynastic wars and rebellion, it was briefly annexed by British India.

At the same time, the tribes led periodic raids on British subjects in the valley, forcing the colonial power to create a protective buffer zone by dividing the region between the communities: hills for tribal people, including Kukis, and valleys for Meiteis.

The Kingdom of Meiteis was brought under colonial rule, whereas the Kukis and Nagas were left on their own with limited control by the British.

Manipur became a part of India in 1949, two years after independence.

But Kukis have long demanded a separate state called Kukiland – the first such call was raised in the 1980s. But this is opposed by the Meiteis.

Land rights

The Meiteis, who claim to be indigenous to the region, practised their own beliefs before they converted to Hinduism in the 18th century. This meant they were no longer seen as a tribe and did not enjoy any government benefits from that distinction.

In April, the Manipur High Court directed the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to send its recommendations to the federal government for declaring the Meiteis a tribe.

This was opposed by the Kukis because, if granted, the status would allow the Meiteis to settle in the hills – on protected land.

The Meiteis accuse the Kukis of poppy cultivation in the “forest reserves” and settling illegal immigrants from Myanmar since the junta took over there.

“No one can buy and settle in hill areas, which is safeguarded by the constitution of India. That’s the reason, once they become tribally designated, their hope is that they can buy and settle in the hills,” Mr Haokip said.

Last year, Chief Minister Biren Singh launched an operation against poppy cultivation and cracked down on “illegal villages”.

On May 3, two rival rallies were organised in Churachandpur that ended in violence between the two groups, and the clashes have continued ever since.

Since the 1960s, numerous insurgent groups have fought against New Delhi, demanding either a separate nation or separate state.

Over the years, Meitei insurgent groups have faded out and more than 20 Kuki militia units have signed agreements with the government.

But Mr Meetei said that, if the violence continues, it would create discontent among the communities and insurgency may be revived.

“The insurgency may rise because the concept of freedom from the Indian union is an old concept. In 1962, there was a revolution, there were other revolutions after the 1990s,” Mr Meetei said.

“The general people are not fighting against the government but to protect their land, if this continues and the government fails to control it, there will be frustration and they might fight against the state.”

Updated: August 10, 2023, 3:00 AM