The army has been called in to restore order in the northeastern state— which has exploded with ethnic violence between the ‘hills’ and the ‘valley’. The key stake in the battle: the constitutional definition of a tribe.
The battle: Meiteis vs the hill tribes
The violence of the past week is rooted in the majority community’s demand for tribal status. Let us explain.
The Meiteis: constitute 64.6% of the population—and live in 10% of the land—concentrated in Imphal Valley. The valley accounts for 40 out of 60 seats in the legislature. They are most commonly referred to as “Manipuris”—and are mostly Hindus.
The tribes: There are 34 recognised tribes in Manipur. They are 35.4% of the population—and live in the hills—which constitute 90% of the state. The tribes are broadly divided into Kuki and Naga—and they are predominantly Christian. In fact, Manipur has an almost equal number of Hindus and Christians—41% each.
The problem: Meiteis are currently listed as an Other Backward Caste—and some members are Scheduled Caste. Since 2012, they have been demanding recognition as a tribe.
Constitutional protection: The Constitution offers special protections to “tribal” and “indigenous” people. And so does the government’s official tribal policy laid out by PM Nehru back in 1959:
This policy sought the protection of tribal rights in land and forests, non-interference of outsiders into tribal territory, their social and cultural institutions and administration. It specifically denounced imposing anything on them.
In the case of Manipur, the tribes are sheltered by a special clause that guarantees their autonomy. They are governed by the Hills Area Committee—constituted by tribal members of the legislative council. The hills are divided among six autonomous district councils—which are responsible for local governance.
The biggest perk: of being a tribe in Manipur is land. Only members of the tribal community can buy land in the hills. The Manipur legislature has passed several laws—to make land ownership uniform—but to little effect. If the Meiteis were granted tribal status, they could expand into the hills—hence the enraged backlash.
The Meitei argument: In a petition submitted to the Manipur High Court, the Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union offered this argument:
[T]he status of the community before the former princely state merged with India in 1949 was that of a “tribe among tribes of Manipur”. “While merging Manipur with the Union of India, the Meetei/Meitei has lost the identity of tribe and, therefore, Meetei/Meitei should be included as a tribe among the tribes of Manipur so as to preserve the said community and save the ancestral land, tradition, culture and language.”
Looping back to the land: Meitei representatives also claim they have been unfairly denied access to their ancestral land:
The suzerainty of the Meitei kings had once upon a time spanned from the Chindwin river in Myanmar to the Surma river in present-day Bangladesh. But after joining India, the Meiteis are now confined to a mere 9% of the state’s total geographical area. Their future is bleak as they cannot settle down in the remaining 90% of the state’s area which are scheduled tribe lands belonging to the various scheduled tribes of Manipur while the reverse is not true.
The tribes’ point of view: is straightforward. Their representatives view the Meitei demand as a covert way to secure added job reservations—and expand their presence into the hills. It is a blatant power grab by an “advanced community” that is already benefiting from its caste reservations—and dominance of the legislative assembly.
Whither the state government?
The balance of power: In 2017, the BJP ended 15 years of Congress rule—and became the single largest party in the state. It has remained in power ever since. BJP CM N Biren Singh heads an alliance that includes some tribal parties—such as the Naga People’s Front. The secret of its success—development:
The BJP’s victory in the 2017 and 2022 Manipur assembly elections had less to do with Hindutva politics and more to do with three factors. The first was the public’s desire for new politics following the INC’s decline. The second reason was the BJP’s slew of development projects and promises to root out corruption. And the third was its proximity to state power for central funding since the BJP became the ruling party following its landslide victory in the 2014 general elections.
But, but, but: Ever since the BJP came to power, it has also been encouraging the Meiteis to assert their identity—and weave it into the broader Hindutva agenda:
Since 2017, BJP karyakartas (party workers) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharaks (full-time members) stationed in Manipur have been on an ambitious mission to incite the valley’s Vaishnavite Meitei (followers of Gaudiya Vaishnavism) to assert their Hindutva politics against religious minorities and “illegal” immigrants while also providing the Meiteis with significant electoral positions. In Manipur, the RSS desires Meitei supremacy over other religious minorities.
Point to note: CM Biren Singh has also been characterised as pursuing an “anti-tribal” agenda. He is accused of “expelling tribes from their villages, demolishing decades-old churches in the capital, and classifying a majority of tribal settlements as reserved forests.” The last is an especially sensitive issue. The government is allegedly moving to convert tribal lands and resources into reserved forests, protected forests, and wetlands.
The ‘foreign hand’ angle: Tribes in Manipur have close ties to tribal communities in Myanmar—specifically between the Kuki and Chin communities. There is also a small Kuki-Zomi community in the Chittagong Hills of Bangladesh. A number of refugees have sought shelter in the hills. The Meiteis have tied their demand for tribal status to this "large-scale illegal immigration by Myanmarese and Bangladeshis"—which threatens their identity. And Meitei groups have blamed the current violence on “illegal migrants from Burma.”
The deeper problem: is that the Meiteis regard the Kuki tribes as outsiders:
For the Meiteis, the Kukis are outlanders who came to the state in the 18th and 19th centuries and encroached upon their ancestral lands. Mount Koubru and its surroundings are considered to be the first site where the Meiteis, indigenous people of Manipur, began to settle down before they dispersed and came to the valleys.
The Kukis are accused of bringing in more ‘foreigners’—members of the Chin community in Myanmar—to change the demographics of the state—and outnumber the Meiteis.
Where we are now…
The latest round of violence was sparked by a court order. A petitioner asked the Manipur High Court to direct the state government to accept the Meitei demand—and to recommend their inclusion in the list of scheduled tribes. On April 14, the judge ruled in the petitioner’s favour—and directed the state to submit a recommendation to the Centre within four weeks. That’s when all hell broke loose:
- The clashes first erupted last week when protesting tribal groups attacked a venue slated for a Biren Singh event.
- Things got worse when a leading tribal student union called for a solidarity march on Wednesday.
- Since then, hundreds of houses, churches, temples, and vehicles have been either vandalised or set ablaze across five districts.
- The government imposed a curfew, shut down the internet—and issued shoot-at-sight orders.
- Yesterday, 55 columns of the Indian Army and the paramilitary Assam Rifles stepped in to restore order—and evacuate 9000 people.
- Tribal and adivasi members report being attacked by Meitei mobs—but it is unclear as to which community instigated the violence.
Something to see: This is one of the unverified clips of attacks on tribal members being circulated on social media:
What’s next: The immediate priority is to restore order. Singh has called for restraint on all sides—without taking sides. But he did flag the role of “illegal immigration” in the violence. But there is no indication of what the state government plans to do next—follow the High Court order—or challenge it in the Supreme Court.
The bottomline: The government can ill-afford chaos in the northeast—with Beijing building up its presence across the border. And yet it is difficult to see how it can extricate itself from this no-win situation.
The Hindu has the most detailed reporting on the latest violence. Samrat X in NewsLaundry and this essay by Thongkholal Haokip are best on the history of the conflict between the hills and the valley. The Quint has more on the allegations of Biren Singh’s anti-tribal agenda.