At the core of Manipur’s ethnic strife is fight over tribal land rights

Imphal: The ethnic conflicts in Manipur for over three decades have mostly been land-centric and in all of them, Kuki tribals are involved.

The Kukis and their sub-tribes are hill tribes living in Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and other northeastern states besides Myanmar and the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeast Bangladesh.

This northeastern region is culturally and ethnically diverse having more than 200 ethnic groups, including 34 in Manipur, with distinct languages, dialects and socio-cultural identities.

In the ongoing ethnic violence, which broke out in Manipur on May 3, over 160 people have been killed and over 600 injured, huge destruction of properties took place, after a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ was organised in the hill districts by the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur to protest against the Meitei community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.

Kuki tribals felt that if the Meitei community gets the ST status, their various rights, including the land rights, would be curtailed and Meitei people would be able to purchase and live in their existing lands.

The ongoing conflict between non-tribal Meiteis and Kuki tribals can also be termed as hills versus plains conflict.

Meiteis account for 53 per cent of Manipur’s three million population, while tribal communities account for around 40 per cent. Out of these, Naga tribes make up for 24 per cent and Kuki/Zomi tribes constitute 16 per cent.

The valley areas, where the Meiteis are living, are around 10 per cent of the total geographical areas of Manipur while the hilly areas comprise around 90 per cent territory.

On September 13, 1993 militants belonging to National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah faction massacred around 115 Kuki civilians in the hills of Manipur.

However, the Naga outfit rejects responsibility for the killings.

In 1990, there were clashes over land. Kukis often claimed 350 of their villages were uprooted, over 1,000 killed, and 10,000 people displaced.

In 1993, there were clashes between Meitei Pangal (Muslims) and Meiteis. A bus carrying Muslim passengers was set on fire and over 100 people were killed.

Manipur had scores of militant outfits and violence was largely triggered by insurgents.

A total of 23 underground outfits under two conglomerates – 8 under the United Peoples’ Front (UPF) and 15 are under Kuki National Organisation (KNO) — are currently under Suspension of Operation (SoO) with the Centre since August 2008.

Manipur is also affected by activities of Meitei, Naga, Kuki, Zomi, and Hmar insurgent groups.

To curb the illegal and unlawful activities by insurgent groups of northeastern states, a total of 16 insurgent organisations have declared “unlawful associations” and/or “terrorist organisations” under The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

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Out of these 16, eight are from Manipur. These are People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its political wing, the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and its armed wing the Manipur People’s Army (MPA), the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), the Kanglei Yaol Kanba Lup (KYKL), the Coordination Committee (Cor-Com), the Alliance for Socialist Unity Kangleipak (ASUK), and the Manipur People’s Liberation Front (MPLF).

While the NSCN-IM and other Naga outfits in neighbouring Nagaland entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Centre in 1997, Manipur Valley-based militant outfits (Meitei groups) such as the UNLF, PLA, KYKL etc. are yet to come to the negotiating table.

There are 2,266 Kuki cadres who have been staying in different designated camps in Manipur after the Centre and the Manipur governments signed the tripartite Suspension of Operation (SoO) on August 22, 2008, when Congress was in power in Manipur.

Officials in Manipur alleged that the cadres of the Kuki National Army (KNA), Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA) and Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA) are instigating the poppy cultivators in the state against the government, which has been taking action against illegal poppy cultivators by destroying poppy fields in the forest lands, especially in the reserve and protected forests.

However, an umbrella organisation of the Kuki outfits has dismissed the accusations.

On March 10, the tribals organised protest rallies against the state government’s actions against the illegal poppy cultivators and illegal encroachments of forest lands in three hills districts that were also allegedly backed by the Kuki militants.

The rallies in several places turned violent, injuring many, while the Manipur government unilaterally withdrew itself from the SoO deal the very next day. However, the Central government is yet to approve the Manipur government’s decision to withdraw from the SoO deal.

The Manipur government also claimed that the Myanmarese immigrants came from across the border, encouraging illegal poppy cultivation and the drugs trade.

On April 9, the Kuki Independent Army (KIA) looted 25 sophisticated arms from the armoury of Kuki militant groups staying in their designated camps at Chungkhao in Churachandpur district bordering Myanmar.

The Manipur Police launched a probe into the looting of arms by the militants of the KIA (also known as the Kuki Independent Organisation), which is a non-signatory of the tripartite ceasefire pact with the governments.

The arms loot took place three days after the Manipur police announced a reward of Rs 50,000 to any person who provides information leading to the arrest of KIA chief Thangkhongam Haokip (40).

The hilly and forested Churachandpur district in southern Manipur, which borders Myanmar and Mizoram, is home to various Kuki-Chin militant groups.

Ever since the non-tribal Meitei community members started demanding to categorise them as Scheduled Tribe around one and a half decades ago, the Kuki tribals and their various organisations have been strongly opposing the demand saying that if the Meitei community is declared as tribals, their (Kukis) share of benefits as tribals will be curtailed and the people belonging to the Meitei community will be allowed to purchase land in the hilly areas.

Amid the ethnic violence, 10 tribal MLAs, belonging to the Kuki community, have demanded a separate state for the Manipur tribals.

The 10 legislators, including seven ruling BJP MLAs, also sent a memorandum to Union Home Minister Amit Shah in support of their demand.

Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Education, Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said that the demand was made under tremendous pressure from various quarters, including the Kuki militants.  (IANS)

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