Unraveling the Manipur conflict: Tracing historical origins and pursuing resolutions 

Resolving the Manipur crisis is crucial for the betterment of not just North East states of India but also the South Asia region.

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India’s history weaves both triumphs and tragedies, with haunting incidents of mass killings spanning centuries. From empires and colonial rule to independence, violence and bloodshed have left indelible marks. Post-independence, India faced a wide range of internal security challenges. In 1983, the Nellie Massacre in Assam brought unspeakable brutality and death to thousands. The next year, the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and other regions left countless Sikhs dead, injured, and displaced after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

In 2002, Gujarat was engulfed in the darkness of the Godhra Riots, leaving scars that would take years to heal. Presently, Manipur faces its own tragic chapter, with thousands displaced and seeking refuge as violence continues to cast shadows. As India reflects on its past and present, it must confront these tragedies. Embracing peace, harmony, and coexistence is the way to emerge from the darkness and build a brighter, more compassionate tomorrow.

History of Manipur

Manipur, which until 1709 was known as “Kangleipak”, is one of north-east India’s rich traditional states. It is geographically divided into hilly and valley areas, with the capital being Imphal, which is in the valley area. Manipur has a mixed population of Meitei, Kuki, and Naga, with others like Gorkha and Muslims  being less in number. The Meitei, who are predominantly Hindus, form the highest with a 53 percent share of the population, who mainly live in the valley area or Imphal, which is only 10 percent of Manipur’s area. They have been given the status of OBCs–or the Scheduled Castes. Since they live in the valley area and they are often considered advanced compared to other communities, with access to all the basic facilities like hospitals, schools, and other facilities.

Second are the Kuki and Naga communities, which combine to form approximately 40 percent of the population who reside in the hill area, which is 90 percent of Manipur’s area. They are mostly Christians and on the scheduled tribe list. Because of this scheduled tribe status, they are automatically entitled to a lot of privileges like buying and selling land, reservations in government jobs, and quotas in educational institutions. And because Meitei does not belong to the Scheduled Tribe list, they are denied the right to buy land in this hilly area.

Indian states basically maintain three lists for backward communities so that they can be given education and job reservations. Meiteis claim that it is unfair because Kuki and Nagas can buy land anywhere in the valley, while Meiteis are not allowed to do the same in the hills. They currently have access to only 10 percent of the land, and this area is also shrinking due to other communities being able to take land there. Meiteis seek Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to gain the right to buy and sell land in the hills. On the other hand, the Naga and Kuki tribes oppose the idea that the Meitei community is already in a stronger position and does not require reservation.

Cause of crisis

Now, coming to 2023, what caused the situation to emerge so badly can be attributed to three important triggers for this case. First, the order issued by the Manipur High Court; second, the Manipur government’s eviction to remove illegal occupants; third, the drug trade angle.

In the first case, the order of the High Court, which was based on the granting of Scheduled Tribe status to Meitei since 2013, told the Manipur High Court to consider granting the status, where only consideration was discussed. Against this order of the High Court, Naga, Kuki, and other tribes, on May 3, launched a Tribal Solidarity March in Churchandpur where clashes first took place between both communities.

What is happening in Manipur can spread to the whole of South Asia. It can slowly move to Bangladesh and Nepal as well. 

The claim on who attacked first cannot be proven.

The second trigger was the Manipur Government’s Eviction Drive, where, for a long time, the government was issuing eviction warnings to remove illegal occupation in the hills, especially in the reserve forests and protected forests. And finally, the illegal occupants were removed. The state government justified its action based on a report from The Manipur Narcotics and Affairs of Border (NAB), which revealed that 291 encroachers were evicted from reserved forests between January 2017 and April 2023. The NAB data also showed a 30 percent increase in poppy cultivation in Kuki-Chin-dominated areas, from 2,001 acres in 2017–18 to 2,600 acres in 2021–22. Incidentally, the eviction also included the church, which added a religious dimension to this whole incident.

Burden of history 

Britishers, the erstwhile colonizers of India, had followed the policy of assuring the princely states of their independence after they granted independence to India. However, it was not done, and many princely states later joined the union of India under Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and often forgotten Major Bob Khathing, particularly in the NEFA region. Manipur was merged with India on September 21, 1949, and it got the status of a state only in 1972. From 1980 to 2004, the state was placed under the Disturbed Area Act along with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act because of armed rebellion in the area, which made local people unhappy.

For this particular event on the granting of Schedule Tribe status to Meitei, the Kukis and the Nagas are together, but they also have a very different story that traces back to the 1992 violent clashes. Each group has seen the rise of armed groups like the Kuki National Army of the Kukis for raising their demand for Kukiland, and Naga has the NSCN National Socialist Council of Nagaland demanding a separate area that is Greater Nagaland. The People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) from the Meitei is demanding the expulsion of outsiders from the state.

Digital deluge 

In the case of Manipur, the old incident of Delhi’s 21-year-old’s body that was found on Yamuna Expressway was represented as Meitei Nurse being tortured and killed by Kuki. India’s progress in digitalization has brought laurels in terms of numbers, but it is yet to implement an effective framework on internet governance that talks about identifying real-time postings of fake or doctored images, which in the case of Manipur could have been avoided. Further, more extended coordination between the government and social media platforms could have been established to prevent any widespread increase of fake news instead of an internet shutdown.

International angle

The area of Manipur and the neighboring north-eastern state of India stands vulnerable to the Golden Triangle, the drug nexus of Southeast Asia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos that deals in Opium and Brown Sugar. And some towns in Manipur are reported to have become hubs for the drug trade and cultivation. This change of role from receiver to producer was a threat to the government. Churachandpur district is believed to be the worst drug-affected area of Manipur.

Manipur along with Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram share a long border with Myanmar, making them much more sensitive, a border similar to Pakistan, as neighboring Myanmar is considered Asia’s next failed state, referring to near political instability, where the government has no control over its citizens along with weak law enforcement agencies, and the rise of China’s influence in Myanmar has also seen an increase. Therefore, in cases of infiltrations, armed supply, and drug trade, there are multiple angles to be observed. While international organizations have pushed for unhindered access to international observers, it is again a call for debate as the particular region stands vulnerable owing to its position in the region, which is a long-standing interest of the West to increase its presence in South Asian geopolitics.

Why act on this important concern?

The conflict has taken away rights from Manipur; with a curfew under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code of 1973, people’s right to move freely is surrendered. Second, the right to education is missing as schools and colleges were closed due to violent incidents, and third, the right to the internet is suspended. Likewise, this incident can spread to the whole of South Asia as Manipur shares a border with other north-eastern states, and slowly it can move to Bangladesh and Nepal. Within Nepal, the differences in opinion in line with identity, religion, geography are also visible, as Nepal is a socially, culturally and religiously diverse country. Also, as of 2011, 63,000 Nepali-speaking people are present in Manipur, and they are also a factor of concern for the Nepali diaspora. 

Crisis could have been avoided

Yes, it could have been avoided. The Supreme Court has said that just from a judicial order, the Scheduled Tribes list is not affected at all. But this clarification was not communicated effectively to the citizens a long time ago. India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, a master of intelligence tradecraft anticipating a future turmoil in the volatile north east, wrote in his December 2016 letter to Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) Chief RN Ravi and Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrish, to revive the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) in its erstwhile role of Special Service Bureau (SSB) that was constituted in March 1963, after the 1962 Indo-China war, to build up the spirit of resistance to resist subversion, infiltration, and sabotage, besides other threats across the Indo-China border. Having revived the Special Service Bureau, this incident could have been diluted, if not totally avoided.

What next?

Resolving the Manipur crisis is crucial for the betterment of not just North East states of India but also for the region in order to prevent the involvement of foreign actors which can lead towards untoward situations like that is witnessed in parts of Afghanistan. Implementing the Punchhi Commission’s recommendations can provide a viable path forward temporarily, fostering cooperation between the Centre and states and effectively addressing security challenges. A stable Manipur will enhance India’s national security, promote regional cooperation, and bolster economic development. By addressing the crisis promptly and inclusively, India can prevent the situation from escalating and becoming a breeding ground for foreign interference.

The Punchhi Commission, established in 2007 to examine center-state relations in India, offers potential solutions for the ongoing crisis in Manipur. The Commission’s Fifth Task Force focused on criminal justice, national security, and center-state cooperation. Key recommendations include supporting legislation under Article 355 to deploy Central forces in states when the situation demands it and introducing “localized Emergency provisions” under Article 355, allowing the imposition of Central rule in a limited affected area for a maximum of three months while the rest of the state’s elected government continues functioning. 

Also, the Commission proposed amending the Communal Violence Bill to ensure that state consent does not hinder the deployment of central forces during serious communal riots, suggesting a one-week deployment followed by post-facto consent from the state. These recommendations aim to address the current impasse in Manipur by allowing the Center to take temporary control of specific areas without disrupting the elected government. Similar strategies have been employed in the past, such as during the Telangana insurgency in 1950, when the Central Intelligence Bureau (IB) took charge of law and order in Communist strongholds. By implementing these recommendations through constitutional amendments, the Punchhi Commission offers potential solutions to the Manipur Crisis and helps improve center-state relations in India.

President’s Rule can be the last option, which is applied when the State Government cannot follow the Constitutional Machinery and the Central Government has to take direct control. From 1951 to 2019, Manipur has seen a president rule 10 times, but this will not be a solution as this situation can spread to Nagaland or Mizoram, where the demand for greater Nagaland is also seen rising occasionally.

Besides, in order to overcome drug problems in Manipur, involving top agricultural bodies like ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) to introduce new cash crops may be a long-term solution or promoting them for producing items that support sustainable development as an alternative to poppy, which has become a big problem.

(Chiranjibi Bhandari  is an assistant Professor at Department of Conflict, Peace and Development Studies, Tribhuvan University. Monojit Das is executive Editor of Indian Aerospace and Defence News)