Inter-ethnic conflicts in Manipur pose a threat to India’s ‘Look East’ policy

Manipur in Northeast India is the most conflict-affected state in the region today.

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Insurgency in the state witnessed a giant leap forward on June 4, 2015 when the United Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia (UNLFWSEA), a newly set up and broader militant formation led by SS Khaplang based in Myanmar which includes seven Manipuri militant groups, carried out an attack on an army convoy in the Chandel district of the state killing at least 18 army personnel.

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 continues to operate in the state despite the 15-year-long protest fast against it by the intrepid Irom Sharmila.

During a visit to the state in November, 2009 to investigate a case of serious human rights violation, it was found that 60 battalions of the central and state paramilitary forces and the army had been deployed in the small state.

Every year, the security forces in the state were reported to have killed more than 200 youth in ‘encounters’ in the name of containing the insurgency. This was just too extravagant. The state DG of police maintained that those killed did not deserve a legal treatment under the criminal justice system since they were after all only ‘underground elements’!

The government of India is known to have initiated peace talks with surrendered militants from Nagaland, Assam and elsewhere but no information is available about Manipur militants held in captivity in Guwahati, Assam.

This is disturbing since Manipur’s Moreh town located on the Indo-Myanmar border is a crucial point of entry to Southeast Asia with which India seeks to develop economic, trade, commercial, strategic and diplomatic relations under its ‘Look East’ policy.

In July-August 2015, Manipur witnessed inter-ethnic tensions and clashes involving the three major indigenous ethnic communities of the Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis when three bills, one an original one and two others amendments to existing laws, were passed by the state Legislative Assembly on August 31.

Violent mobs in Churachandpur, the southern district of the state, set aflame the houses of political leaders alleging that they had failed to protect their legitimate interests. Three were killed in the violence.

In Moreh, on the Indo-Myanmar border, an indefinite curfew was imposed on August 18 when clashes broke out between supporters and opponents of the first bill above, which proposed adoption of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system in Manipur.

To smoothen the passage of this controversial bill to enact the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system with the objective of checking the influx of migrants, especially into the overcrowded, majority Meitei-inhabited Valley areas, the government of Manipur, dominated by the majority Meitei community, split the substance of the main bill into three separate bills: the Protection of Manipur People Bill 2015; the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill 2015; and the Manipur Shops and Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill 2015 and got them unanimously adopted in a special session of the state assembly.

Even if the first controversial bill might run into some trouble, it was felt, the other two could easily be passed since they were only amendments to existing laws.

The first bill spelt disaster by stipulating the year 1951 as the cut-off point for keeping out ‘non-domiciles’. The Hill districts, inhabited mainly by the Naga and Kuki-Chin-Zoram group of tribes and the southern district, were opposed to the bill.

Manipur is not the first state in the Northeast to wish to opt for the ILP system. Three other states in the region, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland have the system in place. Another state, Meghalaya too has demanded the system. There have also been demands that the entire north-eastern region be put under the ILP system to prevent illegal immigration.

Coinciding with the session of the Manipur Legislative Assembly, a joint action committee was formed to coordinate the demand by organising public rallies and pressure the legislators from the four Valley districts to press the demand.

Indefinite curfew was imposed in the Greater Imphal area, comprising the two districts of Imphal West and Imphal East where the agitation for the ILP system was strongest. The other two Valley districts of Bishnupur and Thoubal remained less affected.

The Hill districts of state did not share the concern of the agitators since jobs in the Hill districts are reserved for tribes and the ILP system was not seen as an urgent necessity.

The driving force behind the demand for the ILP system is the fear, shared in the rest of the region, including even the neighboring Myanmar and Tibet inhabited by indigenous communities that the influx of settlers posed a threat to their lands. The ‘anti-foreigners’ agitation in Assam during the late 1970s and early 1980s, had led to the ‘Nellie Massacre’ in 1983.

The Bodo militancy in Assam in 2012 marked by serious ethnic cleansing was followed by a case of lynching of an ‘outsider’ in 2015 in Dimpaur, Nagaland. Violence against the Rohingyas in neighbouring Myanmar’s Rakhine state and the Tibetans’ fear of being reduced to a minority in their own country by the influx of Han Chinese reflect similar fears. Myanmar has alleged that the Rohingyas were immigrants from Bangladesh.

Other examples are from Tripura and Sikkim. Tripura, once a tribal majority princely state, was reduced to a non-tribal Bengali majority state through the massive influx of Bengalis from neighboring Bangladesh. Sikkim too has become a Nepali state with its original inhabitants, the Lepchas and Bhutias, driven to the margins.

Manipur (population: 2.7milion, area 22327 sq. miles) consisting of the Valley and the Hills, is inhabited by over 30 ethnic communities including the Meiteis, the Nagas and the Kuki-Chin-Zoram groups.

Inter-community harmony is no longer present in the state thanks to ‘modernity’ and imposition of the ‘developmental state’ after Manipur’s controversial incorporation into India in 1949.

A princely state under the British Raj since 1891, Manipur in 1972 became an autonomous state under the Constitution of India. A major administrative reorganisation of the Northeast followed.

Popular resistance to integration with India has been a powerful force behind the emergence of Manipur’s multiple insurgent groups, the largest number in the region. The majority population of the Meiteis (about 60 percent) reside in the Valley, which consists of 10 percent of the land area.

The remaining 90 percent of the land area is inhabited by the remaining population (40 percent), consisting of mainly the Scheduled Tribes of the Nagas, the Kukis and the Mizo-Chin-Zoram group, which enjoy reservation in government jobs as provided in the Constitution of India.

The majority Meitei Hindu community, earlier followers of the indigenous Sanamahi religion, now classified as a backward caste, do not enjoy reservation in services. This has been a cause of resentment among the Meitei community who demand its classification as a Scheduled Tribe to become eligible for government jobs.

Insurgency in Manipuri is of two kinds, that of the Meiteis and those of the other ethnic groups. The Meitei groups operate in the valley with the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) led by Sana Yaima (now in jail) being the most powerful group.

The other tribal groups operate mainly in the Hill districts with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) led by T. Muivah and I. Swu, being the most powerful group.

The strategy and tactics used by the government of India to deal with insurgency in Manipur consisted mainly of the repressive Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 and the central the paramilitary forces including especially the Assam Rifles.

The recent phenomenon of inter-ethnic clashes contributes to the aggravation of the problem of multiple insurgencies in Manipur.

A major conflict of interest between the Valley-based Meiteis and the Hills-based Nagas relates to the Meitei concern to preserve the integrity of the state and the Naga concern to separate and join the proposed larger state of ‘Nagalim’ espoused in the neighbouring state of Nagaland.

The differences over the need felt by the dominant Meitei community for introduction of the ILP system in the state and the opposition to it on the part of the other communities is another instance of this conflict of interests.

At present, the Meiteis are prevented from moving and settling in the larger tribal reserved areas of the state, while the latter are free to move and settle in the smaller, overcrowded areas of the Valley, where the Meiteis feel suffocated by overcrowding and desire more space.

Since they dominate the political system with a majority in the state assembly, the Meiteis were able to table the bill for the introduction of the ILP system without consulting the other groups in the state. The question is when all the communities in Manipur, especially the Meiteis, would adopt pan-Manipuri policies rather than pursuing sectarian agendas.

If the ILP bill becomes law, it will require outsiders to obtain a special permit to enter the state. It is an irony of history that a colonial system invented by the British in 1873 to protect their economic and commercial interests has now come to haunt the varied Indian communities living in the Northeastern region of India who demand its re-introduction. The British must be laughing in their sleeves!

(The writer is a former Director General of Police in the Northeastern region of India and former Director of the Research and Policy Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs, in the Government of India, New Delhi. He is the author of ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’ Routledge, 2016).

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