Among all the insurgency-affected states in the North East, Manipur is probably the one that has always been the most disturbed. Accounting for 46 per cent of the violence that has been perpetrated in the region, the state has been caught in a cycle of ethnic strife and insurgent violence. Furthermore, the state’s economy has not developed in the manner that it should have. The most important reason for the lack of development in the state is the ‘Hill-Valley Divide’ that continues to fester in the province.
Resistance to counter-insurgency
Sporadic blockades that are regularly engineered by almost all the ethnic groups as well as the parallel economy that is being run by the insurgents have added to the malaise. Although the Centre has improved its annual outlay for the state, the economy has not shown signs of progress. It is reported that only about 20-24 per cent of the amount is used for development. Purportedly, the rest is siphoned away by disreputable forces and the militants. As a matter of fact, Manipur’s fortunes have principally been restrained to instituting military strategies against myriad insurgencies that have camps across the border in Myanmar. Manipur, therefore, regretfully remains resistant to all possible counter-insurgency interventions.
Hill vs Valley strife turns ugly
Civil strife has raised its malevolent head once again in Manipur. Yet another page out of the Hill-Valley Divide, the unrest this time around centres around a legislative bill that the Hill folk of the state were expecting the Manipur Assembly to table and pass. Indeed, if the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill 2021 had been introduced and made into an Act, the Hills would have been heir to far more full-bodied financial and administrative autonomy and could have developed in a way that would have put them at par with the Valley. However, the Hill’s anger—primarily of the Kuki community—is that Imphal introduced instead the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council 6th and 7th Amendment bills which the Kukis feel cannot fulfil their aims and objectives.
It is against this backdrop that the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) had imposed an indefinite “economic blockade” along the national highways in the hill districts after “rejecting” the aforesaid bill that was introduced in the Manipur Assembly. The Meiteis of the Valley struck back by blockading the hill districts. The state administration, apprehensive of law-and-order situation, severed internet and mobile network connection across Manipur. Even as there was talk (when this article was being written) that a compromise is being sought to be reached by having released the arrested ATSUM leaders and taking a “relook” at the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill 2021, the economic blockade, nonetheless, caused great misery to the common people of the state.
How geography sparked divide, conflicts
This author had visited Manipur in April this year and found that one of reasons for the Hill-Valley divide is geography and the fact that the Kukis are considered outlanders in Manipur. The community’s history—including the Anglo-Kuki war of 1917-1919—has been “rubbished” by other communities of Manipur. But what is more glaring is the manner in which the geographical setting of Manipur acts as the most important contributor to the great divide. With a total area of 22,347 square kilometres, Manipur divides itself into Hills and a Valley. The Valley accounts for only 2,238 square kilometres, a mere 10.02 per cent of the total area. But it houses 58.85 per cent of the total population of the state, which, according to the 2001 Census is 2,388,634. The state’s hill area with 20,089 square kilometres represents the rest 41.15 per cent.
Of the three main ethnic groups, the Meiteis, who primarily inhabit the Valley, constitute the largest section of the state and are a non-tribal group. The hills are the abode of the Nagas and the Kukis with their 29 sub-tribes. Muslims, who are mostly immigrants from pre-partition East Bengal, erstwhile East Pakistan and present Bangladesh, and who are known as Pangals, are mostly residents of the Valley. This grouping forms around eight per cent of the state’s population. The remaining non-tribal population, known as Mayang (outsiders), are from different parts of the country.
The manner in which the physical setting plays itself out to conflict can be seen from one instance. The Meiteis, the Vaishnavite Hindus, are not only debarred from special constitutional privileges granted to the Scheduled Tribes of Manipur, but are not even permitted under the state’s “Land Reform Act” to settle in the hill districts. On the other hand, there are no restrictions on the Nagas and the Kukis, who are largely Christians, to settle in the Valley. This is one of the primary reasons for the distrust and hostility between the Meiteis and the hill tribes.
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Furthermore, in the absence of a homogenous social architecture the different ethnic groups continue to maintain their respective distinct identity without a commonality of Manipuriness that could have formed the basis for harmonious existence. Indeed, this phenomenon is largely becoming a pan-North East problem, with every ethnic group in the region asserting their identity and seeking separate status.
If the setting as described above provides the framework for the Hill-Valley divide, which continues to be the core of the problem, history provides the rendition that furthers the divide.
Christianity’s role in shaping state’s demographics
Historically, Manipur was a principality until the British annexed it in 1891. However, the colonial rulers provided with it the privilege of a princely state under its dominion, as was the case with other territorial monarchies in the sub-continent. But, the imperial rulers, despite their “policy” of superficial non-interference utilised Christianity in its divisive game. The Christian missionaries, who followed the Union Jack and arrived in Manipur in 1894, gradually began to convert the animistic tribes into Christianity. This was achieved through a variety of allurement such as provision of basic medical aid and education.
In the 1901 Census, there were only 8 per cent Christians against 60 per cent Hindus. But by 1991, the number of Christians in Manipur had increased to 34.11 per cent. Indeed, if 12.81 percent of decadal growth (1991-2001, as projected in the 2001 census report) in the overall state population is taken into account, the Christian population of the state might have exceeded 36 per cent. As a result, the increasing Christianisation of the tribes widened the socio-cultural gap between the Hindu Meiteis of the Valley and the Christian tribes of the Hills. This, over time, became a permanent source of socio-political rivalry.
The scenario in Manipur is grim, to say the least. It is time New Delhi took stock of the situation and obtained particular note of the de-Indianisation process that is gripping the state. The latest incident of internecine strife between the Meiteis and the Kukis should act as a warning call for New Delhi. There has also been the long shadow of NSCN (IM) over the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur. This has added to the apprehension among the Meiteis that passage of the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill 2021 could be a precursor for the balkanisation of the state. Fissures in Manipur, therefore, are manifold, indeed ones which inimical foreign powers can take advantage of. With an ambivalent Myanmar abutting it and housing a plethora of insurgents, the setting could be ripe for a Chinese intrusion.
A careful study and course correction exercise have to be embarked upon immediately. A task force should be constituted to comprehensively examine the over-arching malaise of Manipur, including the possibility of accord of ST status to the Meiteis, the grant of which might assuage the community. In sum, it must be comprehended that Manipur is a “bejewelled land” land. This is despite the vagaries of geography and ethnic dissonance that fate has characterised its existence as a proud province of India. A course correction exercise must be put in place with immediate effect. The problem that characterises the ethnic divide must not be allowed to spiral. It is only then that the name “Manipur” would rightfully be taken as the “bejewelled land”.
(The writer is a conflict analyst and author)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)