The video of two Kuki women being paraded nakedly by a Meitei mob has shaken the collective conscience of the country. It has made even the Prime Minister talk about Manipur for the first time ever since violence started on May 3rd, 2023. Quite depressingly, Prime Minister Modi was silent about the issues in Manipur despite being praised by his supporters for his oratory skills. But his response was criticised by the opposition parties by stating that PM Modi spoke about Manipur for only about 36 seconds in his 8 and half minute speech. An article took a sharp dig at Modi’s response with a title “Why Prime Minister Modi’s speech is worse than his silence”. The Prime Minister is yet to visit the state since the violence broke out.
Manipur is in turmoil since 3rd May of this month and there have been several calls for peace but the violence keeps raging on between the Meiteis and the Kukis. The violence affected everyone in the state and nothing highlights it better than the fact that the house of an Union Minister was torched. On June 24, a mob torched a godown owned by L.Susindro Meitei, a Minister in the Manipur Government headed by the BJP. Several waves of violence have resulted in death of hundreds of people while displacing thousands. Quite spectacularly, women of Manipur stopped the army and forced the army to release 12 militants of Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), a Meitei separatist group.
Who are Meiteis and Kukis?
Manipur is predominantly a hilly state with a small pocket of plains i.e. The Imphal Valley. Both the Meiteis and Kukis are ethnic people of Manipur.
Meiteis live in the plains of Imphal valley which contribute around 10% of the land and constitute around 60% of the population. Meities are predominantly Hindus with around 9% Meiteis being Muslims who are called Meitei Pangals. Meiteis are recognized under the OBC category.
Kukis live in the hilly areas of Manipur which forms 90% of the land in the state. Kukis are recognized as Scheduled Tribes (ST) and they form 25% of Manipur’s population. They are predominantly Christians living in the hilly areas of Manipur along with Naga tribes who form around 15% of Manipur’s population.
What caused the violence?
Meiteis were demanding for a Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for quite some time in the state and on April 20th, an order by the Manipur High Court directed the Manipur government “to consider the request of the community’s inclusion within four weeks, and send a recommendation to the Union government for its consideration.”
All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) expressed its dissatisfaction with the Court order and announced on 27th April that it would hold a solidarity march on May 3rd 2023. The march was conducted as per the plan but it soon turned violent with Meitei and Kuki communities clashing. The violence quickly spread through various parts of Manipur and forced the Union Government to invoke Article 355 immediately to contain the violence.
The Kuki-Meitei Conflict:
The Kukis and the Nagas live in the hilly areas of Manipur which are categorized as Tribal lands and non-indigenous tribes of Manipur cannot buy these lands, which tribals argue is guaranteed under the Article 371C of the Constitution. On the contrary, the tribals can buy land in the Imphal valley that forms around 10% of the state’s land where the majority of population of Manipur live (consisting mostly of Meiteis).
This has been an issue of contention for a very long time for the Meiteis as they argue that they are restricted to just 10% of the land of Manipur even though they constitute over 50% of the state’s population. Moreover, the tribals too can buy land in the Imphal valley which they fear would further reduce their land ownership. On the other hand, Kukis & Nagas in the hills feel that bulk of the state’s budget and development works are focused on the Imphal valley, and they are neglected.
Apart from the land ownership and neglection debates, the purported influx of refugees from Myanmar who are fleeing the Junta crackdown in the neighboring country has also aggravated the differences between the communities. The refugees from Myanmar also have an ethnic connection with the Kukis and the ‘illegal immigrants’ are reported to be living as one of their own and there have been calls for NRC in Manipur to weed out Myanmar refugees.
The Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), a Meitei organization, declared “Manipur National War” on what it called the Chin-Kuki Narco-terrorists. The Kuki Inpi, a self-described apex body of Kuki tribes, had responded in similar fashion and they have also issued a proclamation demanding separate administration. In addition to the COCOMI, several sections in the Meitei community and even the state Government headed by Chief Minister Biren Singh’s rhetoric blames the Kuki community for the state’s drug problem and the highly-publicized crackdown of the drug cultivation has widened the fault lines further among the Meiteis and the Kukis. Ever since the violence broke out, Kuki organizations have been increasingly insistent on their demand for a separate administration, which could theoretically be a separate state or an Union Territory or an autonomous territorial council, like in the case of Bodoland which is protected under the Schedule 6 of the Indian Constitution.
Meiteis’ point of view:
- Demographic change: Population of Kukis (25%) increasing rapidly by influx of Kuki refugees from neighboring countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh, thereby Kukis becoming the majority population.
- Meiteis accuse Kukis to be engrossed in drug cultivation and trade, especially poppy.
- Kukis’ demand for Kukiland, a separate state, comprising of the land which belongs to the Kukis, limiting the size of Manipur to just the Imphal valley.
- If they Kukis demand for separate State/Union Territory is accepted, Nagas’ demand for “Nagalim” might gain momentum. Several Naga outfits are demanding a separate soverign territory under the name Nagalim which comprises of Nagaland and part of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and some parts of Myanmar as well. This also would reduce the size of Manipur substantially.
- Kukis’ long-term ambitions for Zale’n-gam (meaning: a land of freedom), an independent country comprising of lands where ethnic Kukis live in Manipur, as well as certain parts of Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Kuki’s point of view:
- Already, Kukis are a minority with 25% of the population, whereas Meiteis are the majority in Manipur. Meiteis hold a stronger political and economical power, in addition to being more advanced in education and social status.
- Kukis feel they are neglected from any development schemes and infrastructure programs. Kukis feel that successive Manipur Governments focus only on the Imphal valley, and their lives have not improved.
- Kukis fear that they are being chased away from ‘their’ lands in hills which the Manipur Government headed by Biren Singh considers as encroachment of forest lands.
- If Meiteis are recognized as Scheduled Tribes, Kukis fear they would buy the lands in the hills as well which might reduce Kuki influence even in their own backyard, like in the Imphal valley.
- Despite Manipur’s drug cultivation & drug cartels involving people from all cross sections of the society, only Kukis are unfairly singled out and targeted and the entire community is given a negative shade.
So, both Meitei and Kuki communities do not trust each other and in fact fear each other. The deep mistrust has proven to be the perfect brewing ground for sowing hatred and inciting violence. This did not happen over a day or two. This was a perfect storm brewing over several months and years due to resentment for various issues affecting both communities. There was never a de-escalation attempt focused to bring the two communities together.
This mistrust is quite evident in the case of torching the house of Susindro Meitei, a BJP Minister in Manipur. He was quoted as saying:
“This (arson) happened because I had saved two women earlier on Friday from the mob, which suspected the duo were informers of the Kuki community. We came to know they were victims of a misunderstanding and saved them. People got angry at me because they thought I was trying to save the Kuki community.” – L. Susindro Meitei
Even mere suspicion of helping Kukis were enough to anger the aggressors. Meanwhile, OpIndia, the right-wing propaganda website, vaguely reported that the incident was yet another example of attack on Meitei community, when in fact it was done by Meiteis themselves.
Menace of Rumours and fake news:
The world has still not recovered from the shock caused by the video of two Kuki women paraded by a Meitei mob. But what’s shocking is, the hate crime was triggered by a spread of a fake news. In early May, a photo of a dead woman in a suitcase was shared in Manipur that a Meitei woman in Churachandpur was raped and killed by Kukis. The violence had already broken out in Manipur by then and this fake news spread in Manipur angered the Meitei community even further which retaliated by raping several Kuki women.
But the image is actually of a woman murdered by her own parents in a case of honour killing which took place in Delhi in 2022. YouTurn has reported on this that back in May. The same incident was used throughout India in 2022 to spread religious hatred by claiming the murder as an incident of love jihad.
Since the shocking video has come out, another fake news is now being spread in social media with claims that naked Kuki women attack the cops and security forces. YouTurn has covered that also. The misinformation has found a way in Manipur despite the internet shutdown and continues to pull the communities further away from each other.
Biren Singh’s Right-wing rhetoric:
The right-wing ecosystem has been fully active to turn the issue in various ways. Most recent one is, claiming the culprits who paraded the Kuki women nakedly are Muslims. Apart from this, Manipur issue was taken to several issues such as Christian conspiracy, international conspiracy, Myanmar intervention, drug mafia intervention etc. Chief Minister Biren Singh was unapologetic when he talked in similar fashion about the Kukis. He had reportedly said:
“The people there were encroaching everywhere – reserved forests, protected forests and wildlife sanctuaries for poppy plantation and drugs business.”
“That’s the reason why the rally was organised. The government has gone all out against these elements.” – Biren Singh, CM of Manipur
Kukis accuse CM Biren Singh to be a champion of the majoritarian Meitei narrative and a strongman who is partial towards them. His statements and (in)action hasn’t instilled any confidence among the Kuki people of the state who had been demanding his resignation or removal by the Union Government which led to the infamous resignation drama.
Did Kukis cause drug problem in Manipur?
Blaming one community will not be the answer to this question. Poppy cultivation is reported to have come to Manipur by about 1980s and it was first cultivated in a Naga village. The notorious “Golden Triangle”, an area at the tri-junction of parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia that has traditionally been home to a thriving narcotics industry. From there, it had spread to neighbouring Indian state of Manipur. Geographical proximity to the established drug route is one of the key factors that should not be discounted while addressing Manipur’s drug problem.
People from all communities have a part in Manipur’s poppy cultivation and drug trade which includes Meiteis, Nagas and Meitei Pangals. In fact, Meitei Pangals are the most arrested in drug-related cases in Manipur followed by Kukis and Meiteis. Dhanabir Laishram, a social scientist, has reportedly blamed a rich section of the Meitei community as one of the biggest funders of poppy cultivation in Manipur.
Union Government’s failure
It would not be an understatement to say that the Union Government had failed to bring normalcy in Manipur. After all, just 2 days after the violence began, Article 355 was invoked by the Union Government in the state which effectively takes over the security of the state under its control. However, Manipur continues to be in turmoil for months now despite the Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit to the state.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been silent about Manipur for several weeks till the political pressure caused by viral video forced him to respond and there was no concrete steps taken by the Government machinery as well in the meantime. In his rather uninspiring speech, there wasn’t a clear cut plan of action for Manipur and we have to wait and see how the Union Government acts in the coming days. With Kuki organisations saying that separate administration is the only solution and Manipur CM Biren Singh that he would never allow that any cost and also claiming that the Union Government is against splitting of the state, there is no end in sight to the problem just as yet.