The Indian state of Manipur is located in the country’s northeastern corner and has a troubled political and social past. The recent unrest in Manipur has its roots in a long-standing conflict between different ethnic and political groups in the region.
One of the primary sources of tension is the demand for greater autonomy and self-determination by various ethnic groups in the state, including the Nagas, Kukis, and Meiteis. The Nagas, in particular, have been seeking a separate state of Nagaland, including parts of Manipur and neighbouring states.
The Meitei community, which makes up the largest ethnic group in Manipur, has consistently taken a stance against the demand that Nagaland be granted its own state. The Kukis, another major ethnic group in the state, have also been involved in the conflict, with some Kuki groups supporting the demand for a separate Nagaland state and others opposing it.
Various factors, including ethnic and linguistic differences, resource competition, and historical grievances, have fuelled the conflict. In addition, the Manipur state government has also been accused of discrimination against certain ethnic groups, exacerbating tensions in the region.
In recent years, Manipur has been rocked by periodic outbreaks of violence, with armed groups hailing from a variety of ethnic tribes coming into conflict with both one another and the state’s security services. The recent unrest, which began in early 2021, was sparked by the government’s decision to create seven new districts in the state, seen as an attempt to divide and weaken the power of certain ethnic groups.
The move met with widespread protests and strikes, which eventually turned violent, with armed groups from different communities clashing with each other and with security forces. More than fifty-five people have been killed due to the violence, and thousands of others have been forced to flee their homes.
The situation remains tense in Manipur, with the government and various ethnic groups continuing to engage in talks to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. However, the underlying issues of ethnic and political tensions and resource competition will likely persist, making it difficult to achieve lasting peace in the region.
To understand the ethnic strife, we need to understand the different tribes in the state.
The Naga Tribes in the Hill Districts of Manipur
The Naga tribes have their distinct languages, culture, and traditions. Still, they share some commonalities regarding their historical and cultural background. In addition, many of these tribes have been involved in various social and political movements, seeking greater autonomy and recognition for their cultural identity within the Indian state.
The major Naga tribes in Manipur include: –
The Tangkhul tribe is one of the largest Naga tribes in Manipur, and they primarily inhabit the Ukhrul district of the state.
The Mao tribe is another powerful Naga tribe in Manipur in the Senapati district.
The Poumai tribe is one of the smaller Naga tribes in Manipur. They are in the Senapati district.
The Maram tribe is another small Naga tribe in Manipur, primarily in the Senapati district.
The Thangal tribe is one of the most minor Naga tribes in Manipur. They are in the Tamenglong district.
The Maring tribe is another small Naga tribe in Manipur. They are in the Chandel and Tamenglong districts.
The Tribes in the plains of Manipur
Several other tribes inhabit the plains of Manipur. Some of the major tribes in the plains of Manipur include: –
The Meitei are Manipur’s most numerous and widespread ethnic group. They concentrated in the central valley region of the state. They have a rich history, culture, unique language, religion, and art forms.
The Kukis are one of the major tribes in Manipur. They are primarily concentrated in the hill districts of the state. However, there are also significant populations of Kukis in the plains of Manipur, particularly in the districts of Churachandpur and Chandel.
The Pangals, also known as Manipuri Muslims, are a significant minority group in Manipur and are primarily concentrated in the state’s central Valley region. They have distinct cultures and religious practices, including Islamic and Manipuri traditions.
The Kabui tribe is one of the smaller tribes in Manipur, primarily found in the Chandel district. They have their distinct language and culture, strongly emphasising traditional agriculture and hunting practices.
The Hmar tribe is another small tribe in Manipur, and they are found in the Churachandpur district. They have a rich history and culture, unique language and traditional customs.
Land Distribution in Manipur
Land occupation in Manipur is closely linked to the ethnic and tribal identities of the people living in the state. Different ethnic groups have traditionally inhabited and used different parts of the land in Manipur based on their historical affiliations and cultural practices.
The Nagas, for example, are primarily concentrated in the hilly regions of the state, particularly in the districts of Ukhrul, Tamenglong, and Senapati. These areas are characterised by rugged terrain, dense forests, and fertile valleys, providing an ideal habitat for the Nagas. Their traditional way of life is centred on agriculture, hunting, and gathering.
On the other hand, the Kukis are primarily concentrated in the hill districts of Churachandpur, Chandel, and Sadar Hills, which are also characterised by rugged terrain and dense forests. Like the Nagas, the Kukis have traditionally been agriculturalists and have relied on the land’s natural resources for their livelihood.
The Meiteis, who make up the largest ethnic group in Manipur, is predominantly found in the state’s central valley region, which comprises lush plains with a relatively mild climate. The Meiteis have traditionally been involved in agriculture, trade, and handicrafts and have relied on the valley’s rich soil and water resources to sustain their way of life.
In recent years, there has been a growing strain placed on Manipur’s land resources due to the state’s rapidly expanding population, rapid urbanisation, and rapid economic development. These pressures have led to conflicts and tensions between ethnic groups over access to land and resources, further exacerbating inter-tribal rivalries and tensions in the state.
Hill districts of Manipur
The hill districts of Manipur comprise approximately 90% of the state’s total land area. There are seven hill districts in Manipur: Senapati, Tamenglong, Ukhrul, Chandel, Churachandpur, Sadar Hills, and Kangpokpi. These districts are situated in the hilly and mountainous regions of the state. Rugged terrain, dense forests, and diverse flora and fauna characterise them.
Approximately 20% of the hill districts’ population occupies 90% of the land.
Plains of Manipur
The remaining 10% of the land area of Manipur is located in the central valley region, where the majority of the state’s population is concentrated.
The region’s largest lake, composed entirely of freshwater, is called the Loktak Lake. It can be found in the valley across the middle of Manipur. It occupies a space of around 300 square km in total. The people living in the areas immediately adjacent to it rely on this resource significantly. The lake is home to several rare plant and animal species, some of which are endangered, such as the Manipur brow-antlered deer, which is also referred to as the Sangai.
Manipur’s largest lake, Loktak, takes up about 2.7% of the state’s total land area. The lake is of substantial ecological and economic value to the state, despite the fact that this may appear to be a very modest percentage of the total. It supports a thriving fishing industry and is used for irrigation, transportation, and hydropower generation. However, the lake faces various environmental and social challenges, including pollution, siltation, and encroachment, which threaten its long-term sustainability and the livelihoods of the people who depend on it.
Approximately 80% of the population in the plain’s districts occupy 7 % of the land.
Manipur: Inter-Tribal Rivalry
Manipur is home to diverse ethnic groups, including powerful tribes such as the Nagas, Kukis, Meiteis, and Pangals (also known as Manipuri Muslims). These tribes have their distinct languages, cultures, and traditions.
There have been historical rivalries and conflicts between different tribes in Manipur, which have fuelled a range of factors, such as competition for resources, land, and political power. However, the nature and intensity of these conflicts have varied over time, and different tribes have been involved in different conflicts.
One of the most significant conflicts recently has been between the Nagas and Kukis. The Nagas have been seeking a separate state of Nagaland, which would include parts of Manipur, and some Kuki groups have opposed this demand. This has led to clashes between the two communities, including violent incidents such as the Kuki-Naga clashes of the 1990s, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.
There have also been tensions between the Meiteis and other ethnic groups in Manipur, with the Meiteis being the state’s largest and most dominant community. The Meiteis have been accused of discriminating against other ethnic groups, which has fueled resentment and rivalries.
Additionally, there have been tensions between different sub-tribes within the Nagas and Kukis and between different clans within the Meitei community. These rivalries have been further complicated because different tribes and sub-tribes have aligned themselves with political parties and armed groups, leading to a complex web of competing interests and alliances.
While efforts to address these inter-tribal rivalries and conflicts pose a significant challenge to achieving lasting peace and stability in Manipur, addressing the underlying causes of these conflicts, such as political and economic marginalisation, discrimination, and competition for resources, will be essential to building a more inclusive and peaceful society in Manipur.
Indo-Naga Peace Talks
The Indo-Naga peace talks refer to negotiations that have been ongoing since 1997 between the Government of India and the NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland), a Naga nationalist group seeking greater autonomy and independence for the Naga people in Northeast India. The NSCN has been fighting for greater rights and recognition for the Naga people since the 1950s and has demanded the creation of a “Greater Nagalim”, or a separate state for Nagas, encompassing parts of Northeast India that are currently outside the state of Nagaland.
The peace talks aim to find a mutually acceptable solution to the long-standing Naga insurgency, marked by periods of violence and unrest in the region. The talks have covered various issues, including the demand for a separate Naga state, the integration of Naga-inhabited areas of neighbouring states into Nagaland, and the protection of Naga identity and culture.
While there have been some positive developments in the peace talks, including the signing of a Framework Agreement in 2015, which laid the groundwork for a final settlement, significant challenges and setbacks have also been. For example, the NSCN has insisted on its demand for Greater Nagalim, a central point in the negotiations. There have also been disagreements over issues such as the scope of Naga sovereignty, the role of the Indian Constitution, and the status of Naga-inhabited areas in neighbouring states.
The demand for Greater Nagalim has been a highly contentious issue. It would involve redrawing the borders of several Northeastern states, including Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh. Many non-Naga communities in these areas have opposed the demand, arguing that it would lead to the fragmentation of their states and the loss of their land and resources.
The Indo-Naga peace talks remain a complex and ongoing process, with many challenges and obstacles still to be overcome. However, they represent a significant effort towards finding a peaceful and sustainable solution to a long-standing conflict and potentially bring more excellent stability and prosperity to the region if successful.
Current Strive in Manipur
The ten hill districts held a “Tribal Solidarity March” on May 3 to protest the Meitei community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.
When the BJP-led Manipur government started a campaign to evict tribal communities from restricted forests, an ongoing history of mutual hostility between the ethnic groups living in the Imphal valley and the hills surrounding it turned into a war that was only beginning to simmer.
The escalation of violence in Manipur stems from the Meitei community’s over a decade long demand for Scheduled Tribe status. The immediate cause of this violence is a Manipur High Court order instructing the state government to recommend an ST label for the community to the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry by May 29. Before Manipur’s incorporation into the Indian Union, the petitioners contend, this community held the ST designation. They are requesting that this status be reinstated.
The emergency provisions of the Constitution, of which Article 355 is a part, give the federal government the authority to take whatever measures are required to safeguard a state from internal disturbances and external invasion.
The resolution of the current turmoil in Manipur has to address Socio-economic factors, Historical legacies, Unstable Political arrangements, soft borders, migrants from Myanmar, the War on drugs, the Imbalance of Land and forest policy, Identity/ethnicity/tribal status and Governance issues.
The solution lies in consensus. Governance is the key, as it would mean serious work to find solutions. The Central Government should avoid back-seat driving as has been the folly of past governments.