"(Manipur) Chief Minister N Biren Singh has been facing allegations of pushing an anti-tribal agenda since his appointment. Among other things, he is accused of expelling tribes from their villages, demolishing decades-old churches in the capital (Imphal), and classifying a majority of tribal settlements as reserved forests, which deems settlers as illegal immigrants," Sangmuang Hangsing, an independent researcher based in Manipur, told The Quint.
"All these have contributed to a constant state of anxiety and precarity for these communities."Sangmuang Hangsing, Independent Researcher
Following protests last week, Manipur is on the boil again. The state government on Tuesday, 2 May imposed a curfew in most of the districts and suspended mobile internet services in the entire state for five days from Wednesday, 3 May after a mass rally organised by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) turned violent in an area bordering Bishnupur and Churachandpur districts.
The “Tribal Solidarity March” was organised to protest against the demand for inclusion of the state’s Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category, following an 19 April Manipur High Court directive. The development is said to have reopened an old ethnic faulting in the state between the valley-dwelling Meitei community and the hill tribes.
In Imphal city, there were several reports of homes belonging to tribal residents being allegedly attacked.
Just a few days earlier, on 28 April, an eight-hour shutdown called by a local group – Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) – had brought normal life to a standstill in Manipur's Churachandpur district.
The shutdown was called to protest the alleged eviction of Kuki, Paite, Hmar, Zou, Simte, Gangte, Vaiphei, Mizo tribes from "protected forests" by the Manipur government.
Chief Minister Singh, who was scheduled to address a public meeting at New Lamka in the same district, cancelled his visit following the protests.
A day before the protests began, on Thursday, 27 April, a mob ransacked an open gym that was set up by Churachandpur MLA LM Khaute and set fire to about 100 chairs and other equipment. Singh was slated to inaugurate the gym.
But why are the tribals being evicted from the protected forests? Why has CM Singh been accused of pushing an anti-tribal agenda? We explain.
Why Are Tribal People in Churachandpur Angry?
The All Tribal Students' Union Manipur (ATSUM) said the violence in Churachandpur was not a spontaneous phenomenon, but an outburst of the growing dissent against the "adverse and regressive" policies of the present government.
The violence is a result of dissatisfaction over the "step-motherly treatment meted out to tribals," Jason Tonsing, who is a pursuing his PhD at the School of Information, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, told The Quint. Tonsing specialises in indigenous studies, with a special focus on Manipur.
"People were not happy with the chief minister's proposed visit to Lamka, which is a town in Churachandpur, as he has been exploiting that place. His proposed visit came at a time when the government is preparing notices to convert tribal lands and resources into reserved forests, protected forests, and wetlands. They could not bear the pain of allowing him to step into a region he discriminates against," Tonsing alleged.
The tribals are also dissatisfied with Churachandpur MLA LM Khaute, he added.
"The MLA insisted on celebrating his first anniversary of being in office at a time when Lamka is in turmoil due to the eviction drives. They expected him to be vocal against the atrocities by the Manipur government. His reluctance to speak out against Meitei politics was unacceptable to the tribals. Hence, his anniversary programme was disrupted by the very citizens whom he swore to protect," he said.
In the wake of the violence, Chief Minister Singh had called it "an internal matter of the district."
"The inauguration of the open gym was not organised by the state," he clarified, adding that he was invited by the MLA for the same.
Why Is the Govt Demanding Proof of Ownership?
Grace Haokip (name changed), a resident of Lamka town in Churachandpur and member of the Zo tribe, told The Quint:
"The government's efforts to brand us as foreigners and evict us from the land we own through all sorts of government initiatives such as reserve forest land, wetlands etc, has not gone down well with many."
"We (the Zo group) have been residents of these parts since way before Independence. The only disadvantage we have is the lack of so-called proof the government is demanding from us regarding the ownership of land. These lands have been passed down to us from generation to generation via our ancestors. We do not have any written record or documentation to prove what is required today. However, that doesn't change the fact that we are very much the land owners," she claimed.
Essentially, the tribals believe that the government's forest conservation and development policies are taking away their land and resources, leaving them with no means of sustenance. They also feel that the government's decision to declare their land as protected forest and wetlands without their consent is an attempt to make their land a "no man's land" or terra nullius, which the government can claim.
Additionally, Hangsing pointed out that last month, three churches were demolished in Imphal East for "illegal construction" on government land.
"These churches were in tribal colonies in Imphal East. They saw the demolition of churches as an attack on their religious beliefs and practices."Sangmuang Hangsing
What Triggered the Protests?
The trigger point for the groups, as Hangsing elaborated, was the 20 February eviction notification of the K Songjang village in Churachandpur.
"On 20 February, the village of K Songjang in Henglep subdivision of Churachandpur was notified of eviction, blamed for being built along the Churachandpur-Khoupum 'protected forest stretch'," he said.
"The village was discovered illegal not in the eyes of the law but by Google Maps, which showed that very few houses in the region were built before 2021. The government's version stated that a majority of houses, numbering about 13/14 structures, were mapped out to have been built after 2021."
"A similar procedure was carried out for Kungpinaosen village in Kangvai sub-division of Churchandpur," he said. "The main point of resentment towards the government is that it has declared our land as reserve and protected forest areas."
More than 50 families have been evicted, he claimed.
'Myanmarese Immigrant' Jibe
To make matters worse, a local news channel called the tribes "Myanmarese," adding to their anger, said Hangsing.
Mercy Paite, a resident of Lamka in Churachandpur, told The Quint:
"We speak the Paite language but a local TV news channel branded us as immigrants as they are seemingly not aware of our dialect. This is ignorance of the highest level. It has really hurt us."
"The biggest news channel in Manipur called us Myanmarese. It is very ignorant of them, since the first speaker of Manipur's Assembly Tonsing Christian Tiankham spoke the Paite language," added Hangsing.
And Who Will Benefit From It All?
Tonsing alleged that the discrimination of the tribals benefits the Meiteis, the majority population in the state who mostly reside in the valleys.
"Manipur has been surrounded by hills since time immemorial. But today, the valley population is expanding. The government is finding ways to exploit and capture the hills' land and resources as the Meiteis hold power and decision-making in the state," he alleged.
He reasoned that declaring the lands of tribals as reserved forests would essentially mean the Meiteis will control all these natural resources – and the ancestral homes, land relations, cultures, and histories of the Kuki-Chin-Zomi population (the tribal groups) in Manipur.
"Branding them refugees benefits the government to take away their rights to their lands, forests, and other resources. This means they will have access to tribal lands through laws which will be socio-politically and economically beneficial for the Meitei population," he added.
The Quint reached out to the Churachandpur MLA and members of the ruling BJP multiple times. This explainer will be updated with their response as and when we receive them.