Nandita Haksar's New Book Explores Genesis of Manipur's Ongoing Ethnic Violence

The following excerpt dives into the highly sensitive issue of land, both in the Valley and outside.

6 min read
Hindi Female

(The following is an excerpt from Shooting the Sun: Why Manipur Was Engulfed by Violence and the Government Remained Silent by Nandita Haksar, published by Speaking Tiger.)

A Question of Land

Analysing the role of the Centre and the state still does not answer the question: who will benefit from this violence? It is absolutely clear that none of the ordinary people belonging to any of the communities will. The violence has already led to loss of property and livelihood, to say the least.

Some people have assumed that the violence against the Kuki-Zo was an attempt to consolidate Hindu (Meitei) votes by the ruling BJP. But the Kuki-Zo had already joined the BJP or, like the Nagas, had alliances with them. It has been suggested that behind the violence was really a drug war. But then how does it help by branding the entire Kuki community as ‘outsiders’ or ‘illegal migrants’ and ‘narcoterrorists’?

There is also a theory that the violence against the Kuki- Zo was really a means to get hold of prime land both in the Valley and outside. This view is held by many scholars and people who live in Manipur.

A report published on Land Conflict Watch on April 18, 2023 records:

‘On February 20, 2023, the Noney Forest Division and police teams from Noney, Kangpokpi and Bishnupur districts, evicted the residents of K Songjang, a Kuki tribal village in... Churachandpur. The state government notified and carried out the eviction drive, deploying hundreds of police personnel and paramilitary forces to evict around 12 families at K Songjang, saying the village was recently set up and was encroaching on the Churachandpur–Khoupum protected forest stretch. According to the Manipur Forest Department, K Songjang village is a new settlement established in 2021, much after the notification of the Protected Forest in 1966, and violates state forest conservation laws.’

The state government maintained that the eviction drive was not against any one community but against illegal encroachments. During the government’s eviction drives carried out between October 24, 2015, and April 18, 2023, 413 families were removed from reserved forest areas; some of these forest areas fell within the hills surrounding the Imphal Valley such as Langol. Of these, 280 families were from the Meitei community (143 Meitei and 137 Meitei Pangal) while fifty-nine were Kukis. During the drive, thirty-eight Naga and thirty-six Nepali families also faced eviction.


However, the Kuki claim that their community has been the main target of the evictions is borne out by the fact that the forest department notification of November 2022, referred to in the report quoted above, derecognized thirty-eight villages in the Churachandpur (which is Kuki-dominated) and Noney districts, claiming they fell within the Churachandpur– Khoupum protected forest. These thirty-eight villages had been excluded from the protected forests by the forest settlement officer way back in the 1970s. But the notification said that the permission for settlement was granted to the villages by an officer who was not qualified to do so.

Kuki groups have pointed out that under Article 371C of the Constitution, which is specifically applicable to Manipur, the state government cannot arbitrarily amend the Indian Forest Act, 1927 in the hill areas of the state. Article 371C provides for the constitution of a committee of MLAs, including those from the hill areas, for the modifications to be made in the state rules.

But the Union government has backed Biren Singh’s stand. During a visit to Manipur in March 2023, Bhupender Yadav, Union minister of environment, forest and climate change, emphasized that though the 1927 Forest Act became a state subject after Independence, the 1976 amendment to the Act made the FCA part of the Concurrent List of subjects shared by both the state and Union governments. But he added that the state government retained ownership of the forest and was solely responsible for protecting reserved and protected forest land.


While evictions were going on in and around the Valley, on August 18, 2021, the Prime Minister announced a National Mission on Edible Oil-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP), with an investment of over Rs 11,040 crore for a five-year period. NMEO-OP was a new centrally-sponsored scheme under which the government proposed to add an additional 6.5 lakh hectares for palm oil production by 2025–26. This would involve raising the area under oil palm cultivation to ten lakh hectares by 2025–26 and 16.7 lakh hectares by 2029–30. The special emphasis of the scheme is on India’s north-eastern states and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, due to conducive weather conditions in the regions.

The state government of Manipur had already announced its Oil Palm Mission in 2020. It was constituted on August 20 of that year ‘with the Joint Director of Agriculture as the director and three technical staff as members, supported by a consultant. A Sub-Committee on Oil Palm was also constituted with the Principal Secretary to Health as the Chairman’.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about the palm oil project on his visit to Imphal in January 2022. Then, on March 26, 2022, Chief Minister Biren Singh launched an Action Plan for the state government, ‘100 Action Points For First 100 Days’. The list included at point 97 holding a high-level seminar on the promotion of palm oil.

Environmental groups have pointed out that the impact of large-scale palm oil plantations on tribal societies would be disastrous.

The experience in the countries of Southeast Asia and in neighbouring Mizoram has shown that oil palm is a water-guzzling, monoculture crop with a long gestation period unsuitable for small farmers, and the land productivity for palm oil is higher than for oilseeds, which create the apprehension for more land to be given for oil palm cultivation. This can potentially detach tribal people from their land and identity and damage the social fabric.


Jinine Laishramcha, writing in Frontier Manipur, talks about why this project will be disastrous for Manipur: ‘Modi’s proposal will rub salt into the wound because the palm-oil plantation will accelerate drying up of the water-sources sooner than expected, pushing Manipur to a water scarcity and a water stress zone. Modi is ignoring the already deteriorated environmental reality in the region, he has brought...palm-oil [to] the spotlight. This is contrary to the...policy [of ensuring] water supply for irrigation and household needs.’

As the biggest producer in the Northeast, Mizoram has already planted palm trees on about 29,000 hectares. According to C. Zohmingsangi from Mizoram University, the palm is a high water-consuming crop with each plant needing about 300 litres of water per day. About 45,000 litres of water per hectare every day is also a significant threat to soil fertility.

Out of Rs 11,040 crore outlay approved for the NMEO- OP by the Union government, Rs 8,844 crore was announced to be the share of the Union government and Rs 2,196 crore that of the states. The focus of the programme was increasing the area under cultivation and the productivity of oilseeds and palm trees, said M.S. Khaidem, consultant Oil Palm Mission Manipur, speaking to Frontier Manipur in May 2022. Touting the scheme as farmer-friendly, Khaidem revealed that the Assessment Committee, Ministry of Agriculture, GOI had identified 66,652 hectares in six districts of Manipur as potential areas for oil palm cultivation. The area-wise breakdown among the six districts was as follows: 14,516 hectares in Imphal West, 18,475 hectares in Thoubal, 10,389 hectares in Bishnupur, 11,662 hectares in Churachandpur, 6,803 hectares in Chandel and 4,808 hectares Ukhrul.


Godrej Agrovet is among the companies interested in palm oil. By August 2020, it had already signed MoUs with the state governments of ‘Assam, Manipur and Tripura...for development and promotion of oil palm cultivation under a central scheme’. According to a Moneycontrol report from September 2023, ‘In a regulatory filing, Godrej Agrovet said the company has entered into a strategic partnership agreement with Sime Darby Plantation Berhad (SDP), the largest producer of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) in the world. SDP would supply high-quality oil palm seeds to Godrej Agrovet’s oil palm business units and would also set up a state-of-the-art seed production unit in India at a later date.’

One can see, then, that an environmental disaster is in the making, one which will affect all communities. If the past is any guide, identity politics will keep people divided and incapable of coming together to fight against corporates looking to take their land.

Perhaps anticipating the possibility of a united opposition to the palm oil project, a Rajkot-based ‘fact-checking’ platform has alleged that the claim that the Manipur violence was in any way linked to the Palm Oil Mission was ‘communist propaganda’; it said in a post on July 26, 2023, that there were no links between (Mukesh) Adani, (Gautam) Ambani and Modi. Strangely enough, no one was making the claim—apart from rhetorical statements by a politician or two or an obscure social media post—and certainly not putting forth a serious argument to that effect. So one wonders why this fact-checking platform was checking claims that were unsubstantiated to begin with.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the man behind the platform is Vijay Patel, who is known to be a staunch supporter of the BJP and against people’s movements for justice.

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Topics:  Manipur violence 

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