Who's To Be Blamed for Manipur Unrest? Kukis, Meiteis Talk About Systemic Divide

The violence has affected Kuki and Meitei communities equally, said one Manipuri The Quint spoke to.

6 min read

"These days, the moment my phone rings, I am filled with a sense of dread and fear. I always think of the worst," Krishna Bandhopadhay, a resident of Kolkata, told The Quint.

Krishna's daughter Ahel has been pursuing her MD at the Regional Institute of Medial Sciences, Imphal. Last month, she was posted at Moreh – a town in Manipur located on the India-Myanmar border – as part of the MD programme (students pursuing MD or MS have to undergo posting at a district hospital for three months).

"On 4 May, Ahel called me and told me that she was asked to evacuate the hospital where she was working within 10 minutes. She could only manage to carry her laptop with her. She said she was being taken to an army camp in Moreh. They are just living in constant fear of being attacked in the camp. There is no word on when she will be evacuated."

Ahel is one among several people who have been caught in the aftermath of the violence in Manipur that erupted on 3 May at a tribal solidarity march taken out to protest against the inclusion of the majority Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category.

The Quint spoke to people from both the Meitei and the Kuki communities on the widening divide between the two groups – and what they make of the issues at the centre of it all.


'People Traumatised Over Losing Their Homes'

John Chongtham (name changed), a retired government employee belonging to the Kuki tribe, has been holed up at a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp near Imphal since 4 May.

"On 4 May, we were moved to safety after a mob attacked our area near Imphal. The situation is not ideal. The food is running out, the toilets are running out of water. People have come here traumatised after losing their homes. We are just waiting to be rescued," he told The Quint.

The violence has affected Kuki and Meitei communities equally, said one Manipuri The Quint spoke to.

Tribals being put up at a camp near Imphal.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Talking about the burning issue of ST status for Meiteis, he said:

"The issue is of the majority community seeking a marginalised community status. The Meiteis are numerically larger in the state as well as the Assembly, are well-to-do, govern the state. So, it does not make sense for them to seek the same status as us."

The population of Meiteis is higher than the combined population of Nagas and Kukis.

'Argument About Meitei Community Being Better Off False'

Rajkumar Singh (name changed), a shopkeeper at Manipur's Moirang town, is working at a relief camp set up for the Meiteis.

"With each passing day, we are witnessing a huge influx of people. People's houses have been burnt down, damaged, and ransacked. There are some people who have come into the camp practically empty-handed, with just clothes on their backs. It's chaos all around. We have no idea about when these people will be rescued," he added.

Singh claimed to The Quint that the Kuki community are to be blamed for the violence.

"The solidarity march was supposed to be a peaceful one. The district administration gave permission exactly because of this," he said.

He further claimed that there is a "gun culture" among Kukis – and that he had come across videos of people belonging to the Kuki tribe carrying AK-47 rifles in the rally. "Why were they brandishing arms in a so-called peaceful rally?" he asked.


'Giving ST Status Will Impinge Upon Our Rights'

William Haokip (name changed), who is a resident of the New Lambulane neighbourhood in Imphal and lecturer at a college, alleged to The Quint that there is a sense of distrust that has developed between the Meitei and the tribal communities.

"It is like being under house arrest. We cannot venture out of the house due to the fear of being lynched by the Meiteis and vice-versa," he claimed.

"I am not saying all Meiteis are the same. But we have also been discriminated against. There have been instances where we have not been allowed to enter their houses due to us being tribals."
William Haokip

According to Haokip, the Meitei community already has enough safeguards, and, therefore, should not be included in the ST category.

The violence has affected Kuki and Meitei communities equally, said one Manipuri The Quint spoke to.

At a camp near Imphal.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

The violence has affected Kuki and Meitei communities equally, said one Manipuri The Quint spoke to.

At a Assam Rifles camp in Mantripukhro, Imphal.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

"Some of the Meitei communities are already included in the OBC and the SC (Scheduled Caste) categories, and, hence, don't need the ST status. They are well-to-do and have access to all the amenities and resources, be it in terms of educational institutes or health facilities. The Imphal valley, where they reside, has good schools, colleges, and hospitals, whereas the hilly areas, where we tribes live, don't have such facilities. There is no development there."

"Giving them an ST status will mean impinging upon our rights. If they are given permission to live in the hilly areas, they will kick us out," he added.

'Biren Singh's Push for NRC Has Put Tribals on Edge'

Dr Rojesh Sreram, former president of the Manipur Students' Union in Delhi, told The Quint that the argument that the Manipur government has only recently begun notifying tribal areas as protected forests is flawed.

"The government had notified these areas as protected forests and reserved forests before [Chief Minister] N Biren Singh even came into power. The Kukis are scared that the government's eviction drive from protected forests will mean an end to the poppy cultivation," he said.

He also rubbished the tribal communities' fear of the Meiteis dominating over them and impinging upon their rights.

"Meiteis may be numerically larger, but in terms of the land that is available to us for living, it is only about 10% of the total land area of Imphal. The rest 90% is covered by hilly areas where only tribals can reside. We, Meiteis, cannot buy land and settle over there. It's not possible. So, how can they claim that we are taking over their land," he added.

He also claimed that the state government's push for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has put the tribal community, especially Kukis, on the edge. Last month, Chief Minister Singh had said that his government is ready to introduce the NRC, but an approval from the Centre was pending.


'Crackdown on Poppy Cultivation'

Cyclist and social activist Philem Rohan Singh, who is from the Meitei-Christian community, and is based out of Moirang, but currently lives in Bengaluru, told The Quint the violence has affected Kuki and Meitei communities equally.

"Reliable sources have confirmed to me that people have lost their homes on both sides equally. Churches and temples have been burnt down," he added.

"I have nothing personally against the Kuki community. In fact, being a Christian, I perhaps have more in common with the Kuki people since they are also Christians. But what I am against is the drive being carried out to pin the whole blame on us Meiteis, which is not true," he said.

He added that one of the main reasons the Kukis are against the government (which is head by N Biren Singh, who is from the Meitei community) is because of its crackdown on poppy cultivation.

"Poppy cultivation is a lucrative business as it reaps profits that run into crores. Most of the poppy cultivation is carried out in the hilly areas where the tribes, especially Kukis, live. As a result of the poppy cultivation, the verdant green hill tracts of Manipur have been destroyed in many parts," he said.

"The government merely wants to protect the lush green forests but they consider that as an act of targeting them. They are scared that the eviction drives being carried out will mean an end to poppy cultivation," he added. "As a Christian, as well as seeing my father suffer as a result of drug addiction, I am all for the war on drugs," he added.

According to the Coalition Against Drugs and Alcohol, in the past 20 years, poppy cultivation in the hill areas of Manipur has grown manifold, with many "illegal settlers from Myanmar" taking up cultivation in the hills of Manipur.

That, he said, has led to a change in the demography of Manipur.

"I work extensively on the field and know from it that Manipur has definitely undergone a demographic shift (especially in hilly areas)," he said. According to an Economic Times report, around 5,000 immigrants have fled from conflict-hit Myanmar, following the military taking power in February 2021.

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