Manipur—a Tale of Institutionalised Violence Repeating Itself but With a Catch

The virulent wave of riots that we have seen since the evening of 3 May is far from spontaneous and unpredictable.

7 min read
Hindi Female

History has a strange way of repeating itself, a point that becomes increasingly apparent as communal riots spread across Manipur. Like most conventional riots that flared up occasionally in other parts of India, the state of Manipur has over time, prepared, activated, and sustained the institutional ecosystem for these riots. Paul Brass, the eminent political scientist on India, calls this an 'institutionalised riot system’.

There is, however, a subtle difference between these. Unlike other parts of India, the current riots in Manipur stem not from religious conflicts, but from the aggressive integrationist and coalescent attempts of the state and majoritarian-minded Meitei groups to assimilate tribals and dissolve extant intra-state constitutional asymmetry under Article 371C which seeks to protect tribal land rights and identities.  


A Look Back

To put into perspective, the Office of Political Agency, the first institutional arrangement made in 1835 by the British Raj, was intended to regulate the unruly hills-valley relations spawned by incessant raids conducted by ‘ferocious’ tribal groups inside the southern part of Manipur. For one thing, a critical reading of colonial archives, suggests that these raids were made by the tribals to impress upon valley-based Meitei kings and the Raj the unacceptability of intrusion into their territory. For another thing, this part was neither under the effective control of the former nor was it ever clearly demarcated as the extent of Manipur’s boundary was contingent on the vagaries of the political fortunes of the Meitei kings.

Drawing from this historical legacy, distinctive ethnocultural identities, previous ‘cruel dealings’ of the Meitei kings with hill tribes, and the desire to bring administration ‘closer to the people’, Lt Col J Shakespeare, the then Political Agent, envisaged a distinctive administrative structure for the hills in 1907 when he drafted the future scheme of administration of Manipur.

Under this rubric, a generous funding pattern for the hill areas and management of the affairs of hill tribes was kept under the control of a British political agent, who was to be the vice-president of the Manipur darbar. This provided the background to a separate hill administrative regulation in 1947 when the hill areas were politically integrated, and a constitution was drawn up for Manipur before the Indian constitution was enacted.

This historical legacy also prepared the grounds for intra-state constitutional asymmetry wherein separate district councils and Hill Areas Committee (HAC) under Article 371C was envisaged when Manipur attained statehood in 1972 to accommodate the distinctive rights of the tribals on land and identities. Political integration of the hill areas of Manipur was negotiated precisely on this term, a point which many ill-informed and majoritarian-minded Meitei Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Biren Singh’s government chose to ignore and intended to dissolve over time.


Establishing the Foundation for Hill vs Valley Rift

Making these institutions work in the past also impressed upon the tribals that they are merely invested with nominal autonomy as the state government was reluctant to devolve substantive powers to the hill areas. Inter-tribal and inter-party dissension within the Assembly also circumscribed the possibility of taking a unified stand on tribal matters which exposes their vulnerability, especially given that the tribals command 20 against 40 seats from the valley in a 60-member Assembly. Moreover, HAC which is mandated by law to vet ‘scheduled matters’ pertaining to the hill areas has also been routinely bypassed by the Assembly.

While these reinforce the overwhelming sense of tribal powerlessness over their land, rights, and identities, they also prepared the stage for intermittent conflicts between the hills and government on one hand and valley people on the other.

In 2015, the fiercest conflict happened when the tribals launched unprecedented popular protests against three controversial bills passed by the state without any discussion, including the Manipur (Land Revenue and Land Reforms) Act, 1961 as they were perceived to impinge on tribal land rights.

Nine tribal protesters who were killed in this protest, including seven in reported police firing, were effectively used as ‘symbolic bodies’ over which the tribals staged their claim for autonomy and land rights for 632 days. Despite putting up a spirited protest, the tribals did not achieve much success, thanks to sabotaging by factional leaders who were effectively coopted by the state. This helped the state to perpetuate its divide-and-rule policy.  


The Role of CM Biren Singh

Against this simmering discontent, Biren Singh began his first stint as the first BJP CM of the state with the support of minor parties like the Naga People’s Front and the National People’s Party. Conscious that his government was skating on thin ice and mindful that he had to continually contend with powerful factional leaders within the BJP, he sought to forge broader social and political coalitions through his pet project, namely ‘Go to the hills’ on the hand, and appealing to the majoritarian sentiments by simultaneously attempting to revive Meitei’s historical icons like Chandrakirti Singh and push sacralisation of land in tribal areas by invoking Meitei religious symbols on the other hand.

Towards this end, a series of cabinet meetings were held in the district headquarters to reinforce Biren’s image as an inclusive leader. He interlaced this with his rhetorical appeal to bridge the hills-valley divide.

However, the real intent of Biren’s integrationist project began to unravel as contestations erupted over his government’s attempts to construct Chandrakirti Park in Chivu, near Behiang on the Indo-Myanmar border. This Park was pushed through by selling development dreams among pliant tribal leaders despite the fact that there was a strong undercurrent of popular opposition in the hills.

A simultaneous attempt was also made to sacralise tribal lands in Chivu and in Koubru. This was done respectively by invoking the intermittent sighting of the Thangjing god in Chivu salt lake as a ruse to install his stone monolith inside the Park and proclaiming Koubru as laipham (seat of the principal Meitei god, Lainingtho). These two instances invited the ire of the tribals as they were seen as attempts of the state by stealth to snatch away tribal lands by declaring them as protected sites.


Declaring Tribal Areas as RF, PF, and WS

These overtures were not only helpful in consolidating Biren’s appeal among the majoritarian-minded Meitei electoral constituency but also effectively used by him to neutralise any factional challenge within the state BJP. Realising the symbolic importance and electoral appeal of these to his majoritarian constituency, Biren aggressively pushed his integrationist agenda by extending the Indian Forest Act of 1927.

The declaration of considerable tribal areas as Reserved Forest (RF), Protected Forest (PF), and Wildlife Sanctuary (WS) since last year stemmed from this. As the state uses its coercive power to bulldoze opposition and dissenters among the tribals, the condition for the outbreak of communal riots has become ripe for some time even as tribals are virulently targeted as ‘foreigners’, ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘rank encroachers’.

Not surprisingly, when HAC recently sought to negate these by declaring that blanket extension of RF, PF, and WS to tribal areas without vetting the matter to it as mandated by the law would be null and void it invited rancourous opposition from Meitei CSOs. In the meantime, bulldozers were sent to raze tribal houses in Songjang village to the ground on 20 February.

The demolition of three tribal churches in Imphal before sunrise in early April in brazen violation of the law and without giving enough time to appeal their case after the Manipur High Court dismissed their appeal to regularise their dak chitha (paper document) was seen as lawless law enforcement. This aroused communal passion beyond tolerable limits.

Even as social media warriors of the tribals in hills and various Meitei CSOs indulge in acerbic exchanges with expletive communal overtones, the situation has already become ripen for what Brass calls riot ‘conversion specialists’ to unleash violence. The last straw on the camelback came when the Meitei Tribal Forum successfully prompted the Manipur High Court to direct the state to respond to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs’ memorandum on its Scheduled Tribe (ST) demand within four weeks.


Violence Far From Spontaneous and Unpredictable

Given that the Meiteis have already cornered protective discrimination around the three axes of SCs, OBCs, and EWS, there is increasing fear and sense of insecurity among the tribals in Manipur that according ST status to the Meitei will be the surest way of dissolving extant protective laws on tribal lands. The peaceful tribal rally of 3 May organised by the All Tribal Students Union, Manipur, stemmed from this.

When a retaliatory attempt was made by some Meitei mobs in Leisang to burn the Anglo-Kuki Centenary War Memorial Gate in response to the beating up of a tripper truck driver in Lamka who hit a bike and ran over a stock of water bottles kept for peaceful tribal protesters, violent scuffles ensued in Kangvai and Torbung areas which led to the razing of several houses.

Seen against this historical context, the virulent and unabated wave of communal riots that we have witnessed since the evening of 3 May is far from spontaneous and unpredictable, but it has been waiting for a spark to ignite the communal fire across Manipur.

As the riots descent into the character of ethnic cleansing on both sides of the divide, the collapse of law and order could not have been starker. That Kangvai, 10 kms away from Moirang, the latter of which is considered to be the southern tip of Manipur in historical common sense, has become the epicenter of the recent spate of communal riots, is a strange repeat of history indeed.

(Kham Khan Suan Hausing is a Professor and Head, of the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  manipur   Manipur violence 

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