Video Producer & Editor: Vishnu Gopinath
Soon after a tribal solidarity march was organised on Wednesday by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) against the demand for inclusion of the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category, fresh violence erupted in Churachandpur district and nearby regions. The Meiteis have accused the Kukis of violence and vice versa.
Each group feels victimised and dejected and rumor-mongering seems to be outnumbering facts. As per the latest update, internet services have been snapped in the state for five days.
A few days prior to the solidarity march by ATSUM, violence also erupted in Churachandpur’s Lamka town, where Chief Minister N Biren was supposed to inaugurate an open gym. Though the popular discourse revolves around violence and the law and order situation in the state, it is pertinent to understand that the heart of the problem lies somewhere else.
Through a slew of administrative measures, the seeds of mistrust and hatred have been sown so deep in Manipur that even if the law and order take their own recourse, the peaceful existence of communities as a society would be hard to restore.
And that should concern us.
The Optics of Land Conflict
When you witness a threat to your home that you build with love, care, and passion — you panic, mobilize and protest. The bewilderment turns into anger, to the extent that it brings out the worst in you both as an individual and as a collective.
This is exactly what has been happening in Manipur’s Churachandpur district.
Apparently, in mid-February this year, the Deputy Commissioner of Churachandpur ordered an identification drive to get hold of ‘illegal immigrants’ in several villages (around 38) located across the border of Churachandpur and Noney districts.
Soon the Forest Department of Manipur along with security forces began evicting the residents of the Kuki tribal village K Songjang in Churachandpur alleging that the village settlement had encroached Churachandpur-Khopum protected area. As the news and content of the notice travelled to the nearby villages, tribals mobilised and staged protests which also turned violent injuring protestors as well as security forces.
The bone of contention between the state and tribals is over a government order on protected forest land. The government uses the word ‘encroachment’ which the tribal inhabitants say is ’settlement’.
The government cites, Manipur Forest Rules, 2021, Rule number 73, which empowers Forest Officers to evict any encroachment/trespass on forest land. It also particularly says, encroachers can be evicted without notice.
What are the Tribals Saying?
On the other hand, the tribals invoke Indian Forest Act, 1927, Section 29, which states, no notification for declaring reserved forests will be made without inquiring into the rights of private people residing on the land. It is a must for the state government to conduct a survey before declaring such notification.
The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960 also directs, the relevant authority must identify evictees eligible for relocation and rehabilitation and should also ensure basic liberties are guaranteed at the site of relocation.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, Section (3)(1)(g) also clearly maintains that wrongful dispossession of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe from his land or interference with the enjoyment of his rights over any land will constitute an offence under the act and is liable for punishment.
The government clarified in one incident that they are only evicting the new settlement that came up in 2021, which is also a violation of Manipur’s forest conservation laws. The tribals argue that they have been living in these villages for years and the government eviction notices are nothing but attempts to land grab and deprive them of their ancestral lands. Hence, it’s illegal on the part of the government.
Today's Violence Reminiscent of Historical Injustices
The land area notified by the state government for eviction is a huge chunk of tribal land, particularly Kuki and Naga-owned land. These are tribal inhabited hill areas with a majority of them making forest-dwelling communities.
They have very basic questions – Why were they not consulted if such a decision was to be made? Where are the due processes of sending prior notices, engaging with communities, and a mutually agreed rehabilitation plan? How do communities dependent on forests become a hindrance to forest-declared protected areas?
While these questions may have flavours of innocence and emotions, the fundamental idea behind development and governance is challenged. It is a case where answers to the simply put questions are hardest to answer. Hence, the ‘easiest’ way to shut them off is brutal measures like lathi-charge, arrests, and delegitimisation. This is all that the Manipur government has been doing rather than engaging with people and taking them in confidence.
What is not understood is: This is a new and young generation of tribals who have grown up listening to the stories of social unrest and conflict. Their forefathers have been subjected to land grabs, forced displacements, exploitation of hills and armed conflict. So, when a government of 2023, hands out a notice without consultation, it triggers the fears and unmasks the uncertainties. They start relating and equating with the injustices of the past, and make the same demands of the past the right to be heard, share the table as equals, and have a part in decision-making.
It is noteworthy that Chief Minister N Biren who hails from the Meitei group is accused of pushing both these minority groups to the margins. The fears of communal discrimination have now been aggravated further with the High Court of Manipur directing the Government of Manipur to recommend for inclusion of the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list. Kuki and Nagas are up in arms against the Meitei’s would-be ST status.
The United Naga Council, Manipur (UNC) and the Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM) have raised strong apprehensions to the Court’s directive saying, “the Meitei community of Manipur is an advanced community of India” with their language, Manipuri (Meiteilon) listed in the Eight Schedule to the Indian constitution. The timing of all these political unfoldings has also triggered anxieties of administrative separatism.
An Attempt to Delegitimise the Protests
Although in the last month, at least four MLAs from the ruling BJP have resigned from their administrative positions, it has not deterred the Chief Minister from terming the protestors as ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘Myanmarese.’ Even BJP’s ally Kuki People’s Alliance has slammed the CM’s statements, calling him communally biased against Kukis.
Not only did it stop here but the government went ahead with cancelling the Suspension of Operations (SoO) with two militant groups – Kuki National Organization and United People’s Front. It was a tripartite agreement between the state, the centre, and the militant groups.
The bizarre reasoning for ending the ceasefire was: the protests were fuelled by these militant groups. These allegations have been outrightly denied by protesters, terming it as part of an attempt to delegitimise democratic protests.
It has brought back the fears of armed rebellion and has left communities lingering if this is what ‘acche din’ was meant by a ‘double engine’ BJP government.
(Rohin Kumar is an author and independent journalist chronicling humanitarian crises. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)