The Hard Evidence Against Labelling Manipur’s Hill Tribes as Illegal Immigrants

From 2001-2011, Churachandpur has had a decadal growth rate of 19.9%, which is lower than the Manipur DGR of 24.49%.

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Like the Partition of India, the population exchange between the Meitei and the Kuki-Zomi in the conflict-torn state of Manipur was completed with the help of central government forces.

It will be difficult to think of the Kuki-Zomi people returning and dwelling among the Meitei in Imphal to resume normal life, and it will be the same for the Meitei who have left the hill areas as well.

The 10 MLAs representing the Kuki-Zomi-dominated area, in their press release, demanded the formalisation of the separation between the Kuki-Zomi and Meitei people with separate administration from Manipur.

Raising narratives like ‘only 10% of the land is with the Meitei, whereas 90% is with the hill tribes and the Meitei cannot buy land from the hills’, can hardly justify any violence against the Kukis.

This is accompanied by the wholesale and slanderous labelling of the Kuki-Zomi community who are living in their own ancestral homeland as illegal immigrants or refugees. This essay is an attempt to clarify those baseless allegations with evidence. 


A Hard Look at the Data

The Kuki-Zomi population in Manipur was 11.48 % in 1886, at which time the present Churachandpur and Pherzawl districts were not part of Manipur, as shown in the map from the book published in 1896 by James Johnston, the Political Agent of Manipur from 1877 to 1886.

From 2001-2011, Churachandpur has had a decadal growth rate of 19.9%, which is lower than the Manipur DGR of 24.49%.

The presumed unprecedented growth is a concern for not only the majority community but also policymakers and minority communities alike. The unprecedented population growth had been detected in the hill areas in the Census 2011 report.

From Table (2), it can be seen that the Churachandpur district bordering Myanmar, which is always targeted as the Kuki-Zomi dominated district by the Meiteis to justify the violence, has a decadal growth rate (DGR) of 19.9%, which is lower than Manipur DGR (24.49%).

From 2001-2011, Churachandpur has had a decadal growth rate of 19.9%, which is lower than the Manipur DGR of 24.49%.

Besides, the Chandel district (including Tengnoupal district), which is also a bordering district with Myanmar, has the lowest DGR (17%). Whereas, the other three hill districts having higher DGR than the state are the Naga-dominated districts viz., Senapati (241.4%), Ukhrul (29.08%), and Tamenglong (26.58%).

The Senapati district population shows an alarming and unprecedented DGR of 241.4%, for those who alleged the Kuki of illegal immigrants would question that because of the Kangpokpi subdivision. In fact, the sub-divisions in which the government of Manipur complained about the unprecedented growth were the Naga areas viz., Mao-Maram, Paomata, and Purul.

It is evident from Table (1) that this allegation is baseless.


Land Pressure due to Mismanagement of Land

The Meitei, Nagas, and the Kuki-Zomi have their own villages, and each village has its own village land. The Meitei are settled in the valley, the most fertile area, and practise wet-land cultivation, whereas in the hills they practised shifting cultivation, as terrace cultivation is possible only in a few areas. 

The crux of the problem lies in the structural concentration of administrative, political, economic, educational and vocational institutions in the valley over the decades since the formation of the state. This is representative of the stranglehold of all institutional resources within the hegemony of the dominant ethnic community, leading to both the sense of increase in pressure in the valley, as well as a self-entitled atmosphere of ownership of the entire territorial landmass that now constitutes the state.

Since the existing laws have honoured the landowning system with due recognition to the historical process that brought the different entities – the hills and the valley – together under one political unit, it is imperative to continue to honour the unique history of each community and their attachment to each of their territories.

The hill areas of present-day Manipur have never been ruled by the Meitei raja, it was only when the British officer was positioned at the court of Meitei raja as a political Agent in 1835 subsequent to the Treaty of Yandaboo (1826) and following treaties, that the hills were brought into the fold of Manipur.

The western boundary of Manipur was demarcated in 1833, whereas in 1834, the eastern boundary was demarcated based on R B Pemberton’s imaginary line by taking into account what the Burmese considered as the limit of their territory (Mackenzie ibid: 184-185). Further, Pemberton (1835: 21) wrote, “…the Southern boundary of Manipur territory is very irregular and ill-defined; unconquered tribes, of whose existence we have but recently become acquainted.” The areas referred to here are the present-day Pherzawl and Churachandpur districts. 


A Slice of History

Regarding the Northern and Southern boundaries, certain portions are irregular or nonexistent. The British felt the need to fix the boundary between Manipur and Naga Hills, for which Lieutenant Biggs, the Principal Assistant in-charge of Nowgong and Captain Gordon, the Political Agent of Manipur, had a meeting and fixed the said boundary in 1842, which was eventually settled in July 1872.

In relation to the southern region, the present-day districts of Manipur (now Churachandpur and Pherzawl districts) were not within Manipur, rather they are part of the Lushai and Chin Hills until 1894. It can be seen in the Manipur map provided in the book authored by Johnston.

So, after the successful Chin-Lushai expedition (1889-1890) and the annexation of Manipur by the British colonizers in 1891, the British Government felt the need for proper demarcation of the boundary and set up the Manipur-Chin Boundary commission in 1894. It sliced out the northern portion of the Chin and Lushai Hills much beyond Pemberton’s imaginary line.

However, the hill areas were still kept outside the administration of Manipur’s Durbar and the political agent of Manipur was dealing with it indirectly.

Only after the Kuki rising (locally known as Zo-gal) of 1917-1919, the hill areas (the abode of the hill tribes) were annexed and brought into the fold of Manipur and subsequently, regular separate administration was introduced by the British colonial government. Thus, the hill tribes were brought into the fold of Manipur along with their ancestral land and became a political entity with Manipur.


Tagging Kuki-Zomi as Illegal Immigrants is Paradoxical

Consequent to the historical process involved in the making of colonial Manipur, each community lives in their ancestral land. As such, there is no khas land in the hill areas (Humdung Case Judgement, AIR 1995 SC 1865, JT 1998 (8) SC 439, (1998) 9 SCC 335) and their land-owning systems were recognised by the government. The seemingly obvious complaint used by Meitei leaders that the hills of Manipur, which consists of 90% of the land area of the current state is not available for settlement to the Meitei community, is on one hand historically ill-conceived, and on the other, exemplary of the thirst for land expansion in the valley.

With the concentration of all development works in Imphal, it is obvious that other communities will come and settle as permitted by the existing laws. The wholesale tagging of Kuki-Zomi tribes as illegal immigrants or refugees in Manipur is paradoxical, because their ancestral lands were bifurcated and fit into the current territorial administrative unit that forms Manipur.

It is therefore imperative for the government of India to expedite the restoration of the hills’ autonomy from the valley, as it was before the colonial regime, within the frame of the Constitution of India.

(Dr L Lam Khan Piang is a professor at the University of Hyderabad, with the Department of Sociology. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Manipur violence 

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