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Understanding the Complexities Behind the Manipur Riots

The Manipur riots, which began on 3 May 2023, stand as a tragic episode in the history of the Indian state of Manipur. The clashes between different ethnic groups and the state security forces resulted in widespread violence, loss of lives, and significant damage to property. In order to gain a deeper understanding of the events that transpired, it is crucial to explore the underlying ethnic and religious reasons behind the Manipur riots.

To comprehend the Manipur riots, it is essential to delve into the historical context. Manipur, located in Northeast India, is a culturally diverse state with multiple ethnic communities residing within its borders. Over the years, complex issues such as ethnic tensions, identity politics, and inter-community rivalries have been brewing in the region.   Manipur is once again gripped with tension as large scale ethnic violence from 3 May 2023 occurred in the aftermath of the ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ organized by the “All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur” (ATSUM) in the ten Hill Districts of Manipur. While the protest marches across the state started peacefully, a march in the Torbung area of Churachandpur district turned violent as an armed mob attacked people of the Meitei community. Many believed that Kuki militants were involved in the attack. In retaliation, the Meiteis attacked the Kukis and burnt down their property.[1] Soon violence spread to the Kuki and Meitei dominated districts of the state. More than 150 people have been killed, 231 injured and 48,000 rendered homeless in the rioting and have reached refugee camps. More than 1,700 houses have been destroyed, and 300 Christian churches have been burned.[2] The most affected areas are Imphal West, Ka King, Thoubal, Jiribam and Bishnupur districts, where the Meitei sects are in majority, and the hill districts of Churachandpur, Kanpoki and Thengpal districts, where tribals are the majority.

Most of the reports and descriptions have been published to establish that what is happening now is a fight between two tribes.[3] But, under close observation of Manipur, certain factors and influences can be discerned in the latest developments that are different from the history so far. What is happening now can only be understood if we understand the history and practices of various clans, big and small, in Manipur.

Manipur became a part of independent India in 1949. But the state obtained its status after 23 years. The Meiteis were in extreme demand for own country to protect their own culture and identity. They formed an organization known as the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) in 1964. Later, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was started in 1978 by N. Bishswesar Singh under the influence of the Naxalist ideology. The declared aim of the PLA was freedom from Government of India like Bangladesh. They adopted armed struggle as the way to freedom. Several armed groups emerged from Meitei community even after the formation of the PLA.

The Meitei sect has a history of decades of armed independence struggle. They wanted to protect their identity and establish their own country. Since the UNLF in 1964, some sections of the Meitei clan have clamoured for independence and identity protection, engaged in conflict with the country and led armed conflicts, while Kuki, Naga, tribes were not involved. In the early nineties attacks break out in Manipur under the leadership of the “National Socialist Council of Nagaland.”[4] Their demand was to form a new state by adding the Naga majority areas of Manipur and Nagaland. Many tribal leaders, many soldiers and others from different ethnic groups have been killed in the fighting. During the same period, riots broke out among the Naga and Kuki communities, the tribes inhabiting the mountain areas of Manipur, and thousands were killed.

The soil of Manipur has many stories to tell of such riots and struggles. Many reasons can be seen behind such struggles, such as dues, disputes between tribes, the need for a country of their own, and attempts to establish supremacy. Another fact is that all the tribes have their own armed groups long before. As a result of such struggles and constant conflicts, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) came into force in 1958, which gave special powers to the army.[5]

The region began to abandon the ancient religious beliefs that existed before the 17th century. The religion of the Meitei sect is known as “Sanamahi” or “Sanamahism”; this is also known as “Meiteism”.  The majority of the Meitei people living in the valleys of Manipur became Hindus in the 18th century, with the influx of Hindu religious preachers.Today, around seventy percent are Hindus in the Meitei section, fourteen percent are Muslims, and a small percentage of Christians. The PLA of Manipur, which had become weak in the meantime, regained its strength in the early 1990s and tried to return to the old Meitei culture and abandon the Bengali language to the old script. They also carried out activities to bring back Sanamahism. Even at that time, Muslims of Meitei origin were portrayed as immigrants and turned against them. More than a hundred people have been killed in the Rebellion of 1993 held in this connection.

Religious and communal polarization has also taken place among the people of Manipur, unlike in the past. This is evident from the fact that many churches are destroyed. According to reports, 121 Christian churches were destroyed during the first four days of the riots.[6] 76 of them were completely destroyed. Since then, Christian churches have been attacked many times. Among the Christian churches that were attacked were the same churches belonging to Meitei sect Christians. That means the rioters are not just targeting Kukis.

There were mainly three reasons that created suspicions and disturbances among the tribes. First, the Manipur government has been taking some steps related to forest without the knowledge or permission of the hilly Area Committee. In addition to such survey and declaration of some forest areas as protected forest areas, tribals who had been living there for ages were displaced or resettled. Such measures were taken mainly in the villages where the Kukis lived. Tribals were strongly opposed to such activities. In addition, the tribals living in the hilly areas were frequently accused of being forest encroachers, illegal immigrants and for drug abuse.[7] For several months, the political leadership and the administrative leadership have been constantly provoking the tribal people through such accusations. The tribals were furious as they thought that there were moves to get them off their land. Protests broke out in Churachandpur district in the last week of April on this particular issue and the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum called for a state-wide strike.

The second reason was that while the other Scheduled Tribes could buy land in the valleys, the Meitei clans could not buy land in the hilly areas. According to Manipur’s law, only those belonging to the Scheduled Tribes can acquire land in forest areas. The tribals thought that if the dominant Meiteis also belonged to that category, they would gradually take over their land. The Meiteis had claimed reservation for Scheduled Tribes on the basis that they had the status of Scheduled Tribes before independence. This claim was supported by many politicians, and so for this very reason, the tribal people believed that such a move was a political move against them and to deprive them of their rights.

The third and last reason was that there are revolutionary changes in the politics of Manipur in the recent years. Bharatiya Janatha Parti (BJP—Indian People’s Party in English) recently attained a noticeable victory in the 2017 election, coming to power by the support of the allied parties. In the 2022 election, the BJP emerged as the largest single party and secured power. There are two main reasons for this achievement of BJP. The first reason is the peculiarities in the division of legislative constituencies. There are 40 constituencies in the valleys of Manipur where the Meitei community is the majority, and 20 constituencies in the hilly areas where only other communities live. The BJP government, led by Bin Singh, came into power after the 2022 election and has benefitted from the implementation of various schemes and the formulation of strategies to take tribal people into their hands.

These changes, however, harboured fundamentalist ideas that were discriminatory against the tribes. Such ideas gained strength under the disguise of the BJP. There were some among the Meiteis who harboured a grudge against the tribesmen for coming and living in their land. There have been allegations of overpopulation due to illegal immigration, encroachment of forests, and widespread cultivation of drugs.[8] According to experts, the reason for the confusion in the population is that they did not record the correct numbers of tribal groups in the 2001 Census in the case of Manipur.[9] Many villages were left unaccounted because it was difficult for the census officials to travel through the forest areas to reach the villages.

The situation was further aggravated by the march held by the All India Students Union of Manipur on May 3, declaring solidarity with the tribes. Kukis were assaulted following the allegation that protesting tribal people attacked Meiteis. The riots spread throughout the state, as they ransacked various churches and looted them. Although the Meiteis also faced setbacks, the series of events that followed the riots left the future of the tribals living in the valleys, especially the Kukis, in utter insecurity. Their struggle was initially against the previous government and for survival. Yet, it was widely portrayed as a war between tribes and resulted in arbitrary quarrels and deportations. The question remains as to what made the Meitei to feel so vindictive towards Kukis.

Although the term ‘conflict between the tribes’ still stands, what happened in Manipur during the few months since May 3rd has the colour of previous unilateral riots and genocides in some other states. This can also be judged similar to some incidents of violence where the insurgents unleashed under the disguise of religion have lost their property and shelter, and the wounds are yet to heal. Behind such incidents of violence, the intervention of some local extremist communal organizations are often visible, reflecting that, due to certain vested economic and political interests, some parties are trying to create communal and religious rifts across the country.

Who is responsible for keeping a large section of people in utter confusion and worry? A struggle for existence and survival was filled with communal poison in their minds like never before. The secular society in India should realize by whose plans a struggle for existence and survival was given the cover of religion and caste, spreading misconceptions throughout the country and diverting the attention of the world from the real issues.

The face of the BJP is clear in Manipur, which came to power by campaigning for elections with big promises and changes its colour after assuming power. The independence of extreme Hindutva organizations was evident in the political stance of the BJP in Manipur as in other states. In that sense, what happened in Manipur should be seen as a lesson for all sections of people in India. If those who spread tribal and religious hatred and enmity and create vote banks to ensure stability of governance are not identified and removed, not only a state but the entire country will suffer the consequences. We should be ready to identify and confront the media syndicates who are spreading false propaganda by fabricating explanations of religion and communalism for those who create instability and disturbances in the society with such ulterior motives.

[1] The Meiteis have roots in Manipur, Myanmar and surrounding areas. The vast majority are Hindu although some follow the Sanamahi religion. The Kukis, mostly Christians, have spread across the north-east of India, and many of those in Manipur can trace their roots back to Myanmar too. “In Manipur, Tension Between Meiteis and Kukis,” 20 July 2023 › Magazine › National. Accessed on 10.08.2023.

[2] “Manipur Violence: Assam Rifles Rescues 96 People in Air Evacuation Ops from India-Myanmar Border,” The Economic Times, 15 May 2023.

[3] “Manipur Riots: How Women Disproportionately Bear the Brunt of Communal Violence,” India Today, 20 July 2023.

[4] Incidents and Statements Involving NSCN-IM: 1992–2012. countries/india/states/nagaland/terrorist_outfits/nscn_im_tl.htm. Accessed on 19.08.2023.

[5] The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA–1958). chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/ Accessed on 19.08.2023.

[6] Manipur Rebellion; 121 Christian Churches destroyed. local/575934.html. Accessed on 19.08.2023.

[7] Manipur Violence Explained: History of Suspicion Between Ethnic Groups Escalates Violence. Accessed on 19.08.2023.

[8] Bharti Jain, “Manipur Official: No Tribal Bias in Evictions or in War on Drugs,” Times of India, 17 May 2023; Drugs, Land Rights, Tribal Identity and Illegal Immigration—Why Manipur is Burning. Accessed on 19.08.2023.

[9] “Manipur Violence: Assam Rifles Rescues 96 People in Air Evacuation Ops from India-Myanmar Border,” The Economic Times, 15 May 2023.