HomeNationDivided by Identity: Deep-Rooted Unrest Between Manipur's Kuki and Meitei Communities Explained

Divided by Identity: Deep-Rooted Unrest Between Manipur’s Kuki and Meitei Communities Explained

Twitter: @sahanasometimes

Violence persists in Manipur, despite a fragile calm that has settled over most districts keeping the situation tense in certain parts of the state. The recent gunfight in Bishnupur district resulted in the tragic deaths of three individuals, including a teenage boy from Kwakta Ward N. 9.

This incident occurred in the early hours of Friday at Phougakchao, near the boundary between Bishnupur and Churachandpur, as rival armed groups clashed.

Sources indicate that the teenage boy was fatally hit by a bullet while attempting to escape the violence that erupted in his village. This incident adds to the mounting casualties in Manipur, raising concerns about the escalating situation.

In a show of solidarity, a delegation of five Communist party MPs, comprising three members from CPI and two from CPI (M), is currently in the state to assess the ongoing unrest.

International attention has also turned toward Manipur, with US Ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti, expressing the United States’ readiness to assist in any way necessary. His comments came during a press conference in Kolkata, where he emphasized the importance of peace in the region and the potential for collaboration, projects, and investment in a stable environment.

However, Indian authorities, including External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi, responded by stating that foreign diplomats typically refrain from commenting on internal developments and highlighted the ongoing efforts of security forces and local government in addressing the situation.

What is happening in Manipur?

An inter-ethnic conflict has emerged in Manipur, India, pitting the Meitei people, who form a majority in the Imphal Valley, against the Kuki tribal community residing in the surrounding hills. The turmoil ignited on May 3, resulting in a significant loss of life, with over 116 fatalities and more than 300 individuals sustaining injuries and 1700 houses have been burnt down and around 40,000 people have been displaced.

The state has witnessed widespread demonstrations and acts of violence since then, leading authorities to issue shoot-at-sight orders and deploy the army to restore order.

The Indian Army and Assam Rifles swiftly deployed to the state. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has personally spoken to Chief Minister N Biren Singh to assess the situation and take necessary action.

A key factor underlying the conflict is the difference in the communities “legal status”. The Kukis enjoy Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, which affords them constitutional protections for their land and culture, as well as reservations for jobs and education. On the other hand, the Meitei do not possess the ST tag, and their demand for inclusion in this category lies at the root of the conflict.

The protests were sparked by a Manipur High Court ruling last month, which directed the government to consider the longstanding demand of the Meitei to be included in the list of Scheduled Tribes.

The proposal has encountered strong opposition from the Kukis,

Which exacerbated tensions and triggered additional episodes of violence including gun fights on the streets which claimed many lives.

The underlying causes and motivations behind the violence in Manipur are still being investigated. 

Understanding these factors will be crucial in comprehending the complex dynamics driving this conflict.

Influx of Refugees from Myanmar and Alleged Support to Insurgencies.

Some local sources have pointed fingers at militants from Myanmar, expressing concerns that outside elements could exploit the internal violence and fuel insurgency.

To comprehend the nature of the threat from Myanmar, it is crucial to consider the state’s demographic composition.

The threat from Myanmar is twofold. Manipur shares a 400km long border with Myanmar, with less than 10% of it fenced, making it relatively easy for individuals to cross. This according to reports, resulted in a steady flow of refugees from Myanmar, which has increased following the military coup in 2021. According to the Meitei community, these refugees are supported by the Kukis, further exacerbating their concerns about demographic changes. However, the Kuki community denies these allegations.

Additionally, clashes between insurgent groups representing both communities have further complicated the situation. The Kuki Revolutionary Army and The United National Liberation Front (UNLF) of Meitei are examples of such groups, which are now based in Myanmar along the Manipur border in dense jungle areas.

The ongoing violence in Manipur has provided an opportune moment for certain insurgent groups to reignite their own movements. The state government has raised suspicions and accused certain groups based in Myanmar of being responsible for the escalation of violence that began in early May. The volatile situation has heightened concerns about external influences and their potential impact on the security dynamics of Manipur.

The Meitei community

The historical records of Manipur date back to 33 AD, as documented in the well-known text called Cheitharol Kumbaba. This ancient chronicle, believed to have originated in the 1st century CE, provides insights into the origins and ruling dynasties of Meitei. While the precise historical accuracy of this account has not been definitively established, the Cheitharol Kumbaba offers valuable information about the political alliances, military campaigns, cultural advancements, and religious practices of the Meitei kingdom.

The indigenous Meitei community followed the Sanamahism or Meitei religion, which involves the worship of multiple deities, spirits, and natural elements. Among these deities, Pakhangba holds particular importance to the Meitei people. The rulers of the Meitei kingdom are believed to be descended from Pakhangba, which reinforces their authority and legitimacy. While it is true that many Meiteis have adopted Hinduism as their religion today, and some have embraced Christianity, Sanamahism continues to be an important aspect of Meitei identity, preserving the unique religious heritage of the region.

Naga Community

Research indicates that the Naga community in Manipur is composed of various indigenous tribes who have migrated from different parts of Southeast Asia, including present-day Myanmar, Mongolia, and Tibet. In Manipur, the Nagas predominantly inhabit the hill districts such as Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong, and Chandel. Each Naga tribe possesses its own distinct language, culture, and customs, contributing to the diverse fabric of the Naga community.

Traditionally, the Nagas practiced animism, which involved worshiping nature, spirits, and ancestors. However, the arrival of Christianity during the British colonial period led to the conversion of a significant number of Nagas to Christianity. Consequently, today, a substantial portion of the Naga population in Manipur identifies as Christians.

The relationship between the Meitei and Naga communities in Manipur has been a complex interplay of cooperation and conflict throughout history. The issue of land and resources stands out as a significant factor contributing to this dynamic. The Meiteis historically considered the hill areas as part of their kingdom, while the Nagas assert their ancestral rights and claim sovereignty over their respective territories. These conflicting territorial claims have often resulted in tensions and sporadic conflicts between the two communities.

Over time, the differences between the Meitei and Naga communities have evolved, becoming more nuanced and intricate. The demographic concentration of the Meiteis in the valley and the Nagas in the hills has significantly influenced the socio-political dynamics of Manipur. It has shaped power structures, land disputes, and resource allocation, contributing to the complexities of the relationship between these communities.

Kuki community.

During the 18th century, as British colonial influence began to expand, significant events unfolded in Manipur that affected the arrival and settlement of the Kuki tribe. One notable incident occurred in 1762 when Raja Jai Singh of Manipur entered into a treaty with the British as a means of protection against Burmese (Present day Myanmar) invasions. This agreement allowed the British to establish a foothold in the region, and they subsequently brought Kuki tribes from Burma to settle near the foothills. The Kukis served as a buffer against the Naga tribes, who were perceived as a threat by the British.

However, despite the presence of the Kuki tribe, the Burmese continued their invasions into Manipur. From 1819 to 1829, Manipur faced seven years of occupation (seven years devastation) by the Burmese. This period witnessed significant turmoil and suffering for the people of Manipur. The Burmese occupation finally came to an end after the First Anglo-Burmese War, when the British defeated the Burmese forces and took control of Manipur, making it a British protectorate.

In 1890, Manipur experienced a palace coup, leading to tensions between the Manipuri monarchy and the British colonial administration. The following year, the Anglo-Manipur War broke out as a result of these tensions. The British emerged victorious, and as a consequence, they established a demarcation line in the state.

According to this line, the Meitei valley, where the majority of the Meitei community resided, fell under the direct control of the colonial government, while the hills, including areas inhabited by the Kuki tribe, received less attention from the British authorities.

During this period, the Kukis engaged in raids of their own, prompting the British to crack down on such activities. These incidents further shaped the dynamics between the Kuki tribe, the Meitei community, and the British colonial administration.

In 1917, during the period of World War I, the British requested soldiers from Meitei Maharaja Churachand of Manipur to contribute to the war effort. While the Nagas agreed to provide soldiers, the Kuki tribe chose not to participate, leading to a sense of discontent among the Kukis towards the British administration. This discontent eventually culminated in a rebellion by the Kukis against British rule, which lasted for two years.

The British Indian Army responded to this by pushing the Kukis further into the forested areas, intensifying the separation between the Kuki tribe and the British colonial administration.

These historical events have had lasting indirect effects on the demographic landscape of Manipur. Presently, the Kuki tribe accounts for approximately 28% of Manipur’s population but predominantly occupies around 90% of the land area, while the Meitei community, constituting 53% of the population, resides in a relatively smaller land area of approximately 10%.

Following India’s independence in 1947, Manipur acceded to India and later became a union territory. The post-independence era witnessed a lack of effective governance and failure on the part of successive governments to address the concerns and aspirations of various communities in Manipur. This political vacuum provided fertile ground for the emergence of different insurgent movements within the state.

Around the same time, the Naga insurgency gained momentum as Naga tribes in India demanded a separate nation. The Meitei community, on the other hand, rallied behind the Indian government in its fight against the Naga insurgency, while the Kuki community formed its own insurgent group, advocating for a separate Kuki state within India. These conflicting aspirations and insurgent activities further strained the already fragile relations among the three communities in Manipur.

In 1993, Manipur experienced a violent outbreak between the Nagas and the Kukis, resulting in a significant loss of lives. The scars of this violent episode continue to persist, deepening the divisions and animosity between the communities in Manipur.

The complex historical trajectory and the interplay of factors such as British colonial policies, demographic patterns, post-independence governance challenges, and insurgent movements have shaped the current socio-political dynamics in Manipur, contributing to the ongoing tensions and conflicts between the Nagas, Kukis, and Meiteis.

The current unrest in Manipur stems from grievances within the Meitei community. They are concerned about the preservation of their culture and language and the ancestral land, and the change in the state’s demography due to the migration of the Kuki tribe from Myanmar. This demographic shift has caused the Meiteis to feel surrounded and apprehensive about the potential consequences for their political representation and socio-economic prospects.

To address their concerns and safeguard their interests, the Meitei community has demanded Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. This status would provide them with constitutional benefits and reservations in the education system and government jobs, similar to what the Kuki community already enjoys. However, this demand has faced opposition from the Kukis, who argue that the Meiteis currently hold significant political power and question the need for reservations at this point.

The situation has become complex and delicate, with both communities firmly standing their ground, fueling animosity and division, while external elements exploiting the internal violence and fueling insurgency which could cause potential impact on the security dynamics of the state.

To resolve the unrest and promote peace in Manipur, it is crucial to Solidify the Myanmar- Manipur border.

In an effort to address these issues and find a lasting solution, Home Minister Amit Shah has emphasized the importance of solidifying the Myanmar-Manipur border. He stated, ‘For a permanent solution, the government has taken concrete steps by implementing a 10-kilometer wired fencing at the Myanmar-Manipur border. Additionally, the tender process has been initiated for an additional 80 kilometers, and surveys are underway to assess the remaining border areas.”

While efforts to secure the state from external influences are underway, it is equally important to engage in meaningful conversations, consider the historical context, and address the valid concerns of all communities involved. Striving for a balanced and inclusive solution that acknowledges the rights and aspirations of both the Meitei and Kuki communities is pivotal in fostering long-lasting harmony and stability in Manipur.

Sahana David Menon
Sahana David Menon
Foreign Correspondent (Sri Lanka) - Sahana David Menon is a multimedia Journalist | Researcher | Story Teller based in South Asia. Sahana is a Foreign Correspondent for TheNews21. She began reporting in 2014 from the post-Srilankan civil war-ethic conflicts and has since worked with Marginalized communities, conflicts and Environmental issues in India, Srilanka, the Bali islands, and the Middle east. Sahana has won the best multimedia report award in 2016 in the Global Press awards


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