Shielding governance failure will not resolve Manipur’s problems

The contentious issues of eviction of forest villages, Meiteis demanding ST status and the breakdown of talks on autonomy with the Kukis coalesced, creating an explosive situation

Bharat Bhushan

The volatile situation in Manipur will no doubt be brought under control by the large-scale deployment of the Army and Central paramilitary forces. However, that will not detract from the fact that the state is witnessing governance failure by the N Biren Singh-led government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Churches, homes and other properties belonging to Kuki tribals were burnt down in clashes with the majority Meitei community. A police armoury has been looted, and both sides are using snatched weapons. More than 50 individuals have lost their lives. There is a danger that the ethnic violence may spread to neighbouring states – non-Meiteis are evacuating Imphal. These are more than adequate indicators of the state government’s failure.

Manipur has been rife with ethnic tensions for long. The Meiteis, who are Vaishnavite Hindus, are the majority population of the state (53 per cent) but occupy only 10 per cent of its land (the fertile Imphal Valley). The minority tribals (Nagas, Kukis, Chins, Zomis and others) account for over 40 per cent of the population and occupy 90 per cent of the territory, the hilly terrain. They have long harboured a sense of discrimination by the Meiteis. Most productive infrastructure- hospitals, schools, colleges, etc. – are concentrated in the Imphal Valley. So are government jobs — dominated by the Meiteis. The tribal demand for some degree of self-governance is anathema to the Meiteis.

What irks the Meiteis most is that while the tribals can buy land in the Imphal Valley, they, as non-tribals, cannot do so in the hills. To remedy this, they are demanding Scheduled Tribe status. However, they continue to dominate government jobs and enjoy reservation as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Scheduled Castes (SCs), categorisations limited to non-tribals. The turnaround is phenomenal from the claim of Meiti activists about two decades ago that there were no tribals in Manipur, only “Manipuris”. The Manipur University in Imphal had even changed the name of its Centre for Manipur Studies and Tribal Research to just Centre for Manipur Studies.

Meitei activists’ demand for ST status has been boosted by a Manipur High Court judgement issued within just one day of hearing a petition by the Meitei Tribal Union on March 27. Without hearing the state government or the tribals, it directed that the state submit a recommendation to the Centre for the inclusion of the Meiteis “as a tribe among the tribes of Manipur” within four weeks. This judgement made public only on April 19, angered the tribal communities as they fear a loss of jobs and the erosion of constitutionally guaranteed affirmative action. For the tribals, the state government’s failure to appeal this ex parte order confirmed its pro-Meitei bias.

Also, in February this year, the state government started evicting villagers from reserved forest areas in the Churachandpur district and demolishing their property. Despite protests, the state government continued the land surveys under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, Manipur Forest Rule 2021 and the Forest Conservation Act 1980. The eviction was done without any resettlement plan and further angered the affected.

The immediate trigger for the current violence, which started in the Churachandpur district, was land surveys of Kuki-Chin villages on forest land, which the government claims as its own while the people see it as community owned. While meetings and protests against the land surveys have been organised for some time, the government has not responded to the memorandums submitted to it.

In the second week of March this year, the state government added to Kuki suspicions by unilaterally withdrawing from tripartite peace talks with two Kuki insurgent organisations – the Kuki National Army and Zomi Revolutionary Army. Its contention was that P S Haokip, the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) leader, an umbrella body of Kuki insurgent groups, and Thanglianpau Guite leader of ZRA were from outside the state – from Nagaland and Myanmar, respectively. The Kuki organisations claim that Haokip is a citizen of India, born in the Phek district of Nagaland, while Thanglianpau Guite was born in Mualmuam village of Churachandpur district in Manipur — he had gone to Myanmar and become a legislator from the National League for Democracy but had returned and acquired Indian citizenship. The Kuki community took the withdrawal from the peace talks to mean that the state government was opposed to negotiating limited autonomy with them.

The contentious issues of eviction of forest villages, Meiteis demanding ST status and the government’s seeming complicity with the demand, and the breakdown of talks on autonomy with the Kukis coalesced, creating an explosive situation. On May 3, violence again erupted in the Torbung area in the Churachandpur district during a tribal solidarity march against the Meitei demand for an ST status.

When the state police failed to control the violence on the ground, Central forces were rushed in. The police chief of the state claimed that the Centre had invoked Article 355 in Manipur. It allows the Centre to take over the state’s law and order machinery without dismissal of the state government as under the more commonly used Article 356. However, now both the Union home ministry and Manipur government’s security advisor Kuldiep Singh deny that Article 355 was invoked.

The BJP has been opposed to invoking Article 355 in the past. In September 2008, when the Centre issued advisories under Article 355 to Orissa and Karnataka over communal violence against Christian minorities, its most vocal opponent was the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. He called it “vote bank politics” and asked, “Where was the Central government when Hindi-speaking people were killed in Assam, and innocent farmers were killed in Singur? Why did they not invoke Article 355 in these states?”

The backtracking on Article 355 suggests that the Centre does not want the public to conclude that the constitutional machinery had broken down in Manipur. Article 355 can be a precursor to Article 356, i.e., President’s Rule. Therefore, Central paramilitary forces and the army were sent ostensibly at the state government’s request. This would shield the BJP state government against charges of failure. The underlying contentious issues, however, will remain simmering.