Ethnic Rioting

North East is an ethnic cauldron. At the time of writing the death toll in the Manipur riots reached 54, going by hospital figures though government officials downplayed the tragedy by acknowledging only ’20-30’ deaths. Ethnic violence is somewhat endemic in what is known as seven sisters—seven tiny states with dozens of minority ethnic and religious groups struggling hard to keep their identity alive. Today it is between Meiteis and Kukis. Tomorrow it might be between Kukis and Nagas. Churachandpur district, Moreh and some areas bordering Burma are still tense. The sudden spurt in tribal population in some regions is being seen as a destabilising factor for the existing demographic pattern. Many think it may outnumber the original inhabitants creating a situation of permanent antagonism between the communities. Chakma refugees, the victims of state-sponsored communal persecution in Bangladesh, have largely settled in Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, creating social tensions. Chakmas lost their ethnic identity at the very moment of Bangladesh’s birth as Mujib would ask them to become good Bengalis, not ethnic minorities.

The 3 May riot in Manipur began as a clash between the Meitei and Kuki people. In truth the rioting started in Churachandpur district during the “Tribal Solidarity March” called by the All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) in protest against the Manipur High Court order directing the state government ‘’to consider appeal of the Meitei community to be included in the scheduled Tribes (ST) list”. That 60,000 people joined the march substantiated the gravity of the problem for which so many Kukis took to the street. The chief minister, however, said misunderstanding between the two communities led to the riotous situation. It is easier said than done. The issue was not that simple.

After the riots on May 3 personnel from the Assam Rifles, the Army and Para-military forces were deployed in large number. As per the statement of the Additional Director of Police (Intelligence) of Manipur 23 police stations mostly in mountainous districts of the state were identified as most vulnerable and sensitive while over 20,000 affected people of different communities were evacuated and sheltered in safer places. The Internet services in the state were suspended for a period of five days and the Section 144 of the IPC was promulgated.

The flare-up was sudden but it was not unexpected. The Kukis fear that if the High Court verdict gets implemented the ST status would allow the Meiteis who are politically and economically dominant to purchase land in the prohibited hilly areas. The Meiteis control 40 out of 60 seats in the Manipur Legislative Assembly. So ultimately it is the land question that matters. The space is finite and they are fighting over limited landmass leading to riots—arson, loot and murder.

Meanwhile, a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party MLA has challenged the High Court order on the issue of scheduled tribe status to the Meitei community. The Kukis alleged that the Hills Area Committee of the Manipur Legislative Assembly was not made a party to the case. As a result they failed to present their opinion.

The Meiteis who are largely Hindu make 53 percent of the population, are barred from settling in the hilly regions as per the Land Reforms Act of Manipur which limits them to inhabit in the Imphal valley constituting 10 percent of the state’s land. On the contrary tribals are entitled to settle in the valley region. The tribal people, Nagas and Kukis to be precise, reside in the reserved and protected hilly tracts consisting of the rest of the 90 percent of the state.

Meiteis too have their grievances. The huge increase in tribal population in recent years which cannot be explained by natural birth is problematic. The rapid Christianisation of tribal people of Manipur has contributed to the socio-cultural gap between the two communities. During the violence houses and churches of the mostly Christian tribal people were destroyed.

If anything, India lives at many levels. Tribal land alienation is a national phenomenon. There are laws, mostly enacted during the British rule, to protect tribal land but laws can be easily circumvented as one can see it in Jharkhand. Despite the existence of the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act tribals are being systematically deprived of their land rights.

The ethnic question is essentially the identity question and in the Indian context it is the land question as well. It should be addressed within the broader ambit of nationality problem. There are many ethnic and national minority groups in China but they have solved the problem to a large extent. In India the persons in authority have no idea as to how to tackle the ethnic issue and simmering discontent brewing all the time among these marginalised people.          


Back to Home Page

Vol 55, No. 47, May 21 - 27, 2023