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Land rights, eviction drives push Manipur to edge

Dimapur : Abandoned burnt houses, charred vehicles and military personnel on round-the-clock patrol bear testimony to the ethnic clashes between the Meiteis and the tribal Kukis in Manipur.

With the relaxation of curfew for a few hours every day, normalcy has somewhat returned to the Meitei-majority Imphal valley, but areas close to the Kuki hills continue to remain tense. Hardly anybody is seen on the roads there.

What essentially was a conflict between the state’s BJP government and the “illegal Kuki immigrants” snowballed into a battle between the Kukis and the Meiteis. The Kukis have been restive for about a couple of years in the wake of eviction drives and a survey of reserve forests, wetlands carried out by the government.

Feeling targeted, they first vented their ire by torching the venue of a scheduled programme of Chief Minister N Biren Singh in Churachandpur. Days later, an altercation between two groups of Kukis and Meiteis at the end of a “tribal solidarity march”, organised by All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) in all 10 hill districts on May 3, was the spark of the violence which has still kept parts of Manipur on edge. The solidarity march was taken out to oppose the move for the majority Meiteis’ inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list.

Pradip Phanjoubam, who is the Editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics, said the thrust of the ST movement by the Meiteis is on the protection of their land. He said they believe if they are recognised as tribals, their land would be protected.

“The Meiteis are stuck in the Imphal valley which is less than 10% of Manipur’s total geographical area. Even as population is growing, people are coming to the valley. People believe some protection is necessary else they will be marginalised in their own homeland,” Phanjoubam said.

The hills make up 90% of Manipur. The Meiteis cannot buy land there but the tribals can do so in the hills as well as the Imphal valley. Phanjoubam said reservation is another reason behind the conflict.

“You will find your colleagues, who studied in better schools and colleges and are better off economically, are still getting advantage of reservation. Then, there are promotional avenues and tax exemptions for them. The ST movement is basically born out of that,” he said.

He said unlike in the Naga hills where a village is owned by all, a Kuki village is owned by its chief and the chief will want his sons to become the head of various villages. The “capable people” are landless and so, they move out and set up their own villages, Phanjoubam said.

He said the Kukis felt targeted when the forest eviction drive started. He said there are marginal farmers and they are prone to growing poppy. He said when the government launched an anti-poppy campaign, the Kukis thought they were being targeted, again.

“At one point, the government declared that it would walk away with the suspension of operation (SoO) agreement signed with two Kuki armed groups,” Phanjoubam said. He said when rumours spread that the “Anglo-Kuki war centenary gate” was burnt down, the Kukis burst into anger and attacked and burned down Meitei villages.

“It was a conflict between them and the government. They (Kukis) think the government is the representative of the Meiteis. There was tension even with the Nagas before but the Nagas remained focused on the government. When NSCN-IM leader Th Muivah wanted to visit his native place in Manipur a few years ago, he was blocked. The fight then was between the police and the Nagas. They did not think of hitting the Meiteis,” Phanjoubam said.

He said there should be some mechanism to settle the land problem. There should be constitutional protection to land, he insisted. Meitei organisations suspect the hand of drug cartels in the violence.

Athouba, who is the spokesman for Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity, claimed the violence on May 3 was pre-planned. “Drugs worth hundreds of crores of rupees are regularly smuggled into Manipur and seized by the security personnel. Who are these drug cartels? We suspect the Golden Triangle (borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand notorious for drugs manufacturing and smuggling) is being shifted to Manipur’s un-administered hills that are managed by the tribals,” Athouba said.

He said new Chin (Kukis are Chin in Myanmar) population and the technology for drug manufacturing is being shifted to Manipur. These drug cartels are very rich and they can manage everyone, including politicians, he said.