Politics of power brought Manipur ethnic violence. Time to move to justice
The changing contours of the Manipur conflict reveal contrasting realities. On the one hand, schools reopened in the Imphal Valley after a two-month hiatus, while on the other, more than 2,000 defence volunteers in Churachandpur protested the beheading of Langza village volunteer David Theik by Meitei militants. These incidents, coupled with the recent killing of mentally challenged Kuki-Zomi woman Debora Donngaihching Hangzo in Imphal, contradict the peace talks propagated by the majoritarian valley populous. The Meira Paibis (Meitei women’s group) stopping the Indian Army from stationing its troops in affected peripheral areas, a ‘no-work, no-pay’ rule amid massive displacement, and an indefinite internet shutdown show the inability – or the lack of will – of Manipur’s political dispensation to stop the growing ethnic violence. The Narendra Modi government’s silence is deafening, too. The 2005 burning of the state library of Imphal, where most of the historical data of Manipur’s tribal communities was documented, combined with systematic radicalisation of the Meitei community, seems to have gradually caused the ethnic clashes targeting hill tribes, particularly in Zomi-Kuki inhabited areas. The attacks on Zomi-Kuki tribals, which began on 3 May this year, are the outcome of a systemic build-up and planning over several months at least. This disturbance can also be traced to developments emerging from the controversial opening of the Chivu-Chandrakirti Park in Behiang, Churachandpur, in October 2022. It remains a site of much controversy between the Zomi-Kuki tribes in Churachandpur and the valley’s Meitei community. According to The Wire, “the stone inscriptions at Chivu misrepresent the victory of the British over the Lushai [tribal chiefs] as a victory of the Manipur Maharaja” during the Lushai expedition of 1871-72. Commemorating the event in this way highlights the overriding predominance of majoritarian state history over local histories in a culturally diverse region like Manipur. This controversy was followed by the state’s ‘immigrant hunting’ programme, which alienated the Kuki-Zomi people and led to Manipur’s own indigenous tribals being branded as ‘refugees’ and ‘immigrants’. In January 2023, the Imphal Municipal Corporation initiated a survey of all Kuki-Zomi areas in and around the Manipur capital, marking them with paints and numbers. Subsequently, on 3 May, heinous mobs attacked thesehouses and properties. The state government had also demolished three Kuki-Zomi churches in Imphal, stating they were illegally built on government lands. The Manipur government followed up on these events by evicting tribal villages accused of encroaching on reserved forests. This led to a protest rally on 10 March in various hill districts under the aegis of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF). Despite the rally being peaceful, Manipur CM N Biren Singh accused Kuki-Zomi insurgent groups of instigating unrest. Harping on this claim, he withdrew the state government from the tripartite talks that had been going on since 2005 between underground hill groups, the state government, and the central government for the purpose of finding an administrative settlement for the relative autonomy of tribes in Manipur. In 1873, John Butler, Deputy Commissioner of Cachar, recorded the Peace Treaty of Sanjenthong between Sumkam Guite – son of deceased Raja Guite – and Chandrakirti, incumbent Raja of Manipur: “The formula of the oath declared that peace should now last between the two nations until the sun rose in the West, until rivers flowed up hill, until hair grew on stones…” Another treaty, the Treaty of Moirang, was signed on 10 April 1875 between Maharaja Chandrakirti and Sumkam Guite. The terms of the agreement stated that “Sumkam’s territorial jurisdiction will extend upto Moirang, and the Maharaja will rule over the rest of the plains. Both will collect revenues from their respective subjects…” This effectively entrenched Sumkam Guite’s control over Moirang. Lasting peace was finally achieved with the conclusion of this treaty.