Fire in the Hills

By Thongkholal Haokip

Outlook, June 1, 2023, pp. 28-30. PDF

The continued selective targeting and demonisation of the Kukis, and the radicalisation of youths in Imphal valley under the nose of the state government led to the outbreak of the riots.

The recent riots in Manipur broke out to the surprise of many. It came amidst the state’s journey towards a peaceful resolution of various political demands by militant groups, and the projection of the state as tourism and investment destination.

The development of the Loktak Lake and Sangai Ethnic Park at Moirang Khunou as a tourist attraction, the Shirui Lily Festival at Ukhrul, the promotion of Geljang Resort located at Churachandpur, the Khongjom War Memorial Complex and the Indian National Army Memorial at Moirang were the visible ones. In fact, the state hosted the grand finale of Femina Miss India 2023 last month. This is the first time in the pageant’s history that it is held outside Mumbai.

Despite such projections of the state as a peaceful and calm destination worth visiting and investing in, there were simmering tensions within the state wherein marginal groups found some of the policies of the current government as discriminatory, including those involving displacement.

Manipur has been prone to conflicts and several violent ethnic clashes took place in the 1990s. During those times, the militant movements were unsurmountable and so pervasive that the state was unable to handle them effectively. Two decades on, the state’s capacity has increased dramatically and the law and order situation has improved. No crisis should be impossible to handle, if necessary instructions are given to the law enforcement agencies.

Yet why did the Manipur riots happen and who is responsible for it are the uncomfortable questions that need to be asked for the sake of accountability. The scale of arson and violence, particularly the gruesome rape and killing of students and the unruly mob violence in the streets of Imphal, is unimaginable and unexpected. According to official report on May 9, there were 60 deaths, 230 people injured, 1,700 houses damaged, 1,041 firearms looted, and 20,000 people shifted to safer places. There must have been more deaths still not recorded.

During chief minister N Biren Singh’s first term, some populist programmes like “Go to the Hills” and “Go to Village” were launched, despite delivering trivial services in the rural areas. Since returning to power for a second consecutive term in March 2022, this time with a single-majority, the government has acted in an aggressive way, focusing on issues like deforestation, illicit crop cultivation, illegal immigration and drug trafficking. However, the way he attempts to address these issues is through the selective targeting of a particular community, despite the problems having been prevalent throughout the state, cutting across communities and geography.

For example, a forest department order dated November 7, 2022, annulled all past government orders regarding human habitation in villages inside Churachandpur–Khoupum Protected Forest, claiming the past orders to be ‘imperfect, defective, erroneous and unacceptable.’ The special order suddenly turned many Kuki villagers into encroachers or trespassers in their ancestral lands.

These new standards that the government devised are unfair to the hill communities, as they owned the land and forests for centuries. To them, the cancellation of orders for setting aside forest areas lacks legitimate expectation, legal certainty and devoid of the principles of natural justice.

To the Kukis, it is the case of selective or unequal enforcement of the law. Among the 36 reserved forests and 22 protected forests in 14 forests divisions of the state, the state government is focused on certain forest divisions such as Kangpokpi and Churachandpur, districts where Kukis dominate the demography. In order to give more teeth to the forest department, the forest guards were recently equipped with arms. As per reports on March 7, 2023, forest guards of six divisions were trained at Manipur Police Training College, Pangei, for arms handling and operation.

These are in contradiction to the National Forest Policy of 1988 which attempts to associate tribal people in joint forest management along with forest officials.

An eviction drive was carried out at K. Songjang village in Churachandpur district on February 20, 2023, after the villagers’ point had been accepted for 37 years. Though the special order mentioned the decision of the state cabinet to appoint authority to recommend measures for rehabilitation or relocation, people had zero expectation of such relocation and rehabilitation measures to be undertaken. Here, the Indian Forest Act 1927 has been weaponised to disposes tribals of their land and forest.

The eviction drives coincided with months-long water scarcity and the blame went to the alleged illicit cultivation and traditional farming practices in the hills. This was despite the fact that the practice has largely eroded with the participation and suggestion from Kuki community itself. But the demonisation continued as the intention was to dehumanise the Kukis as a whole.

To protest against the selective eviction drive, the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) organised peaceful rallies in Churachandpur, Kangpokpi and Tengnoupal districts. The rallies were peaceful except in Kangpokpi where the police tried to stop protesters from gathering, resulting in violence. However, chief minister N. Biren Singh tried to implicate insurgent groups even where the rallies were peaceful. He threatened insurgent groups with ending the tripartite ceasefire, even though he was unsuccessful in convincing the Union home ministry.

In April, the forest and revenue departments attempted to conduct joint survey of the disputed Churachandpur–Khoupum Protected Forest area. The ITLF, in a consultative meeting held on April 19, unanimously resolved to oppose ‘all forms of survey,’ claiming that ‘there are procedural lapses’ and terming the initiatives as ‘illegal and unconstitutional.’

Amidst the prevalence of such discontent against the policies of the state government, an open gym was slated to be inaugurated in Churachandpur by the chief minister on April 28. In a show of displeasure to his policies, an angry mob vandalised the open gym and set it on fire the night before inauguration.

Even in May, ahead of the All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM)’s ‘tribal solidarity rally’ organised to protest the demand for inclusion of Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category, counter-blockades were imposed in Meitei-dominated Imphal valley. On the eve of the rally, volunteers in the Imphal-Saikul road sent back vehicles moving towards Saikul. This road was particularly chosen because the subdivision has an almost homogenous population consisting of mainly the Kukis.

While the May 3 rally was going on peacefully, some miscreants burnt the Anglo-Kuki Centenary gate near Leisang village in Churachandpur. It resulted in a clash at Kangvai on the border of Kuki-dominated Churachandpur and Meitei-majority Bishnupur districts. Someone was livestreaming the conflict on Facebook. On the comment section, there was an appeal not to refer to the rival side as ‘tribal’ or ‘hao’ in Manipuri but specifically as Kuki.

The singling-out of the Kukis as the enemy during this riot rekindled the memories of the Meitei-Pangal conflict in the Imphal valley three decades ago. The violence that started on May 3, 1993 lasted for three days where the police commandos were alleged to had helped the perpetrators. During the present conflict, there are several allegations of police commandos clearing the little resistance that villagers could put up and the radicalised volunteers were resorting to arson and destruction of houses and other properties.

The selective targeting is also visible in the massive incineration of houses and churches in Imphal. The houses and churches of other tribal groups were carefully spared except few houses and churches accidentally burnt. Most Kuki localities were identified and then the attacks started with churches. Houses were looted and burnt thereafter.

An uncomfortable question to be raised with regard to the current Manipur riots is how did the unruly mob loot heavily armed police stations and police training college without a single incident of armed confrontation? This could not happen without the complicity of the state government. At the heart of the state capital, the police were mere onlookers to the attacks, killings and arsons.

A video showed how the police escorted a mob to attack Kuki locality in Imphal. There was another viral video that allegedly indicated how elderly womenfolk allowed a young Kuki women residing in Imphal to be raped and possibly killed by unruly youths on the second day of the mayhem.

The violence also reached Delhi, where a group of Kuki students of Delhi University gathering at a worship place on the evening of May 4 to pray for peace in Manipur were attacked by Meitei youths. There were attempts to intervene when a police complaint was lodged. It was only after huge protest outside the police station that an FIR was registered.

The story of such discrimination and othering will continue in an unequal power relations, until there is direct intervention from New Delhi.

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