Can’t be a five-trillion dollar economy at cost of rivers of blood flowing in North-East: Rupa Chinai

At the heart of the conflict are a disenchanted peoples, Kuki-Zo, Nagas and Meiteis and a society torn asunder by the cynical politics of the ‘double engine sarkar’
Image Courtesy: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

During my first visit to Manipur in 1980 the walls of Imphal were ablaze with the slogan ‘Indian dogs go home’. It was the time of fearsome urban guerrilla warfare waged by the Meitei and Naga groups against the Indian Army. Many civilians were caught in the crossfire and 1,500 cases of fake encounters are today pending with the Supreme Court.

The Meitei distrust Army presence. For decades they lived with the crushing weight of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that enabled military forces to conduct indiscriminate arrests, killings, rape of women, with impunity. The Kuki-Zo groups of Manipur however told me that presence of Indian Army protected them against the oppression of both the Naga and the Meitei.

A Khasi friend in government service in Manipur observed how Meitei used the word “hau” while speaking of the tribes. This “other-ing” despite the similar origins of race, is a factor that has long been a wedge dividing ethnic communities of Manipur, he said.

The revival of the Sanamahi religion was a genuine quest of Meitei youth for identity and a return to cultural roots. It rejected the baggage of caste, untouchability brought to their society during 300 years of forcible conversion to Hinduism. Many Meitei today follow a synthesis of both religions but it is not a society at peace with its identity.

The Meitei grudge how in 1949 the Manipur Maharaja was made to join the Indian Union under duress. The majority of Meitei did not however protest at that time, because in this Merger Agreement was the clause that promised them development and livelihood. The government of India(GOI)’s failure to honour that promise and the hardship of daily survival in these parts has fuelled Meitei resentment since decades.

The cause of Manipur’s integrity is close to the hearts of the Meitei. Any threat to it is fiercely opposed. The Naga and Kuki have long been demanding separate administration and territory. The Meitei bitterly recall the loss of the fertile Hukwang Valley to Burma by Nehru, leaving 70 per cent of their population confined to 10 per cent of the land in the Valley.

Manipur had no economy other than through drug trade and gun running. Government jobs were the only source of  legitimate employment but to avail even the job of a peon, to get a promotion or get admission in an educational insti tution, bribes of huge amounts had to be paid.

It was this widespread perception of corruption that led to the ouster of the Congress Party and the emergence of the BJP in the 2017 election, led by chief minister, Biren Singh now in his  second term in power.

Deep rooted fault lines have since then been nurtured by political forces, leading to indoctrination and radicalization  of youth connected to the Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepon that claim to be “cultural groups”. Supported by Meitei women, they have conducted murderous attacks on the Kuki in the foothills surrounding the Imphal Valley, rape and arson.

Given the conflicting claims over ‘who cast the first stone’ or who has more dead bodies, it is not possible for us to verify the truth. Having closely followed events since May 4, as they were actually unfolding, my impression is that in the first wave of violence the Kuki suffered gravely, fighting a losing battle with country made weapons in self de- fence.

In the second phase Meitei casualties shot up — 200 estimated to be massacred in the Khamenlok incident of June 13th. The Kuki compelled their militant groups to come out of their designated camps where they were confined by an agreement of Suspension of Operations with GOI. The inci dent is not officially admitted by the Meitei because they could not explain their presence in this Kuki area.

The Manipur government is alleged to have initiated this State-sponsored ethnic cleansing of the Kuki tribes. In March 2023 they initiated a grab of Kuki ancestral lands claiming they were State owned reserved forests. They appear to have taken a leaf from Burma’s military rulers that did the same to the Rohingya people and then bartered their prime lands in deals with Chinese and Indian business interests.

Sandwiched between two hostile groups in Manipur — the Naga and Meitei — the Kuki are also spread across all neighbouring states barring Arunachal. They represent amongst the most vulnerable of groups. It is said they were  the last of the tribes to come to the NE region. British records show they settled in the region since 1800s.

The Manipur government is on record recently, claiming that the Kuki are “poppy growers”, “narco terrorists” and “illegal infiltrators”. It ignores the fact that every group in Manipur including insurgents and politicians, thrive on the drug trade. Poppy cultivation arises in the absence of other means of economic development, and that controlling illegal infiltration from Myanmar is the job of the government.

Unlike other tribal areas of India’s North East that have strong Consti tutional protections, the laws related to land rights of the Manipur tribes are weak and ill defined. They have long sought 6th Schedule protection as given to the tribes of Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram.

While in the past the Kuki have clashed with the Naga and also within their own groups over the issue of land, in the present violence there is the emergence of strong alliance between the Kuki Zo who constitute the foothill groups and are now hell bent on a separate administration. They have support from Mizoram and the Chin groups of Myanmar who share a close affinity to the Kuki Zo people.

Seeing an opportunity to press resolution of the Naga Peace Accord, the Manipur Naga are reiterating the boundaries of their territories pending the emergence of a Peace Accord. With the Centre intent on following its own agenda, conflict resolution needs intervention from other NE states and the involvement of public opinion in the rest of India.

The worry for all other states in India’s north-east now is that the conflagration will spread to neighbouring states. Greed for Kuki land has long made them vulnerable. In Karbi Anglong, Assam for instance, I came across stories of Kuki being forced to languish in refugee camps following engineered communal     violence. Since then local elites, backed by the administration, have captured their lands to plant cash crop mono-cul ture plantations.

With the massive thrust given to the National Palm Oil Mission, backed by an Rs.11,000 crore subsidy, the dispossesion of Kuki lands appears to be high on the BJP agenda.

The Palm Oil Mission is facilitating the entry of corporate giants. The devastating consequences of these monoculture cash crop plantations in Mizoram now ten years down the line, is strongly telling.

Evidence from Indonesia and PNG meanwhile show that palm oil is destroying the biodiversity, soil fertility and water sources. It has reduced once proud land owners to plantation labour and there is a loss of local food security and sovereignty of the tribes there.

With the passing of the recent 2023 Amendments to the Forest Conservation Act, the BJP has effectively dismantled the Constitutional protections of the tribes in the north east (NE), the way it did in Kashmir. It is now confident to claim it will make India the top three economies in the world and promises a five trillion dollar economy. Its ‘Look East Policy’ will be through mining of the mineral rich tribal lands across India     and industrialization by corporates.

For the NE and the rest of India, this is a wake-up call. We  have ignored our tribal people and their long fight to pro tect jal, jungle and zameen. India’s Constitution has justly made the tribal people the guardians of India’s lands and natural resources. It is due to them that India retains the last of the three biodiversity hotspots left on our planet.

This enables us to breathe, be nourished, find healing and ensures the survival of future generations.

It is for these reasons that our government should be told .,  that we do not want India’s five trillion dollar economy at the expense of the rivers of blood that flow in the North East.

(The author, a senior independent journalist, is author of the 2016 book Understanding India’s Northeast: A Reporter’s Journal; this is a text of a talk delivered at a public meeting on July 28; Friends of Manipur organized by the Bombay Catholic Sabha and Bishop Allwyn).


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