Manipur Riots: Multi-Ethnic Society, Rising Aspirations and Escapist Governance

The twin absence of Policy and Governance have led to a crisis of inter-ethnic conflict in Manipur

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It is an absolute tragedy that the Kukis and the Meeteis in Manipur have clashed and killed each other in the the early part of May 2023. This is now followed-up by what was a prelude to the crisis in terms of political articulations, free for all statements, allegations and what not. Whereas the usual understanding of such crises is in terms of explaining the process and the outcome of what has just happened, I feel strongly that such an approach would be very inappropriate to understand and explain the present crisis – we need to have an idea of the ethnicity building-ups at least during the previous few decades, the emergence of new shared feelings within each ethnicity, the qualitative as well as quantitative dynamics of demographic characteristics of each ethnicity, and the unfolding overall development dynamics of the economy and society.

I prefer to look from this larger and longer-term perspective to analyse what has just happened in Manipur instead of a common approach to bring in a recent order of the High Court of Manipur directing the provincial government to put recommendation for inclusion of the Meeteis in the Scheduled Tribes of India. While this directive and the demand for inclusion of the of the Meeteis have been there for some time, these would not be the ultimate flame for the recent clash.

So let us look at the potential causes. During the last two decades or so, a very healthy and positive social strength of the Kukis has become visible. Increasingly, we are witnessing robust youths – both boys and girls – among the Kukis becoming competent professionals ranging from plain academic to professional degrees. This has invariably enhanced the Social Aspirations of their community. This transformation must definitely have had a kind of behavioural implications for them. During the last thirty/forty years, the Kukis have been manifesting the preference to settle in a location in a rather permanent way and in a way different from their earlier social habits. In this, the fast decline in the coverage of the Protected Forest Areas of the governme  nt must naturally have attracted their attention; while the geographic size remains the same, the trees (as huge as they are) in the Protected Forest areas have been the easy targets of the powers that be and the high-ranking officials. So when the Kukis express their preference for these areas for settlement, the moral ground for rejection is naturally weak.

This reality has been coupled by the establishment of military rule in the neighbouring country of Myanmar. There are signs that the Kukis on both sides of the country have been able to augment their interactions with potential encouragements from China. Since the borders are porous and significant political developments are happening across the border, it is imperative that India has a Myanmar Policy with the North East, particularly Manipur, in the background. But does India have a Myanmar Policy? NO.

With the different ethnic groupings constituting the society of Manipur, and with the inter- and intra-ethnic qualitative and quantitative dimensions undergoing changes, it is of utmost significance that there is a Demographic (Population) Policy keeping in mind the domestic as well as international political economic implications and also reflecting the socio-cultural dimensions. Does India (for that matter, Manipur) have one? NO.

Since there has been different property rights regimes in an otherwise small region like Manipur, it is imperative that a land policy is evolved to ultimately align the varied interests of the ethnicities. Does Manipur have a Land Policy? NO.

Because of history of association, the affiliation of the Kukis to the social sector structure of Manipur, both in terms of participation and alliance, is more robust than elsewhere.

In this more-ethnicity oriented social complex, there has recently emerged a more rigorous religious-oriented political arrangement.

These unfolding are happening in a context of Manipur where there has not emerged any long-term dynamics of development and for socio-political endeavors for shared development. This is a convenient atmosphere for various agents to maneuver for upmanship. During the last few months, groupings of the various ethnicities – the Kukis and the Meeteis – have been making fairly provocative statements reflecting rising intentions of engagements. This is the moment for the governance to come in and put in place the desired lines of action and compliance. While Government has been there, the Governance has not been visible.

Thus the twin absence of Policy and Governance have led to a crisis of inter-ethnic conflict in Manipur. But the inherited general strength of the population has been there for sharing and appreciation for ages across ethnicities, and it does possess elements for continuous sustainability.

Read also: Manipur Burns Over Question of ST Status For Meiteis

Prof. Amar Yumnam is a Fellow / Visiting Professor at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS). Views expressed here are personal.


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May 2024


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