Imphal: A complex and volatile cocktail of conflict over land rights, cultural dominance, and drug smuggling, erupted in one of the worst ethnic violence the northeast has witnessed in decades, experts and common people here feel.
Meiteis, who predominantly stay in Imphal valley, blame the Kuki tribals for the clashes, which according to them have their roots in poppy cultivation, militancy and opposition to the demand to award ST status to Meiteis.
On the other hand, the Kukis, who mostly live in the hills, allege that the Meiteis are threatening their very existence by attempting to grab their land by seeking scheduled tribe status.
Currently, in tribal areas, land can be owned by tribals under customary law.
“The Kukis have been involved in poppy cultivation for a long time and it created a drug culture in Manipur. When the government destroyed that, it created resentment in the community,” Prof Angom Dilip Kumar Singh of Manipur University told PTI.
Another reason for unease among Kukis is the BJP government’s proposal to introduce a National Register of Citizens (NRC) as people from the tribe, which is related to tribes in other northeastern states and Myanmar often move back and forth across borders.
The entire situation is also compounded by the free availability of arms in the state a legacy of the decades-long insurgency where all three major communities Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis – were involved.
Meitei leaders claim that Kuki militants who had signed suspension of Operation pacts with the government and agreed to live in designated camps guarded by central forces, have been roaming around freely with weapons, a charge that the Assam Rifles however does not agree with.
“A minimum of 60 per cent of the strength of a camp has to be maintained at all times, while the remaining can be out on authorised leaves. The arms are kept under double lock with one key with the group leader and the other with the police,” a senior Assam Rifles officer said.
A drive to remove Kukis from “encroached reserved forest lands”, too has not gone down well with the tribals who consider the forests to be their domain since time immemorial.
S Athang Haokip, a retired civil servant from the Kuki community, said the land problem is compounded by the fact that Meiteis who comprise nearly 60 per cent of Manipur’s population but are confined to just around eight per cent of the land in the state which is in extremely fertile Imphal valley.
“Now, they are looking to expand into the hills too. But the existing laws in Manipur do not allow them to buy land in hill areas. That is why they are demanding ST status,” Haokip said.
He, however, welcomed the government’s decision to stop poppy cultivation but questioned how and why the administration was allowing drugs from all over South East Asia to enter the state and then transit on to other parts of India.
He also pointed out that claims that Kukis were migrants from Myanmar were not borne out by facts including the history of Kuki tribals joining the Indian National Army (INA) and fighting for India’s freedom.
Medical student and a Meitei refugee from the current bout of ethnic clashes, Deviya Ningthoujam does not want to blame any particular community as according to her, the accumulation of small misunderstandings has led to this situation.
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“If you ask any old person in our village, they will blame the Kukis. If you ask any Kuki, they will say it’s our mistake. The fact is that no particular community started this clash.
“It is an accumulation of small grievances and misunderstandings which led to the clash,” she said.
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