Indic Varta

  • Visitor:9
  • Published on:
  • 4 min read
  • 0
  • 0

Who really must be recognised as the STs in the North-East? Can the Christians be termed as a ‘minority community’ here? In other words, who are the real minorities in the North-East? In the context of Manipur, economic backwardness doesn’t seem too good an argument as there are several areas in the valley which are poorer than the hills.

Manipur Violence: A Religious Conflict

The ongoing violence in Manipur between the Imphal Valley-based Hindu Meiteis (also referred to as Manipuris) and the hill-based Kukis, who are predominantly Christian, has made headlines almost everywhere. Besides the imposition of shoot-at-sight orders by the Government, the Army has also been deployed to bring the situation under control. It was from the Kuki-dominated border district of Churachandpur that the violence began on the 27th of April and later spread to various other districts including Imphal West, Kakching, Thoubal, Jiribam, and Bishnupur. The ongoing tension in Manipur is primarily between the Hindu Meitei community and the Christian Kukis.

Several houses of the Tamil Hindu community residing in the Indo-Myanmar border town of Moreh have been burnt down by radical Christian groups. This community has made Manipur their home and are very well-integrated with the Manipuri Hindu society and its culture. On the other hand, the Hindu Meities of Manipur largely belong to the Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampraday. It was Sri Sri Bhubaneswar Sadhu Thakur, a Bishnupriya Manipuri Vaishnavite Guru who not only popularised the worship of Krishna among the Meities but also established the Sri Radha Govinda Ji temple or Govindabari at Nabadweep in West Bengal.

In fact, the Bishnupriya Manipuri community regarded the Meitei Hindus as closer to them culturally than people from the hills who had expelled the Bishnupriyas from their own homeland. They are now residing in several areas of Assam’s Barak Valley and a few districts of Upper Assam and almost all of these Bishnupriya Manipuri families are staunch practising Hindus. Earlier, many Nagas and Kukis too, used to assimilate themselves into the larger Meitei identity and become Hindus themselves. But, this is no more the case. In the face of all these, can we still deny the reality by arguing that it is an ‘ethnic’ conflict or ‘inter-tribal’ feud in Manipur?

So, defying all political correctness, let the truth be accepted that it is a Hindu-Christian conflict that the rest of Bharat is witnessing again now at its Poorvottar frontier. It is again a battle of civilisational existence that the Hindus of the North-East are fighting for. Inter and intra-tribal hostilities certainly cannot be ruled out, but at the same time, we also cannot overlook the religious dimension of the problem of insurgency in the North-East that has been raging for many years now. The same holds true for Manipur as well. The religious faultline between the Hindus and the Christians has reopened again, especially with respect to the issue of the inclusion of the Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribes category. 

This is what agitated the Christian organisations of Manipur the most, compelling us to raise some very important questions in this regard – Who really must be recognised as the STs in the North-East? Can the Christians be termed as a ‘minority community’ here? In other words, who are the real minorities in the North-East? In the context of Manipur, economic backwardness doesn’t seem too good an argument as there are several areas in the valley which are poorer than the hills. The Government needs to take into account all these multi-faceted aspects of the problem before implementing any policy concerning any community.

What is the Current Conflict All About?

To understand this, let us first begin by understanding the population composition of Manipur in brief. The three most important ethnic groups inhabiting present-day Manipur are the valley-based Hindu Meiteis and the Pangals (Manipuri Muslims); the hill-based, predominantly Christian Naga communities such as Kabui, Tangkhul, Khoirao, Maring, etc.; and, the Kukis who are relatively smaller in number, e.g. Thadou, Hmar, Vaiphei, Gangte, Simte, Zou, etc. The northern hills are predominantly populated by the Tangkhul Nagas, and the southern hills are the main bastion of the Chins, Kukis, Zomis, and Mizos. Many Tamils from Moreh have migrated elsewhere – to Tamil Nadu or outside of India. 

So, the population in the hills of Manipur is largely Christian unlike that of the valley. But, the increasing popularity of Christianity in Manipur in the present times can be understood from the fact that it is today the second fastest-growing religion in the state, accounting for about 45% and more of the total population. Besides the Jaintias of Meghalaya and the Noctes and the Apatanis of the Ziro Valley of Arunachal Pradesh, the Meiteis of Manipur have been among those who have staunchly resisted the proselytisation agenda of the Church. Moreover, besides Assam and Tripura, Manipur, at present, is the only other state in the North-East where Hindu Dharma is still in existence.

But, Christianity has been making inroads among a significant section of the Meiteis here since the early 2000s, mainly as a result of the proselytisation endeavours of the Naga, Kuki, and Mizo pastors. This important angle must not be overlooked while we try to analyse and understand the linkages between the decline of Hindu Dharma in the North-East, eventually paving the way for an Abrahamic thought-process to take root among the people here, and the subsequent rise of secessionist movements. Inter and intra-community rivalries (often referred to as ethnic or tribal conflicts) were quite commonplace in the earlier times as well, before the advent of Christianity.

But, the rise of Christianity gave a new texture to these conflicts that now became intertwined with a separatist mindset informed by the logic of ‘Who is superior to whom’? This time, the violence began in Manipur when several Kuki organisations called for a 12-hour total shutdown in protest against the state Government’s decision to carry out a survey on reserved and protected forest areas and wetlands under the ‘Green Manipur’ campaign. Largely inhabited by the Kuki community (including Kuki-Chin migrants from Myanmar), these areas are the hotspots of illegal poppy cultivation in Manipur. Interestingly, the timing of these protests coincided with the visit of Chief Minister N Biren Singh to Churachandpur.

It was on the 3rd of May that the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur (a predominantly Christian body comprising of various Naga and Kuki organisations) had called for a Tribal Solidarity March in Churachandpur to oppose the demand for the inclusion of the Meiteis in the ST category. The protests were initially concentrated in the hill districts of Manipur, specifically Churachandpur, but soon began to take a violent turn. Hateful and provocative messages against the Meitei Hindus began to circulate in social media, which led to the suspension of mobile internet services for 5 days, imposition of night curfew and Section 144 in several places of the state.

The same organisations which were a part of this protest also expressed their displeasure after the Government of Manipur had ordered the demolition of churches constructed on illegally-occupied lands in Imphal during an eviction drive in March, 2023. In this regard, we also need to take note of certain important events that have been taking place in Manipur since the past few months, such as the resignation of a few MLAs, the NRC issue which is gradually picking up steam in the state, etc. Then came the directive of the Manipur High Court to the state Government for the setting up of a committee to consider the matter of including the Meiteis in the ST category.

The High Court, of course, does seem to understand the rationale behind this demand of the Meiteis. But, in the protest rallies that were being carried out against this directive of the High Court, the protesters were seen raising hateful slogans against the Hindus of the Valley while carrying sophisticated arms and weapons such as AK-47s. Who provided them these arms? Were common Kuki civilians assisted by militants in their war against the Meiteis? Just a few days before the occurrence of this violence, a banned militant outfit – the Kuki Independent Army (KIA) – led by its Commander-in-Chief, had looted a large number of arms and ammunitions from a designated camp at Chongkhuzou village in Churachandpur.

The way things have panned out, we certainly cannot rule out the possibility of an outside hand in these protests. Shops owned by Hindu Meitei families were mercilessly looted and destroyed by armed Christian Kukis in different areas of Bishnupur and Churachandpur districts. The Christian Kuki outfits that led the protest movement also burnt down the houses and temples of the Hindu Meiteis. E.g. a violent Kuki mob vandalised and destroyed a temple of Eputhou Pakhangba and also burnt its Salai Taret flag at Thingam-phai Meetei Lekai in Churachandpur district, mainly in retaliation for the demolition of illegally-constructed Churches in the Imphal Valley by the Government.

The Hindus of the Valley have been forced to leave their homes to other safer Hindu-dominated areas like Moirang, Saiton, and Ningthoukon, besides the capital city of Imphal and the southern districts of Assam in the Barak Valley so as to escape the terror. The towns of Kumbi, Moirang, Ningthoukhong, and Kwakta are lodging thousands of displaced people who have been evacuated from Churachandpur and the adjoining settlements. We must not forget that most of the militant groups of the North-East are sponsored both overtly and covertly by the Church. These groups are providing extensive help to the Kuki missionaries for constructing Churches at several strategic locations in the border areas of Manipur.

Their larger objective is that during crisis times such as these, the same Churches can be used as safe hide-outs for the militants. Hence, these militant groups can be seen to be at the forefront of suppressing at gunpoint any opposition by the Meitei Hindus against Christian conversions in the Valley area. Their long-term plan has always been to convert the Hindu land of Manipur into ‘Manipur for Christ’ similar on the lines of the motto of ‘Nagaland for Christ’ of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). Unfortunately, we do not yet see many media platforms covering these real issues. Rather, on the contrary, we see a fake narrative being peddled by a few self-styled “intellectuals” on the Manipur violence.

Churachandpur – the Militant Hotbed of Manipur

The protests began from the largest district of Manipur, i.e. Churachandpur – the epicentre of all terrorism and terror activities in the state, from rapes and molestation, to the killing of Indian army officers and bombing of military convoys. A shocking incident of rape and molestation of around 25-26 women from the Hmar community brought the district to the national limelight in the year 2006. The perpetrators were the militants of a Christian insurgent outfit. Each of Manipur’s nine districts has been affected, in some way or the other, by unending militant violence. But, the pattern of violence that has been witnessed in the hill district of Churachandpur over the years has been the most convoluted of all.

Firstly, because of the population composition of this district which is spread across several rival factions of the Christian Nagas and the majority Kukis; second, Churachandpur shares its borders with Assam, Mizoram, and Myanmar. The hilly terrain of Churachandpur is surrounded by thick and dense jungles along the unfenced and densely forested border with Myanmar. There are several vulnerable portions of the India-Myanmar border in this strategically-located district that have been facilitating the entry of insurgents and other anti-national elements into the state time and again, especially during conflicts such as the one at present and other volatile times.

The rapid spread of Christianity in Churachandpur was subsequently followed by bitter community conflicts and hostilities between the Kukis and the Nagas since the beginning of the 1990s. E.g. in 1997, clashes broke out between the Kukis and the Zomis, resulting in an undocumented number of fatalities and large-scale internal displacement of population. In due course of time, several militant groups, each claiming to represent specific groups and communities, and more often than not, multiple outfits claiming to represent the same community came up in the state. Significantly, almost all of them have a viable presence in the Christian-dominated hill districts, especially Churachandpur.

Churachandpur offers an easy route to Myanmar compared to the other border districts of Manipur. There is a village called Behiang in Churachandpur, where Col. Viplav Tripathi, along with his wife and minor son were killed by militants in November, 2021. The road from Churachandpur town to Behiang falls under the area of influence of the Zomi Revolutionary Army – an insurgent organisation having well-established links with drugs and narcotics syndicates in Nagaland and Myanmar. Behiang is among the three listed drug trafficking routes, more precisely known for the smuggling of heroin and Yaba tablets from the Wa state of Myanmar into Manipur for onward supply into the rest of India and abroad.

The Hill-Valley Divide in Manipur

Prior to the Partition of Bharat in 1947, the king of Manipur had promulgated two laws for ensuring the smooth administration of the Imphal Valley and the hill districts. One was the Manipur State Constitution Act for people of the valley and the other was the Manipur State Hill (Administration) Regulation for the hill residents. This was where and how the difference in the administrative set-up of both these regions of the state began, and it continued to be operational even after Manipur joined the Union of India in the year 1972. When Manipur was a Union Territory prior to this, the Government body of the hill areas was known as the Standing Committee.

But, with the promulgation of the above-mentioned two laws, those living in the plains could no more buy land in the hill areas. After Manipur gained statehood, the Standing Committee of the hills was renamed as the Hill Areas Committee (HAC), entrusted with the responsibility of safeguarding the interests of the hill residents of the state. The root of the problem lies in the fact that the current administrative system provides administrative autonomy to the elected Hill Areas Committee. So, the hill residents of Manipur (largely Christian) have their own share of freedom everywhere in the state with respect to land and resources, unlike the Hindus of the Valley.

The issue of uncontrolled immigration to Manipur, and especially the Imphal Valley, in search of cultivable land and easy money, by people from across the border with Myanmar and Bangladesh, is rarely talked about. This has compounded the problem further in the recent times. Deforestation, illegal poppy cultivation, and smuggling of drugs and narcotic substances are some of the problems associated especially with the Kuki-Chin immigrants from Myanmar. The hill areas of Manipur inhabited by the Christian Nagas and the Kukis are protected as “tribal lands” via laws which strictly prohibit outsiders, including the Meitei Hindus of the Imphal Valley from settling there.

What if the Meiteis are Recognised as STs?

So, if included in the ST list, the Meiteis will be able to purchase land in the hill areas of Manipur, inhabited by the Christian groups. At present, the Meiteis cannot buy land in almost 90% of the state’s territory. The reverse is however possible. That means, the Christians can come and settle in the Valley at any time and also buy land. This has created a huge imbalance between the rights and freedoms of the Hindus in their own land versus those of the Christians. So, in that sense, are the Hindus of Manipur protected? No. They are not. Is their population increasing? No. Not really. From the demographic perspective, the population of Hindus in Manipur is declining almost every decade.

Although the Hindus comprise 42-45% of the total population of Manipur at present, they reside in a very small area of the state, i.e. hardly 10%. The Pangals or Manipuri Muslims comprise around 10% of the state’s total population. However, the population of the Muslims is gradually on the rise in Manipur because of the infiltration of Bangladeshi immigrants from neighbouring Assam. The hills comprise more than 85% of the total area of the state, but here, only 40-42% of the non-Hindu population resides. The starkly visible religious demographic imbalance of Manipur becomes clearer when we have a glance at the figures of the Census beginning from 1901.

In 1901, the population of the Hindus in Manipur was 96%, which had fallen to 64% by the year 1949. Hence, there has been a drastic decline in the percentage of population of the Hindus in Manipur over a period of time. As per the Census data of 2011, Hindus comprised 41.39% of the total population of the state, far below 50%. Looking at these trends, it can be safely assumed that in the forthcoming years as well, the Hindu population of Manipur is all set to decline. While the population of other religious communities, i.e. the Muslims and the Christians, is continually on the rise. The same story happened in the other hill states of the North-East as well, whether it be in Mizoram, Nagaland, or Meghalaya.

Acknowledgement: A sincere note of thanks to Babeena and Jayalakshmi for enlightening me on the several complex dimensions of this conflict. Thanks to Dipak Singha Ji as well for reposing faith in me.

Center for Indic Studies is now on Telegram. For regular updates on Indic Varta, Indic Talks and Indic Courses at CIS, please subscribe to our telegram channel !