By Arshad Azad
On May 3, 2023, Manipur, a northeastern state of India, slid into chaos when ethnic clashes broke out between Meities, predominantly Hindu, and the Kukis tribe, which follow the Christian religion. The reason for the violence is the demands of the Meities to get included in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, which would give them benefits enjoyed by the scheduled tribes, including Kukis and Nagas. The Meities demand for ST status was protested by the All Tribal Student Union (ATSU) of Manipur, which turned into a violent conflict that led to the killing of more than 100 people and displacement of more than 40000 people. In this conflict, Manipuri Muslims played a role of a peacemaker between Meities and Kukis. They prayed for communal harmony across the mosques in Manipur and organized the district-level peace bodies to support the victims. While doing social services and reconstructing social and communal harmony, Muslims did not discriminate based on religion or ethnicity, although they faced violence and discrimination regularly.
Genesis of the Conflict
Meities are the influential group in Manipur due to their population’s sheer size and dominance in the legislative assembly and government positions. They have even claimed that the Kukis are not natives of Manipur; they are tenants and residents. Meitei Leepun is a prominent cultural organization preserving and reviving the Meitei culture and is at the forefront of the demands for ST status. According to the 2011 Census, the Meitei population is 53 percent of the state’s population, approximately 3.5 million. Manipur has 60 assembly seats, of which 40 are located in the Imphal Valley, which Hindu Meiteis dominate. On the other hand, Kukis and Nagas are 40 percent of the total population and have ST status, which gives them land-owning rights in the hills and forests. However, Kukis and Nagas have a small share of the assembly seats.
Manipur is a hill state, but to rule the population without any substantial resistance, the British Empire divided the administration between hills and valleys that resulted in not only the economic, political, social, and cultural division of the people but it also inflicted a psychological divide among the natives of the state. However, the central government in independent India continued with the colonial division in the post-colonial times that perpetuated the hills and valleys divide, particularly in land revenue administration. Also, the colonial division was allowed to address the law and order situations during the counter-insurgency operations. Thus, the Indian State followed two laws, one for hills and the other for valleys. The Imphal Valley follows common laws which are applied to everyone, but the laws in the hills are exclusionary, particularly to city-inhabitants, Meiteis.
The imposition of the colonial era dichotomy in the post-colonial times in the hills and valleys created tension between the two communities. However, the de-colonialization is not limited to the northeastern region because colonial policies have social, cultural, political, psychological, and linguistic effects on pan India. The central government, state government, and civil society played a crucial role in maintaining peace and communication between the two communities to address the issues of distribution of resources, transportation, and peace and stability. However, the latest violence erupted in the Churachandpur district when Kuki protested against the Meitei’s demands to be recognized as Scheduled Tribes. Kukis believed that the ST status to Meities meant they could acquire lands in the hills that would weaken their social, economic, and political status because their population was lesser than Meities. Also, they need to have significant representation in the legislative assembly.
In this perpetual state of anarchy and violence in which both central and state governments failed miserably, the Meitei Pangals, who are Muslims, assured their support to douse the violence. However, they faced dire threats of violence and insecurity. Pangals have 8 percent of the population, the fourth largest after Meiteis, Nagas, and Kukis. Muslims suffered communal violence and discrimination on day to day basis in Manipur. In March 2016, six Muslim boys were brutally beaten up by a group of Meitei while they were on their way to Yaoshang Thabal Chongba ground for the Holi celebration in Lilong, near Imphal. After two weeks, there was another incident in which Meitei brutally thrashed three Muslim boys, allegedly for trying to steal a vehicle. On April 11, Meitei and Muslims clashed again in Imphal’s Konchak Neighbourhood, leading to the vandalization of houses and shops. The cases of lynching of Muslims have also been witnessed in Manipur, though the reason was the theft of vehicles, not cow slaughtering since the northeastern people eat bovine animals.
Manipur has also witnessed the expansion of the BJP’s idea of ‘New India’ of ‘othering’ since a coalition government was formed in Manipur in 2016. During the Rohingya crisis in 2017, Manipur drafted the Protection of Manipur People Bill in 2018 but did not include any Muslims in the drafting committee. Manipuri Muslims felt insecure because of the emerging threats from several initiatives such as vigilante violence, everyday discrimination, enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that excluded Muslims, and subsequent announcement of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at the national level that discriminates based on ethnicity and nativism. These issues were the primary sources of the BJP-RSS nexus to create an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ categorization of people based on Hindu and the ‘others,’ mainly related to minorities. Manipur also witnessed the lynching of Mohamed Farooq Khan in September 2018, which has found similarity with lynching cases in mainland India.
Nevertheless, during the ethnic and communal clashes between the two communities, Muslims did not side with the Kukis. Instead, they worked on the mechanisms and processes to establish peace in the state. The ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ categorization sharpened the debate about ‘natives’ and ‘outsiders’ and ‘pure’ and ‘corrupt’ people that resurfaced the fault lines of the colonial era between Meiteis and Kukis which were dormant for an extended period in the previous governments.
Upon the outbreak of the violence, the Muslims prayed for communal harmony across the mosques in the state for the peace and security of the Manipuris. The mass prayers were organized under the initiative of the Pangal Community of Goodwill Mission for Peace, which has 9 Pangal bodies as its constituents. The Meitie Muslim leaders planned to do peace marches and negotiations with the two conflicting parties that shaped their role as ‘peacemakers’ to bring peace and normalcy. As the violence became pervasive, Muslims organized sit-in protest demonstrations and rallies in all Muslim-dominated areas demanding peace.
Maulana Saeed Ahmed, one of the leading faces of the peacemakers among Muslims, is the President of the Jamat e Islam Hindi and the Imam of Jama Masjid, Imphal, stated that in Manipur, “we always lived in brotherhood and as children to one father and mother.” The violence targeted the peaceful co-existence of both communities, which have been living peacefully since the inception of the state of Manipur. The local Muslim leadership appealed to the Meities and Kukis to live peacefully with love and harmony again. The ongoing violence has disrupted the supply of essential commodities, resulting in the hoarding and skyrocketing of the prices of goods. Maulana Ahmed appealed to the shop owners and traders not to hike the prices of essential commodities during these difficult times.
The Muslims have organized themselves to meet their needs and contribute to Manipur’s economic, social, and political development. They have established Manipur Muslim Council, a platform to contact other ethnic communities. Also, the All Manipur Muslim Organisations’ Coordinating Committee (AMMOCC), located at Hatta, Imphal, plays a crucial role in facilitating the voices of the Muslim community. The AMMOCC encompasses all the Muslim organizations of the state, including Meitei Pangal Council, Jamat e-Islami, All Manipur Muslim Development Committee, Anjuman Eslahi Muashara, All Manipur Arts and Culture Organisation, United Manipur Muslim Women Development Organisation, All Manipur Muslim Students Organisation, and Pangal Street Vendors Organisations. Under the banner of AMMOCC, they organize peace marches to promote harmony, provide humanitarian assistance, establishing relief camps, and bridge the divide between Meities and Kukis. Many Meiteis got shelter in Muslim houses in Churchandarpur and Bishnupur districts. However, the local right-wing media is spreading rumors that the Muslims are helping the Kukis.
The AMMOCC, thus, is playing the ‘peacemaker’ role in the violence. The AMMOCC is providing humanitarian assistance to everyone affected by the violence. It has submitted a memorandum to the Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah during his visit to Manipur on May 29, 2023. The memorandum demanded that the Central government ensure and protect the state’s integrity and end the conflict between the Meiteis and the Kukis. If the Centre takes a decision threatening the state’s integrity, the memorandum stated that “all Muslim people and organizations will launch stringent democratic agitations.”
While the Muslims showed steadfast zeal to promote the Manipur state’s peace, stability, and security, right-wing Media channels such as ANI claimed that the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis from Myanmar and Bangladesh infiltrated Manipur. The news portal is trying to divert the attention from the Meities and Kukis, which many analysts call ‘ethnic cleansing’ as an issue of Muslim outsiders. In these turbulent times, while Muslims have come together to support Meities and Kukis to restore peace and stability, mainland India’s narrative of anti-Muslim hatred is spreading in Manipur.
The violence is becoming omnipresent because the state and central government failed to take action to end it. The MHA’s Amit Shah Visit resulted in the surrendering of the licensed weapons, but the incidents of violence are still occurring. Muslims are stuck in the violence between Pholjang, dominated by Kukis at the foothills of Thangjiang Hills, and the Meitei-dominated Churchandarpur districts. Muslims are forced to leave their houses in many places because of the firing between the Kukis and Meiteis communities. Yet, the Pangal community, as a peacemaker, is making a concerted appeal to the two communities to end the ethnic-communal violence.