Stop Identity Politics

Manipur violence is rooted in each community’s narrative and perception of their past

Nandita HaksarNandita Haksar

Manipur joined the Indian Union in 1949 but become a full-fledged state only in 1972; between 1949 and 1972 Manipur remained a Union Territory. It is bounded by Nagaland to the north, Mizoram in the south and Assam in the west. It has approximately a 400 km long border with two regions of Myanmar—Sagaing Region to the east and Chin State to the south. It is the gateway to Southeast Asia and crucial for India’s Look East Policy.

Ever since Manipur joined the Indian Union it has been the site for insurgencies. The number of insurgent groups have grown and this proliferation of armed groups has added to the complexity of the political problem. The events have been unfolding at a rapid pace and the conflicts have been becoming deadlier but like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel Chronicles of a Death Foretold, everyone knows the tragedy will take place, but no one is willing to prevent it.

In a word, the cause of the Manipur tragedy is identity politics. Way back in 1981, Nibedon Biswas, the youngest son of the late Nirod Kumar Biswas, the bishop of Assam, writing under the name, Nirmal Nibedon, published a book titled Northeast India: The Ethnic Explosion (1981). In the preface he predicted: ‘It is an ethnic explosion. Make no mistake about it. Have no doubts about it. World governments, more so India and Southeast Asian countries, will have to closely study the case of the ethnic minorities, whether they are Kachins and Karens of Burma, the Mizos or the Ahoms of India. The ethnic minorities of India, particularly those of the Mongoloid stock, will deserve more attention. For, gone are the days when small bands of proud tribesmen fought and defended themselves with poison-tipped arrows. Today, in the 1980s the ethnic minorities are wielding sophisticated weapons and engaging national armies in combat, increasingly. In brief, they are zealously guarding their ethnic identity… It is going to be a long war for all sides, frighteningly effective and cripplingly expensive for both. None may emerge victorious. Both may be losers.’

It is difficult to have ‘objective’ or unbiased accounts of the conflicts because each community has its own narrative rooted in its own perception of its past. As one reporter observed: “It is said that there are always two sides to every story and the truth lies somewhere in between. But in Manipur, the truth lies not only somewhere in between, but it is unfailingly wrapped in several layers of conflicting interpretations.”

These controversies over the histories led the government of Manipur to set up a 15-member committee on 16 September 2022 to verify the accuracy of books written about history, culture, tradition, and geography of Manipur, to avoid the distortion of facts. Every author writing on the history of Manipur now has to submit his or her manuscript to the Director of Higher Education and the University of Manipur for verification and approval. What are the issues which are agitating the people and communities of Manipur?


Who is a Tribal?

There is a rich debate on the question on who is a tribal and who is not. A part of the debate is around the colonial classification of people. However, in post-Independence India, a person is a tribal if the community is recognised as a member of a Scheduled Tribe under the provisions of the Constitution and the laws.

In Manipur there are broadly two categories of communities who are designated as Scheduled Tribe—the Naga communities and the Kuki-Chin-Mizo group. However, the majority community, the Meiteis are not designated as Scheduled Tribes. They are demanding to be included in the category and the tribal or hill people are opposing their demand.

Recently, this issue became so controversial and volatile that the Office of the Registrar-General of India (RGI) has declined to make public its position on whether the Meitei (Meetei) community in Manipur can be categorised as a Scheduled Tribes as per the criteria currently in use.

The office of the RGI said disclosing this information to the public would ‘prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state, relation with foreign state or lead to incitement of an offence.’

Under international law the word tribal is seen as pejorative and the word indigenous is used. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by the General Assembly on 13 September 2007, by a majority of 144 states in favour.

In India, the Constitution has special provisions for the tribal people. In broad terms the tribal peoples are protected from exploitation by more advanced communities and non-tribals cannot own tribal lands. Secondly, there are provisions for a degree of autonomy in administration for the tribal people. Mizoram and Meghalaya are under the Sixth Schedule but Nagaland rejected this provision. The tribal of Manipur are protected by Article 371-C and special laws to protect their lands from being transferred to non-tribals. There are also special welfare schemes to ameliorate the condition of tribals, including reservations in jobs and educational institutions.


Criterion for ST status

The Constitution of India does not spell out the criterion for declaring a community as a Scheduled Tribe. It was the Lokur Committee in 1965 which decided whether a community can be included in the ST list. These criteria include indications of primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large and backwardness.

Both the procedure and criteria for inclusion of communities had been strongly criticised by an internal government task force formed in February 2014 for being ‘obsolete,’ ‘condescending,’ ‘dogmatic’ and ‘rigid.’ The committee, led by then tribal affairs secretary Hrusikesh Panda had also said that the procedure, as it was being followed, was “cumbersome” and “defeats the Constitutional agenda for affirmative action and inclusion.” The task force had concluded that these criteria and procedure were resulting in the exclusion of or delays in the inclusion of nearly 40 communities across the country.

Based on this task force’s report, the first Narendra Modi-led Cabinet had, within days of taking charge in 2014, moved a draft Cabinet note to change the procedure and the criteria. However, after being in the pipeline for nearly eight years, the proposal was put on hold.

Since then, tribal affairs minister Arjun Munda has insisted in Parliament that the criteria set out by the Lokur Committee was appropriate and that tribal societies do not change. A recent notice from the ministry of tribal affairs shows that the government is indeed trying to change the criteria for inclusion of communities in the ST category.

The government of India on 15 June 1999 (as further amended on 25 June 2002), approved modalities for deciding claims for inclusion in, exclusion from and other modifications in Orders specifying lists of Scheduled Tribes (STs). Accordingly, only those proposals which have been recommended and justified by the concerned state government/UT Administration can be processed further. Thereafter, it has to be concurred with by the RGI and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) for consideration for amendment of the legislation.

A task force under the chairmanship of the then secretary (tribal affairs) was constituted by the ministry of tribal affairs in February 2014 to examine the existing criteria and procedure. The task force in its report submitted to the ministry has made recommendations, among other things, for revision of criteria and procedure for scheduling of tribes as STs. The recommendations of the task force were examined and accordingly the proposal for streamlining of procedure for scheduling of communities as STs and revision of criteria for scheduling of communities as STs was circulated to states and UTs. Views from all states/UTs have been received except one state.


Controversy in Manipur

In Manipur, the Meiteis, which are the majority community, have been demanding to be included in the category of Scheduled Tribe. They are claiming the status on the basis of being an indigenous community.

In 2015, the Manipur government introduced three bills: The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh) Amendment Bill 2015 (MLRLR Bill 2015), The Protection of Manipur People’s Bill, 2015 and The Manipur Shops and Establishments Act (Second) Amendment Bill 2015.

The tribal people of Manipur jointly opposed the Bills and demanded their withdrawal. They argued that if Meiteis were recognised as indigenous people it would amount to giving them ST status. The tribal people argued that this would only strengthen the Meitei economic and political dominance and control in Manipur. The hill people stated that the hills were not receiving their share of development funds and even funds for tribal welfare were diverted to the Valley.

In the course of the agitation against the Bills, nine people, including an 11-year-old boy, died. The Kukis did not bury the dead for 632 days. The Bills were the culmination of an agitation by the non-tribal Meiteis in the Imphal valley for introducing an Inner Line Permit system to regulate and curtail the entry of ‘non-Manipuris’ into the state.

While the Congress government claimed that the three Bills were drawn up after a thorough consultation with all MLAs, including tribal representatives, tribal groups deny it. They allege that they were not consulted and that the Bills will lead to an encroachment of tribal areas by non-tribals, mainly the Meiteis.


Indigenous People

The Protection of Manipur People’s Bill was passed in 2018 after Manipur said they would not support the Citizens Amendment Bill, 2019, unless they were protected from outsiders. The tribals opposed the Bills but the Meitei people have the political power—40 seats in the 60-seat legislative assembly. There is of course the Hill Areas Committee but because of identity politics and the lack of political vision, it has been largely ineffective in protecting the tribal people’s rights.

This imbalance raises issues of representation of tribal interests in the Manipur legislature, a core issue linked to citizenship rights. There are other communities living in Manipur from even before 1951 such as the Nepalis, who have objected to the Bill because they do not have the papers to prove their residence in the state.

The controversy over the Manipur People’s Bill was over two provisions: the recognition of ‘indigenous’ people and the cut-off date for recognition was pushed back from 1971 to 1951. In part it is this recognition of the Meiteis as indigenous people that forms the basis of their demand to be recognised as a Scheduled Tribe, a demand strongly opposed by all tribal groups—both the Nagas and the Kuki-Chin-Mizo group.

The Bills were being presented by the government of Manipur as a “solution’ to the long pending demand for implementation of the Inner Line Permit system by Meitei organisations to protect them from the high rate of influx of outsiders. The Inner Line Permit is a special permit required even by Indian citizens to enter certain restricted areas in the country, especially sensitive border areas. The Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS) has been spearheading the movement for legislation to “protect the indigenous population from migrants.”


Who are Outsiders?

In Manipur, as in many parts of India, there is a word which refers to the ‘outsider’ in derogatory terms. The word is Mayang and it refers to Indians, but not to Mongoloid people, whether they are Mizos or Burmese.

Many communities and tribes in Manipur have been divided by the international border between Myanmar and India and despite this they continue to have ties with their families and communities across the border. It is the demand of some insurgent groups that the borders be redrawn so as to bring the communities together. The Meiteis challenge the border and claim that the Kabaw Valley in Myanmar belongs to them; whereas the Naga insurgents demand that the Nagas of Burma should be united with the Nagas in India.

The Kuki insurgents also have a vision of uniting all Kuki inhabited areas under one administration of a Kuki homeland. There are some 19 separate Kuki armed groups and for the most they are demanding a homeland within the Indian Union. Ten Kuki MLAs have said they cannot live in Manipur and have demanded a separate administration.

The Naga insurgents were the first to raise the demand for the unification of all Naga inhabited areas, both in India and Myanmar. Originally, their demand was for a sovereign nation-state but more recently, while keeping alive the original demand they have demanded the integration of Naga areas of Manipur with Nagaland (and also Naga areas of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh). The Nagas and Kukis have had deadly clashes in the past over territory, but the Nagas have not been involved in the most recent clashes.

The conflict over homelands is relevant in the immediate context because of the army rule in Myanmar and the flow of Myanmar citizens taking refuge in Manipur. The majority of them are Chins but there are those activists who came from as far as Yangon.

The government of India through the home ministry issued an alert to the Northeast states in 2017 to ensure that ‘illegal migrants’ from Myanmar are stopped from entering India. Then on 10 March 2021 the government warned the state governments against treating them as ‘refugees.’

Both the Manipur and Mizoram governments went against the Centre’s orders under pressure by the people, who extended solidarity to the fleeing Myanmarese after the brutal crackdown by the Myanmar army, which staged a coup in February 2021.

All communities extended help to the refugees but the burden of supporting these refugees fleeing from persecution fell on the Kukis, who have provided the refugees with basic amenities. The Manipur government has succumbed to the pressure of the Centre and declared that all the foreigners from Myanmar are ‘illegal migrants.’ They even arrested a pastor who gave shelter to some citizens of Myanmar.

The government of India, the ministry of home affairs, says it will not recognise the UNHCR identity card issued to refugees, and it will not issue exit permits even to those who get resettlement in third countries. However, representatives from the ministry of external affairs are on the executive committee of the UNHCR.

The Meiteis and Nagas have expressed apprehension that many of the Chins coming from Myanmar will eventually settle on their lands and be counted as voters. The Meiteis are therefore demanding a National Register for Citizens.

The factor that has complicated the already difficult issue is the government of India’s concerns regarding the Rohingyas, the persecuted Muslim minority from Rakhine state in Myanmar. These people have been deprived of citizenship rights in Myanmar and they have virtually become stateless. In the present political climate in India, Muslims Rohingyas have been victimised even more than the other refugees.

The simple solution to the problem could have been to allow the state government to issue identity cards to the refugees coming from Myanmar; this would allow them to get basic humanitarian aid and it would keep a record of the number of ‘outsiders;’ instead, a section of the Meiteis are demanding that the government have a National Register for Citizens. The cry against ‘outsiders’ is building up to a xenophobic frenzy and this will only lead to more violence.


Land Question

The root cause of the conflict is land. The Meiteis, at least some of them, feel that it is not fair that they cannot own land in the tribal Hill Areas whereas the tribals can own land in the Valley. The Manipur government has started evicting tribals from what they call reserved forest areas. In 2020, around 1,346 alleged illegal structures (houses) in areas under Langol Reserved Forest were sought to be demolished and these cases are pending in courts. At least 95 families lost their homes in the eviction drive. The Langol area is in the foothills in Imphal.

There are innumerable legal and illegal ways that tribals have been deprived of their rights to land: in the name of development tribal lands have been taken with a pittance for compensation. The issue of land is also linked to the growing acreage of land being brought under poppy cultivation. The state has been a hub for drug traffickers but now it has become a production centre. These are the main issues that lie at the root of the conflicts in Manipur.


Conflict Resolution

The legislative assembly should have been the place where issues could have been debated but the tribals are in minority and cannot influence the decisions even if the chief minister is a tribal leader.

The tribals have their own student organisations and tribal bodies and churches and the Meiteis have their own organisations. There is no organisation or platform where the communities can come together to debate. In any case there is no possibility for open discussions or conversations because every community has its own demands and the demand is backed by an armed group.

The ethnic nationalism is fuelled by religious ideologies. The people of Manipur, till the 17th century, had their own indigenous religions. In the Valley, the Meiteis practiced a religion called Sanamahi with their own temples, elaborate rituals and sacred texts. It was then they were converted to Vaishnavism by Hindu missionaries. Those who did not convert were designated Scheduled Caste in independent India. An articulate section of Meitei nationalists has returned to their old religion. In part, because under the Hindu caste system even the royal family was given the status of OBC and not Kshatriyas.

Taking inspiration from the old Sanamahi tradition two militant Meitei groups have emerged who have spearheaded the violence this time: Arambai Tengol and Meitei Leepun. Both organisations assert their ‘indigenous’ faith. Both were involved in the violence in Manipur.

Among the Nagas, there are communities which did not convert to Christianity, and they practice their indigenous religion. One of them is the Heraka religion. The BJP has appropriated Rani Gaidinliu as a symbol for their movement against Christian missionaries. The RSS has provided a platform for uniting members of these indigenous communities.

The Nagas and Kuki-Chin-Mizo are predominantly Christian. The burning of churches and attacks on Christians in the Northeast has a long history. The Christian missionaries have been trying to aggressively counter the RSS drive to enter the Northeast. They have support of the Christian communities in India and abroad.

In Manipur, there is a small Muslim minority called the Meitei Muslims or Pangals. They have been there for decades, if not centuries. There are Islamic armed groups as well and there is an assertion of Muslim identity after the events of May 1993, when more than 100 Muslims were hacked to death in Imphal. It was this massacre which led to the formation of People’s United Liberation Front (PULF) and in 2007, another Islamist outfit operating in Manipur, the Islamic National Front (INF) merged with the PULF.


Identity Politics

Thus, there is no platform where all the communities can come together and articulate their demands. Each community thinks of solutions which it believes will solve the problems it faces.

The Naga and Kuki insurgents have been fighting for their own homelands, either within the Indian Union or for independent sovereign states. Some even dream of living in a theocratic state. Political parties and political leaders have links to these armed groups, and it is dangerous to criticise their politics or their vision.

The middle class within each ethnic group has a vested interest in perpetuating the ethnic identities because it ensures privileges and opportunities. The bankruptcy of politics leads the tribal and non-tribal communities to make the ‘outsiders’ the scapegoats for all problems; and it is the poorest and most vulnerable section of outsiders, the migrant workers, who are usually the victims of this mindless violence.

No one wants to address the problem of growing poverty and increasing gap between the rich and poor. Thousands of youth are leaving their villages to become first generation migrant workers in towns and cities all over India and abroad. Outside Manipur these migrant workers bond together as Manipuris.

Many families have land in the shape of paddy-fields, but it does not yield enough to sustain the family and with growing incorporation into the international market the need for cash is increasing. It is this land that the corporations are waiting to get hold of.


International Dimensions

Manipur, like the rest of the Northeast, is a playground for intelligence agencies and they play havoc with these identity politics, supporting one armed group against another. Foreign states work through NGOs such as human rights organisations to perpetuate divisions in the Northeast. It was the West which promoted the idea that gross human rights violations were occurring because of ethnic conflicts. Class, caste and patriarchy are not factors recognised as being the major reasons for human rights violations.

What has the identity politics achieved for the people? The Northeast is on a downward spiral and policymakers have no solutions to offer. The latest data shows that incomes in seven of the eight north eastern states are now below the national average. Just 15 years ago, four of these states had income levels higher than the national average.

Mizoram is one of the fastest growing economies among the states of India while Manipur has become the third poorest state in the country. The appeals for peace are devoid of any content and will do little to solve the problem. What is needed is to recognise that identity politics is not a solution but the problem.

If the people, communities and tribes in Manipur do not come together, their land and resources will indeed go out of their hands. They will be appropriated by large transnational corporations who are waiting on the side-lines to grab them. They will not have to wait for long unless the people of Manipur come together to resist. If they do not, then like Nirmal Nibedon had predicted, all will be losers.

The violence in Manipur reflects a failure of Indian democracy. The national political scene has pushed people into identity politics instead of secular and democratic politics, which brings people together irrespective of caste, community or religion.

(The writer is author and human rights lawyer)


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