The Struggle For Tribal Identity And Autonomy in Manipur

The diversity and complexity of Manipur’s tribal identities, religious affiliations, and geopolitical realities pose significant governance challenges in the North East. The Manipur violence highlights the need for a sensitive approach that respects regional identities while striving for national integration. The BJP government should put aside its Hindutva ideology and engage with the different tribes unbiasedly
By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
  • The North East is a jumble of tribes and religions. It is Christianity that is the dominant faith among the tribes in many of these states
  • There is a geographical division Meitei-Kuki spread of their population. Meiteis are confined to the plains of Imphal, Kukis, along with the Nagas dominate the hills
  • The Meiteis are not only a majority in Manipur, but they also have adopted many of the Hindu religious practices. BJP leaders felt ST status for Meiteis
  • Through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s social work among the tribals in central India, the BJP has a certain rapport with the tribals in this part

THE violence in Manipur that broke out in May and continues to simmer months after is not a new thing. There has been violence in the state bordering Myanmar before and it would take months before it would subside.

There are three major groups at loggerheads in Manipur – the Meiteis, the Kukis, and the Nagas. It has been an uneasy relationship among the three. But what triggered the tensions and the outbreak of violence this time round is the Manipur High Court’s direction that the Meiteis, who form 53 percent of the population should be considered to be included among the Scheduled Tribes (STs).
So far it is the Kukis, Nagas and others who had the ST status, and who enjoyed the affirmative action measures enjoyed by the STs. Do the Meieteis qualify to be granted ST status is the issue at stake. It is not a simple one.

COMPLEXITIES AND CONFLICTS

The Meiteis trace their origins to a group that had its origins in neighbouring Myanmar hundreds of years ago, and who moved into the region of Manipur and established an empire of their own.

The Meiteis could be compared to the Ahoms in Assam, and as the Ahoms established their political domination in Assam, so did the Meiteis. These two must have been tribal groups at one point in time.
As a matter of fact, in history, every person had started as a tribe, and soon moved beyond the strictly kinship status of a tribe as they expanded, conquered and established their political dominance.
It is natural that the Meiteis desire to be recognized as a tribe, and perhaps a case could be made for it. But it remains a delicate balancing act, where other tribes are involved. The one thing that goes against the Meitei demand for tribal status is that they are a successful, politically dominant group that has shed its tribal trappings and established an empire. What they seem to want is to get back to a status that they had enjoyed hundreds of years ago as an ethnic group or tribe.

Enter the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into this complex situation of inter-tribal relationship. The Meiteis are not only a majority in Manipur, but they also have adopted many of the Hindu religious practices, especially the Krishna cult and Vaishnavism. The BJP leaders among the Meiteis and in the central leadership seem to have felt that giving an ST status to Meiteis would give a better holding for the party and its Hindutva ideology. So far, the tribes across India have their religious traditions and practices which are distinct from that of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Among the Meteis are a small number of Muslims. Among the Kukis and Nagas, the majority of them are Christians. The North East is a jumble of tribes and religions. It is Christianity that is the dominant faith among the tribes in many of the states like Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland. But the political identities of these states and the people are that of their respective tribes and their languages.

GOVERNANCE CHALLENGES

The BJP with its trademark Hindutva ideology wanted the Meiteis with their Hindu identity to enter the tribal conglomeration of the region. And it has backfired. There was a certain highhandedness in which the BJP governments at the centre and in Manipur wanted it. They would have gone through the formalities of commissions looking into the demand and they would have granted the tribal status to the Meiteis. The Kukis were alert enough to see the game plan and they went on a protest. It is the protest that triggered the violence. And the Kukis are part of the BJP fold as well. The BJP government in Manipur has the Meitei-Kuki support.

In many ways, the Kukis are with the BJP, and they expect the BJP govt at the Centre to take care of their interests. That is why, they are appealing to Union Home Minister Amit Shah to create special administrative arrangements for the Kuki region like a chief secretary and a director general of police

The BJP has taken a misstep in pushing for tribal status for Meiteis. And it is now finding it hard to restore peace among the two people. In many ways, the Kukis are with the BJP, and they expect the BJP government at the Centre to take care of their interests. That is why, they are appealing to Union Home Minister Amit Shah to create special administrative arrangements for the Kuki region like a chief secretary and a director general of police. The Modi government is now caught in the middle, to meet the Kukis’ demands and also not let down the Meiteis. It is not clear whether the BJP is willing to retrace its steps on including the Meiteis in the tribal category. It has to at least defer the idea for some more time, if not give it up completely.

There is a geographical division in the Meitei-Kuki spread of their population. The Meiteis are confined to the plains of Imphal, and the Kukis, along with the Nagas dominate the hills. The tribal status of the Kukis gives them protection from Meitei expansion from the plains. The Meiteis with their larger population are only eager to press on into the hills.

INTRICATE INTERPLAY OF IDENTITY

It is indeed the classical problem of needing more space. If the BJP were to disturb the existing arrangement, then there would be further trouble. The party and the government have been trying to unravel the complications created in the North East by the inter-tribal relations. The BJP government at the Centre has been engaged in talks with the Naga rebel groups. It would have to get back to talks with Kukis and Meiteis in Manipur while keeping in mind the demand of the Nagas in Manipur that the Naga districts in the state should become part of the Greater Naga area.

The BJP has been especially sensitive to the tribals’ status and their cultural demands. Unlike in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, the two tribal states that were created during the time of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2000 after due acquiescence from the Madhya Pradesh and Bihar assemblies, the situation is harder in places like Manipur. And the BJP, through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)’s social work among the tribals in central India, has a certain rapport with the tribals in this part. It does not have the same connection with the tribal belt in the North East though the attitude of the different local parties, based mainly on their tribal status, is not ideologically hostile to the BJP. And even after the Manipur faux pas, the Kukis place faith in Union Home Minister Amit Shah to sort out things and provide relief by creating an independent administrative mechanism for them. The Kukis in the hills face problems with the Nagas. The Nagas refused that any permanent structure in the form of relief camps should be built in the Naga area.

BALANCING LOCAL IDENTITIES

There is still room for manoeuvrability for the Modi government in Manipur. It can restore peace by initiating talks between the Meiteis and the Kukis and playing fair and neutral in the discussions. And it could be a lesson in governance for the central government. It has to recognize that diversity in India is much too ingrained in the geography and the people and that there are often conflicts of interest between groups, which need to be resolved with deftness.

The BJP has been especially sensitive to the tribals’ status and their cultural demands. Unlike in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, the two tribal states that were created during the time of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2000 after due acquiescence from the Madhya Pradesh and Bihar assemblies, the situation is harder in places like Manipur

The eagerness to impose ideological solutions in states like Manipur where different groups, each with a distinct identity of its own, and inherent conflict of interests. These cannot be reduced to a homogenous national identity. The political and cultural geography of the North Eastern states has to be respected.
The BJP has made inroads into the North East but it was on the basis of respecting local identity and working with the regional groupings. In Manipur, it tried to break the rule and side with the majority of Meiteis. It has backfired, and it is a signal that the BJP should back off. There is a need to resist the temptation that the Kukis being a small group compared to the Meiteis can be forced to submit to the majority rule because it would be an invitation to trouble. There are two states in the North East where the BJP’s idea of nationalism as Hindutva has worked reasonably well because of historical reasons. It may seem it has worked in Tripura too. And the BJP seems to have believed that it can do the same in Manipur through the Meiteis. The Meitei-Kuki flare-up showed that it cannot be done.

MYANMAR’S INFLUENCE

One of the problems in Manipur, as in the rest of the North East, is that they border Myanmar. It is easier for the armed groups to operate from the forests on the other side. Despite assurances from the Myanmar army government, it is easier for the armed groups from the North East to establish operational bases there. This is one part of the story. The other part is that civilians tend to cross over into Myanmar in times of trouble on this side of the border. The latest example is that of 200 Meiteis who had escaped into Myanmar and who were brought back home by the Army.

In strictly security terms, the advice from the experts would be that the border should be sealed. That would be a short-term solution. It would intensify the problem rather than solve it. The better option is to deal with the problem at home in an equitable way so that the need does not arise to blame external factors. It is necessary to understand that there are genuine conflicts of interest between different groups, and those who stand up for their cause are not doing it to break the unity of the country. The ‘foreign hand’ is a flimsy reason to explain away the clash of interests among groups. It is certain that if there is a sense that the government is not being sincere in solving the problem, then there will be elements who will take to arms and there is scope for foreign elements to play the game. The effort of the government should be to keep the dialogue between the different groups and the government going, and compromises worked out on the way.

The experience of internal conflicts in Manipur shows that there are extreme gestures like blockades imposed by either the Meiteis or the Kukis, and it takes quite a long time to work around them. And it has to be the case that the government should be seen as making sufficient concessions to both sides to keep the sense of fair play.

FOSTERING INCLUSION AND REPRESENTATION

What will really work is if the economic interests of each group are taken care of and their cultural identities held intact. Greater economic development which would open up job opportunities for all is one of the effective means of settling issues. There has to be proportionate representation in the educational institutions and government services for the different groups.

The test for the governance skills of the BJP governments in Manipur and at the Centre would be whether they will take a pragmatic stance or stick to ideology, and in the BJP’s case, it is the ideology of Hindutva masquerading as nationalism. It would be unrealistic to ask the BJP to give up its Hindutva plank because it is the party’s core belief. But there are times when core beliefs need to be set aside. The BJP has a tendency to push for its ideology wherever it can. But it should for the sake of national security and development, refrain from propagating its ideology. Manipur, a border state is not the place to experiment with Hindutva ideology. What is needed is pragmatism based on local challenges and local solutions.

Even after the Manipur faux pas, the Kukis place faith in Union Home Minister Amit Shah to sort out things and provide relief by creating an independent administrative mechanism for them. The Kukis in the hills face problems with the Nagas. The Nagas refused that any permanent structure in the form of relief camps should be built in the Naga area

The BJP is on the drive to strengthen the border states and the villages on the borders, and it means not just economic development and strengthening of security but also infusing a strong sense of patriotism, and for the BJP this is Hindutva. And it is here that trouble awaits the party and the people in states like Manipur.

The challenge in Manipur is that the Meiteis who form 53 percent of the population are confined to the Imphal Valley, and they cannot spread into the hills occupied by the Kukis and Nagas. The Kukis and Nagas form 40 per cent of the population. It is a question of geographical imbalance. The answer does not lie in giving the Meiteis the status of a tribe so that they can spread into the hills. The solution lies in creating job opportunities for all so that neither the Meiteis nor the Kukis and the Nagas are forced to guard what they have. Once economic expansion takes place, the geographical limitations will be less pressing.

RESPECTING TRIBAL IDENTITIES

It would be a mistake on the part of the BJP to believe that it can break the tribal identities and absorb the different groups into the larger Hindutva identity. It cannot be done. And this can be seen from the Christian missionary activity in the North East. Despite many of the tribes in Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya having become Christians, their distinct tribal identities remain intact. So Hindutva cannot be the melting pot that the BJP believes it could be. Despite the partial triumph of Hindutva in the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the BJP is forced to be sensitive to the influence of castes, and play the caste card, especially that of the Other Backward Classes (OBC), with intelligence. The party has to adopt the same approach that it does in Uttar Pradesh in Manipur as well. It has to accept the distinct tribal identities of the region and negotiate through them.

The North East has been a difficult region for the central governments to manage due to its logistic and cultural differences. The central governments need to create a sense of belonging for the people of the North East in the rest of the country. This would mean accepting their identities and increasing their presence in the country. Many Manipuris are working in the rest of the country, but most of them are Meiteis. More of Kukis and Nagas have to find their place in the national economy.

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who's worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian.

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