Guwahati: Ethnic tensions in insurgency-hit Manipur are on the rise, as a movement has gathered momentum seeking the expulsion of residents that some groups claim are “illegal immigrants from Myanmar, Nepal, and Bangladesh”. Leaders of student organisations representing the ethnic Meitei communities of the state’s plains protested outside Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh’s home Monday, alleging immigration was marginalising “the indigenous people of Manipur”.
Many of these refugees belong to the same ethnic group, the Kuki-Chin-Zomi-Mizo tribe, that live in the hills of Manipur.
The six student organisations protesting Monday demanded the updating and implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state and the setting up of a Population Commission.
In a statement released Sunday, these bodies alleged there was unnatural population growth in the hills, new villages were emerging in reserved forest lands, and poppy plantations had spread to newer areas.
“The outsiders coming from the other side of Indian boundaries, especially Myanmar, are taking full advantage of possessing similar facial composition, skin colour, and language as they create and expand their own villages, encroaching land which is owned by the state on the hills of Manipur,” the statement claimed, adding that there was a “never-ending threat to the indigenous people of Manipur”.
Leishangthem Lamyanba, the president of the Democratic Students’ Alliance of Manipur (DESAM), told ThePrint that illegal immigration was tipping the demographic balance in Manipur, with the 2011 census showing decadal growth of 39.54 per cent among tribal communities in the hills, and 15.72 per cent in the better-developed valley.
“There are large numbers of illegal immigrants who have entered Manipur recently through the porous border with Myanmar. New villages have come up in the hill areas with encroachment of forest land,” Leishangthem alleged.
Last week, protestors from the Kuki Students Organisation and the Indigeneous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) —who represent the hill tribes —clashed with security forces in Kangpokpi district, after the government moved to evict alleged encroachments on reserved forest land.
The districts of Kangpokpi, Churachandpur, Tamenglong, Chandel, Ukhrul and Senapati are notified as “hill districts” in Manipur. The ethnic Kuki population in Manipur is about 30 per cent of the 28.5 lakh population, according to the 2011 Census.
Leaders of the hills communities have alleged the eviction drive is targeting legitimate residents of the state. Dr Seilen Haokip, spokesperson of the Kuki National Organisation (KNO), noted that “a village by the name of K Songjang in Churachandpur district was evicted on 20 February. This village has records dating back to the 1800s. There is no illegal settlement in the reserved forests or wildlife sanctuaries”.
Also read: ‘They’re taking over our hills’: Manipur groups want NRC to weed out Myanmar refugees
Withdrawal announced from ceasefire agreement
Following the clashes, the state government announced its withdrawal from the more-than-decade-old Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreement with two Kuki rebel groups, the Kuki National Army (KNA) and the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA). The government argued that the leadership of these rebel groups hail from outside the state.
CM Biren Singh, meanwhile, said in a tweet that the KNA and ZRA had been “allegedly influencing the agitations” in the hills.
Also, discussed reviewing the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement, particularly with the ZRA and KNA who are allegedly influencing the agitations after the eviction noticed were issued to the forest encroachers.
— N.Biren Singh (@NBirenSingh) March 10, 2023
A state government press release also suggested that the eviction drive was aimed at eradicating growing opium cultivation in the region.
The Kuki rebel groups that have been seeking greater self-determination within Manipur under the Sixth Schedule, signed the Suspension of Operations ceasefire agreement with the Centre and the state government in August 2008.
The cadres of 25 Kuki groups under two umbrella organisations — the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and the United People’s Front (UPF) have since been housed in 13 designated camps, with the government periodically extending the tripartite SoO agreement with both the KNO and UPF. The pact was extended last month for a year. Currently, there are 17 groups in the KNO and eight in the UPF.
KNO spokesperson Haokip denied charges that its leadership was from outside the state.
“KNO president P.S. Haokip was born at Akhan village in Phek district of Nagaland,” he said, “while ZRA president Thanglianpau Guite was born at Mualmuam village of Churachandpur district in Manipur. He escaped the military junta to return to Churchandpur,” Haokip explained.
Thanglianpau was formerly a Member of Parliament from the National League of Democracy, Myanmar, but has acquired Indian citizenship now, the KNO stated.
“This government feels that KNO and UPF are involved in poppy cultivation and drug issues, which is untrue,” Haokip added. “KNO had started eradication of those plantations from 2016 till end of last year — all photographic evidence and videos were sent to the government. Despite that, there may be certain groups, not part of the agreement, who are engaged in the cultivation.”
According to Haokip, the state government has concentrated its drive in Kuki areas, but there are poppy plantations in other parts as well.
“When it comes to land issues, the Kukis are the first in line to face the brunt, as the Meiteis are located at the core of Imphal Valley, the seat of power, while the Nagas live in the far-flung hills,” Haokip alleged, pointing to demographic habitation.
The Kuki insurgency began in 1991, after local communities armed themselves in the wake of massacres conducted by the ethnic-Naga National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isaac Muviah (NSCN-IM). As many as 115 Kuki men, women, and children were believed to have been killed by the NSCN-IM in Tengnoupal in 1993. The killings led to large flows of Kuki refugees from Nagaland into Manipur’s hill regions.
Amid the controversy, the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF) has submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister and Governor stating that the government of Manipur has “stealthily, without proper notification, declared the Churachandpur-Khoupum Scheduled Hill area a Protected Forest, thereby affecting thousands of tribals living in nearly a hundred villages across the area.”
Article 371C of the Indian Constitution — a special provision with respect to Manipur — provides for the constitution and functions of a committee comprising members elected from the hill areas in the state Legislative Assembly.
“The state government has always been against tribal autonomy,” ITLF chairman Pagin Haokip told ThePrint.
“Whatever mechanism you have, the Sixth Schedule or 371 C — in its present form, they will not be effective until the imbalance in representation in the state assembly is sorted out,” said Dr Seilen Haokip.
“The Sixth Schedule was created for tribal people, whether in the hills or the plains. In Assam, the Bodos or the plain tribes have been given that status. But in our case, there’s massive bulwark against any kind of constitutional safeguards for our land, forest etc by the majoritarian rule in the state,” he added.
‘An issue of ethnicity’
Kuki leaders also say the state government’s discourse around “illegal immigration” from Myanmar is an issue of ethnicity.
“If the people escaping from Myanmar into Manipur were of different ethnic stock, I don’t think the same treatment would be meted out to them. They are here because of the humanitarian crisis existing in Myanmar at the moment,” said S. Haokip.
The memorandum submitted by the ITLF also stated that tribals living in the hill tracts of Manipur since the pre-independence period are being called “foreigners or Myanmarese” in their own land, which was termed “discriminatory, derogatory and unforgivable”.
“Such labelling of the tribals as foreigners or Myanmarese is also unconstitutional as these tribes had been recognised and included in the schedule list of the tribals in the Constitution of India,” the memorandum read.
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