Ethnic Groups in Conflict in India’s Manipur



The political aspirations of Manipur’s main ethnic groups: Kukis, Meiteis, and Nagas, are at loggerheads over the political future of Manipur. On one side, the Meiteis who live in the central low-lying plain want a country of Manipur with full sovereignty, and on the other, both Nagas and Kukis, who live in the hills surrounding the plain, are in favor of the reorganization of Manipur into three parts so that they can control certain territories outside Manipur. The Nagas call their homeland Nagalim, while the Kukis call their homeland Kukiland. If Nagalim and Kukiland are carved out of Manipur into two new states of India, Manipur will lose large part of its land. But, this will not go unchallenged since Meiteis are determined to preserve the integrity of Manipur and its territory, while the Nagas and Kukis are at loggerheads as their territorial claims overlap. In this context, the central aim of this essay is to examine how and why the three ethnic groups view Manipur so differently, and the political assertion of ethnicity into issues that produce conflict. In doing so the essay examines the significance of location and distribution of ethnic groups in sustaining and compounding politicization of ethnicity and conflict.


Manipur was formerly a princely native state during British colonial rule, in which the Meitei kings had enjoyed considerable autonomy as long as they respect the colonial interests. Manipur lost its autonomy after its merger with India in 1949, and 23 years later Manipur became one of the states of the country. It is located in the northeastern part of the country. It shares land border with Myanmar, and with the India’s states of Mizoram, Nagaland, and Assam. Manipur is made up of two geographical regions: the hill and the plain (valley). Manipur is inhabited by ethnic groups broadly classified into Meiteis, Meitei-Muslims, Nagas, and Kukis.[i] The last two are concentrated in the hill areas, while others are concentrated in the plain areas. Most Nagas and Kukis are officially recognized into 29 scheduled tribes[ii] owing to their social and economic backwardness. Hence, they enjoy the benefits of reservations in jobs, education, and welfare programs. Since Meiteis and Meitei-Muslims are considered more advanced they are not recognized as scheduled tribes, and further they are restricted by law to purchase and own real estate and other land in the hill areas while the members of scheduled tribes can buy and own land anywhere in Manipur. Manipur has been witnessing armed conflict between the government and several insurgent groups, and the conflict between ethnic groups over the demand for the creation of new states within India’s federalism or independence from India. These conflicts have resulted in a number of flashpoints that have gained both domestic and global attentions.

Manipur as seen by Meiteis, Nagas, and Kukis

Manipur is a multi-ethnic place in which different ethnic groups have lived in harmony. In recent times the relationships between them have dramatically changed. Now, Manipur stands an example of a severely divided society. Ethnicity has occupied the center-stage of local politics. It finds expression into education policy, land policy, employment, cultural policy and development plans.

At the outset, many Meiteis alleged that Manipur had unwillingly joined India after coercing their king. Thereafter, it was directly ruled by the central government, and the bureaucrats who came to Manipur from other parts of the country were not trusted by the local population (Rammohan 2005: 155). Subsequently, they launched a movement resisting the merger which further transformed into an armed conflict. Twenty three years after the merger Manipur became a state of India in 1972. But, it failed to end the conflict. The movement is confined largely to the Meiteis. In addition, the Meiteis wanted to promote their language, Meiteilon. It is not only the language of the Meiteis, but is used for internal communication in the state. It was recognized in 1992 by the central government, and included in the eighth schedule of India’s constitution.[iii] As a result, they wanted to introduce Meiteilon in school education and administration. This has become a concern in the relationship between Meiteis, on the one hand, and Nagas and Kukis, on the other.

On the other hand, in order to materialize the formation of Nagalim, the Nagas wanted to detach part of Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh, and integrate to the adjacent state of Nagaland. The movement is presently spearheaded by National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), an insurgent group. According to them, Nagalim occupies land area of about 120,000 sq km. It also claimed that Nagalim was historically an independent country of the Naga people. The NSCN-IM alleged that Nagalim was divided, during the British colonial rule, into two parts in which one part was allocated to India and another part to Burma (Myanmar). The portion of Nagalim allocated to India includes Nagaland and part of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur, while the portion allocated to Myanmar constitutes part of Kachin and Sagaing division. The demand for Nagalim intensified after NSCN-IM signed a ceasefire agreement with the central government in 1997. Although the Nagas wanted Nagalim to be a country with full sovereignty, India’s nonnegotiable position has forced them to focus to the integration of Naga-concentrated areas of India into a state within the framework of India’s federalism.

Finally, the Kukis also wanted to integrate the Kuki-concentrated areas of India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh under one homeland known as Zale’n-gam. The Kuki National Organisation (KNO), the insurgent group advocating Zale’n-gam, contended that Zale’n-gam comprises part of Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, and Manipur in India, part of Sagaing in Myanmar, and part of Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. It also claimed that prior to the advent of British colonial rule Zale’n-gam was an independent nation. The movement is not so active, and also confine to Manipur where the Kukis constitute a large ethnic group. In addition, the Kukis have been demanding the formation of a state to be known as Kukiland within the framework of India’s federalism. The proposed state covers more than half of Manipur’s land, viz. Churachandpur and Chandel districts, and part of Senapati, Tamenglong, and Ukhrul districts. The supporters of Kukiland have resorted to agitations in order draw the attention of the central government. Related to this, the Kukis also wanted the elevation of Sadar hills of Senapati district into a district. In this regard, they have resorted to strikes. The demand has been strongly opposed by the Nagas. Take, for example, for about three months (August-October 2011), the Kukis blocked all traffic along the highway that passes through Sadar hills forcing the Manipur government to conclude an agreement to elevate Sadar hills into a district, but the promise remains unfulfilled. The Nagas claimed that Sadar hills have been historically an integral part of Nagalim. They alleged that the area was given to the Kukis in order to act as a buffer between Meiteis and Nagas (Shimray 2001: 3677).

Thus we understand that the three ethnic groups have widely divergent political interests. What has gone wrong? There are no easy answers. However, in developing countries like India there are some commonalities. Atul Kohli (1998: 9) has asserted that the “state-society traits” of developing country democracies have significantly contributed to the political conflicts. The reasons: (a) their cultural conditions do not readily mesh with the imported model of democracy; (b) considerable state intervention is inherent in the overall design of “late development” but this structural trait generate problems when democracy is introduced; (c) democratic institutions are weak in most follower democracies; and (d) the introduction of competitive elections and mass suffrage amidst weak institutions generates more pressures towards more equal distribution of power in society. Rajat Ganguly (2009: 49) underlines four sets of causal conditions which have combined in different ways to produce ethnic conflict in India. They are: (a) the fear that assimilation could lead to cultural dilution and the unfulfilled national aspirations; (b) the process of modernization; (c) the unequal development, poverty, exploitation, lack of opportunity, and threats to the existing group privileges; and (d) the political factors such as endemic bad governance, anti-secular forces, institutional decay, and vote-bank politics. Susan Olzak and Joane Nagel (1986: 3-4) underlines four basis propositions for ethnic mobilization. They are: (a) urbanization increases contact and competition between ethnic populations; (b) expansion of industrial and services sectors of the economy increase completion for jobs; (c) development of peripheral regions or the discovery of resources in a periphery occupied by an ethnic population; and (d) processes of state building (including those following colonial independence) that implement policies targeting specific ethnic population increase the likelihood of ethnic collective action (quoted in Barton, 1998: 224).

Ethnic groups use ethnicity to make demands in the political arena for alteration in their status, economic well-being, civil rights and educational opportunities are indeed engaged in a form of interest group politics (Brass 1991; 19), and can sometimes constitute “a kind of implicit bargaining, even if the participants do not think of their actions in such terms” (Barton 1998: 222). For Brass the key factor creating ethnic consciousness is not emotional or psychological, but political, and ethnic mobilization focus on territory, resources, and power (see, Basu 1998: 248).

The territory occupy by the ethnic group is crucial to the formation of ethnic identity. In broader term, identity is “people’s concepts of who they are, of what sort of people they are, and how they relate to others” (Hogg and Abrams 1988: 2). Identity can be a source of pride and joy but it can also kill (Sen 2006: 1-2), and many of the conflicts are sustained through the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity (Sen 2006: xv). Identity is a powerful ingredient in the development of nationalism and ethnic conflict. There are five distinct types of identity: ethnic and religious identities, political identities, vocations and avocations, personal relationships, and stigmatized groups (Deaux 2001: 2). James Manor (1996: 461-462) identifies five different types of identities in India: religious identities, linguistic identities, tribal’ identities among the adivasis; tribal identities among people in Himalayan or Northeast areas; and (e) Aryan and Dravidian identities. Ethnic identity leads to political action, and when ethnic identity is highly salient, it is likely to be the basis for political mobilization (Gurr 2002: 6). The salience of a people’s ethnic identity is due mainly to three factors: the extent to which they differ culturally from other groups with whom they interact, the extent to which they are advantaged or disadvantaged relative to other groups, and the intensity of their past and ongoing conflicts with rival groups and the state (Gurr 2002: 68-69). The incentives that prompt political action by identity groups can be categorized into three main types: resentment about losses suffered in the past, fear of future losses, and hopes for relative gains. The relative importance of each these factors depends on a group’s changing position in relation to other groups and to the state (Gurr 2002: 69). According to Paul Brass (1991: 347) the ethnic group formation involves three sets of struggle. The first set of struggle takes place within the ethnic group itself for control over its material and symbolic resources, which in turn involves defining the group’s boundaries and its rules for inclusion and exclusion. The second set of struggle takes place between ethnic groups as a competition for rights, privileges, and resources. The third takes place between the state [nation state] and the groups that dominate it, on the one hand, and the populations that inhabit its territory on the other.

The subsequent sections of the essay analyze the ethnic movements––those of Meiteis, of Kukis,[iv] and of Nagas––so as to understand how and why they view Manipur so differently, and the significance of the location and distribution of ethnic groups in sustaining and compounding the conflict. According to Milton J. Esman (1975: 392) the proportion and the quality of conflict and cooperation depend on the relative resources at the disposition of each group. The resources are demographic (relative numbers); organizational (degree of mobilization and capacity to put resources to political uses); economic (control of finance, means of production or trade channels); technological (possession of modern skills); locational (control of natural resources and strategic territory); political (control or influence over the instrumentalities of the state); and ideological (the normative basis for group objectives). In addition to these objective determinants of power, the quality of inter-communal relations depends on the congruity or disparity in goals between those who control the state apparatus and the leaders of the constituent groups. If the goals are the same, the outcome is likely to be consensual. If the goals are incompatible, the consequences will be tension and conflict, and the outcome will be determined by the relative resources controlled by the parties. This introduces to a third determining factor––the conventions, rules, procedures, and structures, the institutions for conflict management. Without such institution there can be no predictability in intergroup relations and no framework for channeling group demands or for regulating outcomes. Likewise, the clustering of factors that cause conflict in Manipur is so diverse. The situation is such that the political dominance of majority Meiteis can be challenge by the Nagas or Kukis because location and distribution of ethnic groups matters.

The United Committee Manipur, the group which opposes Nagalim, remembers the June 18th 2001 as “Great June Uprising Day” in honor of 18 strikers killed in Imphal in 2001 while demonstrating against the extension of the ceasefire between the NSCN-IM and the Government of India to Manipur. To make matters worse, the state government of Manipur had declared June 18 of every year as the “Manipur Integrity Day” in 2005. It was done in memory of 18 strikers killed in Imphal. The Manipur’s legislative assembly had adopted several resolutions against the division of Manipur into different parts. The Meiteis had threatened to revive the movement for the restoration of the pre-1949 political status of Manipur in case Government of Indian failed to protect Manipur’s land.

Opposing the declaration of June 18 of every year as “Manipur Integrity Day,” the All Naga Students’ Union Manipur (ANSAM), a student group, set ablaze government offices and imposed curfew on a main highway connecting Manipur with rest of India for 52 days (June 19 – August 11, 2005). During those days, the good-laden trucks were prevented from entering Manipur, and hence the prices of staple goods sharply risen due to their shortage. To show their distrust to state government of Manipur and Meiteis, the Nagas sought to registers private schools situated in their areas of concentration to the Nagaland Board of Secondary Education, the agency responsible for the conduct of final examination for class X in Nagaland. It was summarily rejected by the government of Manipur. In 2010, Th. Muivah, the NSCN-IM leader, who wanted to visit his birth place in Manipur’s Ukhrul district was debarred from entering Manipur by the government of Manipur. Muivah’s supporters came out to protest in large number, in which two strikers were killed in police firing at Mao, the town located along Manipur-Nagaland border. In addition, the United Naga Council (UNC), the apex body of Nagas, has started a campaign to severe all political ties with the state government of Manipur. The UNC wanted to set up an “alternative administrative arrangement” for Nagas of Manipur. The UNC maintained the Nagas have suffered social, economic, and political deprivations. Interestingly, those Nagas who have settled down in the plain region were not impressed by such campaign. Further, the Naga People’s Front, the political party that runs state government of Nagaland, has entered the electoral politics in Manipur. It is clearly a Naga party, its membership open only to the Nagas. In the legislative assembly election held in 2012, it tried to woo Naga electorates on the issues of protecting the land of the Nagas, expediting the political talks between the Government of India and the NSCN-IM, and establishment of an alternative administrative arrangement for the Nagas. It won from four territorial constituencies.

The animosity between them is so profound that a small incident can turn into a big issue. The alleged assault of a Meitei film actress by a NSCN-IM insurgent at the town of Chandel in 2012 led to a series of strikes in Meitei-concentrated areas demanding appropriate action against the alleged culprit. However, the state government of Manipur couldn’t take any action. Although the ceasefire between the NSCN-IM and the Government of India is officially limited to Nagaland, but in practice it extends to all Naga-concentrated areas. The Meiteis alleges that the central government of deliberately appeases the Nagas, and hence has compromise the interests of other ethnic groups. As pressure mounted from the Meiteis, the state government of Manipur sent leaders of various political parties to Delhi to put pressure on the central government to take action against the said insurgent. On the other side of the divide, the Nagas accused the Meiteis of blowing a small incident out of proportion. They claimed that the incident was a matter of discord between two individuals.

Further, the state government of Manipur wanted to upgrade Moreh, the town located along the India-Myanmar border, into a municipality in order to accelerate infrastructure development there. The town has been a major trading center between India and Myanmar. The proposal was seen by the Kukis as a “meticulous game plan” to suppress their rights. They wanted the town to be governed by district council, not by the state government of Manipur. Interestingly, the Meiteis overwhelmingly wanted Moreh to become a municipality.

Nonetheless, the Nagalim and the Kukiland are opposed to each other because of their overlapping territorial claims. If the proposed Nagalim is unacceptable to the Kukis, the proposed Kukiland is also unacceptable to the Nagas. Both sides accused each other of claiming more territories as integral parts of their ancestral homeland. Both sides claimed to be the first settlers in the disputed territories. The claims and counter-claims have reenergized the conflict since not much is available about the history of Nagas or Kukis. To my mind, they are resorting to what Anthony Cohen (2000: 153) calls inventing history for themselves. The Nagas claimed that the Kukis were recent immigrants who came from Myanmar, an allegation refuted by the Kukis. A Naga scholar states “Kuki community is found scattered in all hill districts of Manipur, but a larger population is concentrated Churachandpur. District like Senapati, Chandel, Ukhrul and Tamenglong belong to the Nagas” (Shimray 2001: 3675). Th. Muivah, the NSCN-IM leader, also claims “We Nagas are not living in anybody’s territory; we are in our own territories. It is a fact, so the question of claiming [any territory] does not arise.” By contrast, a Kuki scholar states “Even though written records of the history of the Kukis started primarily with the advent of the British, Cheitharol Kumbaba, the court chronicle of the kings of Manipur, and the Pooyas, the traditional records of the Meitei people, include some accounts of Kuki people which date back to 33 AD. This means that the Kukis has been living in Manipur and other north-eastern states since prehistoric times” (Haokip 2013: 254). However, Lucy Zehol, an anthropologist at North Eastern Hill University, Shillong states, the Nagas and Kukis are recent arrivals, nearly two hundred years ago compared to Meiteis, who are the old inhabitant (Zehol 1998: 40). Ethnic violence between them occurred in the 1990s. It was a major violent conflict based on ethnic lines which have greatly changed the social equations of Manipur. It has resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives and damage to private and public properties. Several thousands have been either temporarily or permanently displaced. It started over establishing and perpetuating control over Moreh town (see, Oinam 2003). In the aftermath of this incident new insurgent groups were formed to safeguard the interest of the Kukis.

Both Meiteis and Kukis accuse the central government of giving undue favor to the Nagas. They said that the government did not take action against the Naga insurgents despite knowing that they indulged in illegal acts. The Kukis allege that their interests are not been heard. Take, for example, despite the Kuki insurgent groups and the government decided to temporarily suspend military operations against each other since 2008, the political talks had not taken place.

Location of Ethnic Groups in Politicization of Ethnicity

Conflicts in Manipur tended to center around land. Land is a valuable asset and a source of identity. Due to its economic, social, and emotional importance, land is also an important source of power. Perceived threats to security, livelihoods or identity can mobilize people to engage in conflict (United Nations 2012). However, apart from land, there are other causes of conflict.  Land is often used interchangeably with territory. Territory is land that has been identified and claimed by a person or people. Its contents include terrain, flora and fauna, resources and human inhabitants and their ways of life (Knight 1982: 517). The territory is the product of human agency, and this agency is usually referred to as territoriality (Penrose 2002: 278-279). The concept of territoriality encompasses not just geographic space but also mechanisms of authority and rights. Territory is a crucial component of ethnicity because the ethnic group is usually attached to a specific territory. Territorial attachments and people’s willingness to fight for territory appear to have much less to do with the material value of land and much more to do with symbolic role the land plays in constituting people’s identities and providing a sense of security and belonging (Walter 2006: 288). Thus the territory lies somewhere between nature and culture, in a dual dimension that is both material (geographic) and ideological (Mellac 2010: 123).

The spatial distribution of ethnic groups can affect both the capability and the legitimacy of how ethnic groups mobilize for political action. The spatial distribution has four broad settlement patterns: concentrated majority, concentrated minority, urban groups, and dispersed groups. The concentrated groups live almost exclusively in a single region. They are either minorities (less than 50 per cent) or majorities (equal to or greater than 50 per cent). The urban groups are those concentrated in one or several towns or cities while the dispersed groups are those whose members are scattered across many regions. According to Monica Toft’s study the urban groups are endowed with the highest capability for political action followed by the concentrated majorities, while the capability of the concentrated minorities are indeterminate and the weakest for the dispersed groups (2001: 9-10). Intermixed groups are less likely to be in a state of all-out war than those that are territorially separated from one another. Territorial claims and self-determination claims are more difficult to invoke when groups are widely dispersed and intermixed with each other. In such situations, group mobilization around issues such as civil or group rights and economic access is likely to be more prevalent (Reilly and Reynolds 1999: 15). According to May Lim et al (2007: 1541-42) “highly mixed regions do not engage in violence, and neither do well-segregated groups … In highly mixed regions, groups of the same type are not large enough to develop strong collective identities, or to identify public spaces as associated with one or another cultural group. They are neither imposed upon nor impose upon other groups, and are not perceived as a threat to the cultural values or social/political self-determination of other groups. Partial separation with poorly defined boundaries fosters conflict. Violence arises when groups are of a size that they are able to impose cultural norms on public spaces, but where there are still intermittent violations of these rules due to the overlap of cultural domains. When groups are larger than the critical size, they typically form self-sufficient entities that enjoy local sovereignty. Hence, we expect violence to arise when groups of a certain characteristic size are formed, and not when groups are much smaller or larger than this size … Geography is an important aspect of the dimensions of social space.”

Territory is invariably tied to the ethnic group’s identity. Control over territory means a secure identity (Toft 2001: 3). Ethnic groups will seek to rule territory in which they are geographically concentrated, especially if that region is an historic homeland. They will show little interest in controlling territory when they are either widely dispersed, or are concentrated only in cities. For ethnic groups, territory is often a defining attribute of a group’s identity, inseparable from its past and vital to its continued existence as a distinct group (Smith 1986: 22–31). The territory becomes a homeland because members of an ethnic group share similar obligations for its protection and because it defines who “we” are (Goemans 2006: 27). The territory that specifies group membership is defined by four focal principles: natural frontiers, common culture, prior historical formation, and cartography (Goemans 2006: 232). Thus a homeland is a special category of territory: it is not an object that can be exchanged, but an indivisible attribute of group identity. This feature explains why ethnic groups rationally view the right to control their homeland as a survival issue, regardless of a territory’s objective value in terms of natural or man-made resources. Homeland control ensures that a group’s language can be spoken, its culture expressed, and its faith practiced (Toft 2001: 6-7). Territory is accepted as a “source of conflict” and a “facilitating condition for conflict” (Diehl 1991). The first approach sees geography as a source of conflict because territory is an indivisible issue, which makes disputes over territory likely to escalate into violent conflict (Fearon 1995). Geography can be the motivation for fighting. It can also provide opportunities for fighting in civil war.  Lichbach (1995, 159) emphasizes geographic proximity as an important factor that fosters coordination. In doing so the essay examines the significance of location and distribution of ethnic groups in sustaining and compounding politicization of ethnicity and conflict in Manipur.

With land area of 22,327 sq km, Manipur consists of two geographical regions: the hill and the plain (valley). The hill region occupies about 90 per cent (20,089 sq km) of the land while the plain region constitutes just about 10 per cent (2,238 sq km). There are differences in land use patterns between the two regions. In the plain region, settlements account for more than 10 per cent of the area whereas for the hill region settlements account for less than 1 per cent of the area. Agricultural land in plain region is more than 40 per cent of the area, while for the hill region it is less than 2 per cent.

The hill region is predominantly inhabited by the Nagas and the Kukis, while the plain region is predominantly inhabited by the Meiteis and the Meitei-Muslims. The Nagas reside the mountains of north while the Kukis reside in the mountains of south (see, Arora and Kipgen 2012). The permanent cultivation is prevalent in plain region while terrace and jhuming/shifting cultivation is practiced in the hill region. Thus, ethnic groups occupy a distinct territory in Manipur.

Manipur has a population of about 2.7 million (2011 India’s Census). The plain region is home to about 62 per cent of the total population, the rest, about 38 per cent, live in the hill region. As a result, the plain region is thickly populated with a density of about 733 persons per sq km as against 54 persons per sq km in the hill region. Meiteis and other non-tribal groups constitute about 66.57 per cent of total population. The Nagas constitute about 18.7 per cent, while Kukis constitute about 15.71 per cent (1991 India’s Census). They are officially recognized as the schedule tribes, and 92.4 per cent of the scheduled tribes’ populations live in the hill region, the rest (8 per cent) lives in the plain region (2001 India’s Census). Meiteis and Meitei-Muslims are denied the benefits given to the scheduled tribes since they are considered more advanced.

There are various types of land ownership. In the hill region, most land is managed and used communally according to the traditional practices, while in the plain region land is privately owned. In order to bring about uniformity in distribution of land, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960 was enacted by the India’s parliament. But it is effective only in the plain region only. The Act prohibits the transfer of land belonging to the scheduled tribes to the non-scheduled tribes like the Meiteis. It says, “no transfer of land by a person who is a member of scheduled tribes shall be valid unless––(a) the transfer is to another member of scheduled tribes; or (b) where the transfer is to another person who is not a member of any such tribes, it is made with the previous permission in writing of deputy commissioner provided that the deputy commissioner shall not give such permission unless he has secured the consent thereto of the district council within whose jurisdiction the land lies; or (c) the transfer is by way of mortgage to a co-operative society.” The purported reason is to protect the land owned by the scheduled tribes from encroachment by the non-scheduled tribes. With the passage of time, it has become a bone of contention between the scheduled tribes and the non-scheduled tribes. Since the Meiteis and the Meitei-Muslims are not recognized as the scheduled tribes they cannot buy and own land, and permanently settle in the hill region whereas the Nagas or the Kukis being the scheduled tribes can settle in the plain region. As a result, the hill region is exclusively reserved for them whereas the plain region is open to all. Thus, the land-and-people relationship is extremely unequal (see, Oinam 2003). This is unacceptable to the Meiteis and the Meitei-Muslims, however, the Nagas and the Kukis want to maintain the status quo. The Nagas and the Kukis fear that if the Meiteis and other non-scheduled tribes are allowed to buy and own land in the hill they will lose the ownership of their traditional land. And yet, they are worried that the state government would try to amend the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960 legislation to cover the hill region.

There are 60 territorial constituencies in the legislative assembly of Manipur, in which the plain region is divided into 40 constituencies and the hill region into 20. All the 20 hill constituencies are reserved for the scheduled tribes, while the rest are unreserved. The 20 hill constituencies virtually belong to the Nagas and the Kukis, and that of the plain region to the Meiteis with the exception of one or two by the Meitei-Muslims or Nepalis. Therefore, if all the Meitei legislators come forward they can easily form a government.[v] The Nagas and the Kukis allege that they are under-represented in the legislative assembly, and little efforts have been made by the successive governments for the development of the hill region (see, Suan 2009). They contended that since hill region occupies 90 per cent of the land it shall get more constituencies.

Again, Manipur is landlocked practically without inland waterways and railways. It is connected to the rest of India by few highways, the narrow roads with sharp curve. The highway that passes through the adjacent state of Nagaland is Manipur’s lifeline, its major link route to outside world. Other highways are very narrow roads. Almost all the essential goods such as fuel, food, petrol, diesel, and medicines are imported from outside. A large number of vehicles bring essential goods through these highways. The Nagas and the Kukis used to impose frequent indefinite curfews along these highways to mount enough pressure to seek the redress of their grievances. The blockade of these highways has been the most common and effective method to put pressure to bear on the government, but affected the livelihoods of many people due to the acute shortages of essential goods. It is useful, in this context, to recall the 52-day-long (June 19 to August 11, 2005) blockade of the main highway imposed by a student group in protest against the Manipur government’s decision to declare June 18 as “State Integrity Day” in honor of 18 strikers killed while protesting against the extension of ceasefire between the Government of India and the NSCN-IM to Manipur. To provide relief to the people, the Indian Air Force was pressed into service to airlift medicines and other essential goods to Manipur from Guwahati, Assam’s capital.

The Nagas demand for Nagalim and the Kukis demand for Kukiland have the tactical support from the adjacent states of Nagaland and Mizoram. Manipur shares border with Nagaland on north, and Mizoram on south and south-west. The Kukis and the Nagas inhabit both sides of the border having close cultural affinities. The Naga movement first started in Assam’s Naga Hills (today’s Nagaland) in order to achieve an independent state of the Naga people (see, Das 2007). It has spillover effect on Manipur since the former is the home of the largest component of Naga people outside Nagaland. When the British Raj decided to free India the Nagas had sought to set up a country, but they were integrated with India. In the early 1950s, the Naga intellectuals of Assam proposed to set up an administrative region comprising of Assam’s Naga Hills and Tuensang Frontier Division of North-East Frontier Agency (today’s Arunachal Pradesh). The Government of India accepted the proposal, and Naga Hills-Tuensang Area came into existence in 1957. In 1963, it was elevated into a state of India known as Nagaland. But, many Nagas rejected Nagaland for not integrating other Naga-concentrated areas of Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh to Nagaland. The “contiguous Naga inhabitations” fall into Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh (Shimray 2000: 3007). The Nagaland legislative assembly had also urged the Government of India to bring all the Nagas of India together into a single political entity. The Naga insurgents also wanted to bring all Nagas of India under a homeland known as Nagalim. The integration of Naga-concentrated areas in Myanmar with those areas in India is not on their agenda at the moment (see, Chasie and Sanjoy 2009). Further, the two-decade long “Greater Mizoram” movement came to an end after Mizo (Lushai) Hills of Assam became the state of Mizoram in 1987. It has had a great influence on Kukis of Manipur since there wanted to unify Kuki-Chin-Mizo groups of people inhabiting part of Manipur, Assam, Tripura, and part of Mizoram (Suan 2009). Many Kuki young people from Manipur joined the movement (Chaube 1999: 213), but the formation of Mizoram betrayed them (Kipgen 2006). But the Meiteis are against Nagalim and Kukiland because the Meitei kings had ruled the former kingdom of Manipur that extended to the hill areas (Zehol 1998 & Suan 2009). The Meiteis alleged Manipur is the homeland all the ethnic groups of Manipur. Hence, they are against its division.

Further, the majority of the Meiteis have been converted into Hinduism since the 18th century while the majority of Nagas and Kukis have also been converted into Christianity since the early part of 20th century. After embracing Hinduism, the Meiteis considered themselves as members of a higher status group, and considered others inferior people. Thus, the relationship gradually turned into a relationship characterized by subordination-superordination, and inferiority-superiority (Saha 2005: 233-234).

Meiteilon is not only the language of the Meiteis, but is used for internal communication in the state. Since it is one of the 22 schedule languages of India, it has to be promoted by the government. Every state of India has one or more official languages, and being the principal language Meiteilon is Manipur’s official language. The Meiteis wanted to consolidate the language and its written script. The written script, Meitei-Mayek, was replaced in 18th century by the Bengali script after the advent of Hinduism. Down the line the Meiteis realized the blunder, and wanted to revive the script. After Manipur became a state of India in 1972, the Meiteis wanted the teaching of the language in the schools. In 1977, the legislative assembly of Manipur adopted a resolution to accord Meiteilon, in addition to English, as the official language of Manipur. Thus, the Manipur Official Language Act, 1979 mandated “Manipuri language written in Bengali script” as the official language of the state. In 1983, the state government introduced Meiteilon as a compulsory subject in all schools in the state. In addition, the Meiteis wanted to substitute the Bengali script by the Meitei script. However, it has not been easy because the Bengali script has been in used for writing for more than 200 years. The Meitei script was formally introduced in class I and II level from 2005. However, the Nagas and the Kukis have been accusing the government for trying to impose Meiteilon upon them. “The languages of the dominant non-tribals are being forcibly imposed upon the minority tribals. Manipur often witnesses a tug-of-war among dozens of tribal languages versus the dominant Meiteilon. The language problem in Manipur began during the early 1980s when the state government tried to introduce Meiteilon as a compulsory subject in class X. But the issue was settled by keeping Meiteilon as an option for the tribal in lieu of additional English or state’s recognized tribal languages. But the tussle continues with the insertion of Manipuri in the eighth schedule in 1992. The problem of language has immense political implications. The language problem in Manipur creates or worsens ethnic tension in the state” (Shimray 2000: 3007-08).

The Meiteis are in favor of lifting the restriction that debarred them from buying and owning land in the hill region which they as “discriminatory.” But, the Nagas and the Kukis said that allowing the settlement of the Meiteis in the hill region would further marginalized them. Some Meitei groups have urged the Government of India to declare Manipur a “Hill State” and follow uniform laws throughout the state. They have also started mobilizing public opinion in favor of the recognition of Meiteis as scheduled tribe.

Conflict Management and Conclusion

The government has contributed to the conflicts through its action and inaction. The Hill Areas Committee of Manipur Legislative Assembly was constituted in 1972. It consists of all members of the legislative assembly who represent the hill constituencies. Theoretically its mandate is to oversee planning, implementation, and monitoring of development activities in the hill region of Manipur. But, it has been ineffective. Further, in order to grant limited home rule powers to the hill areas, the Indian parliament enacted the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971. Accordingly the hill region is divided into six autonomous districts each having a district council (18 elected and 2 nominated members). The elected members are elected on the basis of adult franchise from the territorial constituencies of the district. Six district councils were constituted in 1972.[vi] Each council has limited executive and financial powers. The executive powers are the construction and maintenance of roads, bridges and other public buildings; the establishment, maintenance and management of primary schools, dispensaries, markets and fairs; the supply, storage and control of water for agricultural purpose; the preservation, protection and improvement of livestock and prevention of animal disease, public health and sanitation; the management of any forest not being a reserved forest; the regulation of the practice of Jhum or other form of shifting cultivation and the like. Although the district council does not have legislative powers but it can recommend legislations on certain matters concerning scheduled tribes such as the appointment or succession of Chiefs, inheritance of property, marriage and divorce and social custom. The council’s financial powers include levying taxes on profession, trades and employment; on animals, vehicles and boats; on the entry of goods into the market for sale; on the maintenance of schools, dispensaries or roads and the like. The first elections were held in 1973. But, the councils soon became defunct. As a result, the elections could not be held. After a long period of neglect the government of Manipur realized the need for reviving the district councils, and hence the elections were held in 2010. The government has devolved more powers and functions upon the councils.

To conclude, different ethnic groups of Manipur are resorting to political mobilization to gain more political power, cultural autonomy, control over territory, economic security, and development (Bhagabati 2004: 9). But, their political aspirations are fed by a belief that adequate political power is a necessary condition for retaining their ethnic identity. In themselves, these aspirations are legitimate. The difficulty arises when the ethnic identity is connected to the demand for separate homelands. But it is important to emphasize that on account of the ethnic heterogeneity it is virtually impossible to divide Manipur along ethnic lines. It is impossible to accept that there are ethnically homogeneous areas that can be aggregated into either Nagalim or Kukiland. But the ethnic conflict makes Manipur a dangerous place. At the same time, the government’s conflict management has not been effective.







[i] Neither Nagas nor Kukis are homogeneous, contain different subgroups of people.

[ii] The India’s constitution has special concern and commitment for the well-being of the scheduled tribes who suffer as a group due to their social and economic backwardness and relative isolation.

[iii] The eight schedule of India’s constitution provides formal and constitutional recognition to dominant regional languages in the spheres of administration, education, economy, and social status.

[iv]  They are sometimes referred to Kuki-Chin-Mizo or Zo.  There is lack of unanimity in the nomenclature itself. .

[v] Manipur send two members to the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the India’s parliament), and one member to the Rajya Sabha (upper house). Each region sends one member to the Lok Sabha.

[vi] Chandel Autonomous District Council, Churachandpur ADC, Sadar Hills ADC, Senapati ADC, Tamenglong ADC, and Ukhrul ADC.

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