By Sujit Chakraborty
Imphal, Jun 4 (IANS): The month-long violence that claimed around 100 lives and over 315 people injured in it has sharply divided Manipur on ethnic lines as Kuki tribals living on hills feel a separate state is the only solution while the Meiteis, who are seeking Scheduled Tribe category status and dominant in the valley, are strongly against any kind of division of the state or any separate arrangements.
The ethnic violence since May 3 caused large-scale displacement of people - both in the hills and the valley.
Those non-tribal Meiteis living on the hills have fled to the valley and the tribal Kukis who inhabited the valley moved out to the hills clearly showing a trust deficit between the two communities and different geographical locations further widening differences.
The division between the mountainous and the valley areas or the development disparity has always been an engaging political debate in Manipur.
For all-round socio-economic development, there are 10 constitutional bodies -- tribal autonomous district councils that exist in four northeastern states (three each in Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram and one in Tripura) but in Manipur despite a sizable presence of tribals there are no such powerful constitutional autonomous bodies.
Amidst the ethnic violence, students of Churachandpur Medical College, expressing their fear, distress and anxiety, have demanded a secure place to continue their studies.
The first batch of students are pursuing their first-year MBBS course at the newly set up medical college, inaugurated by Union Home Minister Amit Shah on January 6 this year.
Of the total 100 students, around 60 students hail from the valley regions of Manipur.
As the ethnic violence was going on, 10 MLAs belonging to Kuki tribals (including seven ruling BJP members) demanded a separate administration equivalent to a separate state for the tribals in Manipur.
While the Kuki MLAs alleged that the violence was perpetrated by the majority Meitei community and was "tacitly supported" by the BJP-run state government, Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Education, Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said that in complete dismay and frustration, Kuki leaders, including their 10 MLAs, have demanded a separate political administration (equivalent to a separate state) for the tribals.
Academician-turned-politician Singh, who was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Inner Manipur parliamentary seat on a BJP ticket, said that the demand was made under tremendous pressure from various quarters, including the Kuki militants.
The Union Minister from Manipur, requesting the Prime Minister to do away with the mechanical division in Manipur, suggested that the entire state should belong to the people as a whole - without any distinction between the hill inhabitants and the valley people - in the pattern of Himachal Pradesh. If required, Article 371C may be amended.
Article 371C deals with special provisions for the hill areas of Manipur.
The hills account for 90 per cent of the state's area and 10 per cent population while the valley occupies 10 per cent land.
Out of the 60 Assembly seats, the valley accounts for 40 Assembly seats.
In the valley, there are Hindu, non-tribal Meitei communities while the hills are inhabited largely by the Christian Naga and Kuki-Zomi communities and similar ethnic tribes.
The BJP-led government in 2017 promised to cement the divide and Chief Minister N. Biren Singh launched "go to hills" and "go to villages" to expedite development measures in the hills.
The Chief Minister as per the Central government's mission to make the northeast a drug-free zone also launched a "war against drugs" and evicted tribals from the protected reserve forest and reserve forest besides destroying illegal poppy cultivation.
The state government's eviction drive and destruction of illegal poppy cultivation annoyed the Koki tribals, who launched agitations on March 10 against the government's move.
The state government claimed that the Kuki militants are instigating the tribals against the government's action.
After the May 3 and the subsequent ethnic violence, all the 10 MLAs belonging to the Kuki community have accused the N. Biren Singh government of "failing miserably" to protect the community. Therefore, they have resolved to pursue a "separate administration under the Constitution of India and live peacefully as neighbours with Manipur".
The tribals constitute around 37 to 40 per cent of the total 2.72 million population (2011 census) of the state.
There are differences in perception on many issues among the tribals and non-tribals in the entire northeastern region, where 27-28 per cent are tribals out of the 45.58 million population.
Though the demand for a separate state for the tribals is active in several northeastern states including Nagaland, Tripura, and Meghalaya, the separate state demand in Manipur assumes more significance as it was raised by the ruling party MLAs and their allies.
"The unabated violence that began on May 3 in Manipur perpetrated by the majority Meiteis and tacitly supported by the state government against the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi hill tribals has already partitioned the state and effected a total separation from the state of Manipur," said a statement signed by the 10 MLAs.
"Our people can no longer exist under Manipur as the hatred against our tribal community reached such a height that MLAs, ministers, pastors, police and civil officers, common men, women and even children were not spared, not to mention the destruction of places of worship, homes and properties. To live amidst the Meitei again is as good as death for our people," the statement said.
In the valley, there are Hindu, non-tribal Meitei communities while the hills are inhabited largely by the Christian Naga and Kuki-Zomi communities.
Several years after the erstwhile princely state of Manipur merged with the Indian Union in October 1949, the Meitei community feels that with the infiltration from Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal their demographic balance and position would be jeopardised if they did not get constitutional protection.
With this observation, the Meitei communities, who constitute around 53 per cent of the total population, have been demanding Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, which has been strongly opposed by the tribals.
The tribals' logic is that "the Meitei communities as the majority population got many constitutional and government benefits, and if they are categorised as ST, the tribals' constitutional benefits would be shared further with them (Meitei communities)".
Claiming 100 lives, injuring over 315, and damaging government and private properties, the northeastern state witnessed unprecedented violent clashes, attacks, counter-attacks and arson of houses and vehicles in more than 10 districts after the May 3 'Tribal Solidarity March' called by the All Tribal Students' Union of Manipur (ATSUM) to oppose the demand for inclusion of the Meitei community in the ST category.
Acting on a writ petition filed by the Meetei (Meitei) Trade Union, the Manipur High Court's acting Chief Justice M.V. Muralidaran on April 19 directed the state government to submit the recommendation for the inclusion of the Meitei (Meetei) community in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list to the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry.
The High Court order snowballed into a major controversy with thousands of tribals turning up for the 'Tribal Solidarity March' in 10 hill districts on May 3, called by ATSUM.
The May 3 incidents were preceded by anger, and the strong opposition against the eviction of Kuki villagers from the protected forest land and the destruction of poppy cultivation by the state government led to a series of agitations and tension between the majority Meiteis and the minority Kukis.