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Escalation of Violence in Manipur: Meitei Demand for Scheduled Tribe Status

In recent events unfolding in Manipur, a state in northeastern India, over 100 lives have been lost, and more than 300 individuals have been injured due to violent clashes. The root cause of this conflict lies in the Meitei community’s longstanding demand for a Scheduled Tribe (ST) status under the Indian Constitution. Such a status would grant them privileges similar to those enjoyed by tribal communities.

Tribal Solidarity March Triggers Violent Clashes

The situation in Manipur escalated following the organization of a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ in the state’s ten hill districts on May 3. This march aimed to protest against the Meitei community’s demand for ST status and unfortunately led to the tragic deaths of at least 54 people. Ethnic tensions and suspicion between different ethnic groups in the Imphal valley and the surrounding hills have been brewing for some time, and these clashes served as a catalyst for further violence.

Historical Context and Manipur High Court Order

The conflict’s roots can be traced back over a decade when the Meitei community first voiced their demand for a Scheduled Tribe tag. However, the immediate trigger for the recent violence was a directive from the Manipur High Court. The court ordered the state government to recommend an ST status for the Meitei community to the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry by May 29. The petitioners argued that the Meitei community had previously held the ST tag before Manipur’s merger with the Indian Union and sought its restoration.

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Plainsmen Meiteis vs. Nagas and Kukis

The Manipur government, irrespective of the ruling party, has historically been dominated by the plainsmen Meiteis, who comprise around 53 percent of the state’s population. They primarily reside in the irregular oval-shaped Imphal Valley. This power dynamic has created an atmosphere of suspicion among the tribals, particularly the Nagas and Kukis, who constitute 40 percent of Manipur’s population and primarily inhabit the surrounding hills. The Imphal Valley, though fertile and occupying only a tenth of the state’s land mass, is often viewed as the source of policies and actions that disadvantage the tribal communities.

The Eviction Drive and Discontent

Beginning in February, an eviction drive aimed at clearing reserved forests resulted in widespread discontent, particularly among the Kuki community. This drive was seen as yet another action against the tribal population. Ahead of Chief Minister N Biren Singh’s visit to Churachandpur district, protesters vandalized and set fire to the venue where he was scheduled to address a function. Additionally, a newly established open gym, slated for inauguration, was partially torched. These events occurred just before a ‘total shutdown’ called by the Indigenous Tribe Leaders Forum in the entire Churachandpur district, highlighting the anger and frustration of the affected communities.

Political Representation and Demands for Rehabilitation

The Kuki community, represented by ten legislators, including five BJP MLAs, in the Manipur Assembly, holds significant political influence. The Kuki People’s Alliance (KPA), an ally of the ruling BJP government, also has two MLAs. The Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) has demanded that these MLAs publicly state their stance on the eviction drive. Failure to respond adequately could lead to social boycotts. Earlier in March, a clash erupted in Kangpokpi district during a mass rally protesting encroachment on tribal lands.