Discontentment hovered over the lives of tribal people in Manipur when the High Court order suggested granting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meitei community, a move that was recently reproached by the Supreme Court.

The Meitei community has already been granted General, Scheduled Caste (SC) and Other Backward Caste (OBC) statuses. Providing them with the ST status would drive the already marginalised tribal communities to further disadvantage.

The All Tribal Students' Union, Manipur (ATSUM) took out a rally on May 3, 2023, to peacefully protest against the High Court order. While the union included members from both Kuki and Naga communities, it is the Kukis who have borne the brunt of the recent violence.

The ATSUM rally was a non-violent means of dissent, but the vandalising of the Anglo-Kuki Centenary Gate near Leisang village, allegedly by Meitei groups triggered the violence. This gate is a memorial of historic significance marking the 1917-1919 Kuki Uprising against the British colonialists.

Thangminlal Haokip, a Kuki lawyer based in Bangalore said, “This is their way of erasing our history and branding us as illegal immigrants”. Arms were allegedly looted from several police stations surrounding the Valley prior to the outbreak of violence.

Ngulkhogin, a former student leader in Bengaluru, said that licensed guns were collected by the Manipur Government from the tribal people living in the Hills before the violence. They are usually armed to protect themselves in the wild. “They collected licensed guns from tribal people saying that they will be renewing the guns and returning,” he said.

A notification by the Churachandpur District Magistrate dated February 14 2023, asked all licence holders to submit their arms licence and arms by March 1, 2023, to respective police stations for 're-verification', failing which the licences shall stand cancelled.

Meiteis, Haokip said, are trying to push a communal narrative to claim that the minority Christian Kukis are attacking Majority Hindu Meiteis to seek sympathy from the mainland, which he suspects may raise anti-tribal sentiments in metro areas like Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad against tribal people.

“We are scared,” he said. “The propaganda online is dangerous.” He named a film star who he said is posting about this and “even though I don’t consume what she puts out on social media but people listen to her, that’s the problem.”

“If that escalates, our lived experiences will be forgotten. The issue was never religious, it is about tribal rights”, Haokip said .

Several reporters who arrived in Manipur during the initial days of violence reached Imphal, the Meitei-dominated capital, where they remained stranded for 2-3 days. Haokip said, “Any person interviewed there belonged to the Meiteis who claimed their houses were burnt, and that is true but it is very one-sided.”

The Manipur Tribal Forum submitted a petition before the Supreme Court, outlining a list of 58 destroyed villages. Each of these villages housed anywhere between 30-50 families.

On May 10, 2023, a press release by ATSUM, stated that 222 churches in the state were burnt, including 150 Meitei churches. Due to the frequent internet cut-offs, it has been difficult to gather more updated figures. Recent reports indicate the death toll to be 71.

Letminthang Haokip, an Income Tax department official who was posted in Imphal was reportedly dragged out of his house and killed last Friday. Chonkholen Haokip, CRPF constable of 204 CoBRA, who was stationed at Chhattisgarh was on leave at his hometown in Manipur when he was killed in Churachandpur.

Letminthang Haokip, MLA and member of the BJP saw his house in Imphal set ablaze. This raises the question, if politicians and central government employees are not safe, then how can civilians be?

Manipur consists of a central valley and a range of hills surrounding it on all sides. The Meiteis dominate the central valley, while many groups and sub-groups of tribes occupy the hills. Official records show that the state budget in Manipur has been perpetually increasing the allocation to the Valley as opposed to the Hills.

The 2020-21 budget shows that out of ₹7,000 crores, merely ₹41 crores were allocated to the Hills while the Valley received ₹6,959 crores.

A Comparison of State Budget Allocation to Valley and Hills

source: https://manipur.gov.in/

The inequality in development between the Hills and the Valley can be seen in the lack of accessibility to employment opportunities, medical facilities, and infrastructure in the former. Due to lesser employment opportunities in the Hills and exclusion from development that takes place in the Valley, many tribal people resort to poppy cultivation for sustenance.

A 2019 field study by Ngmajahao Kipgen, Associate Professor of Sociology at IIT (Guwahati) revealed that poverty, food insecurity, and material needs are the drivers of illegal opium production in Manipur.

While many tribes on the Hill cultivate poppies, Kukis feel they alone are being singled out and called drug peddlers now. The Manipur government's ‘War on Drugs’ campaign last year destroyed the poppy crops before harvesting time without providing any alternative arrangements for the people, leaving them unemployed.

Diana Lhingneineng Haokip, a student from Dhanamanjuri University, Imphal travelled to Chennai on May 11 2023. “If not for this situation, we would be having our final semester by June 2023,” she said..

Recounting the first day of violence, she said, “I was staying at New Lambulane, 3rd Street in Imphal. In the evening, the mob started attacking people in the areas around mine with sticks. They also banged the gates of our hostel.

“Gunshots, teargas were heard from the hostel window. We were hiding under beds, crying and shivering, we thought we would all be killed that night.” She said that she saw that the mob would gather in one place by beating electric poles, "That was their way of calling to assemble and start the attack.”

Police escorted civilians to nearby camps but even then she was able to hear the electric posts, making her wonder if they would come and hunt them inside the camp. "The incident left us with a scar that will take a lifetime to overcome," she said.

Diana Lhingneineng Haokip reached the 1st MR Camp on May 4 2023. “It was overcrowded and everyone slept on the floor. There was a queue for everything - food, water, toilet. Even after standing for hours for food, sometimes there would not be enough food left” she recalled.

“ We were literally treated and fed like livestock,” she added. Since many of them relied on online UPI transactions, the internet shutdowns made it difficult to purchase basic requirements for survival.

In spite of the escalating violence, the state remained noticeably absent in terms of immediate intervention. Thangminlal Haokip claimed, “The people who are asking for Presidential rule are often the victims because they can no longer protect themselves. The Meiteis are trying to downplay the situation at Imphal Valley.

“The Kukis have been demanding Presidential rule since the second day of violence “ he said. “Reportedly, the tribal MLAs too have demanded the resignation of Chief Minister Biren Singh. However, an emergency had been imposed and Article 355 and more paramilitary was sent in,” Thangminlal Haokip said.

On May 12, ten Kuki MLAs, including Letpao Haokip, signed a demand for a separate administration under the Indian Constitution. The Press Statement added that the violence that was perpetrated by the majority Meiteis was “tacitly supported by the existing Government of Manipur against the Chin-Kuki-Nizo-Zomi hill tribes…”