The ethnic violence that broke out in Manipur last week has led to over 50 deaths. Thousands have fled the State or are being evacuated. Hundreds of houses, churches, temples, and vehicles have been vandalised or set ablaze. At the heart of this conflict is the long-standing hill-valley identity divide.
On the one hand, the better educated, Manipuri-speaking urban dwellers, comprising mainly Hindus and a significant share of Muslims, live in the State’s valley, which is not covered by forests. They have better access to good quality drinking water, clean cooking fuel, and hospitals. The population in the valley dominates public sector jobs, and the economy of the region is propped up by tourists, who, for the most part, stay in the valley. A higher share of industries, which provide better employment opportunities, can also be found in the valley.
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On the other, the relatively less educated tribal people live in the rural areas. A majority of them speak the Tangkhul, Thado, Kabui or the Mao language. Close to 90% of them are Christians. They live in hilly regions, which are covered mostly by forests and have relatively poor access to basic facilities. This population is poorly represented in public sector jobs. Very few of them work in industries and don’t earn a sufficient income from tourism.
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The trigger for the violence was a tribal solidarity march organised by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM), which was supported by tribal bodies including the Naga Students Union Chandel, the Sadar Hills Tribal Union on Land and Forests, the Tangkhul Katamnao Saklong and the Tribal Churches Leaders Forum, according to the Press Trust of India. The ATSUM called this rally to protest the Manipur High Court’s direction to the State to pursue a recommendation to grant Scheduled Tribe status to the non-tribal Meitei-speaking people (officially called the Manipuri language).
The population with Manipuri as its mother tongue dominates the valley districts — Imphal West, Imphal East, Thoubal and Bishnupur — and forms 85-99% of each district’s population. On the other hand, in the hill districts — Senapati, Churachandpur, Ukhrul, Chandel and Tamenglong — the Manipuri-speaking population is less than 4%. Tangkhul in Ukhrul district, Mao in Senapati district, Kabui in Tamenglong district, and Thado across most hill districts are the dominant mother tongues.
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The vandalisation of places of worship in the State has brought to the fore the sharp hill-valley divide in religious terms. In the hill districts, 89-96% of the population is Christian, while in the valley their share is marginal. In the valley, 60-75% is Hindu, with the Imphal East and Thoubal districts having a significantly high Muslim population.
The grievance of the hill tribal people that according ST status to the Meiteis will eat into their share of reservation seems to be borne out by data. The tables show that their share in public sector employment (as of 2016) was on the lower side. People from the hills held 35% of public sector jobs while they formed close to 43% of the population, whereas those from the valley held about 65% of such jobs. Also, close to 90% of foreign and 75% of domestic tourists restrict themselves to the valley.
The hill-valley divide is more pronounced when access to basic facilities is compared. In the valley, 73-90% of households had access to better quality water compared to 51-69% in the hill districts. In the valley, 70-90% of households had access to clean cooking fuel, compared to 23-62% in the hills. In the valley, 67-76% of births were institutional, compared to 39-67% in the hills.
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Source: National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21), Economic Survey Manipur (2020-21), Census of India (2011)
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