Beyond Manipur violence: drugs and demographics in hill districts

The number of Manipur’s hill villages grew 64% after 1969; a top State official terms it ‘unnatural growth’ linked to poppy cultivation and Myanmarese Kuki migrants; BJP MLA says it is related to Kuki customs

May 11, 2023 08:28 pm | Updated May 12, 2023 10:15 am IST - NEW DELHI

Meitei refugees wait onboard a paramilitary truck at a transit point after being evacuated from the violence that hit Churachandpur, near Imphal.

Meitei refugees wait onboard a paramilitary truck at a transit point after being evacuated from the violence that hit Churachandpur, near Imphal. | Photo Credit: AFP

On May 8, when Imphal was reeling under curfew in the aftermath of the May 3 violence, the Narcotics and Affairs of Border (NAB) — a specialised unit of the State police — raided a property in the Mantripukhri area of the city. It seized 77 gunny bags, suspected to contain poppy seeds, and 120 kyat, Myanmar’s currency. The NAB said in a May 9 statement that it highly suspected that the house owner belonged to an international drug cartel.

Meitei civil society groups claim that the May 3 violence — which had claimed at least 65 lives — was actually a retaliation by some tribal groups to a series of actions taken by the N. Biren Singh government, including the “war on drugs”, and the clearing of reserved forest areas in the hills, removing allegedly illegal occupants. The Mantripukhri raid by NAB shows that the State government was doubling down on narcotics even in the middle of a serious law-and-order situation where more than 35,000 persons were displaced.

‘Unnatural growth’

Such actions are premised on a detailed note prepared by the State government on “unnatural growth in the number of villages and new settlements in some districts of Manipur.”

Sharing data and satellite images, a top source in the Manipir government said that in 1969, there were 587 villages in the Imphal valley, which is dominated by the non-tribal Meiteis. That dropped to 544 villages in 2021. On the other hand, in the hill districts — which are inhabited mostly by 34 Scheduled Tribes including the Kukis and the Nagas — there were 1,370 settlements and villages in 1969. By 2021, however, this had shot up to 2,244 villages, the source said.

Valley urbanisation

One of the possible explanations for the drop in the number of villages in the valley is the rapid urbanisation occurring there, compared to the hills. It cannot be determined whether the growth in settlements in the hills is commensurate with a growth in population, as the 2021 census is yet to be conducted.

Churachandpur — a hill district with a majority population of Kukis which was one of the main hotspots for last week’s violence — had 282 villages in 1969, which almost doubled to 544 in 2021.

Kuki customs

Paolienlal Haokip, the Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Saikot in Churachandpur district, countered this narrative of demographic change. He explained that, according to Kuki traditions, whenever a clan grows they are given permission to settle another village in the same area. This explains the increase in the number of villages in Kuki areas, he said.

“Those who say this [about the increase in number of villages] are not aware of Kuki customs. To say that these settlements are all illegal migrants from Myanmar is simply not true. It is true that after the junta (military rule) took over Myanmar [in 2021], some people fled to Manipur. But that number would be in hundreds, they have not set up any villages,” Mr. Haokip told The Hindu. He added that the increase in settlements in Kuki areas is also due to the ethnic tensions with the Nagas between 1992 and 1997.

Demographic politics

In 2016, Manipur had nine districts: Imphal West, Imphal East, Thoubal and Bishnupur in the valley; and Senapati, Ukhrul, Churachandpur, Chandel and Tamenglong in the hills. In December 2016, the Congress-led O. Ibobi Singh government carved out seven new districts — Jiribam, Kamjong, Kakching, Tengnoupal, Noney, Pherzawl and Kangpokpi — by splitting the five original hill districts, thereby taking the total number of districts to 16.

The valley, with 10% of Manipur’s landmass, is dominated by the non-tribal Meiteis, most of whom are Hindus, who account for more than 64% of the population of the State and yield 40 of the State’s 60 MLAs. The hills comprise 90% of the State’s area, but send only 20 members to the Assembly.

According to the website of the Ministry of Development of Northeastern Region (DoNER), there was an increase of 0.9% in the State’s Scheduled Tribe between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. The 2021 census is yet to be conducted, so the current population is not known. The 2011 census put the State’s population at 27.21 lakh, with a decadal population growth rate of 18.65%.

‘Violence linked to war on drugs’

The People’s Alliance for Peace and Progress Manipur (PAPPM), an influential Manipur-based civil society group, said in a statement on May 8 that “the Myanmar-origin Kuki immigrants occupying sensitive high positions of Indian government offices sustain uninterrupted entry of illegal Kuki migrants into Manipur. Both these are threat to national security of India.”

In a press conference in Delhi on May 9, the group insisted that the violence that erupted on May 3 was rooted in the Kukis’ opposition to the government’s “war on drugs”.

The Manipur government source also said that the current wave of tensions between the majority Meitei community and the Kukis lies in the actions taken since 2017-18 against illegal poppy cultivation in the hill districts. The source said that since 2017-18, over 18,664 acres of poppy cultivation have been destroyed by the authorities, mostly in hill districts, compared to just 1,889 acres of poppy destroyed between 2013 and 2016.

Mr. Haokip pointed out that there is no church or civil society organisation in the hills that endorses poppy cultivation. “All groups have issued advisories against such cultivation. It is the big investors from the valley who are the kingpins of this trade,” he said.

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