Tribal Kangleipak to Hindu Manipur
Meitei people treasure their past, and ‘Kangleipak’ is their name for their ancient civilization. The chronicle of the Ningthouja dynasty of Manipur [Ref.1] records the rule of 76 kings starting 33 CE. The Ningthouja people were one of several tribal clans of Tibetan-Burmese origin, which migrated into present Manipur region from the East.
The rulers of the dominant Ningthouja (Meitei) clan assimilated other clans, and formed a confederacy of Kangleipak clans. Successive Meitei kings ruled over Kangleipak, with their capital in the Imphal valley, making Imphal into a centre of learning and intellectual activity.
King Naophangba wrote a Constitution in ancient Meitei language in 429 CE, and King Loiyumba (1074–1112) formalised it in 1110 CE. The Meitei people had a written Constitution called “Loyumba Shinyen”, nine centuries ago!
King Loiyumba consolidated his kingdom by incorporating most of the tribal clans in the surrounding hill regions. Kings ruled from ‘Kangla’, a fortified palace known today as ‘Kangla Fort’.
King Khagemba ruled over Kangleipak from 1597 to 1652. His brother Shalungba, unhappy with Khagemba’s rule, wanted to be King. He fled to Bengal, where he allied with Bengali Muslim leaders and marched upon Kangleipak with a contingent of Bengali Muslim soldiers. King Khagemba’s army defeated Prince Shalungba’s contingent, captured the soldiers and made them work as labourers. These soldiers married local Meitei women and adopted the Meitei language. Their progeny form today’s Manipuri small Muslim community, known as ‘Meitei Pangals’.
In 1714, King Pamheiba was initiated into the Gaudiya Vaishnava faith by Shantidas Gosain, a Bengali Hindu. Pamheiba was a powerful ruler, and made the Gaudiya Vaishnava faith as the religion of his kingdom, and is said to have introduced the Bengali script to substitute the Meitei script. Then in 1724, the Kangleipak kingdom adopted the Sanskrit name of “Manipur”.
Corporate interests, British rule and Christianity
During the reign of King Bhagyachandra (1748-1799), the Kingdom of Burma attacked and occupied Manipur, allowing the ruler only nominal power. In 1824, King Gambhir Singh, then Manipur’s ruler, entered into an alliance with the British East India Company, for help to oust the Burmese. The British sent Sepoy troops and artillery, and the Burmese were driven out of Manipur in 1826. Thus, Manipur came under the control of a business and trading corporation bearing the name and title of East India Company.
India’s 1857 War of Independence – ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ per the British – resulted in the British Crown taking political control of East India Company’s territorial possessions. Following internecine intrigue in the Manipur Court, one of the throne contenders approached the British for help. The British took advantage of this to capture Manipur in April 1891, making it an internally self-governing ‘Princely State’ under its rule.
In 1894, Christian missionaries were permitted entry into Manipur. They learned the Meitei language, studied and translated surviving Meitei scripts, started schools, and translated the Bible into Meitei language. Most people of the hilly regions of the princely State of Manipur were converted to Christianity.
Manipur – special status
During the Second World War, the Japanese Army advanced up to Imphal (and Kohima in present-day Nagaland). During March to July 1944, Imphal was the scene of a defining battle between Indian and Japanese troops, resulting in the defeat and withdrawal of Japanese forces. The British continued to rule over Manipur.
On 11 August 1947, with end of British rule certain, Maharaja Budhachandra signed an Instrument of Accession, and Manipur joined Independent India. On 21 September 1949, he signed a Merger Agreement, merging Manipur into the Union of India. However, Manipuri people’s groups with differing visions for their future, disputed the merger, arguing that it was done under duress and without consensus.
Later, the dispute developed into demands for independence from India, and resulted in insurgency in Manipur. There were episodes of violence among groups within Manipur, which had conflicting interests.
The Constitution (Twenty-seventh Amendment) Act, 1971, introduced Article 371C(1) to provide “Special provision with respect to the State of Manipur”.
From the foregoing historical-civilizational context of Manipur, we observe that practically all of Manipur’s population is of tribal (“Adivasi” is a preferred word) stock. However, religion-wise, Meiteis were Hindu, King Pamheiba’s declared state religion. People who lived in the hills continued with their respective Adivasi faiths, until converted as Christian in British times.
The social structure and demography of Manipur’s people has changed over the centuries, but more rapidly in recent decades. Due to geo-historical reasons, people in the Imphal valley – covering about 10% of the area of Manipur – are mostly Meitei. They constitute 53% of Manipur’s population, over 90% of them, Hindu by religion. (India Census 2011).
The people living in the hilly regions are about 40% of Manipur’s population, and belong to around 30 different tribes. Kuki people are about 25% of Adivasi hill people, but Naga people – themselves belonging to different tribes – and Zo people, also live in Manipur’s hilly regions. Meiteis in the Imphal valley are generally economically better-off than Kukis who live in the hilly regions.
Over 80% of Adivasi people living in Manipur’s hill regions are Christians. Even so, the Adivasi groups are proud of their distinctive identities of language, dress, cuisine and culture. Since the hilly regions of Manipur constitute about 90% of the area of Manipur, five of Manipur’s nine districts have Christian majority population.
Manipur has a population of about 28-lakhs, in 60 Assembly constituencies, 40 of them in the valley, and 20 in the hill regions. The Meitei majority holds overwhelming political power.
Before May 3, 2023, small numbers of Kukis lived in Imphal valley among Meiteis, and similar numbers of Meiteis lived in the hilly regions among Kukis.
Successive central governments from Independence to present times, have failed to understand the social, economic and political complexities of the richly forested hilly northeast region including Manipur, and the multi-cultural character of its Adivasi tribes.
Governments, myopically focused upon development-by-economic-growth, cannot recognize that Adivasi cultures are centred on the forested lands within which they have lived for countless generations.
The historic reason for tensions between Manipur’s Kuki-Zo & Naga hill people and the Meitei plains people, is both territorial and economic. But majoritarian communal forces have converted the Meitei-Kuki conflict of interests, into the ongoing vicious and violent politics of “Hindu (Meitei) versus Christian (Kuki)”.
With violence continuing in Manipur, some Kuki groups demanded a “separate administration” for themselves, covering hill areas which they consider as their homeland, shown on a map for a proposed Kuki State [Ref.2] submitted to MHA on August 17, 2023. However, this map includes areas of Manipur which the Nagas consider as their traditional land.
This is the flash point for hitherto simmering differences between the Kuki and Naga communities of Manipur. The Nagas claim that Kukis are distorting the history [Ref.3] of Manipur, that the name “Kuki” was first heard sometime between 1830-1840, and that the British “planted” the Kuki tribe in the region. Manipur Nagas oppose the demand of the Kuki community for a separate administration, and hold that the Kuki community’s claims are an insult to the Naga community.
Thus, even while State and Central governments are unable to stop the violence between the Meitei and Kuki communities, a new “front” of conflict between Kuki and Naga communities of Manipur has opened. The nation is now confronted by a multi-cornered conflict, with subtexts of historical territorial claims, threat to traditional tribal ways of life and livelihood, and insecurity concerning land and economic rights. The entry of foreigners (Myanmarese) into Manipur across the open border, adds to the problem.
These subtexts are bracketed by government’s development agenda, which demands land for industrial-scale projects in Manipur’s hill regions. However, before going into this, there is the “poppy issue”.
Poppy cultivation and narcotics trade
Poppy cultivation in Manipur’s hill regions is based upon economic compulsions. Narratives from the field [Ref.4] show that food insecurity, poverty, and material aspirations and needs, are the drivers of illegal opium production in Manipur. Field studies reveal the following socio-economic compulsions for poppy cultivation:
# Food insecurity (unemployment, poverty, and lack of an alternative means of livelihood) – 56.9%
# Children’s education (need money to pay for school fees, uniforms, books, etc) – 20.9%
# Material needs (money to build a house, and to buy items such as phones, televisions, motorcycles, etc) – 10.8%
# Indebtedness (need cash to pay debts) – 10.5%
The Anti-Narcotics Department, Manipur Police, and Assam Rifles, regularly destroy poppy and ganja crops in Manipur. Conducting drives against illicit poppy cultivation has become an annual affair, but despite law enforcement agencies destroying hundreds of acres of poppy plants each year, government survey reports indicate that poppy cultivation continues in the hill areas of Manipur (NCB 2018).
Five of Manipur’s districts together have 390-km borders with Myanmar. This border is virtually open, enabling easy drug-trade with narcotics cartels based in Myanmar-Vietnam. Poppy cultivation, although illegal, is profitable.
Citing “improved security situation”, and conclusion of agreements to end insurgency to “bring lasting peace”, on April 1, 2022, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) removed disturbed areas and Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from some districts of Assam and Nagaland, and 15 police stations of six districts of Manipur. On March 24, 2023, AFSPA was removed from four more Manipur police stations, since CM Biren Singh claimed [Ref.5] a “significant improvement in law and order situation in the state” and reduction in insurgent activities.
Without AFSPA, the Army and Assam Rifles are disabled from counter-insurgency and internal security operations, and in keeping strict check on poppy cultivation and narcotics smuggling across the Myanmar border. Without AFSPA, these have become the responsibility of Manipur State Police acting under government orders.
Strangely, with the present ongoing violence and complete breakdown of law-and-order in Manipur continuing for the past 112-days, MHA has not seen fit to reimpose “disturbed area” and AFSPA, to enable the Army and Assam Rifles to act legally.
Noting that “in January 2023 alone”, [Ref.6] Assam Rifles captured nearly Rs.12-crores worth of narcotics, it has been argued that [Ref.6] disabling Assam Rifles in anti-narcotics operations, enables State Police to wink at narcotics smuggling activities, hitherto strictly controlled by Army and Assam Rifles.
It is known that international drug mafia is connected with certain big international corporates, hiding behind shell companies and other legal and illegal screens. It is no secret that big corporates influence ruling parties (past central and state governments included) and even dictate policies and governance.
Removing AFSPA and not re-imposing it in the present serious situation, brings into question whether some persons in Manipur’s political power structure, have vested interests in land for poppy cultivation and narcotics trade. Violence continuing in civil society may enable drug-lords to control land for poppy cultivation, and continue illegal cross-border narcotics trade.
Notwithstanding, reality is that (illegal) poppy cultivation is the source of much-needed money for poor hill farmers. Thus, apart from possible vested interests, poppy cultivation continues because successive Governments have been unsuccessful in providing alternative economically sustainable opportunities to the hill area peoples, and scarce development funds are mostly cornered by politically powerful people within Manipur.
The effect on India’s national security, by China acting through Myanmar-based narcotics mafia proxies and insurgents, must not be under estimated.
Corporate interests and land
Recent surveys indicate presence of commercially valuable minerals in the forested hilly northeast region. There is also corporate interest in industrial-scale cash crop cultivation for edible oils, especially palm oil. These require forest land to be converted for non-forest use, and goes against the interests of the people, who are mostly forest-dwellers. [The global warming and climate change effects of such deforestation require separate discussion].
Recognizing the self-governance, land, and economic rights of forest-dwelling Adivasi peoples, central governments had enacted laws such as Forest Conservation Act 1980 (FCA 1980), Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act 1996 (PESA 1996), and Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Recognition of Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA 2006), to protect those rights.
However, central governments themselves amended these Acts to further their new agenda of economic development. Examination of the amendments reveals that governments have enabled land acquisition in forested areas for corporate business-industry enterprises, and “legally” weakened forest-dwellers self-governance, land and economic rights.
This is demonstrated [Ref.7] by the Legislative Assembly of Mizoram (Manipur’s neighbour having similar forested geography and demography) adopting a resolution on August 22, 2023, opposing Parliament’s FCA Amendment Act, 2023, “to protect our forest from destruction and to safeguard the rights of people of the state”.
To be fair, government-initiated disempowerment of Adivasi people has been happening across states, beginning in UPA times, as for instance for bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri Hills, of which more later.
The ongoing violence in Manipur is essentially centred on insecurity felt by people concerning their economic interests and land rights. Government enabling the entry of corporate interests into Manipur, has worsened the situation.
Two recent reports regarding corporate need for land in Manipur, concern Oil Palm plantations, and minerals mining.
As part of the Aatmanirbhar Bharat initiative to set up Oil Palm Missions in the North-Eastern region, in November 2020, Manipur CM Biren Singh, launched an Oil Palm Project (OPP) [Ref.8] under the National Mission [Ref.9] on oil seed and palm oil.
Oil Palm, a versatile and hardy crop, is source of cooking oil. Reportedly, oil palms produce more oil per hectare of land than any other oil-producing crop, and require less energy, fertilizers and pesticides.
Thus, the OPP is expected to make India self-sufficient in edible oil, and even permit its export. However, unless the project is of industrial scale, these objectives cannot be met. This is at the root of corporate need for land for industrial-scale plantations.
Government of Manipur (also Assam and Tripura) has pressed ahead with OPP, including signing MoU with agribusiness company Godrej Agrovet, for development and promotion of palm oil cultivation. [Ref.10]
It is understood that people – land owners, cultivators, and primary stakeholders – were not consulted. Adani Group has tied up with Wilmar, a big palm oil company, and launched a Adani-Wilmar edible oil conglomerate, to control much of India’s edible oil industry. [Ref.11]
CM Biren Singh did also say that the OPP could be an alternative to replace Jhum and poppy cultivation in the state. What CM Biren Singh apparently missed, is that government will acquire land for planting oil palms, and Kuki people who depend upon their land for livelihood – howsoever meagre and even if from illegal poppy cultivation – will be reduced to penury.
Mining for minerals
Platinum, an extremely rare metal, has value comparable with gold. It plays a critical role in many industrial and manufacturing processes. [Ref.12] Contemporary domestic and international business interests in platinum are undeniable.
Platinum group metals (PGMs) are considered vital to enhance battery performance of lithium batteries of the future, for cell phones, EVs, and NCES storage. PGMs have a huge industrial-commercial future. The last 10–15 years have seen a sharp increase in exploration for, and research on, PGE deposits.
The presence of PGMs in India’s northeastern States was documented in March 2016. [Ref.13] This may well have triggered the Union Cabinet approving the National Mineral Exploration Policy (NMEP) [Ref.14] three months later, in June 2016, to accelerate mineral exploration through enhanced participation of the private sector.
Recognizing a future of immense industrial-commercial potential, government declared that mineral resources discovered, were to be treated as “auctionable resources”. NMEP does assure considering the issues of project affected persons, especially those residing in tribal areas – which is 90% of Manipur – but experience shows that such assurances of successive governments, are hollow.
With particular reference to Manipur, PGMs were reported in 2022. [Ref.15] The actual PGM potential in Manipur, as indeed anywhere else in the world for any mineral, will be secret. However, people who expect to lose their land through government acquisition for industrial-commercial ‘development’ purposes, are not concerned with the commercial potential of the land. They only understand that they will lose both land and livelihood, like people in similar circumstances continue to do in India. They may see a dismal future of deprivation and penury for themselves and their children.
Land acquisition for industrial use has been happening for several decades in many states. Affected communities have been resisting this, but only some have succeeded.
For over two decades, land in Odisha’s Niyamgiri Hills has been sought to be acquired for bauxite and other minerals, in violation of the land and forest rights of Dongria Kondh Adivasis. The Adivasis have been peacefully resisting all these years, by quoting their rights over lands, livelihoods and way of life under (motivatedly weakened) PESA and FRA, both on the ground and in Courts of law. But in the name of “development”, state and central governments have been pressuring the Adivasis to yield and vacate, using police forces to intimidate them.
A people’s report [Ref.16] of August 21, 2023, from Odisha is the most recent instance of the government-corporate nexus working for “development” at the cost of people’s lands and livelihoods.
It is inconceivable that Manipuri Kukis were unaware of the situation in Odisha and elsewhere in India too, even before the internet in Manipur was shutdown.
The Manipur High Court order of March 27, 2023, directing the state government to consider inclusion of the Meitei community in the ST List, triggered the violence starting May 3, 2023.
Kukis have always objected to Meitei demands for inclusion in the ST List. One of the reasons is that ST status for Meiteis, will allow them to acquire lands in Kuki-dominated hilly areas. This fits well with the Meitei-dominated Manipur government’s plans for oil palm cultivation and mining for minerals, discussed earlier.
With neighbouring Mizoram – with a significant Kuki population – rejecting Parliament’s FCA Amendment Act 2023, to protect its people’s forest and land rights, Manipuri Kuki people’s objection to land acquistion (or threatened acquistion) for industrial-commercial exploitation was not unexpected.
People identifying themselves as Meitei, Kuki and Naga, are spread across Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. India’s Adivasi-dominated northeast region is a veritable cauldron of tribal identities, each with a historic, civilizational past.
The identity-based killing, rape and arson continuing in Manipur for nearly four months, can unpredictably spread as similar identity-based violence in another state, with serious consequences.
It is high time that the central government understands the complex causes of unrest and violence, and takes effective people-friendly measures to bring peace to Manipur, in the interest of national integrity.
Losers and gainers
The model of development-by-economic-growth drives intra-national and international unrest and violence, with People as losers and big corporations as gainers.
The ongoing mutual violence between Kuki and Meitei communities in Manipur, with the Naga community also joining issue, is causing incalculable personal, social and economic loss locally, regionally and at national level. Only the drug mafia and corporates making large-scale entry into Manipur’s economy in cahoots with powerful persons in governments, are the gainers.
References (already hyperlinked in the text)
- “Ningthouja dynasty”; <https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Ningthouja%20dynasty>; Accessed 24.8.2023.
- “Amidst Deepening Divide Between Nagas and Kukis in Manipur, Centre to Kickstart Naga Peace Talks“; <https://thewire.in/government/manipur-violence-naga-kuki-peace-talks-muivah-nscn-im>; The Wire; August 22, 2023.
- Prasanta Mazumdar; “Manipur violence: Naga body slams Kuki-Zo community for ‘blatant lies’, ‘distorting history’“; <https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2023/aug/21/manipur-violence-naga-body-slams-kuki-zo-community-for-blatant-lies-distorting-history-2607436.html>; The New Indian Express; August 21, 2023.
- Ngamjahao Kipgen; “Why Are Farmers in Manipur Cultivating Poppy?“; <https://www.epw.in/engage/article/why-are-farmers-manipur-cultivating-poppy>; Economic and Political Weekly; Vol. 54, Issue No. 46, 23 Nov, 2019.
- “AFSPA withdrawn from more areas in Manipur“; <https://www.ifp.co.in/manipur/afspa-withdrawn-from-more-areas-in-manipur>; Imphal Free Press; March 26, 2023.
- Lt Gen Prakash Katoch; “The Manipur Marshland”; <https://news4masses.com/manipur-marshland/>; News4Masses; August 21, 2023.
- “Mizoram Assembly adopts resolution opposing Forest Amendment Act”; <https://nenow.in/north-east-news/mizoram/mizoram-assembly-adopts-opposing-forest-amendment-act.html>; NE Now News, Aizawl; August 23, 2023.
- Govt of India, Dept of Agri; The launch of Oil Palm Project, Manipur; <https://blog.mygov.in/the-launch-of-oil-palm-project-manipur/>; 26.11.2020.
- Jimmy Leivon; “Manipur government launches Oil Palm Project”; <https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/manipur/manipur-government-launches-oil-palm-project-7049424/>; 12.11.2020.
- “Godrej Agrovet signs MOUs with NE States for oil palm cultivation”; <https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/agriculture/godrej-agrovet-signs-mous-with-ne-states-for-oil-palm-cultivation/articleshow/93706055.cms>; Economic Times; August 22, 2022.
- Indra Shekhar Singh; “Revealed: The Sinister Corporate Agenda Behind the Modi Govt’s Controversial Farm Laws“; <https://thewire.in/agriculture/revealed-the-sinister-corporate-agenda-behind-the-modi-govts-controversial-farm-laws>; The Wire; August 22, 2023.
- Biplob Chatterjee & Rajesh Chadha; Non-Fuel Minerals and Mining: Enhancing Mineral Exploration in India; <https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Enhancing-Mineral-Exploration-in-India.pdf>; April 2020.
- Federica Zaccarini, A.Krishnakanta Singh, Giorgi Garuti; “Platinum Group Minerals and Silicate Inclusions in Chromitite from the Naga-manipur Ophiolite Complex, Indo-myanmar Orogenic Belt, Northeast India”; <https://pubs.geoscienceworld.org/canmin/article-abstract/54/2/409/521254/Platinum-Group-Minerals-and-Silicate-Inclusions-in>; The Canadian Mineralogist; Vol.54, No.2; March 1, 2016.
- Cabinet approves National Mineral Exploration Policy; <https://www.pmindia.gov.in/en/news_updates/cabinet-approves-national-mineral-exploration-policy/>; June 29, 2016.
- Toijam Bapin Singh, B.Maibam, Argyrios N. Kapsiotis; “Platinum‐group mineral and silicate inclusions in the low‐Al chromitites of the Manipur ophiolite, northeast India: Implications on Cr‐PGE mineralization in nascent subduction zone settings“; <https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Platinum%E2%80%90group-mineral-and-silicate-inclusions-in-Singh-Maibam/708a09bc3eaa43019313b315cce5849ca0dd14b7>; Semantic Scholar; December 27, 2022.
- “Free Niyamgiri: Stop arrests, Illegal detentions and Attacks on NSS and the people of Kashipur; <https://pudr.org/free-niyamgiri-stop-arrests-illegal-detentions-and-attacks-nss-and-people-kashipur>; August 21, 2023.
Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere (Retd) holds a PhD in civil structural dynamics from I.I.T (Madras). His area of interest is development and strategic affairs.