The first four months of the year 2023 began with the crackdown on poppy plantation followed by a crisis within the ruling BJP. With the High Court of Manipur’s instruction to the government of Manipur to send a recommendation on the inclusion of Meetei/Meitei into the Scheduled Tribe list, the atmosphere changed drastically. Brewing tension triggered by numerous issues gave way to an ethnic conflict the state had never experienced before. Here is a relook at the issues Manipur faced during the first four months of 2023.
The year 2023 began with a high hope as the third wave of Covid pandemic did not wreak much havoc as anticipated and feared. It was envisaged that economic activities would pick up their pace and the state’s economy recover from the pandemic effect. However, that hope did not last long for Manipur as the state grappled with intermittent bouts of ethnic violence between Meitei and Kuki communities hampering economic activities and impeding the state’s progress and development.
The first month of the year saw the government cracking down on poppy plantations almost daily by razing standing poppy plants and arresting village chiefs and poppy cultivators. The big event of the month was the visit of Union Home Minister Amit Shah on January 5 to launch and lay the foundation stones of 21 projects worth Rs 1,311 crore on the next day. He inaugurated 12 projects including the Marjing Polo Statue Complex and Churachandpur Medical College (State component).
The arrest of five personnel of the Kakching commando unit on January 16 with a huge consignment of contraband drugs of 1.336 kg heroin powder and 9.151 kg WY tablets in Kuroapokpi near Pallel was another big incident reported in January triggering a political slug-fest between the ruling BJP and the Opposition Congress. The Congress demanded a CBI investigation into the case. However, the BJP snubbed the demand saying that none of 28 drug-related cases involving security personnel reported during the Congress Government was investigated by the CBI. The government registered an FIR against State Congress president and MLA K Meghachandra for allegedly hindering the investigation.
The month of February began with the third session of the 12th Legislative Assembly. The Governor in his customary address to the Assembly on the opening day of February 2 asserted improvement in the law and order situation in Manipur and highlighted the Government’s war on drugs. The Chief Minister tabled the annual budget for the financial year 2023-24 as per reports the budget laid special focus on education, health, sports and drinking water.
Revolutionary People’s Front president Irengbam Chaoren passed away on February 10 after battling against a terminal brain tumour. His demise sent a shock wave across the revolutionary movements in Western South East Asia or WESEA. Condolence messages poured in from armed insurgent groups operating in the region.
Sushri Anusuiya Uikye was appointed as Governor of Manipur on February 12.
The eviction of A Songjang village in the Churachandpur-Khoupum protected forest area on February 20 was an important event that created an atmosphere of uncertainty and distrust within communities in Manipur. While All tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) and Kuki Inpi Manipur cried foul, Rongmei Naga Students’ Organisation Manipur and Thadou Inpi Manipur lauded eviction. Civil society organizations, including COCOMI and UNC, expressed concerns over the influx of illegal immigrants. Demand for the setting up of the Population Commission and implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) started to gather steam by February- end.
The Chief Minister dropped some hints that the state government may abrogate the SoO agreement if the involvement of Kuki armed groups under SoO in poppy cultivation is confirmed.
In another development, 20 years after Lungnila Elizabeth was abducted and murdered, four accused were convicted on February 28. They were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for life on March 13.
The Kuki community erupted in protests by oragnising rallies at hill districts protesting against the eviction of A Songjang village. The rallies were reportedly held in Churachandpur, Kangpokpi and Tengnoupal districts alleging discrimination and subjugation in the form of reserved forest, protected forest, protected sites, wildlife sanctuaries, MLR acts on March 10. The rally turned violent in Kangpokpi district with reports of clashes between police and protesters. The situation took a turn for the worse when the state government abrogated the SoO pact with the Kuki National Army (KNA) and Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA) on March 10. The Biren-led Cabinet took the call on the grounds that their leaders hail from outside the state. The chief minister deliberated on the cabinet decision with Union Home Minister Amit Shah on March 13. However, the Government of India expressed its reluctance to withdraw from the truce though it agreed with the Manipur government’s concern of recent activities of Kuki groups.
Three days later on March 13, a large number of students led by leaders of MSF, DESAM, KSA, SUK, and AIMS took out a march to CM’s Office demanding protection of indigenous’ rights, identification of illegal immigrants, and enforcement of NRC in Manipur. All Naga Students’ Association Manipur, Thadou Students Association Delhi, World Meitei Council, MSAD, UNIKAS, MSF, DESAM, SUK KSA AIMS and other student organisations also staged a protest rally at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on March 17 demanding implementation of NRC.
The Manipur cabinet decided to launch a verification drive in at least five hill districts namely Chandel, Churachandpur, Tengnoupal, Kamjongand Pherzawl for the identification of illegal immigrants. All Manipur Youth Protection Committee questioned the inclusion of Kuki in the ST list of Manipur, alleging that they were not indigenous people of Manipur. The Naga Youth Forum Manipur called for the identification and removal of fictitious villages and the bogus population on March 14. Another development in March is the withdrawal of AFSPA on March 25 from the jurisdiction of four more police stations of Wangoi, Leimakhong, Nambol and Moirang making the total number of police stations without disturbed area tag 19.
A massive rally was taken out by womenfolk and student bodies demanding implementation of NRC on March 28. The Chief Minister announced the setting up of a population commission and said a house-to-house survey would be conducted to identify illegal immigrants.
On April 4, a cash reward of Rs 50,000 was announced on Self-styled commander-in-chief of Kuki Independent Army/Kuki Independent Organisation (KIA/KIO) Thangkhongam Haokip alias Davidson @ Pareng Kom (40) son of Leikhosei Haokip of Matijang Khopi, wanted for kidnappings for ransom/extortion. Four days after the announcement, around 15 members of KIA/KIO led by Thangkhongam looted the armoury of Horeb designated camp of Kuki outfits under suspension of operation and walked away with 25 sophisticated weapons and several rounds of ammunition on April 8. The CM did not rule out an inside hand in the looting of arms and announced a special inquiry committee to dig into the matter.
Voice of dissent and internal discords began to rise from within the ruling party against the chief minister around mid-April. Heirok MLA TH Radheshyam was the first to step down from the post of Advisor to the Chief Minister. He issued a video message saying, “We have seen volumes of lies being spoken very impressively. People know and see these lies. If we continue to speak such lies on public platforms and through social media, we are ashamed of being politicians.” Langthabal MLA Karam Shyam followed him and resigned from the post of chairman of Tourism Corporation of Manipur Limited on February 17. He also issued a video message saying that “if a leader is accustomed to lies or falsehoods, he or she will lose credibility.”
The media reports emerged claiming that 10-15 disgruntled MLAs were camping in Delhi to meet BJP central leaders and express their grievances. They were reportedly unhappy with Biren’s “autocratic” style of functioning. Amid the report, Wangjing Tentha MLA Paonam Brojen also resigned from the post of Manipur Development Society Chairman on April 20. He, however, denied the report of BJP MLAs camping in Delhi. The CM also ruled out internal crisis or unrest within the BJP-led government in the State. However, resignation drama continued with Uripok MLA Khwairakpam Raghumani also stepping down from the post of MANREDA chairman.
Student leaders and villagers foiled the Revenue and Forest departments’ repeated attempts to conduct land survey and geo-tagging exercises at Shielmat village on April 12 and 13.
The High Court of Manipur directed the state government on April 19 to send the recommendation to include Meetei/Meitei in the ST list of the Constitution to the centre expeditiously. The HC also directed the government to consider the case preferably within four weeks. The United Naga Council expressed unhappiness over the court directive saying that Meitei/Meeteiis an advanced community of India. KIM said the HC directive was insensitive to the interests of the Tribal communities of Manipur and India as a whole. ATSUM dubbed the HC order as “an ex-parte judgement that contradicts the wishes and aspirations of the tribal people”. It called a solidarity march in Hill districts on May 3 protesting against the Meitei’s demand for ST status.