The influx of illegal immigrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh through the porous international borders has always been a sore point of deliberation on the demographic politics of Manipur, with concern on space being steadily occupied by these entities entering into the State (inter alia into India) without valid documents or permits.
By Salam Rajesh
Anyone with some knowledge on India’s far east would agree outrightly that the small Himalayan State of Manipur is too full of complex issues, some unresolved since decades and a few in a heated process of stalemate with no solutions in sight immediately.
In the layman’s language, there are basically three major communities in the State – the Chin-Kuki, the Nagas, and the Meiteis – from the perspective of geopolitics, terrain, and presence. There are other communities, too, namely, the Chakpa (scheduled castes primarily), the Meitei-Pangal (Manipuri Muslims), and different business communities though on the minority scale.
There is still a strong controversy on how Manipur merged with the Union of India way back on the 21st of September in 1949, much under duress as the people say. Since then, there have been several uprisings – armed and unarmed – on the call for restoring Manipur’s sovereign nation state status prior to the merger. The call persists to this day, which is often the point of intensified ‘conflict of interest’ between the Himalayan nation state and the Union of India.
The years following the merger has been marred with unrests with different entities raising their demands for self-determination, greater autonomy over their areas of domination, and with a touch of rebellious call against the Union of India for decades of neglect in every sphere of life.
In the post-independence era, the Nagas under the leadership of Angami Zapu Phizo led a hard-driven campaign for greater autonomy by unifying all areas predominantly settled by the various tribes under the broad classification of ‘Naga’, politically and socially. The campaign continues in the present day under the leadership of the Government of the Peoples’ Republic of Nagalim.
In an almost parallel campaign, Meitei nationalists have been on the warpath since the mid 1960s demanding the return of Manipur’s sovereignty and political status prior to the merger with the Union of India. The call also reflects the demand for returning the contentious Kabaw Valley back to Manipur from the ‘domination’ by the erstwhile Burmese regime.
The Chin-Kuki tribes too quite recently have been asserting for autonomy over areas where the tribes predominantly settle in the State, covering the present day hill districts of Churachandpur and Pherzwal. Interestingly enough, their demand overlaps with the call for a “Greater Mizoram” constituting of areas in Mizoram State and parts of southern Manipur under Churachandpur and Pherzwal. This again overlaps with a call for certain autonomy for the ‘Zo’ tribes in around the same locations (as is manifested by the recent ‘Zo-Reunification’ movement).
On a broad overview, the small and limited geographical area of present day Manipur State is being torn asunder by these different demands from the various entities. The geography of the State, more distinctively the differing terrain, compounds the issue. The central Manipur floodplains are predominantly settled by the Meitei, with a mixed population of the Chakpa, Manipuri Muslims, various tribes, and minority business communities.
The northern, western, eastern, and southeastern parts are settled by various tribes socio-politically affiliated to the Naga, while the southern parts have a mix of Kuki, Teddim-Chin, Zomi, and Mizo tribes. The complexity of population diversity is clearly evident, and this becomes crucial in any dialogue on ‘sovereignty’, or ‘separate administration’, or of ‘greater autonomy’ – whatsoever.
The dynamics on land and administration is important in all of these discussions. The concentration of power is in Imphal, at the heart of the central Manipur floodplains. The mountain people from the south, west, east and north have to reach the central floodplains for all matters related to their everyday lives, trade and commerce, businesses, education, health, and onward travel to other parts of the country via the airways (that is, if they are not choosing the hard way out via the strenuous mountain roads).
In sum, it then is evident that different entities are claiming stakes to the land that is certainly limited and already under great amount of pressure from anthropogenic influences including expansion of settlements, population dynamics, rapid urbanization, and take-over for developmental activities.
At the same time, the complicated issue of the influx of illegal immigrants from Manipur’s neighboring countries Myanmar and Bangladesh through the porous international borders has always been a sore point of deliberation on the demographic politics of the State, with concern on space being steadily occupied by these entities entering into the State (inter alia into India) without valid documents or permits. This very issue is at the core of the current crisis in the State.
Viewed from the bird’s eye perspective, it can be deduced that give or take the ground situation exerts a triangular land-based conflict of interest amongst the dominant three communities in the State, each upholding its rights to land based on historical processes and events – whether these have authentic reasoning and records to justify their respective demands.
In these past decades, there has been a continuous trend of land-based tension amongst the communities settled in the State, with the tensions exploding into violent conflicts on different occasions amounting to loss of lives and properties, and infusing the sense of enmity to a larger extent over the years.
The increasing valuation of land, that is, when land become highly valued due to some reason or the other, it gives room for intensifying the sense of conflict of interest. The best example is seen in the growing importance of Moreh, the border town that is now the gateway to Southeast Asia. The exertion of power for control over this once-forsaken trading town has now become the bone of contention amongst the domineering communities. The stakes are high and any excuse could give way to violent conflicts.
The pathway ahead does not look very bright, given the nature of the power exercised by several armed non-state actors – as is quite evident in the current crisis. The one possible solution to conflict resolution can be the people to people level understanding on shared responsibility for the State, in terms of progress and development with the larger concept of international trade and commerce that is soon going to be happening with the countries in Southeast Asia via the Moreh corridor.
In this context, the ongoing India-Myanmar-Thailand tri-nation dialogue on having a common shared trade route connecting the three countries for better businesses is relatively important for the region, and for this to become a reality, peace and normalcy has to return to the conflict-torn Himalayan State, and so is equally true for her neighbors, too.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Imphal. He can be reached at [email protected])