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The Case Of The Minority Tribes Caught In The Social Milieu


During the early 1990s when Manipur was caught in an intense violent conflict situation between the Naga and Kuki, two major tribal communities, many of the minority tribes were caught in the social milieu, unintentionally drawn into the conflict with pressure upon them to identify themselves as ‘affiliated’ socially and politically to either of the conflicting tribal communities.

By Salam Rajesh

It has been a long standing dispute on where the minority tribes in Manipur stand at the crossroad of social and political milieu in the State especially when it comes to defining their position and status in the socio-political setup, with a glaring statement on the external pressures from various parties seeking or demanding the social and political affiliation of the minority tribes to dominant tribes, sometimes under duress.

This writer has long been associated with almost all of the minority tribes in the State, whether for ethno-culture studies or for community-led protection and conservation of forests that otherwise had been fairly neglected by the State.

In a nutshell, many of the minority tribes are often than not caught in a complex situation of identifying themselves socially and politically with dominant tribe communities when it comes to crucial decisions on political divides as in times of flare ups amongst the different ‘ethnic’ communities settled in the State.

The level of social identification often comes in line with sharing affinity with particular majority tribes, in terms of language, dress and customs, belief system, and by virtue of being located in pockets that are dominated by majority tribes. The social identification is again often determined by the question on avoiding conflict of interest with the domineering tribe community upon whom the minority tribe has certain dependence in terms of access to resources and for socio-political safeguards.

During the early 1990s when the State was caught in an intense violent conflict situation between two major tribal communities, many of the minority tribes were caught in the social milieu, unintentionally drawn into the conflict with pressure upon them to identify themselves as ‘affiliated’ socially and politically to either of the conflicting tribal communities.

The response to this was typically the voice of the “Indigenous”, in the sense that almost all of the minority tribes came up with up their individual assertion stating that they belong to neither of the conflicting majority tribal communities, instead having their own individual social, cultural, and political identity. The follow-up call to both warring communities was to let them alone in their own social and political setup.

In the month of May flare up between two major communities earlier this year, many of the minority tribes were again facing the same issue as in the 1990s when they were caught up in the social milieu, entangling in a complex situation where they were unwilling parties. Their concern is that they have nothing to do with the current conflict situation between the two warring communities.

The most recent incidence was the strong protest from the Aimol tribe wherein the tribe denied any linkage with the Kuki tribe community – socially, culturally and politically – as was alleged by a representative of the Kuki Inpi Manipur. The assertion of the tribe was to let them alone, neutral to the present socio-political crisis. This was fairly similar with the tribe back in the early 1990s when they were forced to issue a clarification that they have their own individual identity and must not be linked to any other tribal socio-political organization.

There was a similar incidence happening with the Kom tribe community in the 1990s, and in the present crisis, when they were under pressure from dominant tribe communities to identify themselves with particular dominant tribal community. The Kom, as similarly as the Aimol, stood their stand asserting their individual social, cultural and political identity.

Another of the minority tribes in Manipur – the Kharam tribe – was literally caught in the crossfire from both the Kuki and the Naga tribe communities during the violent ethnic crisis in the early 1990s. In fact, the Kharams had to stand guard against possible attacks from either of the conflicting tribe community, one end of the village being barricaded to withstand attack from the Kuki and the other end of the village standing guard to withstand attack from the Naga. It was the proverbial Catch-22 situation for the tribe whose total population is just around a thousand individuals.

In the present crisis, Chiru villagers from the Kangchup Chiru village had to seek safety in the foothills away from the comfort of their homes, anticipating themselves as likely to be caught in the crossfire with Kuki militants raining down bullets on Phayeng village below from the upper reaches near their village. In armed conflict situation, the risk ran high of being caught in the milieu, more of being a minority tribe unable to resist dominant tribe community’s push for area domination.

Not very long back there was a move by the minority tribes to form a common platform in asserting their individual social identity. The Kom, Chiru, Chothe, Kharam and Purum amongst others lent voice to the social platform Komrem Union in asserting their social identity, way away from the Kuki or the Naga socio-political platform. It is another story that the fabric of the Union broke down after some time, as differences in opinion and ideology went either ways.

The gist of the story is that the political divide amongst the tribe communities in the State is largely determined by the geographical distribution of the tribes, in particular the minority tribes who are sandwiched between large swath of area that are predominantly settled by the dominant tribes, thus socio-politically and demography-wise the minority tribes are inclined to seek the support of the dominant tribe in their vicinities.

In conflict situations, the minority tribes are often caught in the milieu unable to decide upon whom to lean for support. Assertion of their individual socio-political identities have come with a cost, sometimes under tremendous pressure (that is, evident threat from the gun-culture) to declare their stand in favour of particular dominant tribe community. Resisting this would amount to confronting the might of the dominant tribe community. In the end, they are stuck in the quickmire, unable to resist or come out from their social milieu.

(The writer is an independent journalist based in Imphal. He can be reached at [email protected])

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