Indian law students are reporting for JURIST on law-related developments in and affecting India. This dispatch is from Soumyabrata Chakraborty, a second-year law student at Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat.
June 22 marked 50 days of an ongoing state-wide internet shutdown in the Northeastern state of Manipur in India. For some two months now, the state has been reeling under ethnic violence between the hill-dwelling Kuki-Zomi-Mizo-Chin tribal communities and the valley-dwelling Meiteis. The violence can be traced to the demand of the Meitei, a majority of the state’s population, living in the Imphal valley, for a ‘Scheduled Tribe’ (ST) status under the Indian Constitution which would render them certain privileges conferred upon the country’s constitutionally recognized tribal communities (such as the aforementioned Kuki, Zomi, Mizo and Chin communities).
On April 19, 2023, the High Court of Manipur directed the state government to consider the inclusion of the Meitei community in the ‘Scheduled Tribes’ list and send its recommendations to the Government of India within four weeks. Aggrieved by the High Court’s direction, on May 03, 2023, the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur (ATSUM) organized a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ in the hill districts of the state, protesting the Meitei community’s demands for affirmative action. The tribal communities of the state, led by the hill-dwelling Kuki tribes claim that conferring the ST status to the Meiteis would result in an already privileged and advanced community encroaching upon their share of reserved posts in government jobs and admissions to educational institutions. These tribal communities fear that they will have to fight for opportunities and representation in a socio-political landscape dominated by the Meiteis. The May 3rd march organized by ATSUM descended into a series of violent clashes between the Meiteis and Kukis in the Churachandpur district bordering the Imphal valley.
The situation in the state has been tense ever since violence broke out on May 03, 2023. The Government of Manipur responded by empowering district magistrates to authorise shoot-at-sight orders. Mobile internet services were shut down across the state through an administrative order. On May 04, as violence escalated, the Government of India invoked the rarely used, Article 355 of the Indian Constitution which empowers the Union Government to take necessary steps to protect a state against external aggression or internal disturbances without imposing President’s rule vide Article 356. The latter would have entailed the dismissal of the existing state government and the direct rule of the Union Government, owing to ‘failure of constitutional machinery’. Over the next few weeks, columns of military vehicles belonging to the Indian Army, Central Reserve Forces, Paramilitary forces and local police were deployed across the state. The large-scale deployment of the military once again highlights the state’s turbulent history, fraught with violent insurgent movements launched by different communities that have held separatist sentiments over the decades.
Nearly two months since clashes erupted on May 03, violence has engulfed both the Imphal valley and the surrounding hills, with an “exchange of populations” taking place between the two communities. Kukis from the Meitei-dominated Imphal valley have now mostly fled to the hills or are living in relief camps set up by Armed forces, and similarly, the Meiteis from the hills have descended to the valley. Even though the number of casualties so far is unclear, reports suggest that over 120 have been killed and over 3000 injured in violent clashes between the two communities. In an all-party meeting held on June 24, 2023, the Home Minister of India, Mr Amit Shah informed representatives of various political parties that over 36,000 security personnel were deployed in the state.
Nearly 60,000 people have been displaced and have taken up shelter in over 350 relief camps guarded by armed forces and community members. Thousands have fled to neighbouring states and hundreds to Myanmar, which has been under military rule for nearly two and a half years. The government of the neighbouring state of Mizoram has sought relief from the Central Government in light of over 12,000 internally displaced people from violence-hit Manipur that have now taken refuge in the state. Since the violence unfolded, over 200 churches and 17 temples have been vandalised by mobs. Hundreds and thousands of houses have been attacked and set on fire, including the homes of local ministers, Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and a federal minister. Over 4,000 weapons have been looted from police armouries in the state by violent mobs, with a handful of them returned voluntarily. Many believe that the state is on the brink of a full-blown civil war.
All 10 of the Kuki representatives (MLAs) in the 60-member Legislative Assembly of the state, including 8 from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, have called for a separate administration in the state for the tribal communities. The MLAs have alleged that “the state of Manipur has miserably failed to protect us (Kukis)” and have asked for a separate administration under the Consitution of India. The leaders have even claimed that Kukis can no longer exist in the state of Manipur.
The tribal hill districts of Manipur enjoy special protections under Article 371C of the Constitution which says that all laws affecting the districts must be vetted by the hill areas committee of the Manipur Legislative Assembly. The resource-rich Imphal Valley accounts for roughly 10% of the state’s land area, while the hills account for the rest. The valley-dwelling Meiteis contend that they are not allowed to buy lands in the hills owing to Constitutional protections conferred to the Scheduled Tribes, thus restricting over 50% of the state’s population to around 10% of its land. Additionally, the Meitei community alleges that illegal immigration from Myanmar and Bangladesh has resulted in exerting additional pressure on the limited resources of the valley. In light of these contentions, the Meiteis have been voicing their demand for ST status to be able to protect and preserve their land and culture for over a decade now. The Manipur High Court’s directive of April was thus seen as a major win for the Meiteis.
However, the Supreme Court of India has criticized the High Court of Manipur’s decision and questioned the High Court’s ability to render such a direction to the state government. The Chief Justice of India, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud made remarks critical of the High Court ruling, stating that the verdict goes against constitution bench judgments that say that judicial orders cannot be passed to change the Scheduled Tribes list. The three-judge bench of the Supreme Court expressed its inclination towards staying the High Court’s order, however, it did not do so considering the Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta’s plea for an extension given the situation on the ground.
It has been over 50 days since internet services were first shut down in the state back on May 03 for a period of five days. India’s Internet Freedom Foundation has expressed its concerns over the indefinite character that the shutdown has acquired. The ongoing internet suspension is enforced through templatised orders issued every five days. This is contrary to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, prohibiting the indefinite suspension of internet services. Furthermore, there are reports of sedition charges being put up against individuals under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC), despite the Supreme Court ruling of May 2022, in S.G. Vombatkere v. Union of India, which put the operation of S.124A of the IPC in abeyance.
Despite the grave and worsening situation on the ground, many have expressed concern over the inadequate response from the Union Government and have expressed their absolute distrust in the state’s administrative machinery. The security forces continue to face challenges, with protesting women activists disrupting its peacekeeping operations as alleged in a tweet from the official Twitter handle of Spear Corps, Indian Army. There is a blatant lack of coverage of the ethnic tensions in Manipur by some of the most prominent mainstream media houses in the Country, exemplifying the age-old indifference towards the far-flung North Eastern states, as highlighted by many. The conflict in Manipur is far from over, and unfortunately, there appears to be an odd lack of urgency in the government’s response at the state and national levels.
At the same time, the country’s opposition parties have done very little to pressure the incumbent government to act decisively, despite a recent visit from Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader of the Country’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress. Military intervention may not be the most appropriate solution to what appears to be a deeply divided Manipur. Going ahead, political intervention and attempts at uniting the various communities through peace talks and negotiations may prevent the state from slipping into further chaos, something that Manipur has already soon enough of.