Manipur is known for its ethnic and cultural diversity. But the State has been plagued by internecine conflicts among different ethnic groups and tribes. The State is home to the Meiteis -- the major ethnic group in the State -- who embraced Hinduism in the seventeenth century. There are about 30 different tribes inhabiting Manipur. Some of the larger tribes include Nagas, Kukis, Paites, Thadous, Simtes, Vaipheis, Raltes, Gangtes and Hmars. Unlike the Meiteis, who occupy the Imphal Valley, the other tribes inhabit the surrounding hill districts. The Meiteis constitute more than 50 per cent of the population but occupy only one-tenths of the State's area.
The Meiteis do not belong to the Scheduled Tribe (ST)-catergory while the hill tribes enjoy certain privileges like job reservation, protection of their lands from settlement and ownership by non-STs even if they are Manipuris. This has been strongly resented by the Meiteis who perceive that the hill tribes are garnering benefits disproportionate to their population.
Manipur was merged fully with the Indian Union on October 15, 1949, but it became a full-fledged State more than two decades later, in 1972. This delay in granting statehood caused discontent among the Meiteis who felt that their identification with ‘Hindu India’ brought them no political or economic benefits. This gave rise to secessionist tendencies among a section of the Meiteis and a number of separatist groups emerged thereafter. On November 24, 1964, Samarendra Singh founded the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) to achieve independence and establish a socialist society. In December 1968, a breakaway group of the UNLF, led by Oinam Sudhir Kumar, established a government-in-exile called Revolutionary Government of Manipur (RGM) with headquarters in Shylhet, in the then East Pakistan. The RGM was backed by Pakistan. The primary objective of the RGM was to 'liberate' Manipur through an armed struggle. The RGM maintained an elaborate underground organisation. Its administrative and civil set-up included a home minister, a finance minister, a foreign minister and an army chief of staff with Sudhir Kumar as General Secretary.
However, the Meitei secessionist movement received a serious jolt when most of its leaders were arrested during the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971. The movement gradually fizzled out with rest of the leaders accepting the amnesty offered by the then Chief Minister of the State, R.K. Dorendro Singh.
Some of the Meitei rebels, including N. Bisheswar Singh, were detained in Tripura jails in the company of Naxalites-leftwing extremists. Bisheswar Singh and his associates were indoctrinated there into Maoist- thought. After his release from jail, Bisheswar, along with a team of 16 other Meitei rebels, left for Lasha in Tibet, on June 14, 1975, to seek Chinese assistance. The team returned to Manipur in 1976 after receiving extensive training in guerrilla warfare . On September 25, 1978, Bisheswar formed the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to achieve independence through armed struggle.
Apart from the formation of the PLA, Manipur witnessed the growth of a number of Meitei underground organisations with similar objectives in the late seventies and early eighties: People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) led by R.K. Tulachandra in 1977 and Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) in 1980. Some lesser known insurgent groups such as Poirei Liberation Front (1979), Meitei State Committee and United People's Revolutionary Socialist Party also sprang up.
Meitei insurgents stepped up their activities during 1979-81. They unleashed a violent campaign looting banks and treasuries and killing many security force personnel. The number of persons killed in acts of violence went up from two in 1978 to 14 in 1979, 36 in 1980, and 51 in 1981. In order to tackle the situation, the entire Imphal Valley was declared a disturbed area and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, was imposed on the Valley in September 1980. Subsequently, security forces arrested Tulachandra, the leader of PREPAK, while the leader of the rival PREPAK faction, Maipak Sharma, surrendered in the same year. Security forces also succeeded in destroying several bases of the Meitei insurgent groups. Security forces, while raiding a PLA camp in Tekcham, Thoubal district, killed nearly its entire top-leadership and arrested Bisheswar on July 6, 1981. On October 26, 1981, the PLA, PREPAK and the KCP were notified as unlawful organisations. Counter-insurgency operations continued and on April 13, 1982, the new PLA leader, Thoundam Kunjabehari and eight other activists were killed in an encounter in Kadampokpi, near Imphal.
Following these setbacks, the PLA failed to keep up the momentum, though sporadic low-level terrorist activities continued. But two other Meitei insurgent groups - PREPAK and the KCP found it difficult to recover from the losses suffered during counter-insurgency operations.
By the end of the eighties, Manipur was once again engulfed in insurgency. Meitei extremists groups, particularly the PLA, stepped up their activities. PLA militants killed Vandana Mallick,an Indian Police service (IPS) officer in an ambush near Imphal on April 8, 1989. Importantly, the PLA reorganised itself and formed a political wing called the Revolutionary People's Front (RPF) in the same year. The RPF seeks the secession of Manipur from India. The RPF established a government-in-exile in Bangladesh's Shylhet district, with Irengbam Bhorot Singh as the president. The RPF had a vice-president, a general secretary, secretaries in charge of various departments: home, finance, foreign affairs, publicity and communications, social welfare, health and education. The armed wing of the RPF -- the PLA -- was similarly reorganised on the lines of a disciplined army. The PLA had set up two camps in Myanmar and five in Bangladesh. Reports indicate that about a thousand PLA recruits received arms training in these camps. The PLA also formed a united front of Meitei extremists called the Revolutionary Joint Committee (RJC) along with PREPAK and KCP. In its bid to enlist the support of the people, the PLA launched an armed campaign against social evils. It took to enforcing total prohibition and gunning down rapists, besides launching a vigorous drive against drug peddlers, in the early nineties.
Moreover, Meitei insurgent groups sought to project a pan-Mongoloid identity. They rejected the Bengali script, which they believed suppressed their language and culture. To assert their separate identity, they revived the practices of old the Meitei religion - Senamahi.
The insurgents also began to raise their voice against the Mayangs (outsiders) settled in Manipur. They perceived that domination by outsiders was largely responsible for their economic and social backwardness. The Pangals or Manipuri Muslims who constitute over seven per cent of the population had been considered as Mayangs. In May, 1993, more than 90 people, including women and children, were killed in a series of clashes between the Meiteis and Pangals, in Thoubal and Imphal districts. Reports indicate that the People's Republican Army (PRA) that was set up in the early nineties instigated the communal clashes. Reports also suggest that a section of the Pangals established links in Bangladesh and with Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) for weapons and other assistance. Besides, a number of new outfits such as People's United Liberation Front (PULF), North East Minority Front (NEMF), Islamic National Front, Islamic Revolutionary Front (IRF) and United Islamic Liberation Army (UILA) had been formed in order to protect their community.
While Meitei outfits remained active in the Imphal Valley, the major Naga insurgent goup - National Socialist Council of Nagaland--Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), unleashed a reign of terror in the Naga-inhabited areas in four of Manipur's five hill districts, namely, Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong and Chandel. The NSCN-IM used Ukhrul district particularly (where its leader Muivah was born) as a base for collecting funds and recruiting cadres. The NSCN-IM carried out several terrorist acts in Manipur in the nineties. On June 29, 1993, NSCN-IM militants killed 26 security force personnel and eight civilians in an ambush on National Highway No. 39. During May-September 1993, NSCN-IM militants killed as many as 120 security force personnel. On July 31, 1995, they attacked a Manipur Rifles post, in Kangohud, Senapati district, and looted 22 weapons and 3,784 rounds of ammunition. Again in August 1995, NSCN-IM militants made a vain attempt on the life of the Deputy Chief Minister, Chaoba Singh.
The ethnic conflict between the Nagas and the Kukis - a major tribal group in Manipur, constituted another problem of the State. Clashes between the two groups are now not heard of. A number of Kuki outfits like Kuki National Army (KNA), Kuki National Front (KNF) and many others had been struggling for a separate State within the Indian Union since the late eighties. The ethnic conflict had an added dimension as a result of a bitter struggle to control drug trafficking and smuggling of contraband through the border town of Moreh. The NSCN-IM controlled this illegal commerce till Kuki-Naga clashes erupted in 1992. The Kukis captured it from the Nagas, but the NSCN-IM remained determined to drive its rival out of Moreh, as well as out of Kuki settlements in the Naga dominated hill districts. The conflict had resulted in the death of nearly a thousand people and an enormous loss of property. Over 2,000 houses were burnt and hundreds of villages were affected.
The entire State's polity remained polarised along ethnic lines. In addition to Meitei, Kuki and Naga rebel groups, several other tribes, such as the Paite, Vaiphei and Hmars had also launched their own terrorist groups in recent years. There had also been frequent internecine conflicts, particularly between the Kukis and the Paites. Violence between the Kukis and the Paites had peaked in 1997-98, when clashes claimed over 1,000 lives, with 4,600 houses torched and hundreds of thousands of rupees-worth of property destroyed. However, there were no violent incidents between these two tribes since the signing of an agreement between their leaders in October 1998.