The Chahsat mayhem

Published on March 23, 2020

A lingering land dispute between two rival villages in Manipur needs to be addressed in a comprehensive and mutually acceptable way

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen and Sanjana Dhar

The Statesman – March 23, 2020

On 16 March, the villagers of Sampui and Kamjong in Kamjong district of Manipur burned down 150 houses of Chahsat village. Since then, several organisations including the United Tribal People’s Council Manipur, Zoram People’s Movement, Zo Reunification Organisation, Mizoram Pradesh Youth Congress Committee, and Gangte Students’ Organisation, General Headquarters, have condemned the act.

The situation has calmed down due to the intervention of the Manipur government and other civil society organisations in the state. Although the possible eruption of a major conflict between the two largest hill tribes of Manipur – Tangkhul and Thadous – have been averted, tensions continue to simmer.

There have been accusations and counter accusations from both sides. Some questions to ponder are – what led to the destruction of Chahsat; what went wrong and what went right; and what could or should have been done to mitigate the prevailing tension, more importantly to avoid possible recurrence.

Destruction of Chahsat

The main reason that led to confrontation between the two tribes was primarily a land dispute. There were a series of preceding events that culminated in violence, including historical claims to the same stretch of land.

Since time immemorial, both Chahsat and Sampui claim to own a piece of land spanning from Khoikai village to Chahsat. Before the 16 March violence, the jhum fields of Chahsat were allegedly set on fire by the villagers of Kamjong. Then, the enraged villagers of Chahsat reportedly burned a truck and an under-construction petrol pump.

Tensions escalated when the two sides exchanged abusive words and pelted stones at each other. Villagers of Chahsat have claimed that they were unable to defend their village as the arsonists were assisted by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim – Issak and Muivah, which the armed group has refuted.

What went right?

With the destruction of the village, tensions were high and rumours had spread far and wide. Sensing the possibility that the incident might develop a communal tone across the state and beyond, the Manipur government took swift action by initiating a series of measures.

A government delegation led by the deputy chief minister visited the conflict area and appealed to rival villagers for peace. The government also shut down Internet connection as a precautionary measure.

A day after the incident, the Kamjong district administration imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in order to curtail any further disruptions. The state government was also prompt in setting up a committee to look into the reasons behind the clash and providing adequate relief materials. The chief minister sat down with Kuki civil society leaders in an effort to mitigate the tension and find a possible solution to the dispute.

What went wrong?

While the initiatives of the state government were prompt and swift, what has surprised many observers is the silence or inaction of the security forces present in the area – Manipur Police posted at Kamjong and the 42nd Assam Rifles posted at Chahsat. It warrants mention here, however, that the AR provided refuge to the arson victims.

Some have argued that usually such a police station does not have sufficient resources to handle the intensity of large-scale mob violence, either in terms of personnel or weaponry. There is also an argument that there is a protocol or policy whereby the Army does not intervene in such mob violence or civil-related matters.

While these claims may have some truth to them, it is quite disturbing that the security forces remained largely mute spectators during such a heinous crime, which happened in broad daylight under their watch. If this is the norm, who do civilians turn to when they are under immediate threat or in grave danger of imminent attacks from others or external forces?

The other thing that went wrong was that not all parties to the dispute were brought to the table for discussions. If no mutual agreement is reached and no solution worked out, similar violence can recur at any moment in the future.

The state government and civil society organisations should engage and/or coordinate to ensure that the major issue of land dispute is settled once and for all.

The danger of communal conflict

The Kuki-Naga ethnic conflict and miseries of the 1990s still linger in the minds of the old and young alike. That violent and bloody conflict also started mainly because of overlapping and competing claims of territory by the two communities.

There is always a danger of any dispute becoming a communal issue either incidentally or accidentally. There is also a possibility of some vested interests taking advantage of the volatile situation to make such a dispute a communal one.

Religious backdrop

Peoples of these disputed villages profess Christianity as their religion and preach the gospel of love and compassion. However, their actions of harming or intending to hurt neighbours do not go in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Bible, which Christians consider holy, preaches to love one another including one’s own enemies. By way of summing up, it is imperative that the authorities take all necessary measures and not solely focus on short-term relief and rehabilitation programmes. The lingering issue is the land dispute between the two communities and it needs to be addressed in a comprehensive and mutually acceptable way.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is a political scientist, associate professor, assistant dean and executive director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, and author of Politics of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur. Sanjana Dhar is a research assistant at CSEAS and a Master’s student at the university.

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