The plight of Meitei Pangals or Manipur Muslims remains unheard

Syed Ali Mujtaba

Manipuri Muslims or Meitei Pangals are not jumping into the current tribal war between Meitei and the Kuki. They are not ready to align with the ‘Manipur Tribals’ Forum’ even though they are being persecuted by the Hindu Meitei community.

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Muslim Meitei views Hindu Meiteis as their co-brothers with whom they have a running feud that needs to be dealt with and can’t be albeit to exacerbate the current crisis. Manipuri Muslims feel joining hands with the enemies of Meitei may be detrimental to their survival as they live cheek-by-jowl with them in the plains.

Manipur comprises 16 districts—ten of which are in the hill regions and six in the valley. Of its 60 constituencies, 40 are in the valley districts, and the remaining 20 are in the hill districts. The hill districts are dominated by two of the state’s tribal communities—the Nagas and the Kukis—whereas the Meitei community dominates the valley districts. Right now, 12 districts mostly in the hills want separation from the plains dominated by the Meitei community.

The percentage of the religious population in Manipur is Hindus – Meitei 41.39%, Christians- Kuki & Naga 41.29%, Muslim 8.40%, Tribal & Other religions 8.19%.

Who are Manipuri Muslims? Muslims became a significant part of the Manipuri society from the early part of the 17th century during the reign of King Khagemba (1597-1652) when one thousand Muslim soldiers, led by General Muhammad Shani, from Taraf in Sylhet were captured in a battle. The Manipuri King allowed the Muslim soldiers to settle in the valley. He also allowed the soldiers to marry local Meiti women and now their offspring are called Meitei Pangals.

The Pangals speak the Meitei language and their present population is 239,886, making up 8.40% of the state population.

Manipuri Muslims are mainly concentrated in and around Imphal, the capital of Manipur. They maintain their own distinct Islamic identity though they have assimilated and intermixed with the other local communities.

Manipuri Muslims share many cultural traits with their non-Muslim neighbors and generally live in peace with them but they have a long history of discord with the Meitei community.

Manipuri Muslims are stereotyped by the Meitei as anti-social elements, prone to certain crimes like thievery or drug trading, etc. There are many racist terms used to describe the Pangals community. Pangals are regularly attacked by the Meitei community, sometimes due to any provocation and many times without any provocation.

The attacks on Manipuri Muslims are regularly reported in the local media, but the national media give no coverage to such news because for mainland India that’s no news.

Muslim Genocide in 1993- Muslims and the Meitei have animosity-ridden history. In 1993, there was a massacre of Meitei Pangal by the Hindu Meitei community. Mobs killed and assaulted Pangal men and women and destroyed their houses and commercial establishments.

There are conflicting reports of what started the violence of 1993. One account says Hindu separatists (Meitei) tried to buy arms from a Muslim arms smuggler and were rebuffed by a Pangal which led to the violence. Another account says that the Hindu rebels were trying to extort money from a Muslim village that was resisted and they killed one of the rebels that triggered violence.

The violence started on May 3, 1993, and continued well into May 5. As the clashes were happening at several places, a bus carrying Muslim passengers was set on fire. The police did little to stop the violence or to contain the misinformation unleashed against Muslims by the Meitei. The massacre saw the death of around 130 Pangals and a severe loss of their property. The then Manipur Government worked with the people to restore peace in the State.

Loss of land: Pangals have experienced the loss of some of their land at a more frequent rate after the 1993 riots. There was an incident in 2018 where the Manipuri government forced 400 Pangals to leave their residences, alleging that they lived in forest reserves and paddy rice areas.

The government deployed the police and utilized environmental laws to execute the evictions of the Pangals. The Manipuri Muslims have not yet been given compensation for these evictions. These actions by the state government have encouraged other native groups to threaten Pangals to vacate their places. Activists claim that in compression to Pangals the areas inhabited by Hindu Meiteis face much less scrutiny and evictions.

Current status of Manipuri Muslims: Meitei Pangals face discrimination, marginalization, and Islamophobia in Manipur. Even though Manipuri Muslims elect few legislatures on their own electoral strength their political representation in the legislature is dwindling very fast. One needs to be reminded that Md Alimuddin was the first Chief Minister of Manipur. He was the leader of the Manipur People’s Party (MPP) when Manipur attained statehood in 1972.

Manipuri Muslims are discriminated against in many ways. They have little access to higher education, healthcare, and employment. They generally receive a disproportionately low amount of aid from the government, compared to the Meiteis and other native groups.

The implementation of the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) Mid-Day Meal program is unavailable in the Muslim-dominated areas but it is present in the Naga and the Kukis areas.

Another instance of Muslim discrimination is when the Rohingyas crisis broke out in Myanmar in 2017, the Manipur government drafted the Protection of Manipur People bill in 2018 but did not include any Muslims in the drafting committee. The bill was meant to prevent Rohingyas and other migrants from settling in Manipur. The reason why Muslims were omitted was that they gave asylum to the Rohingyas.

Rise of BJP in Manipur – The rise of BJP in Manipur has taken place since 2016 primarily due to miss governance of the Congress party. In the 2017 state election, the Congress won 28 of the 60 assembly seats to become the single-largest party in the state. The BJP which won only 21 seats eventually formed the government by cobbling MLAs and could muster 32 legislatures. The BJP’s vote share in Manipur increased from two percent in 2012 to 36 percent in 2017.

The rise of the BJP in Manipur since 2016 has led to a rise in attacks against Muslims. In September 2018, a Pangal named Mohamed Farooq Khan was lynched by a mob for allegedly stealing a scooter. The video of his lynching was spread throughout the social media. This incident led to the fleeing of Pangals for safety but the 1993 event was not repeated. There are other instances of physical violence against Manipuri Muslims that are a direct fallout of the BJP’s national-level campaign against Muslims in India.

Discussion: In 1704, Meitei King Charairongba accepted Vaishnavism and changed his traditional Meitei name into a Hindu name, Pitambar Singh. It was due to the King’s initiative the entire Meitei tribe was converted to Hinduism. This is the classic example of how a Hindu king converted a tribal population into its religious fold. Meitei is a shining example of how Sanatan-Dharma indulged in religious conversion through the Sangah Privar absolves itself of any such practice and accuses the Abrahamic faiths of doing so in India.

Conclusion: There is a total lack of trust between the Meitei and Muslim communities. Both look at each other with fear and suspicion. Some move for rapprochement is being made at the initiative of the North-East Forum for International Solidarity which is organizing peace committees involving various groups to spread awareness about the importance of living in peace and harmony. This initiative has led to some traction between Meitei and the Muslim communities but any genuine confidence-building exercise between the two remains elusive.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist. He can be contacted at [email protected]