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Explained: Who are the Tamils of Moreh in Manipur?

The community is represented by a body called the Tamil Sangam, and it dominates a grid of lanes and timber, cement houses in the heart of Moreh.

Over the years, the Tamil community became one of the most influential communities in this border town, 110 km from the capital city of Imphal. (Representational/Express Photo By Ganesh Shirsekar)

Two Tamil residents of the town of Moreh in Manipur on the India-Myanmar border were found dead in Myanmar’s Tamu on Tuesday (July 5). The men, P Mohan (27), and M Iyarnar (28), had crossed over into Tamu that morning. They were found with bullet wounds to the neck, and are believed to have been shot dead by a militia aligned with Myanmar’s ruling military junta.

How did Tamils reach this area on India’s border with Myanmar?

At the height of its reputation as one of the most important trading center’s in Asia, the Burmese city of Rangoon (now Yangon), attracted crowds of traders and workforce from across the continent. The British East India Company took with them labourers and businessmen – Tamilians, Bengalis, Telegus, Oriyas and Punjabis, to this affluent port city, edged strategically between India and China.

The British later withdrew, but the Indians remained. They set up businesses and became drivers of the Burmese economy.

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The Burmese Military Junta took over in the 1960s. Subsequently, two decisions by the then Burmese government, drastically changed things for the Indian diaspora in the country. The Enterprise Nationalization Law, passed by the Revolutionary Council in 1963, nationalized all major industries, including import-export trade, rice, banking, mining, teak and rubber and the Indian government was asked to withdraw its diaspora from their lands.

In 1965, the then Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri sent the first batch of ships to Rangoon – from Kolkata, Chennai, Vishakapatnam and Kochi. A reluctant Indian diaspora, with a considerable Tamilian population, headed to a land they no longer considered home.

The docks were heaving with Indians of all ages – the elderly who had made Burma their home, their families, young workers with their wives and children were clamouring to get on to the Indian ships. Every ship carried around 1,800-2,000 refugees.

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In the beginning, the Burmese government allowed the Indian repatriates to carry whatever they had back to India. But soon after realising that much wealth was leaving the country, they imposed a cap of Rs 15 and one umbrella, a settler forced to leave at that time had told The Indian Express.

When did the first Tamilian settlers arrive in Moreh?

The families came in through the sea route, and some also trickled into India through the unfenced border. Those on ships were taken to their home states. The Tamilians were taken to Chennai and housed in refugee camps there and few others across the state.

But this new life remained unpalatable to many who then decided to head back to Myanmar – on foot and on boats, a journey which took several months.

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Those who travelled by land, walked through Moreh – a route made familiar by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA. But most were captured by the junta and sent back to India.

The Indian diaspora became the first settlers of Moreh, along with a handful of Kuki and Meitei families that had lived there since the 1940s. The Tamilians, however, outstripped every other community, with a population of 20,000 in the mid-60s.

How have Tamils of Moreh fared over the years?

Over the years, the Tamil community became one of the most influential communities in this border town, 110 km from the capital city of Imphal. The community is represented by a body called the Tamil Sangam, and it dominates a grid of lanes and timber, cement houses in the heart of Moreh. Little eateries serving up hot dosas, sambar vada and idli line these lanes.

The Sangam puts the number of Tamil families in Moreh at 300 now, with a population of 3,000.

The brightly hued Sri Angalaparameshwari temple in Moreh – the second largest temple complex in the North East after Guahati’s Balaji temple, was built by craftsmen and specialist labour flown from Chennai. There is a Tamil Youth Club which organises cultural events every month and girls are trained in Bharatnatyam. Timithi, or the fire walking festival, is held every year between March-April.

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The Indian repatriates, particularly the Tamils, are believed to have given impetus to the informal, and sometimes illegal trade, between India and Myanmar.

However, the non-Manipuri population of Moreh has dwindled over the years. The first exodus took place in the 1990s due to a violent conflict between the Naga and Kuki insurgent groups, who wanted to control the thriving trading town.

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The community of “outsiders’’ – Tamils, Bengalis, Punjabis, Odiyas, Andhraites, Marwaris – were, for years, collectively called Tamilians by the local population because of dominance of Tamilians in the group and due to locals finding it difficult to differentiate between communities.

How is the Tamil community seeing the present incident?

The Moreh Chamber of Commerce controls the trade here and is headed by the president of the Tamil Sangam. To ensure a smooth running of trade, the Moreh Chamber of Commerce maintains good relations with the military junta. In fact, no Myanmar regime has ever bothered the Tamil community.

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This is why the recent incident has taken the Tamil community by surprise. For decades, the informal trade between India and Myanmar was carried out through the barter system, with products even from Japan and China making its way to India through this route.

In 1995, the Indian government directed a switch to the credit system. But over the years, with Chinese goods dominating Myanmar’s markets, trade in any form — formal or otherwise — has declined. This too has prompted more traders and their families to leave Moreh altogether.

The impetus given by the Indian government for formal trade with Myanmar has not been enough. While China has permitted 1,500 items for trade with Myanmar, India only allows 40.

First published on: 10-07-2022 at 04:10:03 pm
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