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Manipur in Pieces: An Ethno-Political Crisis

The episode between two ethnic groups in Manipur, the Meitei and the Kuki people, has since June 2023 sparked public outrage in regard to ethnic violence in the state. This ongoing conflict has resulted in the displacement and death of masses of individuals. While the state has been divided on ethnic lines, the violence in Myanmar persists.

Vittal Sivakumar |

In June 2023, a disturbing video rapidly spread across Indian media, capturing the attention and horror of the nation. The footage was two months old and originated from Manipur, a northeastern state of India of about 3 million people, depicting two women being paraded naked and assaulted by an unruly mob. The episode between two ethnic groups in Manipur, the Meitei and the Kuki people, was one of many which prompted a public call for government action against ethnic violence.

Militias from the Meitei, Kuki, and Naga communities have clashed with each other and the Indian military for decades. The Meitei are the largely Hindu majority who live in the Imphal Valley region of Manipur, while the Kukis and Nagas are predominantly Christian and reside in the surrounding hills. Animosity has increased recently due to pressure on land use from Manipur’s growing population, migration from Myanmar, allegations of drug trafficking, and a high unemployment rate that has resulted in more young people joining militias.

Since 2017, the Meitei-dominated state government controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has also heightened tensions. The BJP is one of India’s two major political parties. It is the party of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and supports a right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology. The BJP state government in Manipur, led by Meitei Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, has been accused of pushing policies that discriminate against Kukis, such as eviction drives in Kuki villages. 

In April, a court recommended that Meiteis be granted “scheduled tribe status,” which would entitle the majority Meitei community to the same social benefits as Kukis, such as quotas in universities and government jobs and the ability to settle in the hill regions, fueling fears that Kuki lands would be encroached upon. Protests by Kuki student groups triggered a forceful response from Meiteis, and by May, the region erupted in turmoil.

The situation quickly escalated, explained Indira Kangjam, who is currently working in relief operations in Manipur and was in the state on May 3rd when the violence broke out. “It was beyond imagination,” Kangjam said. “We had to leave [our] village and take shelter in another village.”

An internet blackout enforced by the state government enabled misinformation to spread about attacks by members of different communities to spread. In many cases, false reports fed a vicious cycle, with members of both communities seeking retribution for purported violence. Militias from both sides set up blockades to keep out members of the other community.

The conflict has had devastating consequences, resulting in the deaths of 175 individuals, injuries to approximately 1,100, and the displacement of over 70,000 people from their homes. The violence escalated with the burning of religious sites, including 220 churches and 17 Hindu temples by the end of July. Mobs ransacked police stations, looting about 4,000 firearms and hundreds of thousands of ammunition rounds, further fueling the unrest. The situation worsened with the influx of weapons smuggled from Myanmar. In a desperate bid to protect themselves, many residents resorted to marking their homes with their ethnicity, hoping to shield their dwellings from being mistakenly targeted amidst the chaos.

Tens of thousands of people now live in refugee camps and buffer zones between communities are patrolled. The fighting has declined in the past few months but sporadic violence continues. Prices of basic commodities have shot up and the state has been divided on ethnic lines, with an exodus of Kukis from Imphal and Meiteis from the hills.

The state government responded to the violence by imposing a curfew on many parts of Manipur. State governor Anusuiya Uikey authorized magistrates to issue “shoot-at-sight” orders for “extreme cases whereby all forms of persuasion, warning, reasonable force, etc. had been exhausted.” The Indian Army and the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary police force, were deployed to the region and helped move people to safer areas, but they were unsuccessful in immediately restoring peace.

Restrictions on travel and internet access, an increasingly frequent tactic by the Indian government, have made it difficult for outside observers to fully understand the situation. An internet blackout in Manipur ended in September after 143 days, making it the second longest in India’s history after Jammu and Kashmir’s 552-day shutdown from 2019 to 2021. The blackout hindered efforts to disseminate evidence of human rights abuses and gave the state government more control over the public narrative of the conflict.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was heavily criticized for not speaking out about the unrest for more than two months after the violence began. He finally broke his public silence in July, when the video of the two Kuki women being gang-raped emerged, saying that “what happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven” and that the “entire country has been shamed” by the incident. Months after the violence started, Modi has yet to visit the state, which has prompted more criticism.

According to Sushant Singh, a lecturer in political science at Yale University and a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in India, Modi hesitates to go to Manipur due to political pressures. 

“Mr. Modi’s politics has been based around a belief that he should not be seen to be associated with any failure,” Singh said. “He believes that if he talks about [Manipur], he will be associated with those failures… there is a very clear political strategy at play.”

Opposition parties held a no-confidence vote over Modi’s response to the Manipur violence in August. It was expected to be defeated, and opposition lawmakers walked out of the legislature in protest before the vote was even called.

The BJP state government in Manipur has been accused of complicity in the violence by not holding Meitei groups accountable as they target the Kuki minority. Chief Minister Biren Singh has faced calls to resign over his handling of the violence, even from many within his party. Nine BJP members of Manipur’s Legislative Assembly, all of them members of the Meitei community, wrote a letter to Modi saying that the people had lost trust in Singh’s government. 

Singh seemed to be on the verge of resigning in June but claimed to change his mind after supporters rallied outside his residence. India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, visited Manipur about a month after the violence started. He attempted to set up a “peace committee” headed by Biren Singh, but the effort faced setbacks as Kuki groups refused to join and accused the committee of being Meitei-dominated. Shah also announced an inquiry panel to probe the Manipur violence, but almost six months later, it has yet to hold a public hearing. Members of the Kuki community have accused the police of bias, with accusations that police failed to defend Kukis from Meitei violence and sometimes even joined the mobs. The violence has also raised calls for a separate state for the Kuki tribes, a proposition that has been rejected by the Meiteis. 

The Indian government has pushed back on international criticism of its handling of the crisis. The European Parliament passed a resolution urging India to make efforts to restore peace, only for the Indian government to react by calling the resolution “interference in India’s internal affairs” and reflective of a “colonial mindset.” International human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also been critical of both Modi and Biren Singh’s responses. 

“The government, as yet, has not been able to ensure proper and unbiased governance, including to ensure that all those responsible for violence, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, are subject to rule of law,” Meenakshi Ganguly, the deputy Asia director and former South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in an email. 

In the backdrop of the government’s response to the Manipur crisis is the increasingly close 2024 Indian general election. Opposition lawmakers have accused the BJP of stoking divisions in Manipur and have castigated the Modi government for not doing enough to end the violence. The BJP has pushed back on those claims and Modi has said that peace is finally returning to the state. It’s unclear to what extent the Manipur violence specifically will sway the minds of the Indian people against the current government rule.

“Among the greater Indian audience, I think Manipur is too psychologically [and] physically distant from the rest of the country,” Sushant Singh said. “It exists on a limb and it doesn’t figure in the daily conversations that take place in India.” 

The turmoil in Manipur reflects a complex interplay of ethnic tensions and failures in governance. The conflict raises questions about how governments handle internal unrest. As the 2024 Indian general election approaches, Manipur's plight stands as a testament to the urgent necessity for effective, empathetic leadership that prioritizes the welfare of all citizens, irrespective of their ethnic or religious identities. The state's future, and indeed that of India's unity in diversity, hinges on a concerted effort to heal these divisions and foster a society where tolerance, justice, and peace prevail.

Writer’s Reflection

In writing this piece, I wanted to highlight a conflict that hasn’t received enough global attention and explore the issues faced by India’s Northeast, a region of the world which many people are unfamiliar with. I would like to thank Indira Kangjam, Sushant Singh, and Meenakshi Ganguly for their time and the perspectives they provided. I hope that by discussing and learning about ethnic violence, we can take steps to prevent these conflicts in the future and build a more peaceful world.

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