By: Aleena T. Sabu, Research Analyst, GSDN
Manipur has been a host of ethnic conflict and violence since May 03, 2023. There have been many issues that have triggered this violence but what set off the violence was a judgement from the Manipur High Court on April 20, 2023 regarding the reservation for the Meitei community. Briefly, it seems as if the judgement was the sole reason, but this is not true, the relations between the two communities have been slowly eroding for the past couple of years. Many other issues in the background and history have offset the current scenario in Manipur. The violence in Manipur is disregarded by the mainstream media as conflict of interest between two ethnic groups, but a broader understanding of the issue is needed in order to understand the truth.
What is happening in Manipur?
In the northeastern State of India, Manipur violence erupted at the beginning of May 2023 and it has killed almost 100 people and wounded more than 300 and has displaced 60000 people in the past two months. The State Government has made use of the same methods used in other states when an emergency happens, such as cutting off the internet, military curfew, and stationing paramilitary troops with orders to shoot in extreme conditions.
What caused the recent issues in the state was when the Manipur High Court asked the State Government to consider Scheduled Tribe status for the Meitei Community, which is the dominant community in the region. Giving them this status would allow them to enjoy the benefits from the government. The Meitei community have been asking for this status for a long time and it was not granted yet because there was a fear it would cause a row between the communities. And just as they expected, the Kuki community came out protesting this move. Soon after the announcement from the court, a rally was organised by the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur on May 3, 2023.
Violence erupted soon with the burning down of the Anglo-Kuki War Memorial Gate. This led to the Kuki community torching localities of the Meitei community in Churachandpur. This in turn triggered the Meitei to burn down Kuki communities in Imphal Valley.
Background and Continuity
The protests might seem like the immediate reason for the ethnic conflicts, but it’s not. There have been years-long issues between both communities. They stem from the government’s actions of clamping down on reserved forests in the hill areas and the feeling of persecution felt by the Kuki community.
The Kuki community have also been angered by the government’s policy with respect to the refugees from Myanmar who they share very strong ties with. These refugees entered India escaping from violence in their nation and the government’s tough stance against them has been sighted as another reason for the conflict.
Another major issue is said to be about how the tribal community moves into the nearby forest lands as the population is increasing. These tribes see the surrounding lands as their ancestral land which they have complete rights to, but this angers the Meitei community, who do not have the right to buy land in the hill regions. The government has no real policy as to how to recognise the new villages and it has no transparent forest policy. This seems very troubling for a lot of people. These issues have been said to be some of the major reasons for the conflict in the region.
Almost 60,000 people have been displaced in total and some of them have taken shelter in camps and there are almost 350. Around 40,000 Indian Army soldiers, paramilitaries and police are stationed and they are finding it increasingly difficult to stop the violence. Weapons are said to have been smuggled in from Myanmar in illegal ways and only a quarter of them have been given back.
Both the communities have been accusing the authorities of siding with one side of the community and this has led to the vandalising and destroying of many churches and temples. The homes of important government officers are also destroyed. The normal life is on a choke hold with schools shut down, night curfew imposed, internet shutdown, barricades set against trucks bringing essentials.
Posts on social media that can get through the internet shutdown frequently contain messages of hatred, discord, and misery. The cost of basic goods is increasing, and trucks transporting food, medicine, and other necessities have become trapped. Although it is not yet obvious how the conflict will develop soon.
How the Indian Army is stuck in the middle
The Indian Army has been caught in the ethnic conflict between both communities, with them recently releasing a video of some 1500 women blocking their convoy in Itham village in Manipur’s Imphal East district on June 24, 2023. These women were demanding the release of some hardcore militants of KYKL (Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup). They were a banned insurgent group which had killed 20 personnel in one of the Indian Army regiments.
“Such unwarranted interference is detrimental to timely response by the security forces during critical situations to save lives and property,” the Indian Army said. This is one example of how the Army is caught between the violence of the Kuki and Meitei communities. Women from both communities constantly come and block roads and interfere with the security operations. The Indian Army is constantly blamed for taking side with the Kuki or the Meitei community.
The Indian Army was employed when the crisis hit the state and their last resort against the violence that was happening in the state was to call in the Indian Army. The violence and fatalities that occurred during the Tribal Solidarity March, which was supported by various organisations, made the already tense inter-ethnic situation even more explosive and ignited a conflict that has persisted to this day. The Indian Army and Assam Rifles initially deployed 17 columns at the state administration’s request; given the course of the crisis, the number has increased to 147 columns (nearly 10,000 people across ranks). This is perhaps the largest deployment of the Indian Army and Assam Rifles to assist civic authorities in restoring order, since India gained Independence in 1947.
The calling in of the Indian Army is essentially a sign of the failed administration of the State Government in managing the situation. Since the Army has been stationed for about two months, there is a need to improve the protocol for involving it in law-and-order concerns, which are primarily the responsibility of state police and paramilitary forces.
Changing Politics between BJP and the Christian Community
The Christian community in Kerala have essentially aligned with the BJP government after the perceived threats from the jihadists. The Community had promised BJP seats and a good number of vote bank from the community, but what changed this was the immediate violence happening in Manipur and the Modi government’s silence regarding the matter.
The Church explains how the Christian community members are solely targeted in the ethnic conflict and churches have been vandalised too. This Manipur violence is said to have bought an end to the ideological politics between the BJP and the Church.
What lies forward
Home Minister Amit Shah visited Manipur on a four-day visit on June 1, 2023. He announced at a press conference that there will be a judicial probe into the matter and measures will be taken to contain the issue at hand. The committee will be led by a retired high court judge. He also announced the formation of a commission for peace made up of representatives from various groups, the construction of further border fencing with Myanmar, and a demand for the return of 1,420 guns thought to have been stolen from local police since the fighting began.
There also have been efforts taken at local level to initiate peace talks between the communities. Women’s groups across northeast India have issued appeals and formed “Mothers Peace Committees” in various localities. Peace and prayer meetings are being held by several communities and religious leaders have also been calling for peace. Others have called for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Recently, Rahul Gandhi also visited and assured the people of Manipur of peace and appropriate measures will be taken to handle the issue. At large, there is a need to hold talks with the community members and deal with the issues at hand. There is a need for an open discussion in order to solve the issues and a chance to talk freely between the communities too. An urgent need to solve the violence escalation is crucial for the people of Manipur and for India too, as Manipur is a border state and unrest in a border state can have serious geopolitical ramifications.