Asia - Pacific

Locals blame India’s political parties for ethnic violence in Manipur

Clashes between Meitei, Kuki communities since May have claimed over 150 lives, displaced thousands

Rabia Ali  | 10.08.2023 - Update : 10.08.2023
Locals blame India’s political parties for ethnic violence in Manipur Indian security personnel detains a member of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) during a 'Save India Parliament encirclement' protest against the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led Indian government in New Delhi, India on August 08, 2023. ( Imtiyaz Khan - Anadolu Agency )


Since the day Binalakshmi Nepram was born in the lush green valleys of Manipur back in the 1970s, conflict has been a constant feature in her life.

Growing up in this northeastern state of India, home to several ethnic communities, she became accustomed to the sound of gunfire and the sight of insurgents and paramilitary forces.

“The day I was born, there was a military curfew. And the violence actually hasn’t stopped. In fact, it has increased tremendously,” the activist and writer told Anadolu in a video interview.

Manipur has a long history of tensions between tribal groups.

The latest spate of ethnic violence between the majority Meitei and minority Kuki communities erupted over three months ago, and has so far claimed over 150 lives and displaced thousands of people.

On May 3, tensions escalated between the two communities over a court decision to list the mainly Hindu Meitei as a Scheduled Tribe, a status currently held by the Kukis, who are predominantly Christian.

Inclusion in the category would give Meiteis benefits such as government job quotas and remove the legal barrier that prevents them from purchasing land in the state’s hills that are predominantly inhabited by the Kukis.

Protests by Kukis soon escalated into full-fledged clashes, with reports of looting, burning and mass killings.

Nepram feels that all Indian political parties are responsible for the violence.

While the state government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is responsible for the current conflict as it is under their watch, what has happened over the last 20 to 25 years under the previous Congress party regime cannot be ignored, she said.

Citing several examples, she said the previous government made existing land laws more “colonial,” ensuring that separate laws applied to the hills and the rest of the state.

“There’s a collective failure on behalf of Indian political parties and those who were in government at different times,” she said.

Lamtinthang Haokip, an activist from the Kuki community, termed the ongoing conflict “state-sponsored terrorism.”

He said Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence a whole 78 days after the violence began, that too only when a harrowing video went viral showing a mob of men parading and sexually assaulting two Kuki women who were stripped naked. At least one of the women was also gang-raped, according to the police complaint.

“This is state-sponsored terrorism. Had the government been concerned about law and order, about the violence, about the lives of the people … it would have controlled the situation within 24 hours,” he said in a video interview with Anadolu.

Violent history

Manipur is home to some 3.3 million people from around 30 Indigenous groups and religious communities.

A place known as the “land of jewels” for its stunning natural beauty has been marred by conflict, bloodshed and insurgency for decades.

Delving into the state’s history, Nepram said the Indian government imposed martial law in the Naga Hill region in the late 1950s, and later in the valley some 30 years later.

It was in the 1970s that people picked up arms and guerilla warfare started, she said, but Manipur has witnessed a shift in the nature of its conflicts in the years and decades that followed.

Initially, armed groups engaged in conflict with the Indian military, but tensions escalated between smaller ethnic groups by the 1990s, she said.

For instance, she explained, the Kuki and Nagar tribes, who have sided with each other in the current conflict, had fought in the early 1990s, while the Kukis had a clash with another community in 1997.

Over the years, the area became heavily militarized, with several insurgent separatist groups emerging from across the border as well, and tried to influence locals with the idea of a separate homeland, according to Nepram.

Haokip, however, asserted that the Kukis did not want a separate state, only their own administration within the borders of India and under its Constitution.

It is the other groups that are demanding a separate state, he said.

“So many militant groups of the majority Meitei communities, they are based either in China or in Myanmar, neighboring countries. And, of course, they are officially banned as terrorist groups by the government of India. These insurgents demand sovereignty which is outside the constitution of India,” he added.

New pattern in conflict

Nepram believes that a new pattern is starting to take hold in the conflict.

Previously, armed groups never operated in the public eye, she said.

“So, they would do hit-and-run, like guerilla (attacks) ... They go back across the border or they hide, but you’ll hardly see them,” said the writer.

Today, insurgents can be seen operating openly, brandishing their weapons and targeting people publicly, she said.

“What is very worrying is armed groups openly carrying AK-47 rifles and … threatening and actually shooting unarmed civilians,” said Nepram.

Likewise, burning, lynching, and mob violence seen in the fresh spate of violence was not prevalent before, she added, calling them an “external phenomenon.”

As the violence continues, Haokip appealed to Indian lawmakers to come together and take a stand.

“I want all Indian parliamentarians, irrespective of party affiliation, to look into the matter of Manipur. And if at all possible, I would also appeal to the prime minister of India,” he said.

For the Indian government’s version, Anadolu reached out to the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, but did not receive a response.

However, speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Home Minister Amit Shah asserted that the government – now facing a no-confidence motion over the issue – is making all efforts to restore peace in Manipur.

He said 152 people have been killed in the clashes, including 107 in the month of May alone.

Shah claimed the violence has been decreasing, urging people to “not add fuel to the fire.”

During the same session, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi slammed Modi and his government for the Manipur crisis.

“You have divided Manipur into two, you have broken Manipur,” he said, addressing the prime minister and calling him out for not visiting the state over the past three months.

His remarks drew a response from Kiren Rijiju, the current minister for earth sciences, who said Gandhi should apologize because it was his Congress party that was responsible for the insurgency and other problems in India’s northeast.

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