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The War in Manipur

“The state is now stateless”, bewailed ex-Indian Army Lieutenant General L Nishikanta Singh. He refers to Manipur, a state in north-eastern India that remains on the precipice of civil war. “Life and property can be destroyed anytime by anyone, just like in Libya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria, etc.” describing the dangers within the state since it was convulsed by ethnic violence.


Burned buildings in Imphal, the capital of the Indian state of Manipur.
Burned buildings in Imphal, the capital of the Indian state of Manipur. (Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/ The New York Times)

A state often witness to the rivalry of rival ethnic groups, Manipur is now seeing its largest outbreak of mutinous riots as the Central and State governments fail to compensate for several ethnic factions of its population. The conflict has pitted the predominantly Christian hill tribe minorities, the Kuki people, against the majority, the largely Hindu Meitei community in the Imphal Valley, the region accounting for the most heightened tensions. The tribal and non-tribal groups respectively are lurching amid violence, as the death toll crosses 180. However, it is only recently that the news of the conflict has made national and international headlines, as horrific sights of violence against women have crossed the limits of imposed censorship.

Early tensions began in 2005 with the burning of the state library of Imphal, which stored most of the historical data of Manipur’s tribal communities. Compounded with the systemic hierarchization of the Meitei community, a tangible social divide has been created within the state. Since February of this year, the state has been instigating further controversy since the Deputy Commissioner of the Churachandpur District, Manipur, ordered the launch of the ‘immigrant hunting program’, implicitly targeting the Kuki tribe. The program further ‘otherized’ the Kuki people, by essentially violating the rights of the indigenous and corrupting the democratic ideal of the Indian state.

However, the epicenter of this conflict was an order from the Manipur High Court in April this year, as the simmering conflict erupted within the first week of May. The order indicated that the court would urge the state government to approve the decades-long demand of the Meitei community to be recognized as a “Scheduled Tribe”. This status under the Indian Constitution would open eligibility for the Meitei community for reservations in government jobs and colleges.


Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh.
Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh. (Photo: The Economic Times)

The tribal groups protest the unfairness of the order, as they view the Meitei community as the already privileged majority. Indeed, tribal groups claim that the Meiteis are more affluent, educated, and politically influential due to the long dynastical history of the ‘Manipur Kingdom’, and current leadership under Meitei Chief Minister, Biren Singh. The Meiteis or the Manipuri Hindus are native to the valley, wherein the Meitei language has been recognized as the official Manipuri language, keeping their historical prestige intact in the presently unequal society of Manipur.

The historic and recent tensions have visibly snowballed into an ethnic civil war in the Imphal Valley. Stability in the region is in shambles, as civilians have armed themselves with guns and ammunition alongside makeshift trenches and defense walls. Such weaponry is the collected loot by mobs from the police armories, from which only a quarter of 4000 weapons have been returned voluntarily since the violence began in May of this year.


“This is the darkest moment in Manipur’s history,” says Binalakshmi Nepram of the Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace. She speaks to the over 60 000 displaced people that have taken shelter in more than 300 camps and the destructed normalcy for all civilians. Night curfew continues in most districts with shutdown schools that remain too dangerous for the young.


“In two days, homes were burnt and people were lynched,” says Nepram, as she recalls the countless cases of arson.

Information on the occurrences remained censored and limited due to the strict internet ban in the state for over 80 days, which has now only been eased since the last week of July, albeit with strict conditions. These conditions include a ban on Wifi and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), deletion of social media applications, and users being subjected to “physical monitoring” to check for violations. Such measures that have been previously been seen in the northern Union Territory of Kashmir, have led to discussions that question the implication of a total internet shutdown. While the state argues that internet bans are to prevent “fake news”, civilians and even policemen argue that it is the cause behind “lack of evidence” and thereby lack of intervention.


Trigger warning: mentions of sexual assault and rape


Accordingly, the violence only gained necessary attention towards the end of July this year, when women marched across the Manipur state to protest over cases of sexual assault amid the ethnic clash. The protest erupted due to a 26-second video of a horrific incident, wherein two women of the Kuki community were being paraded naked, molested amongst a crowd of men, and later allegedly gang-raped. Regrettably, it was found that this video dates back to May this year, but was only found a month later due to the strict internet ban in the state.


A Gurukul Art student paints as an appeal to stop violence in Manipur, in Mumbai.
A Gurukul Art student paints as an appeal to stop violence in Manipur, in Mumbai. (Photo: PTI/ Outlook India)

Such an incident brings to mind its similarities to the use of sexual subjugation of marginalized women as an instrument of violence amid the anti-Muslim riots in 2002, wherein clashes between ethnoreligious groups take on a patriarchal form, and the gendered dehumanization of women expresses hostility.


The trust between the state and the opposing parties has only sharpened. Following the pattern of censorship, the Indian state has shut down internet services for the region, making communication ever so inaccessible. Ironically, both sides are found to be accusing some 40,000 state security forces of being partisan. Adding to the volatility, many protest the alleged complicity and ignorance of politicians in the drug trade, while claiming an unfair nexus between the politicians and militancy. “This is not only a civil war but also a fight against the government,” says Alex Jamkothang, a Kuki villager who lost his brother in the violence. This mistrust has resulted in unseen violence that shows no signs of ease as mobs mercilessly attack the homes of local ministers and legislators.

The struggle for mutual agreement exists also due to the state being incredibly diverse, yet heavily divided amongst about 33 ethnic groups. It is gradually becoming the battleground for approximately 40 insurgent groups, to which a senior government functionary says – “This will go on until all sides get fatigued – or one side gains dominance”. Insurgent rebels have often waged armed protests against the Indian security forces in their fight to counter anti-insurgent laws that seemingly portray them as ethnic radicals. This includes the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants unwarranted raids and seizure power to the security forces to control insurgent groups. With this, the real problem essentially lies in the lack of acknowledgment of the tribal groups and trust in governance.

Homes, cycles and livelihoods destroyed in a fire. (Photo: The Wire/Yaqut Ali)
Homes, cycles and livelihoods destroyed in a fire. (Photo: The Wire/Yaqut Ali)

Besides, there remains a list of disagreements over the distribution of rights and privileges amongst the warring groups. The Kuki people’s main agenda against the Meitei community is the latter’s demand for the Scheduled Tribe status. Their inclusion in this category would enable them to not only secure reservations and prioritized accessibility to social security mechanisms but also access to the forest lands, a place that remains ancestrally sacred to the Kuki people. The main issue raised by the Kuki people is that of encroachment on their land. The Meiteis entirely oppose the fact that they are not allowed to buy land or settle in the hill districts.


Despite this, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP-led) government of Manipur, which is under Meitei Chief Minister, N. Biren Singh, continues to pursue its “war on drugs” campaign that has controversial measures that signal the despised encroachment. This campaign primarily targets poppy fields in the hills, the majority being in Kuki-inhabited areas. Indeed, to some, the campaign is considered just, due to its counter-agenda against the drug-addiction crisis and Manipur’s battling its rank as the world’s second-largest opium producer.


However, the Kuki people remain in a fix, as those villagers growing poppy risk derecognition and stripping of welfare benefits. Since 2017, the government claims to have destroyed more than 18,000 acres of poppy fields. The CM claims that the Kukis are responsible for the said encroachment, wherein they have taken over protected forests for the drug business. At the same time, the Kukis held mass protests against what they labeled “selective targeting” of the community. With this, it is clear that there remains to be an interdependent series of disagreements, in which the ethnic divisions are demanding land division and independence.


A resolution to this conflict has been prolonged due to the intentional silence by the parliament in Delhi, the Indian capital. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP party has been criticized for being ignorant of the matter due to Manipur's wrongful exclusion from “Mainland India”. The lack of particular consideration for the North Eastern state has led to disinformation through mainstream news outlets, wherein it is often claimed that “no particular community is getting targeted”, despite the realities of the situation. The Meiteis under BJP leadership have the avenues for an unparalleled platform to promote their preferred narratives on national media. On the other hand, Kuki people are often claimed synonymous with “terrorists” and “outsiders”, a stigmatized allegation that makes believe that the conflict is solely between “Kuki terrorists” and national security forces while denying the presence of ethnic or communal conflict.


 

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Such would not be the case if the Manipur state was not comprehensively otherized by those of “Mainland India”. The tribes of Manipur have historically been neglected by the Indian state, and today, the same is being used as an argument for independence from the state of Manipur. As the indigenous tribes continue to face oppression and encroachment into their ancestral lands, the real perpetrators are being confused due to the considered homogeneity of the northeastern population.


The Kuki people have demanded a direct response from Delhi, and seek a separate governance administration for the community. However, as mentioned before, the multiplicity of tribal communities fosters a risk of each demanding a similar separate administration, which in practice would make a multi-polar coalition prone to disagreements. Nevertheless, advocates of the Kuki community, such as Mary Haokip continue to plead “Let us rule ourselves, that is how we define peace”. Despite a few positions secured by Kuki members in the existing governance, the growing alienation outside has caused mistrust and rivalry nonetheless. The distrust between the lawmakers and ministers has led to a visible divide within the current governing body and has made reconciliation talks empty of resolutions.


With this, advocates such as Nepram have suggested a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wherein she seeks to achieve reparations for the multiple cases of arson and lives lost. At the same time, authors such as Subhir Bhaumik, the writer of Insurgent Crossfire: North-East India, suggest inter-faith and inter-ethnic dialogue to discuss the root cause of the antagonism.


Kim Boi, a Kuki woman, and her 4-year-old son after fleeing the violence in their village.
Kim Boi, a Kuki woman, and her 4-year-old son after fleeing the violence in their village. (Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/ The New York Times)

Interestingly, with Prime Minister Modi’s recent official visit to France, it was seen that the European Parliament adopted a resolution that called on Indian authorities to take “all necessary” measures to stop the violence in Manipur and protect religious minorities, especially Christians, referring to the predominantly Christian Kukis. To this, India reacted by adamantly labeling it as “unacceptable” and a reflection of a “colonial mindset”.


While Manipur continues to remain an effort for peace and resolution, it is clear that the definitions of peace remain diverse, and currently common ground is seemingly unachievable between the warring parties. Countless stories of violence from both ends show that neither side is closing in on their said victory, as the general population continues to endure the brunt of the clashes. Words from P Ginlal of the Kuki community show that families remain in hiding, away from their homes, with no hope for early peace. In a BBC report, he says that “there can be no peace if the government leaves its people to die.”


With this, it is imperative that the Indian government places focused consideration on the diverse factions of the Manipur state, and works towards the restructuring of policies and resources that satisfies each of the enraged communities.




Nandini Sarin (they/them) is a student of International Relations, and the Head of News at Political Pandora.

 

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