Ethnic Clashes Roiling Manipur Pose Test for India’s Modi
Ethnic Clashes Roiling Manipur Pose Test for India’s Modi
People are evacuated by the Indian army to a temporary shelter as they flee ethnic violence that has hit the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, near Imphal on May 7, 2023. Arun SANKAR / AFP
Q&A / Asia 17 minutes

Ethnic Clashes Roiling Manipur Pose Test for India’s Modi

Inter-communal clashes have erupted in India’s Manipur state, near Myanmar. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Praveen Donthi delves into what caused the unrest and what New Delhi could do to stop it.

What happened?

At least 150 people have been killed in clashes between the Meitei and Kuki ethnic groups that have engulfed India’s north-eastern state of Manipur, on the border with Myanmar. The violence broke out in Churachandpur, a town just south of the state capital Imphal, on 3 May, following a Kuki-led tribal solidarity march in ten of the state’s sixteen districts. As the Meitei organised counter-protests and blockades, clashes spread across Manipur. Women were part of some of the mobs. In some cases, they blocked soldiers trying to intervene, in order to shield Meitei men conducting attacks. Thousands have been injured and more than 60,000 displaced in the violence; more than 12,000 have fled to the neighbouring Mizoram state. Hundreds of houses, places of worship and vehicles have been vandalised, and thousands of weapons stolen from government armouries. Arson and other attacks continue unabated.

Numerous serious cases of sexual violence by Meitei men, militias and militants against Kuki women have also been reported, and all available evidence points to the widespread use of sexual violence as part of the ethnic conflict. Fake news about a Meitei woman’s rape in a Kuki-dominated area on 5 May provoked a violent reaction from the Meitei community. A video went viral online on 19 July showing a mob of Meitei men parading and groping two naked Kuki women on a rural road before taking them to a field, where one of them was reportedly raped. The video triggered outrage throughout India, with protests organised in various cities. Responding to questions from a television news channel, Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh acknowledged that there had been “hundreds of such cases”.

Manipur is now divided into exclusive ethnic zones.

The government has been unable to bring the situation under control, despite taking drastic measures. The state government shut down the internet, imposed a curfew and authorised all district magistrates to issue “shoot-on-sight orders” in “extreme cases”. The federal government dispatched some 50,000 security personnel, most of them from other regions. It also set up a unified command for the various security forces deployed in the state. But all this action was to little avail. Manipur is now divided into exclusive ethnic zones, with the dominant, largely Hindu Meiteis concentrated in the valley where the state capital sits and the mostly Christian Kukis living in the surrounding hills. Security forces helped evacuate the Kukis living in predominantly Meitei areas and vice versa. They now patrol the buffer zone created in between, while the militias that have formed on both sides dig trenches and wait for an opportunity to attack. The state’s police force, which like the rest of the local administration is made up largely of Meiteis, has also been segregated, with Kuki members either being transferred or spontaneously fleeing to Kuki areas. Just over two months into the crisis, the physical – and emotional – separation of the communities is total.

International concern about the Manipur violence has been muted so far, though on 11 July the European Parliament passed a resolution asking the Indian government “to take all necessary measures and make the utmost effort to promptly halt the ongoing ethnic and religious violence”. The resolution also asked the government to end the internet shutdown and to grant unhindered access to journalists and international observers. “Such interference in India’s internal affairs is unacceptable, and reflects a colonial mindset”, the Indian government snapped.

What is the background to the crisis?

The fighting pits the Meitei, who make up 53 per cent of the state’s 2.85 million population, according to the last census in 2011, but occupy only 10 per cent of its land, against the Kuki and 33 other tribes, which constitute about 30 per cent of the population and are geographically more spread out in the poorer hill areas.

The conflict stems from decades of contestation over land and natural resources, fuelling deep-seated resentment among both the Meiteis and Kukis. Manipur is one of seven states in India’s Northeast region, often referred to as the “seven sisters”, which are connected to the rest of the country by a narrow strip of land that skirts Nepal and Bangladesh. The region, which consists of a mosaic of ethnicities, languages and cultures, many of them tribal, is home to some of India’s oldest separatist insurgencies. Many of these erupted soon after independence in 1947, partly as a result of the administrative chaos the British colonial rulers left behind. Today, most of the region’s insurgencies are dormant, limited to practicing extortion or stuck in various stages of slow-moving peace processes. Some of the remaining armed groups now operate largely from rear bases on the other side of the porous Myanmar border.

Though the Kukis are mostly Christian and the Meitei mostly Hindu... the violence has occurred over ethnic rather than religious divides.

Though, as noted, the Kukis are mostly Christian and the Meitei mostly Hindu (small numbers of Meiteis are Christian or Muslim), the violence has occurred over ethnic rather than religious divides. The Nagas, another tribal community in Manipur that is mostly Christian, have not been involved at all, while Kukis have attacked fellow Christians who are Meitei living in or near majority-Kuki areas. Some Meitei leaders have nonetheless been trying to portray the turmoil as religious, seemingly for reasons having to do with national politics: they are trying to rally support among Hindus elsewhere in India, including within the federal government, which is run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

According to available evidence, the Meiteis appear to have been the more aggressive side. As Manipur’s largest community, they enjoy immense social, political and economic advantages, not least dominating the state government, and therefore its police force, which gives them an upper hand in the conflict.

What was the immediate trigger for the violence?

The Kuki have long been recognised as a Scheduled Tribe under Indian law, an affirmative action measure that assures tribal community members access to state-run educational institutions, government jobs and safeguards such as the exclusive right to buy and own land in the state’s recognised tribal areas. The Meitei also enjoy certain benefits on account of being recognised as a “socially and economically backward class”, and a tiny segment of them as a Scheduled Caste. But they have been demanding the tribal status instead, arguing that it is necessary to “preserve” the community and “save [its] ancestral land, tradition, culture and language”. The demand has gained momentum only in the last few years. The Kuki, however, argue that the more numerous Meitei are already privileged. The minority fears that if the Meitei get Scheduled Tribe status, they will not only corner the reserved government jobs but also start acquiring land in the hills, displacing Kukis and other tribal communities.

What set off the series of protests culminating in clashes and sexual violence was a Manipur high court ruling in favour of the longstanding Meitei demand. The court made its decision in late March, but it became public only on 19 April, when the judgment appeared on the court’s website. The Supreme Court on 17 May stayed the Manipur court order, calling it “completely factually wrong”, but that did not calm tempers.

In justifying their demand for Scheduled Tribe status, the Meitei claim that “illegal immigration from Myanmar [and] Bangladesh” is threatening their position.

The violence is also related to the civil war raging in neighbouring Myanmar since shortly after its February 2021 coup. Chin refugees from Myanmar have reportedly been seeking shelter in Manipur (though in fewer numbers than in the adjacent state of Mizoram). In justifying their demand for Scheduled Tribe status, the Meitei claim that “illegal immigration from Myanmar [and] Bangladesh” is threatening their position. Radical Meitei outfits such as Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun accuse the Kuki, who share an ethnic heritage with the Chin, of illegally settling refugees in Manipur’s hills (according to official figures, there are 10,000 Chin refugees in the state). Biren Singh, himself a Meitei and a BJP member, has echoed these allegations as well as others, implying that the Kuki are involved in the illegal drug trade, including poppy cultivation, in collaboration with transnational networks operating from Myanmar. Some Kuki criminal groups are in fact running drugs, but they are just one of many players in the illicit business, who also include Meiteis and Nagas.

These allegations added to longstanding animosity between the two communities. The Meitei have long alleged that the Kuki are not indigenous to Manipur but were resettled in the state by the British from the nearby hills of Myanmar in the nineteenth century. Trouble has been brewing since August 2015, when a former state government, also headed by a Meitei, passed three laws that tribal communities perceived as designed to favour the Meitei. The tribes saw these laws as an attempt by the Meitei to acquire the power to buy land in the hills and sow doubt about the citizenship of tribal groups. In the ensuing demonstrations, the security forces killed nine young people belonging to the tribes in Churachandpur. As a mark of protest, the Kuki and other tribal groups refused to bury the dead, keeping them in the morgue for two years.

After a new state government headed by Biren Singh came to power in 2017, it signed (under the guidance of the federal government) an agreement with tribal leaders to restore quiet. But things soon deteriorated again, particularly after Biren Singh’s government won a second term in 2022. The government started evicting primarily Kuki villagers from houses and villages allegedly built on forest land in violation of the Indian Forest Law. The Kuki, who believe the Meitei chief minister has been acting in a partisan manner, again mounted a series of protests, some of which turned violent. The high court order was therefore just the spark in an already combustible situation.

Is there a link to Manipur’s insurgencies?

Manipur is home to more than 30 ethnic rebel groups, all made up primarily of men, who were originally all fighting for homelands of their own. They can be broadly divided into three categories: Naga, Meitei and Kuki. The Naga outfits, which also operate in the neighbouring state of Nagaland, were the first to arise as organised armed insurgents, in the 1950s. The main faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, the biggest Naga insurgency, struck a ceasefire agreement with the federal government in 1997, and is still in talks with New Delhi.

The Meitei groups, which appeared soon after the Naga militant outfits, have not entered into peace discussions, though they are much less active than in the past. The security forces refer to them as “valley-based insurgent groups”. 

The Kuki militant groups emerged only in the early 1990s, as a response to Naga attacks, but they signed a tripartite Suspension of Operations agreement with the federal and state governments in 2008. Since then, the Kuki militants have been confined to thirteen camps, with their arms under lock and key. But the two Kuki umbrella militant groups that signed the agreement, the Kuki National Organisation and the United People’s Front, had to wait until 2017 for New Delhi to start actual peace talks. During these talks, the Kuki demanded the creation of territorial councils that would grant more autonomy to tribal communities in Manipur. Negotiations are proceeding slowly.

Much weakened, the remaining Meitei and Kuki militants have diluted their initial demands. They engage mainly in extortion, rather than rebellion, and play an active role in mainstream politics, though some continue to seek various degrees of autonomy within India’s federal structure.

The legacies of these insurgencies, however, haunt the state’s political and social life, including amid the present unrest. Despite evidence pointing to radical Meitei outfits Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun as the main culprits in starting the clashes, on 28 May Biren Singh tried to ascribe responsibility to Kuki militants. “The fight is between the state and central forces [and] the terrorists who are trying to break Manipur”, he said, telling the media security forces had killed 40 Kuki insurgents who were attacking Meitei civilians with sophisticated weapons. “It is not a fight between communities”, he asserted. He was contradicted two days later by the Indian army’s top general, Chief of Defence Staff Anil Chauhan, who said: “This particular situation in Manipur has nothing to do with counter-insurgency and is primarily a clash between two ethnicities”. Earlier, Singh had accused Kuki militants of fomenting violence to protest his government’s eviction drive, and even attempted to pull out of the tripartite peace talks, but backtracked when the federal government opposed it.

The violence threatens to reignite separatist fires.

The violence threatens to reignite separatist fires. Now physically separated from the Meitei, the Kuki have resurrected an old demand to create an autonomous administrative unit with its own elected representatives and laws within Manipur. On 12 May, all the Kuki members of the state assembly issued a statement reading “to live amid the Meiteis again is as good as a death for our people”. In Mizoram, the violence has rekindled support for a separate homeland for the Kuki-Chin-Mizo ethnic group, which is spread across India, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The unrest has also had consequences in Myanmar, where both Meitei and Kuki militant groups have rear bases. Since the February 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military regime has reportedly roped in groups from both ethnicities, though mostly Meiteis, to support its security forces in fighting the new armed opposition, in return for giving them safe haven. Allegiances have shifted since the Manipur conflict erupted, however, partly because Chin fighters ethnically related to the Kuki constitute much of the Myanmar resistance in areas near the border. These rebel groups are now aiding the Kuki in the Manipur conflict, while the Myanmar military regime is backing the Meiteis. There are unconfirmed reports of arms being smuggled into Manipur for the benefit of both sides.

Why are the authorities unable to bring the situation under control?

Despite the obvious risks, Manipur’s state government failed to put adequate security measures in place ahead of the tribal solidarity march on 3 May, and thus it let the situation spin out of control throughout the state. Had it deployed sufficient forces on the day of the march at all the sensitive locations along its route, it might have helped temper the initial outbreak of violence. The most damage occurred in the first three days, when 72 people were killed, of whom 60 were reportedly Kukis living in the Imphal valley.

Mobs of Meitei men targeted government armouries from the very day of the march, leading to suspicions that these attacks may have been orchestrated. The state police, which like the rest of the local administration are overwhelmingly Meitei, are alleged to have allowed the crowds to abscond with weapons such as assault rifles, long-range guns and even 51mm mortars. In Kuki-dominated areas, Kuki police officers allegedly did the same, albeit on a much lesser scale. An estimated 4,000 weapons and half a million bullets were stolen throughout the state. As a result, both communities have an arsenal at their disposal, which has escalated the intensity of the conflict manifold.

From 4 May onward, the central government gradually deployed security forces from other parts of India to help quell the unrest. Placed under state government command, these contingents largely failed to stop the violence, however, as Meitei groups, in particular, obstructed their movements by blocking – and even digging up – roads. Just as the Kuki do not trust the Meitei-dominated local police, the Meitei allege that the central forces, particularly a counter-insurgency force called the Assam Rifles, are biased toward the Kuki. Deployed in the state since the days of active insurgency, the Assam Rifles allegedly used Kuki militants after they signed the 2008 peace agreement to conduct operations against other militant groups, including Meitei outfits.

Despite a history of protests by women in the region, the armed forces also found themselves unprepared to deal with the active participation of Meitei women in the conflict. On 24 June, the army released twelve captured Meitei militants (all men) who belonged to the banned Kanglei Yaol Kangla Lup outfit, from whom they had recovered numerous arms and stores of ammunition, after a standoff with a mob of an estimated 1,500 women. The women reportedly blocked all the roads in the area and refused to let the army carry on with the operation. The army said that considering the “sensitivity of use of kinetic force” against a large crowd of women and the risk of casualties, the troops decided to hand over the militants and leave. The danger of a backlash from the Meiteis and the state government dominated by the community is the unspoken subtext.

Apart from sending in the central security forces, the federal government has not been particularly proactive in dealing with the Manipur conflict.

Apart from sending in the central security forces, the federal government has not been particularly proactive in dealing with the Manipur conflict; nor has it been very effective at dampening the unrest. At the end of May, following weeks of violence, Home Minister Amit Shah paid a three-day visit to Manipur, meeting both Meitei and Kuki delegations. The Meitei groups pleaded with him not to accede to the Kukis’ demand for greater autonomy and to replace the Assam Rifles with another force. For their part, the Kuki delegation asked for imposition of president’s rule, a constitutional provision that allows New Delhi to suspend the state government and govern in its stead in case of emergency, and in the long term, for a separate Kuki administration. Shah appealed for calm, according to media reports, and promised to return two weeks later. He has yet to come back.

On 10 June, the federal government took what seemed to be an ameliorative measure, announcing the creation of a committee made up of the chief minister, elected representatives, political party leaders, and Meitei and Kuki representatives to start a peace dialogue. The initiative was an instant failure, however, as both Meitei and Kuki representatives refused to participate due to disagreements over the committee’s composition.

Prompted by indignation over the video depicting the abuse of two naked Kuki women, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke for the first time in public about the Manipur violence on 20 July. In a brief statement, he expressed shock at the video, assuring the public that justice would be served for the survivors of sexual violence. Whether this pledge translates into concrete action, however, remains to be seen.

National politics is also playing a part in the central state’s half-hearted response. Despite reports that Home Minister Shah is keeping a close watch on security conditions in the state, the absence of new concrete measures suggests that New Delhi has delegated the effort to control the violence to the state’s Meitei-dominated administration. Amid the turmoil, and given that state authorities like the BJP’s Biren Singh are widely perceived as partisan, the BJP-run federal government could have replaced the chief minister with someone less polarising. Alternatively, New Delhi could have opted to impose president’s rule, which would allow the central state to assume command over all security forces in the area and recover stolen weapons – a step that would have been in keeping with the tough security image cultivated by Modi’s federal government. Yet in the run-up to 2024 national elections, the BJP appears reluctant to acknowledge its failures in Manipur and to risk losing the Meiteis’ electoral support.

What can be done to put an end to the violence?

That Prime Minister Modi had kept mum on the crisis for almost three months, before the viral video forced him to break his silence, has generated anger on both sides. His statement, though criticised in some quarters for failing to address the broader outbreak of ethnic violence in Manipur, has encouraged Kuki women victims to share their testimonies with the media. The prime minister is popular in Manipur – both the Meitei and Kuki voted for the BJP in large numbers in two consecutive elections – and he could have made an immediate difference with an urgent personal appeal for peace. There is still an opportunity for such an intervention, though the BJP has so far appeared inclined to avoid deeper central state involvement in the crisis.

Additionally, given the gravity of the situation, the central government should put political calculations aside and impose president’s rule in Manipur. This step would place all security forces automatically under New Delhi’s command and cause the state government to be dismissed, without abrogating citizens’ basic rights. In the past, this exceptional measure has usually been imposed in a conflict’s early stages, such as when deadly clashes broke out between the Nagas and Kukis in 1993. President’s rule has in fact been imposed ten times in the past in Manipur, most recently in 2001 when the state government lost its majority in the local legislature. Despite the delay, there is no better solution at this juncture given the urgent need for a neutral administration in Manipur to guarantee the peace and mediate between the parties. President’s rule would go a long way toward addressing Kuki distrust of the state government, but unless handled deftly could antagonise the Meitei. To placate the latter, Modi might well need to visit the region before imposing president’s rule for an initial six-month period, and make it clear to them (as well as the Kuki) that he will protect their interests.

Measures to address the widespread sexual violence should be among the top priorities for the central government.

Measures to address the widespread sexual violence should be among the top priorities for the central government whether or not it decides to impose president’s rule. These should include sexual and reproductive health and psychosocial support for survivors, as well as efforts to bring perpetrators to justice. Progress in these areas will also contribute to strengthening trust between the citizenry and the state, feeding into longer-term peace and reconciliation objectives.

Finally, measures to try to restore some level of comity between the clashing communities will be important. Two months after the unrest began, dead bodies are still lying unclaimed and unidentified in morgues because the Kuki are unable to travel to areas dominated by the Meitei and vice versa. The central security forces, in coordination with civil society organisations from both communities, could facilitate an exchange of bodies so that kin can proceed with proper funeral rites. This step could help build a modicum of confidence between the sides that would, ideally, allow for a comprehensive peace dialogue.  

Moreover, to avoid a failure like its first attempt in June at creating a peace committee, New Delhi should (when the moment arrives) consult widely among both communities before deciding on the composition of a dialogue panel. As much as possible, it should bring in moderates, including women, from both communities, preferably academics or civil society representatives who have not taken polarising stands during the violence. It should also make sure that members have no link to prominent politicians or militants on either side.

Over the long term, the central government should consider putting talks with Kuki militants who signed the Suspension of Operations Agreement back in 2008 on a fast track. Addressing Kuki aspirations for tribal autonomy will no doubt prove complex, as it will face stiff opposition from both the Meiteis and Nagas. But it is increasingly clear that whether the measures are immediate or for the longer term, New Delhi will need to overcome its reticence and take bolder steps to still Manipur’s ethnic turmoil.

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