Since May 3, there have been numerous interethnic conflicts in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, mostly between the Meitei and Kuki. Over 75 people have died as a result of the violence, and over 1,700 buildings, including houses of worship and other facilities, have been set on fire. Additionally, there are currently 315 aid camps housing more than 35,000 individuals, many of whom have been relocated. These figures might be increasing as the combat goes on.
The techniques India has previously used during disturbances in the Northeast or Jammu and Kashmir have been substantially imitated in the state government’s response.
This has included imposing military curfews, shutting down the internet, and sending over 17,000 soldiers and paramilitary groups with the authority to shoot anyone on sight in “extreme cases.” Even while the violence in Manipur is among the worst the state has seen in recent memory, it is not unheard of in India’s northeast, where the identities of various ethnic communities have frequently been weaponized to further the goals of a select few powerful people. Even decades after India’s independence, very little has been done to promote understanding between different communities regarding one another’s history, culture, and traditions. Any efforts towards peacebuilding in the medium- to long-term will have to take this weaponization of colonial fault lines into account.
Manipur, often known as the “Land of Jewels,” is made up of a valley that is encircled by mountains. The state is home to 39 ethnic communities that practice a variety of religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and faiths like Sanamahi. The conflict between New Delhi and several restive areas of the Northeast continues to be centered on opposition to the manner in which Manipur was merged with India in 1949, which provided the foundation for the early stages of resistance and separatist movements.
The Indian government implemented the contentious Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 1958 to crush this opposition. The act grants the military and paramilitary organizations the broad-based authority to “maintain public order” in “disturbed areas,” which has mostly been applied to the Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir.
The central government contends that the legislation was required to maintain peace in regions where there has a history of insurgency, some of which predate India’s independence, despite criticism from rights groups and a significant lack of confidence between the state and central governments in Manipur. The central government has emphasized the danger of foreign backing for separatist movements throughout the Northeast (and elsewhere).
A number of competing claims to ethnic and communal homelands exist in the region today, and those claims are being defended by armed insurgency organizations. There are roughly 30 Kuki-armed rebel organizations, many Naga groups, and at least four valley-based armed groups in Manipur. The state saw a “war within a war” due to the development of armed organizations, which were once thought to number in the 60s.
The state became the hub of widespread gun smuggling, narcotics, and people trafficking as those with tight ties to governmental power profited from the unrest. In state elections, armed organizations frequently support candidates. Insurgent groups reportedly wrote a letter to Indian Home Minister Amit Shah in 2019 asking for a party ticket to be given to a candidate of their choosing, although the armed group later denied this. In 2022, two Kuki insurgent groups released statements supporting the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).
Civil society organizations in Manipur emphasized that the 2022 elections were dominated by “open intimidation” from militant groups and violence throughout polling locations. Northeast politicians have reported intimidation by opposing armed groups. The result has been “democracy at gunpoint” in this vulnerable area.
The most recent violence erupted when the Manipur High Court requested the state administration to consider giving the Meitei group, Manipur’s predominant population, Scheduled Tribe status.
This status would provide protection under the Indian Constitution as well as enhanced access to perks such as protected seats in government. Manipur’s Meitei population has long sought this recognition. However, there were significant worries that such a move would exacerbate ethnic tensions, notably among the Kuki and Naga Indigenous populations. On May 3, the All-Tribal Students Union of Manipur conducted a protest rally shortly after the court’s announcement.
On the same day, reports circulated that the Anglo-Kuki War Memorial Gate had been burned down. This drove Kukis to destroy many villages in Churachanpur inhabited by Meitei groups, prompting retribution by the Meitei, who reportedly torched other places belonging to the Kuki community in the Imphal Valley districts, resulting in several casualties.
While protests were the most recent source of violence in Manipur, intra-Indigenous community tensions have been on the rise in the state for several years. For example, the current state government’s treatment of Indigenous land rights concerns has been regarded as favoring the Kuki communities, who live predominantly in the hill areas surrounding the capital valley. Efforts to survey restricted forests in the hill regions were ostensibly to limit poppy production but instead resulted in evictions in Kuki villages.
Meanwhile, another cause of concern is the current land imbalance among Indigenous tribes: Meiteis cannot purchase land in the previously stated hill regions, but Kukis and other tribal communities can.
Furthermore, the swarm of refugees following the 2021 military coup in neighboring Myanmar, particularly those from the Sagaing region, who have deep relations with the Kukis, has increased the Meitei Indigenous community’s sense of vulnerability. Though those in charge of firearms, narcotics, and politicians make the final decisions in the battle, women and children are the ones who suffer the most in both communities. The identities of several ethnic communities have been weaponized in the current war to fit the purpose of a few.
While it has been difficult to obtain credible information from Manipur, photographs and accounts from the state depict an ongoing “war zone,” with heavily armed insurgents roaming, villages arming themselves, and a severe decline in confidence between citizens, administration, and security.
Social media posts that make it through the internet blackout are frequently filled with messages of hatred, discord, and misery. Essential goods are becoming increasingly expensive, and trucks transporting food, medicine, and other necessities have become trapped. While it is unknown how the issue will play out in the medium term, two tendencies should be kept an eye on:
Possibilities for Peace: Several towns around the state and region are hosting peace and prayer gatherings, religious leaders have called for peace, and others have advocated for the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Women’s organizations in northeast India have issued petitions and established “Mothers Peace Committees” in several towns.
Eliminating the current state of violence and encouraging long-term reconciliation initiatives, on the other hand, are fundamentally two distinct – albeit interconnected – goals. Any reconciliation must grapple with the legacy of bloodshed from multiple insurgencies, as well as the government’s often heavy-handed actions, which have contributed to long-term trauma within the state.
For years, the people of Manipur have suffered greatly across all communities as their rice fields have been converted into battlefields and peace has been snatched away by a few power-hungry people who have manufactured division and fostered violence.
Citizen-centered talks and involving civil society will be critical in overcoming decades of profound distrust and historical hurt that have polarized Indigenous communities across the area. Indigenous peacemaking projects, truth-telling, and forgiveness ceremonies could be a start to healing the damaged hearts and minds of communities who have lived through violence for decades. Women in peacebuilding also need to begin what will be a lengthy process of establishing responsive governance and openness in the region.
The Indian state’s response: The central authority was deafeningly silent at the commencement of the unrest. Opposition parties have accused the BJP of focusing too much on the forthcoming elections and of using silence to incite violence.
Despite the fact that the violence has been ongoing for nearly a month, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah just arrived in Manipur for a four-day visit intended at “restoring normalcy” to the state, and India’s chief of army staff has also recently visited Manipur to assess the situation. On June 1, Shah announced the formation of a judicial probe led by a former High Court judge to “investigate the violence” on behalf of the federal government. He also announced the formation of a peace committee comprised of representatives from various groups, the construction of additional fencing along the Myanmar border, and the return of an estimated 1,420 guns taken from local police since the start of the violence.
Continuous violence, on the other hand, will be a major determining factor in whether these pledges can be realized. Armed organizations continue to exploit the situation on the ground, while others have highlighted fears about cross-border strikes. Given the worries and commitments to increase border fencing, India will almost certainly need to interact with its neighbors in the region if the violence persists.
The unfortunate frenzy that has engulfed the ethnic groups residing in Manipur needs to be managed before spiraling into a more lethal set of events. The separatist movements in India have been an ongoing matter since its inception. The lack of involvement of the Indian Government along with the intolerance amongst people in Manipur has been fueling the conflict even further. International attention is on the dire need of the people of Manipur in order to salvage themselves from the futile consequences of continued unrest.
The Author is currently pursuing a bachelor’s in Peace and Conflict Studies from National Defense University, Islamabad. The themes she is keen on revolving around mostly contain matters that have scarce media coverage within the contemporary world along with historical events that are lesser known about. Her goal is to bring awareness to events that pertain but have been dormant to mass consciousness.