by Anna Violante

On 3 May, clashes broke out between two different ethnic groups in the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur. The Hindu Meiteis, who live in the fertile valley around the state capital Imphal, and the mainly Christian Kukis, who live in the hills above. Since then, tensions have continued without a word from Prime Minister Modi. Last Saturday, Home Minister Shri Amit Shah organised an all-party meeting in Delhi with only one representative from the Manipur parliament. The meeting ended in a stalemate with both the opposition Congress party and the people of Manipur demanding President’s rule in the state and the resignation of Chief Minister Birhen Singh. 

The beginning of what Manipuri peace activist Binalakshmi Nepram, convenor of the Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace, calls ‘the darkest period in the history of Manipur’ came during a ‘tribal solidarity march’ by Kukis and Nagas protesting against the Meitei community’s demand for tribal status. Suddenly, an armed mob allegedly attacked some Meiteis. The reaction was immediate. So far, hundreds of villages and churches on both sides have been burnt, some 40,000 villagers displaced and at least 100 people killed. The state chief minister has responded to the clashes by shutting down the internet and imposing a ‘demarcation line’ between the valley and the hills. With the main hospitals and supplies in Imphal, the Kukis are expected to travel to nearby Mizoram to buy food, and from there to Kolkata if they’re sick. Neither is possible for the poor villagers who face starvation.

The Meiteis make up 53% of the population of 3.3 million and live in 10% of the territory. The hills are home to 16% Kukis and 24% Nagas. Tribal status would allow the Meiteis to buy land in the hills, but the Kukis and Nagas refuse. Although they live in a seemingly small area compared to the other two communities, the Meiteis have much better facilities and schools. 

The State’s Chief Minister, Birhen Singh, himself a Meitei from the Bharatiya Janata Party BJP, has been accused of favouring his community over the other two.

The underlying tensions in the region are the result of several factors. 1) As in neighbouring Myanmar, some post-colonial political insurgencies in the hills have slowly evolved into armed groups, taxing their own communities and developing a thriving poppy crop; Birhen Singh, who’s been Chief Minister since 2017, recently launched a controversial war on drugs, accusing Kuki farmers of being drug traffickers and bombing poppy fields without offering them any help to start new crops. 

2) Illegal migration from troubled Myanmar is also a major problem, especially after the military junta took power in February 2021 and Chin refugees find shelter with their ethnic Kuki brethren. 

3) Land pressure and a lack of employment opportunities have made the youth vulnerable to recruitment by rebel groups, of which there are now more than 30.

4) Official corruption and the complicity of politicians and the military in the drug trade for decades has contributed greatly to the poverty and malaise of the population of all ethnicities. 

Many people have moved to other states in the Union over the years, while those who’ve stayed have developed a mutual suspicion between the ethnic groups that has now boiled over into deep hatred. 

With so many illegal activities and weapons, life in Manipur has long been difficult. As Binalakshmi Nepram recalls: ‘1958 was the beginning of the genocide’ when AFSPA was enacted, a draconian law that allows the police to shoot anyone who’s acting against the law. In 1958, “it was against the Naga insurgents. The law was supposed to last for a year, but then it was never revoked because of many other insurgencies”.

Swedish journalist and author Bertil Lintner recounts this in his book “Great Game East: India, China And The Struggle For Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier”. This is how he describes Imphal in 2000 when clashes broke out with the police. “Armed police and paramilitary units patrol Imphal, which is nearly deserted after sunset. Streets are empty and businesses closed. The security force act with impunity, while extortion by the rebels – and corruption within the local administration – hinders any serious development efforts”. After a long period of apparent calm, the situation has changed dramatically in the recent years. What makes the difference now is a sense that mistrust between the communities has reached a point of no return. 

Kuki leaders see no solution other than an autonomous region, while the Meitei are more conciliatory, hoping to restore harmony even with UN intervention. All accuse Prime Minister Modi of deliberate silence as part of a divide and rule strategy. The truth is that the situation is very dangerous and a civil war could break out if nothing is done to defuse the tension.

Renowned Manipuri playwright and director Ratan Thiyam, in an interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire, gives “peace a chance” when he asserts that peace must not be a dream and that all those who want harmony must try to build a bridge of communication between the two communities.  How? Artists, women, peace activists should come together and fight for peace without fear. Insist that the government end its criminal silence.

On the cover photo: A village near Camp Victoria, bombed by the military junta (Chin State, Myanmar, May 11, 2023) © ADP