by Anna Violante

Three months after clashes erupted between the Kukis and the Meiteis, two of the three main ethnic groups in the north-eastern state of Manipur, more than 150 people have died, over 300 injured, some 60,000 displaced and many are on the brink of starvation. Long ignored by the authorities and the international community, the quasi-civil war that erupted so suddenly in early May came to international attention after a horrific video emerged on 12 July showing two ethnic Kuki women being paraded naked by ethnic Meitei men shortly after the destruction of their village. The video immediately went viral, women’s and human rights organisations took to the streets across India, newspapers around the world reported it, and the US and EU publicly condemned the event.

The incident took place on 4 May and was not isolated. Only then, after almost three months of total silence, did Prime Minister Modi finally speak out, demanding that the perpetrators be punished, but refusing to address Parliament, where the opposition is ready to confront him on the whole atrocious situation. The culprits, or alleged culprits, were soon arrested, their houses burnt down by angry Kuki women, and PM Modi promptly returned to his silence, completely unconcerned about the risk of the crisis spreading, to the point that  Congress party General Secretary Jairam Ramesh tweeted, “The anger, anxiety, anguish, pain and sorrow of the people of Manipur seem to make absolutely no difference to the Prime Minister.”

How could all the killing, the arson, the mayhem and the destruction have happened so suddenly?

 In early May, Christian Kukis (20% of the total population), who live in the hills along with Nagas (14%) and other smaller tribes, organised a ‘tribal solidarity march’ to protest against the state high court’s decision to recommend Schedule Tribe status for the mainly Hindu Meitei community (53%), a status created decades ago to give poor rural tribes exclusive rights to the land they live on. The Kuki argue that the more numerous and wealthier Meiteis are already privileged as they live in the fertile valley surrounding the capital Imphal. They fear that if the Meitei get Scheduled Tribe status, they will not only corner reserved government jobs, but also start acquiring land in the hills, displacing Kukis and other tribal communities. Relations between the two ethnic groups had already soured when Meitei Chief Minister Biren Singh launched a ‘war on drugs’ campaign in 2018, accusing the Kukis of being drug traffickers and destroying numerous villages where poppies were grown. The situation deteriorated further in 2022 when the government began evicting Kuki villagers from their homes allegedly built on forest land in violation of India’s Forest Act,” recalls Praveen Donthi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. Clashes erupted over an alleged rape of a Metei woman by Kuki men, now exposed as fake news.  Suddenly, mobs of civilian Meiteis seized more than 4,000 weapons from police and paramilitary warehouses and, armed to the teeth, began destroying and killing in every Kuki village.

What is the current situation?

The assaults, killings and arson have slowed since 7 May, when the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) was massively deployed in the epicentre of the unrest in the hill town of Churachandpur. Chief Minister Biren Singh quickly cut all internet connections, imposed a daily 6pm curfew and separated the two communities with buffer zones patrolled by the CAPF, effectively isolating every village and area in the state capital of Amphal. The result is that the Kukis are now trapped in their hills with no means of moving. Mixed families have been split up, while Meiteis have fled to the valley.  Kukis who once lived in the city are now piling up in refugee camps, having seen their homes burnt down and their relatives beaten or killed. The lucky ones have been able to flee to nearby Mizoram. The Meiteis who lived in the hills also had to flee, at the risk of being raped or killed, but with one big difference: many of them could count on state police protection and are now safe in more comfortable shelters in the state capital.  About 20 Kuki families have remained in Imphal. They all live in the same area of New Lambulane and can’t leave their homes. When contacted by a Wire reporter recently, they claimed to have received help from old Meitei friends and neighbours. Ordinary people show solidarity. Meanwhile, in nearby Mizoram, where some 40,000 Kukis live, the Meitei community is under threat from the Mizos. Given the Kukis’ isolation in their own land, there is a danger that they will demand to join Mizoram, where people of the same Kuki-Mizo-Chin ethnicity live, risking a widening of the conflict.

Why are Kukis being targeted?

Manipur, the Jewel of India, as it is known for its beautiful and fertile 800m high oval valley, home to Loktak Lake, the largest freshwater lake in north-east India, surrounded by hills reaching nearly 3000m, was at the crossroads of Asian economic and cultural exchange for over 2500 years when it was a flourishing kingdom. It joined the Indian Union in 1949 as part of the eight northeastern Indian states bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar. Considered one of the most turbulent and poorest regions of the union, the northeast has since been the scene of insurgency and ethnic clashes. The Kukis, who belong to the same ethnic group as the Mizos of Mizoram and the Chins of Myanmar, were soon accused by the Meteis and Nagas, who claim to be the only indigenous population, of being migrants and therefore illegally occupying the forested hills where they’ve lived for several generations.  This was the excuse the Nagas used in their decades-long struggle for independence in 1993 when they tried to seize the Kukis’ land, destroying entire villages and killing hundreds of people on the grounds that they were collaborators with the Indian secret services. In the current crisis, the Kukis are accused by the government, and by extension the Meiteis, of being drug traffickers with direct links to the drug barons of the Golden Triangle through the Myanmar Chins, whom they allegedly shelter and protect.

Where does the blame for the crisis lie? The voices of two prominent women

Among the many voices calling for Biren Singh’s resignation, whether he’s too weak or deliberately instigated the clashes to spread religious hatred and gain electoral consensus, many women in Manipur are active in the struggle for peace and human rights. Some of them have come to the fore for their bravery, two in particular: IROM SHARMILA, who became famous for her 16-year hunger strike against oppression and violence, and THOUNAOJAM BRINDA, the former anti-narcotics policewoman who refused a gallantry award after arresting a major drug trafficker and being pressured by CM Biren Singh to release him. Both speak out against the behaviour of the central and local governments.

The ‘Iron Lady’ Sharmila wrote in the Indian Express in mid-July: “The allegation that the Kukis are encroaching on the land and that there are large numbers of illegal immigrants from Myanmar is problematic. The immigrants are refugees and have come to Manipur fleeing oppression and violence in their own country. By ignoring the situation in its entirety, both the state and central governments have failed.

Th Brinda speaks about the clashes and the war on drugs in a video interview with HW News: 

Q: Could the violence be controlled? A: Absolutely. The violence happened in one night but there were weeks of preparation. Imphal was full of police just before the clashes broke out. Q: Can incidents like the one in the video go unreported for weeks? A: Not in a law and order situation. CM is lying if he says he didn’t know. Q: Where are the rioters getting their weapons from? They get them from China and Myanmar, but also from the Indian police. A: How can you raid police stores if the police won’t let you? Q: The state has declared war on drugs, but the Kukis say they are being targeted. As a former Police officer, is it only the Kukis who grow poppies?  When a state CM declares war on drugs and patronises important drug barons under the table, it means he doesn’t care about the impact of drugs on the people. There has never been any war on drugs. Not a single kingpin has been arrested. The poppy plantations belong to the mafia, which is closely linked to the politicians. Not all Kukis are responsible for the Kuki mafia. All communities are involved in the cartel. The Kukis are just the majority in terms of labour. Q: Why did you give up your gallantry award? A: When I realised that I could not arrest the drug baron Lhukhosei Zou, I felt that I was letting my people down.

*Guwahati, India. 26 July 2023. Demonstrators carry out a candle light protest over sexual assault case of two Kuki community women, in Manipur, on July 26, 2023 in Guwahati, India, Talukdar David on Shutterstock