Manipur: Fears grow over Indian state on brink of civil war

Last week, a retired lieutenant general in India’s army bemoaned the volatile situation in his native Manipur, a violence-wracked state in the north-east of the country.

“The state is now ‘stateless’,” tweeted L Nishikanta Singh. “Life and property can be destroyed anytime by anyone just like in Libya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria etc.” 

Nearly two months after it was convulsed by ethnic violence, Manipur is teetering on what many believe is the brink of a civil war. Clashes between the majority Meitei and Kuki communities have left more than 100 dead and over 400 wounded. Nearly 60,000 people have been displaced and taken shelter in some 350 camps. Some 40,000 security forces – army soldiers, paramilitaries, police – are struggling to quell the violence. Only a quarter of the more than 4,000 weapons looted by mobs from police armouries have been voluntarily returned since the violence began. 

The level of mistrust between the warring communities has sharpened, with both accusing security forces of being partisan. More than 200 churches and 17 temples have been destroyed or damaged by mobs. Homes of local ministers and legislators have been attacked and set on fire.

Normal life has been strangled: a night curfew continues in most of the 16 districts; schools are shut and internet services have been suspended. A main highway for ferrying supplies has been blocked by protesters. There are sporadic killings and arson. The federal government’s proposal for a peace panel to broker a truce has received a tepid response. 

“This is the darkest moment in Manipur’s history,” says Binalakshmi Nepram of Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace. “In two days [when the violence began], homes were burnt and people were lynched, burnt and tortured. Manipur has not seen this kind and type of violence in its modern history.”

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India’s restive and remote north-eastern region is home to some 45 million people belonging to more than 400 communities. More than a dozen peace talks trying to mediate between groups across the region have been dragging on for years. Nestling along the border with Myanmar, Manipur is no stranger to ethnic violence.

With some 33 ethnic tribes, the state is extremely diverse – and sharply divided. It is home to some 40 insurgent groups. Meitei, Naga and Kuki rebels have waged prolonged armed campaigns, frequently targeting Indian security forces, in protest against controversial anti-insurgent laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants search and seizure powers to the security forces. Meitei, Naga and Kuki militias have also fought one another over conflicting homeland demands.

The majority Meiteis make up more than half of Manipur’s estimated 3.3 million people. Some 43% of the people are Kukis and Nagas, the two predominant tribal communities, who live in the rolling hills. Most Meiteis follow the Hindu faith, while most Kukis adhere to Christianity. 

Previous ethnic – and religious – clashes in Manipur have claimed hundreds of lives. “This time, the conflict is strictly rooted in ethnicity, not religion,” says Dhiren A Sadokpam, editor of The Frontier Manipur.

May’s large-scale violence was sparked by a controversy over affirmative action: Kukis protested against the demand seeking tribal status for the Meiteis. But this does not entirely explain the explosive ethnic violence that has engulfed Manipur.

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The underlying tensions in the region stem from a complex interplay of various factors, including a long-standing insurgency, a controversial recent war on drugs, illegal migration from troubled Myanmar through porous borders, pressure on land, and a lack of employment opportunities, which make the young vulnerable to recruitment by rebel groups. 

Adding to the volatility, say experts, is the alleged complicity of politicians in the drug trade over decades and the nexus between politicians and militancy.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP-led) government of Manipur, under Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who is a Meitei, has launched a controversial “war on drugs” campaign targeting farming of poppy. Since 2017, the government claims to have destroyed more than 18,000 acres of poppy fields, the majority of them in Kuki-inhabited areas. (Manipur has battled a drug-addiction crisis and is among four north-eastern Indian states bordering Myanmar, the world’s second-largest opium producer.)

Mr Singh’s campaign appears to have exacerbated divisions between a section of Kukis and the government. He has cautioned that villages growing poppy – mostly Kuki homelands – would be derecognised and stripped of welfare benefits. 

In March, he told a news channel that his government had gone all out against “some Kukis who were encroaching everywhere, protected forests, reserved forests, doing poppy plantations and doing drugs business”. The same month, Kukis held mass protests in hill districts against what they called the BJP government’s “selective targeting” of the community. Mr Singh’s government accused Kuki insurgent groups of inciting the community.

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There is also a lot of pressure on land in Manipur – about 60% of the population lives on just 10% of the state’s land in Imphal, a valley. The Meiteis resent the fact that they and other non-tribal people are not allowed to buy land or settle in the hill districts. They also want to prevent unrestricted entry of “outsiders” – settlers from neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar – whose numbers they believe have sharply risen over the years. 

A Kuki tradition of migrating across extensive territories – as land ownership exclusively passes down to the eldest son of the village chief – has led to new villages being set up by other male members of the family and put further pressure on land. 

“This mistrust between people here has been weaponised,” Ms Nepram says. “Rather than putting out the conflict, small ethnic groups have been armed and trained by Delhi [to fight insurgency] over decades as well as by those who are into guns, drugs and human trafficking.”

That’s not all. There’s a dispute over two hills in the state, with conflicting claims of ownership from the Meiteis and Kukis. The Meiteis regard the hills as sacred, whereas the Kukis perceive the land beneath the hills as their ancestral territory which is facing encroachment.

“For the past five years there has been growing animosity and anger between the two communities, some related to indigenous faith and practices and others related to encroachment,” says Bhagat Oinam of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticised for maintaining a studied silence on the violence. The majority of ministers and legislators from the governing BJP have gathered in Delhi, the capital, to devise strategies for resolving and managing the situation. 

Kukis have demanded Delhi impose direct rule, and sought a separate administration for the community, a demand that carries the potential for backlash from the Nagas, who might also pursue a similar demand. “Let us live in peace in our own land with our own people. Let us rule ourselves. After what has happened that is how we define peace,” says Mary Haokip of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum and a Kuki. 

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Ten of the 60 elected lawmakers in Manipur’s assembly are Kukis, as are three ministers in Mr Singh’s 10-member cabinet. “There exists some political and administrative connection between the two communities. However, the growing alienation between them seems to be driving them further apart,” says Kaybie Chongloi, a Kuki journalist. 

The lack of trust has resulted in a significant divide, leaving lawmakers and ministers from the ruling party, representing both communities, unable to find common ground. “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, in an interview with BBC Hindi.

Giving autonomy to tribal groups could be a way to defuse the crisis, says Subir Bhaumik, author of Insurgent Crossfire: North-East India. He cites the example of the north-eastern state of Tripura where a third of the population are recognised as tribespeople and collectively govern two-thirds of the state’s land area through an ‘autonomous district council’.

Others like Ms Nepram seek a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including panels for reparations for homes burnt and lives lost in the conflict. Still others fear that Manipur will degenerate into a full-blown civil war unless there is a serious initiative for an “inter-faith, inter-ethnic dialogue”. “Nothing of this sort is being attempted,” Mr Bhaumik says.

Clearly, peace in Manipur has always been precarious. Much of the peace in recent years was not organic, says Mr Sadokpam. “It was what we call an imposed peace in a heavily militarised zone.” For the moment, there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel as both sides appear to be digging in for a long confrontation. People remember clashes between Nagas and Kukis in the early 1990s which dragged on for a year before ebbing. 

“I don’t think this is going to end soon. This will go on until both sides get fatigued – or one side gains dominance,” says a senior government functionary in Imphal, who refused to be named. “This is going to be a long haul.”

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