Manipur’s deadly conflict

Northeast India’s tribal kaleidoscope

Northeast India rarely makes headlines, even within India. But in early May, that changed when violent clashes between the Meitei and Kuki ethnic communities in the state of Manipur caused at least 180 deaths, displaced 60,000, and destroyed more than 3,400 houses, over 250 churches and several temples and schools (1). The EU adopted a resolution on 12 July, noting that intolerance towards ‘religious and belief minorities, including Christians, contributes to the violence’ and voicing ‘concerns about politically motivated, divisive policies promoting Hindu majoritarianism, and about an increase in activity by militant groups’.

It added that ‘accounts of partisan involvement by security forces in the killings have increased distrust in the authorities’ and urged the Indian authorities to ‘make the utmost effort to promptly halt the ongoing ethnic and religious violence, to protect all religious minorities, such as Manipur’s Christian community, and to pre-empt any further escalation’.

Arindam Bagchi, India’s ministry of external affairs spokesman, responded that ‘such interference in India’s internal affairs is unacceptable and reflects a colonial mindset.’

Sections of the Indian media reported that the Indian government had hired the services of the firm of Alber & Geiger, which describes itself as a ‘political lobbying powerhouse’, to assist with managing perceptions in Europe. In July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accepted President Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to visit Paris on Bastille Day (2). Western countries including the US have been wooing India, which they see as a vibrant market for their companies and a democratic counterweight to China and Russia. This is despite India’s membership of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (with Russia, China and Iran, among others) and the Quad grouping (with the US, Japan and Australia).

Delhi has long viewed the country’s northeast, where Manipur is located, as a troubled periphery. Geographically, it is bounded by the Tibetan plateau and the eastern Himalayas to the north, the Patkai ranges of hills bordering Myanmar to the southeast, and the plains of Bangladesh to the south. Most of its borders are international ones – with China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Only a thin land corridor, roughly 21km at its narrowest, links it with the rest of India.

The area is inhabited by a bewildering variety of tribes and non-tribal communities, many of them of East Asian or Southeast Asian appearance. Credible estimates put the number of languages spoken in the region at around 220. Only three states in the region have clear Hindu majorities; two other states, including Manipur, have almost equal numbers of Hindus and Christians, and the remaining three have Christian majorities. There is also a large Muslim population in Assam, the most populous state in the region, and three of the states have pockets with Buddhist majorities.

Until the early 20th century, remote areas in the thickly forested hills of this region, roughly the size of the UK, were non-state spaces marked as blanks on maps; some of these hills were inhabited by tribes still practicing headhunting traditions. There were ancient kingdoms in the river valleys, by then under direct or indirect British rule, of which the kingdom of Manipur was one. The present state of Manipur is the descendant of that kingdom, which merged with India in 1949, two years after India gained independence from Britain.

For much of its modern history, the state has been wracked by insurgent wars for independence from India. The conflicts have defied resolution, owing partly to the state’s complex ethnic composition. Manipur has three major communities. The dominant majority is the largely Hindu Meitei, who mainly live in the Imphal valley. Their kings, according to the Manipur royal chronicles, ruled here for over 1,800 years until the advent of indirect British rule in 1891. The hills that ring the valley are inhabited by two groups of tribes, the Naga and the Kuki.

The present violence, which has now become a small civil war, is between the Meitei and Kuki communities. It was sparked by rioting that followed a rally called by a tribal body that includes both Naga and Kuki. However, ethnic cleansing by the Meitei in their areas of dominance, and by the Kuki in theirs, has so far left the Naga untouched. This tribe, who like the Kuki are mainly Christian, have been neutral in the fighting.

From the time of India’s independence from Britain in 1947, a section of the Naga tribe – itself composed of at least 32 sub-tribes each with its own language – has waged a guerrilla war for independence from India. The Naga tribes are scattered over the Indian states of Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, as well as northern Myanmar. Their struggle has been for a country of their own incorporating all these Naga-inhabited areas.

Conflicting demands, civil war

However, they are not the only inhabitants here. The Kuki tribe, also comprised of at least 32 sub-tribes, shares the hills of Manipur and adjacent parts of Myanmar with the Naga. They, too, have armed insurgent groups and dreams of a homeland of their own – whose map includes many of the same areas the Naga claim. To add to the complications, the Meitei, who dominate the state of Manipur, are fiercely opposed to any change in the current administrative boundaries or political arrangements in the state.

Kuki demands for a separate state, or autonomous territory they want to be carved out of Manipur, have been met with rage by the Meitei public. The Naga demand for independence is of course anathema to both Manipur and the Indian government.

The de facto civil war that has developed in Manipur is thus a clash of five nationalisms – Naga, Kuki, Meitei, Indian and Myanmarese – which have collided in and around Manipur. The current clashes began over an issue related to the inclusion of the Meitei in a list of Scheduled Tribes who are entitled to affirmative action benefits – which was opposed by the Naga and Kuki for some of the same reasons that the inclusion of Asian Americans in affirmative action schemes in the US is opposed by some Black people. However, the real reasons go deeper.

The coup in Myanmar in 2021, which led to civil war, sent refugees fleeing to India, the vast majority from the Chin tribes of northern Myanmar, who are ethnically related to the Kuki (both groups are part of a larger grouping of related tribes called Zo). Over 40,000 of the 53,500 Myanmarese refugees went to the state of Mizoram, where Zo tribes are the ruling majority. A smaller number – 8,250 – came into Manipur (3), igniting fears among the Naga and Meitei that the demographic balance would shift in favour of the Kuki.

Trouble began in 2022 when the Meitei-dominated government of Manipur launched a campaign to evict ‘illegal settlers’ from reserved forest areas where they were accused of growing poppy plants. The Kuki saw this as targeting their tribe and protested against the forced evictions, prompting the Manipur government to unilaterally withdraw in March from a ceasefire with two Kuki-Zo insurgent armies (the Kuki National Army and the Zomi Revolutionary Army) which had long been fighting for a Kuki-dominated territory under their own administration.

Prime minister’s long silence

The explosion came on 3 May. Since then, despite the deployment of the Indian military, efforts to restore peace and order have failed. The army presence has continued to increase, now numbering over 10,000, with another 30,000 paramilitary forces and just under 30,000 men and women of the state police. The Internet in the entire state of Manipur has been suspended since 4 May and the warring Kuki and Meitei groups, both heavily armed, have taken up sandbagged positions in bunkers. At least 4,500 weapons including AK-47s, other assault rifles, and light machine guns, and some 500,000 rounds of ammunition have been looted from state armouries, mainly in Meitei-majority areas.

The military has tried to create buffer zones to prevent further clashes and the Indian government has engaged both sides in back-channel talks, but there have been no visible political steps to defuse the situation. Narendra Modi, who had been silent through all this, made his first public statement on the troubles on 19 July, after a video clip went viral, showing two Kuki women being paraded naked through a street by a mob of Meitei men (one of them was later allegedly gang-raped). What had happened in Manipur was shameful, he said, and promised the guilty would not be spared.

No action was taken regarding this incident – registered on 18 May – until after Modi’s July statement. At the time of writing, only six of the men from the mob (seen in the video) and a seventh (who shot it) have been arrested. There have, however, been hundreds of such cases, Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh said in a television interview, as a justification for the Internet ban; he also called for the death penalty for those arrested in the case shown in the viral video.

The Manipur crisis was not discussed in India’s parliament until 8 August, two weeks after its latest session opened. Despite repeated demands from opposition parties for an official statement, Modi did not attend parliament until a newly formed opposition alliance (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance or INDIA, led by the Congress party) brought a no-confidence motion against his government. Modi’s majority Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would have easily won the confidence vote in parliament, but the opposition walked out before the vote.

Meanwhile, far from Delhi, the Naga armed groups in Manipur and next-door Nagaland, hitherto neutral, are growing restive. They have demanded a quick resolution to their conflict, over which peace talks with the Indian government have dragged on since 1997. On 21 August the United Naga Council issued a strongly worded statement against Kuki demands for a separate administration in the hill districts which include areas the Naga claim as theirs.

And there is further trouble in the neighbouring state of Mizoram, where the dominant Mizo tribe – ethnically related to the Kuki – are ever more concerned about the fate of their embattled kin in Manipur.

With the Manipur conflict already closely linked to the civil war in neighbouring Myanmar, a wider clash involving more countries and ethnic groups now threatens. And in Manipur itself, where the conflict still simmers, prospects of peace appear slim.

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Samrat Choudhury