July 6, 2023

IntelBrief: Resurgent Violence in Manipur Makes Waves in New Delhi

AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Violence in the Indian state of Manipur has flared anew, with more than 137 people reportedly killed and approximately 60 thousand reportedly displaced since May.
  • India’s Supreme Court has demanded a detailed overview of the current situation in Manipur by July 10.
  • Amid criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by the opposition, Manipur’s chief minister has refused calls for his resignation, while the BJP-led federal government met in June to discuss its response to the violence.
  • On July 3, ethnic Kuki groups lifted a two-month highway blockade that had been in place since the initial violence erupted.

After two weeks of relative calm, violence in the Indian state of Manipur has resurged, with four more people reportedly killed on July 2. The latest victims, one of whom was beheaded, were members of the majority Meitei ethnic group. The day following the attack, India’s Supreme Court requested an updated report on the situation in the violence-plagued state, which has faced mounting instability for months. The ongoing violence – with reports of 137 fatalities and approximately 60 thousand displaced according to an estimate by the BBC – is among the worst the state has experienced in decades. Manipur has a decades-old history of religious, ethnic, and tribal conflict, which has at times erupted into violence, particularly over land rights and crackdowns on minority groups. The current crisis emerged in April after the Manipur High Court directed the state government to consider adding the Meiteis to a so-called “Scheduled Tribes” list. Following a tribal protest march organized in response to the High Court’s directive, a series of arson acts were carried out against Kuki and Meitei communities. In May, thousands of Indian troops and police were deployed to the state to restore order. On July 3, Kuki groups announced they would lift a highway blockade they had instituted two months prior.

Scheduled tribe status would make Meiteis – who comprise over half of the state’s population – eligible for various benefits, which critics claim would undermine the protections granted to Manipur’s minority groups. Benefits afforded to tribes designated under the scheduled tribes list include the right to purchase lands in protected hill areas that groups like the Naga and Kuki have occupied for decades. These tribes say conferring such rights to the Metei could result in their displacement. In addition, the constitutionally-recognized scheduled tribe status creates quotas to ensure designated populations receive a pre-determined share of government jobs and college admissions. While these quotas are designed to ensure that marginalized communities are represented equitably in society, critics say the Meitei are sufficiently advantaged, both socially and economically, without the designation.

The outbreak of violence in Manipur has resurfaced other historic tensions relating to local administrative sovereignty and immigration. For instance, the violence has stalled ongoing negotiations between the Kukis, the Naga, and the Indian government over the two tribes’ competing aspirations for sovereignty and self-government. Following the outbreak of clashes, in May, ten Kuki lawmakers in Manipur issued a new call for a separate Kuki state under the Indian government, saying that Manipur’s government had “miserably failed to protect” the group. Neighboring Myanmar’s 2021 coup and ongoing civil war have also contributed to tensions, as thousands of refugees from Myanmar’s Chin tribe – who share ethnic ties with the Kuki – have reportedly taken refuge in Manipur. The Kuki have alleged that the Manipur government has unjustly cracked down on the refugees since their arrival. The Meitei, in turn, have expressed concern that the influx of Chin will allow the Kuki to eventually outnumber the Meitei, while the state’s other ethnic groups have expressed concern about refugees’ impact on the availability of land and state resources.

The Manipur government has also taken other actions to upset tribal and ethnic tensions. It reportedly suspended an agreement with Myanmar that had allowed Naga to travel limited distances on either side of the two country’s borders without visa requirements. In addition, an anti-drug campaign ostensibly aimed at curtailing poppy production and a land survey have resulted in widespread evictions of tribal individuals. In March, the Manipur government withdrew from a 2008 peace agreement between the state, the Indian national government, and two Kuki militant groups. Opposition parties in New Delhi have also been highly critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for their early inaction and silence towards the situation in Manipur. In June, over 550 Indian civil society organizations and individuals signed a statement that faulted the BJP, which controls both Manipur’s state and India’s federal government, for using “divisive politics” to exacerbate ethnic tensions for its own political gains. The letter claims that two of the Meitei groups it says are most responsible for violence against the Kukis are “closely associated” with Manipur’s chief minister, Biren Singh.

In response to these concerns, Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah organized an “all-party meeting” in New Delhi late last month, in which he briefed political leaders on the steps the federal government had taken to address the violence. These included the formation of an investigatory judicial committee and a committee to resolve the conflict. During a June visit to Manipur, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was stopped by police and tear gas was fired near his convoy. While India’s Solicitor General earlier this month told the Indian Supreme Court that the situation in Manipur was improving, a lawyer representing the Manipur Tribal Forum said the violence has escalated to the extent that militant groups are openly calling for the extermination of the Kukis. He alleged that these groups are “state-sponsored.” The Indian Supreme Court has demanded an updated status report on the situation in Manipur by July 10.