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Needed: Reconciliation to End Manipur Ethnic Violence

By Genocide Watch

Members of the Kuki Tribe protesting against the killing of tribals in their northeastern home state of Manipur, hold Indian flags during a sit in protest in New Delhi, India, Monday, May 29, 2023. (AP Photo/ Manish Swarup)


As India revels in its G20 Presidency, Manipur, one of its northeastern border states, has been burning with ethnic conflict for the past six months. The violence broke out between the majority non-tribal Meitei community and the minority tribal Kuki community. The state is now in shambles with scores of settlements reduced to ashes. Genocide Watch has issued a Genocide Warning for the ethnic conflict, which has left over 200 people dead and 70,000 displaced.

The state is now completely segregated along ethnic lines. Paddy fields have turned into battle grounds. Armed civilians have taken it upon themselves to guard their villages from ‘outsiders’.

The state is governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), also in power at the center. While one might expect this to make it easier for the government to contain the violence, the BJP has left the people to their own devices. It took Prime Minister Narendra Modi two months to even acknowledge the violence, when a horrifying video of a Meitei mob parading two naked Kuki women went viral.

The Supreme Court of India has censured the Manipur state government for its ‘tardy pace of investigation’. However, the government has not just been a bystander to the violence, but has actively contributed to it.

Manipur has witnessed several insurgencies led by tribal groups demanding greater autonomy. Indian federal and state governments have done little to respond with positive programs to build trust among minority communities.

The state is geographically divided into the central valley dominated by the mostly Hindu Meiteis, and the surrounding hills, inhabited by the mostly Christian Kukis, Nagas, and other tribes. The majority Meiteis dominate the state’s politics. For years, the valley has received most of the state’s budget and development funds, marginalizing the hill districts.


Image Source: BBC


The state’s current Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, himself a Meitei, has declared several tribal settlements as reserved or protected forests, citing encroachment by ‘illegal immigrants’. Singh’s crackdown on Kuki immigration from neighbouring Myanmar has pushed the hill tribes into a precarious position.


Indigenous Kukis, ethnically similar to tribes in Myanmar, fear displacement from their ancestral lands. The government’s proposal to implement the contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC) to reduce the influx of ‘illegal immigrants’ threatens to disenfranchise undocumented members of native hill tribes. Singh’s ‘war on drugs’ is seen as another anti-tribal move as many tribal farmers rely on opium cultivation in the hills for their livelihood.


The Chief Minister, refusing to call the current clash an ethnic conflict, continues to blame illegal immigration and drug trafficking for the violence. The state has imposed long internet shutdowns, some stretching over 150 days. These internet blackouts have done little to quell the violence but have further isolated Manipur from rest of India and stifled public protest.


To make matters worse, the Solicitor General of India declared in the Supreme Court that all the unclaimed bodies lying in mortuaries belonged to ‘infiltrators’. He ignored the fact that relatives of dead tribal protestors could not claim their bodies because of ongoing blockades and lack of security.


The Manipur state’s policies have widened the schisms between the Meitei and tribal communities. The conflict is now perceived by both groups as a struggle for survival, with each community seeking to emphasize its victimhood.


What sets the current wave of violence apart from previous insurgencies is its communal character. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has a history of exploiting communal differences for political gains across the country. With the BJP at the helm in Manipur, hundreds of Kuki churches and Meitei temples have been destroyed.


While the Manipur state government has repeatedly called for a return of law and order, it has been part of the problem, not the solution. The Manipur government must no longer exploit ethnic rifts for political gains. This crisis is a humanitarian one that compels the Manipur BJP government to look beyond ethnic identities to promote India's common humanity.

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