Manipur: No healing, no rest, no hope

Five months after violence broke out in Manipur, ongoing divisions have dragged the state into what many experts have described as a civil war — and both sides are losing faith

Army troops try to hold barricades to keep combative factions apart and try to curb violence across hill and valley districts. Over 50,000 have had to flee Manipur despite the efforts (photo: Anuwar Hazarika/NurPhoto/picture alliance/DW)
Army troops try to hold barricades to keep combative factions apart and try to curb violence across hill and valley districts. Over 50,000 have had to flee Manipur despite the efforts (photo: Anuwar Hazarika/NurPhoto/picture alliance/DW)

NH Digital

Sectarian violence in Manipur, a north-eastern state in India, has claimed over 175 lives and injured more than 1,000 since a conflict between the majority Meiteis and minority Kuki tribes began in May. Thousands have been displaced as well.

The mostly Hindu Meiteis live in Manipur's more prosperous Imphal Valley, while the Kukis, many of them Christian or following older tribal practices, live mostly in the surrounding hills.

The initial clashes were triggered by the Meiteis' demand to be granted scheduled tribe (ST) status, which would give them rights to the land within the hill regions which are allocated for use by the ST peoples, as well as reservation in education and employment — affirmative actions shared by by the Kuki communities with other tribes in the region, including the Nagas.

The government has rushed tens of thousands of additional security forces to Manipur, but sporadic violence continues.

Fault lines grow deeper

Fighting between the two main ethnic groups has escalated since May, with civil society groups blaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for mismanaging the crisis.

"We are living on edge. Every day begins and ends with despair and there seems to be no solution in sight," Lunpi Khongsai, a Kuki youth told DW.

Many Meiteis seem frustrated by the ongoing cycle of violence as well, criticising the political regime for not standing up for its citizens. 

"Chief minister (N.) Biren Singh should go. He is not able to bring peace and restore the dignity and pride of the people. People's patience with Singh seems to be running thin," Paonam Suresh, a Meitei youth leader told DW.

Notably, many amongst the Kuki side accuse Biren Singh of being 'the Meiteis' chief minister', even as several Kuki MLAs from his own party have stayed away from the negotiating table with him at the head, fearing for their own safety. It is significant, then, for him to lose his support amongst the Meitei faction too.

Meiteis infuriated by pictures of 'murdered' students

Manipur police last month issued a confirmation that two Meitei students who had gone missing in July had been killed. Images of the youths, 17-year-old Hijam Linthoingambi and 20-year-old Phijam Hemjit, were circulated online, triggering an outcry.

Their families and Meitei community leaders alleged that Kuki militants had killed them, while criticising authorities for not putting a halt to the violence. A federal inquiry into the killings is underway. 

The country's second-longest internet blackout — which stretched for over 143 days — was partially and conditionally lifted in some parts of the state last month, but was reimposed after Manipur after the news of the slain students broke.

Apar Gupta, founder director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, who has been monitoring the conflict, suggested that we have not seen the last of the violent images from Manipur, because they reflect a deep-seated social discord and a breakdown in public trust.

"Cycles do not stop by themselves. To end, they require political leadership, not the continued use of 'limited internet shutdowns' in Manipur," Gupta told DW.

In an effort to ease tensions, buffer zones have been set up between the Meitei and Kuki communities.

Manipur remains under India's Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants special powers to troops in areas classified as 'disturbed', for a further six months — with the exception of areas that fall under the jurisdiction of 19 police stations across the Imphal Valley, where the Army's powers remain limited.

Can the government heal the divisions?

The home of the BJP state president, Shardi Devi, has been targeted several times since the beginning of the conflict.

"I have been working tirelessly since May 3, but in my 30 years of political experience, I have never seen this kind of aggression and hostility towards a party which is running the government," Devi told reporters.

Some Kuki members, including lawmakers from the community who have been calling for the creation of a separate administration for the districts in which the tribal communities are a majority, do not see any resolution to the conflict anytime soon.

This sentiment was echoed by Janghaolun Haokip, secretary of the Kuki Inpi, a collective of the Kuki tribes.

"Five months into the violence, people are facing extreme difficulty now," Haokip told DW.

"All cards are now with the central government. How long will the people suffer before the government can bring an end to this ethnic strife?" he asked

Human Rights Watch has accused the Manipur authorities of facilitating the conflict with 'divisive policies that promote Hindu majoritarianism'. The organisation has said the government needed to be trusted by all sides in order for it to successfully play an 'impartial role as mediator' to heal the divisions. 

The Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), a collective of the dominant Meitei group, which has been pressing the government for a resolution, is also irritated by the inordinate delay in finding a way out of the imbroglio.

COCOMI spokesperson Khuraijam Athouba, who has highlighted the involvement of mercenaries and drug traffickers in the Manipur conflict, believes that New Delhi is not acting on its assurances.

"What is required at present to bring solution to the violence is a strong and spirited state government which puts pressure on New Delhi more. We are getting confused signals and there is a need to bring an end to the violence," Athouba told DW.

With inputs from DW

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