India struggles with quelling ethnic clashes in Manipur

Fighting between rival tribes over government benefits is threatening to spiral out of control. Indian civil society groups have blamed the BJP government for mismanaging the crisis.

Indian security forces (photo: DW)
Indian security forces (photo: DW)


Since early May, violence in India's northeastern state of Manipur between competing ethnic groups has killed over 130 people, while over 60,000 have been forced to flee their homes.

In a recent spree of violence, churches and temples were damaged or destroyed. Lawmakers have also been attacked.

Two weeks ago, an office belonging to the minister of state for external affairs, RK Ranjan Singh, was vandalized, and his home in the capital, Imphal, was set on fire by a mob.

And last month, Vungzagin Valte, a third-time legislator from Manipur, who is also a government adviser on tribal affairs, was attacked and is recovering from a head injury at a private hospital in Delhi.

What sparked the violence?

The communal violence in Manipur erupted due to disagreements over access to educational, employment and other economic benefits.

The Meitei community, which accounts for over 50% of the state's 3.5 million residents, has demanded that it be recognized as a "scheduled tribe." The constitutionally defined status is a form of affirmative action intended to combat historical structural inequality and discrimination.

India reserves some government jobs, educational opportunities and elected seats for those categorized as "scheduled tribes."

The Meitei — a largely Hindu community — desire the status. The Manipur High Court asked the government to consider the Meitei's demand.

In response, members of the predominately Christian Kuki and Naga tribes launched a protest against the possible extension of their benefits to the Meitei, who they believe are already the dominant community in the state.

The Kuki and Naga account for around 40% of Manipur's population, and currently enjoy the scheduled tribe status, which gives them land-owning rights in the hills and forests that cover around 75% of Manipur.

BJP government response criticized

Manipur's government is run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since the unrest began, hundreds of Indian civil society groups have joined in condemning the violence while urging Modi and the BJP to take action.

"Manipur is burning today in very large part due to the divisive politics played by the BJP. On them lies the onus to stop this ongoing civil war before more lives are lost," said a joint statement issued by the groups.

"Clearly, the role of BJP lies in using force and coercion to entrench its foothold in the state. Pretending to be an ally to both communities is only widening the chasm of historical tensions between them without any effort to facilitate a dialogue towards resolution," it added.

In June, the Indian government established a 51-member peace committee to address the violence in Manipur. However, the committee is proving to be a non-starter, as organizations representing the ethnic groups have said they will not take part.

Its most prominent member, theater personality Ratan Thiyam, has said he would not take part, and told the Indian Express newspaper that his name was placed on the panel without prior consultation.

"There is so much violence and we are yet to hear a word from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. We need political will and political power. So many people are dying even today. Unless the government comes to the picture, the situation will continue to be alarming. I have never seen such a situation," Thiyam said, as reported in Indian media.

Situation spiraling out of control?

Meanwhile in Manipur, both ethnic groups accuse state security forces of choosing sides.

In Manipur's valley country, predominately populated by Meitei, Kukis allege the state government and the police have been abetting Meitei mobs. In turn, Meiteis living in the hill county accuse the central government of going soft on Kuki militants.

Reports have also surfaced that the state police constabularies have provided security for Meitei militant groups to carry out attacks on Kuki villages in the foothills.

Suhas Chakma, director of Rights and Risks Analysis Group, an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, told DW that the BJP government should remove the chief minister of Manipur and deploy the Indian army to control the violence.

"What is essential is there should be serious dialogue for peace-building by appointing a group of non-partisan interlocutors, preferably from the northeastern region. However, no dialogue can be successful unless the modicum of measures to install a trustworthy state government is taken in the first place," added Chakma.

Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Review of Arts and Politics, told DW that the deteriorating situation marks a failure of basic governance.

"The return of normalcy must be the priority and this initiative should begin from the leadership at the very top. Many now talk of an ethnic cleansing happening and this may actually happen if nothing is done," he said.

"This is not the time for 'who started it or who did more damage' finger-pointing. Peace must return," he added.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines