Unending Turmoil

Yearlong ethnic violence between Kukis and Meiteis has deeply divided Manipur

Mohammad Asif Khan

Identity politics has deprived Manipur of people who can speak for the entire state, which now stands deeply and tragically divided, writes Nandita Haksar in her new book, Shooting the Sun. The book examines how Manipur has been torn apart by violence since March 2023, while the government remained silent. The ethnic conflict in Manipur began in early 2023 when the Meitei community's demand for Scheduled Tribe status escalated tensions with the Kuki tribes.

Members of the Kuki tribe protesting

In April 2023, the Manipur High Court ruled in favour of the Meitei community, recommending they be granted Scheduled Tribe status under the Indian Constitution. This status offers special rights and benefits to historically disadvantaged groups. However, the Kuki-Zo communities, residing primarily in the hills, saw this as a threat to their rights and resources. This decision ignited pre-existing tensions, leading to widespread violence between both sides.

Now, after a year of ethnic clashes, tensions in Manipur remain high. While large-scale violence has subsided, smaller conflicts continue to claim lives. Despite assertions that peace has returned, the situation remains volatile and hostile. The conflict’s scars run deep—over 221 lives have been lost, 67,000 families displaced, and there are numerous reports of violence and sexual violence against women. Vigilante groups operate unchecked, with the state effectively divided between armed Meitei groups in the Imphal Valley and insurgent Kuki tribes controlling the hill areas, including the city of Churachandpur.

According to the 2024 Global Report on Internal Displacement by the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the northeast Indian state of Manipur witnessed the highest displacement triggered by conflict and violence in South Asia last year.


State Complicity and Ignorance

Under Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, the state government has been accused of complicity in the ethnic conflict. An internal report by Assam Rifles accessed by Al Jazeera accuses the BJP-led state government of inflaming the conflict with their stance on several issues, creating ‘divisions between communities’. Despite the violence, Singh’s incumbency endured and paradoxically emerged stronger. The charge that a Meitei chief minister acted as an unabashed partisan granted him endless immunity. However, allegations of state complicity persist.

Singh attempted to resign on 1 July 2023. However, his supporters prevented him from going to the governor to tender his resignation. There was high drama outside the chief minister’s residence and Raj Bhavan as reports of his resignation surfaced. Supporters urged Singh not to resign and publicly tore up his resignation letter. Later, Singh tweeted that he had decided not to resign ‘at this crucial juncture.’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi was largely silent on the issue of Manipur. This silence sparked a no-confidence motion against his government in Parliament. During a parliamentary debate, Modi appealed for peace only after opposition lawmakers staged a walkout in frustration. It was Modi’s first statement about the violence in Manipur.

On the international front, the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) have expressed concern over the situation. In October 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights appealed to India to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders. The European Parliament, in a resolution dated 13 July 2023, strongly urged the Indian authorities to take all necessary measures and 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. It also called on authorities to grant unhindered access to the area for journalists and international observers and to end internet shutdowns.


Ethnic Divide Between Security Forces

Conflict in Manipur is intricately linked to the ethnic divide between the state’s police force, dominated by Meiteis, and the Assam Rifles, a central paramilitary force with a significant presence in the region. This ethnic difference has played a role in hindering operations and enabling violence in several ways. The Meitei community largely perceives the Assam Rifles, composed primarily of Nagas, as favouring the Kuki-Zo groups. This perception stems from historical grievances and alleged incidents of the Assam Rifles turning a blind eye to Kuki attacks on Meitei civilians. The lack of trust between the two forces hampers effective communication and collaboration. This disrupts joint operations and investigative efforts, creating gaps that armed groups exploit to carry out attacks. An example of this was the reported filing of an FIR (first information report) by the Manipur Police against Assam Rifles personnel in 2023. The FIR alleged that the Assam Rifles obstructed police movement, allowing Kuki militants to escape.

Alice Ngaipilhing, a social activist from the Kuki community and a member of the Kuki Students' Organisation (KSO), says she does not trust the police service with her and her family’s safety because, “The security forces are completely biased. They did nothing when our villages were attacked. In some cases, they even helped the other side (Meiteis). It is clear that they are not neutral, and their actions have only deepened the ethnic divide.” The ethnic divide between security forces weakens their ability to protect civilians caught in the crossfire. Communities lose faith in both forces, leading to a sense of vulnerability and fuelling the cycle of violence. The displacement of over 60,000 people due to the ongoing conflict highlights the breakdown in security and the inability of the police and Assam Rifles to work together to ensure civilian safety.

The Assam Rifles’ dual role in counterterrorism operations and border security has also created confusion and suspicion. The influx of refugees from Myanmar, predominantly from the Sagaing region with ethnic ties to Kukis, has added another layer of tension to the situation, with the Manipur government questioning the Assam Rifles’ role in border control.


Role of Militant Groups

Various militant groups, including Arambai Tenggol, Meitei Leepun and Kuki armed militants have influenced the conflict in Manipur.

Arambai Tenggol: Meaning ‘dart-wielding cavalry’, Arambai Tenggol started as a cultural outfit in 2020 but soon transformed into a radical organisation. It aims to re-establish the pre-Hindu, native Sanamahi religion among the Meiteis. During the 2023-2024 Manipur violence, members of the Kuki-Zo community blamed it for having carried out deadly attacks against them. The organisation demonstrated its influence by summoning all the elected Meitei legislators of the state for a meeting to deliberate on the defence of Meiteis in the prevailing conflict. In February 2024, members of Arambai Tenggol were involved in the abduction and assault of two Manipur Police personnel.

“Groups like Arambai Tenggol and other Meitei outfits played a crucial role in preparing for and inciting violence. They were not just passive observers but active participants in creating a volatile atmosphere that led to widespread unrest and conflict,” Alice Ngaipilhing says.

In May 2023, Arambai Tenggol was seen organising blockades on the roads leading to hill districts and then leading the mobs in Imphal city once the violence started. The organisation has been accused of murder, attacks on security forces, extortion and arson. In another incident, two members of Arambai Tenggol were arrested for allegedly abducting and assaulting four personnel of the Manipur Police from the state’s Kangpokpi district in Imphal East.

Meitei Leepun: This is another organisation committed to preserving Meitei culture and tradition. The organisation is linked with Hindutva outfits like Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It has been accused of being involved in attacks on Kuki villages and areas in the ongoing clashes between Meiteis and Kukis in Manipur. In November 2023, Meitei Leepun’s chief, Pramod Singh, and his driver were attacked by unidentified gunmen near a hospital in Manipur’s West Imphal district. Both of them escaped unhurt.

Kuki Militants: Nearly 32 Kuki insurgent groups operate in Manipur, 25 of which are subject to a tripartite suspension of operations (SoO) agreement with the government of India and Manipur. These groups were accused of instigating and perpetuating the violence in Manipur. In May 2023, alleged Kuki militants carrying sophisticated weapons set fire to many houses in the Serou and Sugunu area. As many as 12 people were injured in the clashes between militants and security officers. In June 2023, at least 40 armed militants suspected to be from Kuki militant groups were killed in a massive crackdown by state police and security forces. In another incident, two individuals, believed to be Kuki militants, lost their lives in a gunfight in Manipur’s Imphal East district.

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