The roots of Manipur’s multifaceted conflict
The violence in the northeastern state of India is rooted in intertwined factors: ethnicity, access to weapons, refugees from Myanmar, the drug trade, the role of women. Journalist Samrat Choudhury, author of a recent book on Northeast India, spoke to AsiaNews about it, noting that contrary to what was said initially, this is not a religious conflict, and that it is hard to see a peaceful resolution in the future.
Milan (AsiaNews) – Even burying the people killed during recent sectarian clashes in India’s north-eastern state of Manipur has become another source of tensions between Kuki and Meitei communities, sparking fears of more violence.
A site has been proposed for the dead in a buffer zone between the Meitei-dominated district of Bishnupur and Churachandpur, a district where ethnic Kuki live.
The Manipur High Court issued an order yesterday, upholding the status quo, which leaves the situation unsolved after three months of unrest, with the Indian army keeping the two local groups geographically apart.
Inter-ethnic violence broke out on 3 May after a petition was forwarded to the central government to grant the Meitei Scheduled Tribe Status, entitling its members to government subsidies and quotas in education and public administration originally meant for disadvantaged groups.
While initially seen as an interreligious conflict between predominantly Christian Kuki and the mostly Hindu Meitei, the violence is the result of various elements. Ethnicity, access to weapons, the influx of refugees from Myanmar, and the drug trade play an important role.
Crucially, women have come to play a major role after a video dated 4 May was posted on line, showing a group of Meitei men sexually abusing a Kuki woman and her daughter.
For journalist Samrat Choudhury, the current situation is also rooted in divisions during and after British rule.
"The British exercised indirect control in some regions of India,” explains the author of Northeast India. A political history. At the time, South Asia was “divided into princely states, including Manipur”.
“The Manipur Kingdom’s beginning is dated to AD 33. It came under indirect British rule in 1891, and Maharaja Bodhchandra Singh signed the Instrument of Accession joining India in 1947. Powers over all subjects except defence, foreign affairs and communications remained with the king of Manipur by this agreement,” Choudhury explained.
However, "After Independence, in 1949, the king, who had initially signed the agreement to maintain the autonomous kingdom, was summoned to Shillong, and his principality merged with the rest of Indian territory".
Manipur, the “Jewel of India” as India’s first Prime Minister Nehru later defined it, became part of the Union. But it had to wait until 1972 before it could become a full-fledged state.
Since then, India’s Northeast, a small territorial periphery with dozens of tribes, followed a different historical path from the rest of the country.
"In the 1960s, political unrest began because Manipur did not have a state assembly or an elected government. Concessions were made, but by now the most extremist groups had lost faith in the Indian government,” Choudhury noted.
“This gave rise to armed groups inspired by the struggle for independence in neighbouring Nagaland,” often of Maoist inspiration, festering for decades until the early 2000s, and leading to its “militarisation, with the ever-present Indian army basically imposing martial law and enforcing curfews."
One factor that came to play an important role is Manipur’s geography, pitting the hilly areas to the south, home to the Kuki and other indigenous groups, like the Naga, against the Imphal Valley, home to the Meitei, who are more than half of the state’s population.
"The original territories of the kingdom included the valley and only later did the maharajas extend their dominion to the hills. But hill villages were typically ruled by tribal chiefs and traditional institutions."
This is important because today the Meitei consider themselves the only true heir to the princely state, attacking the Kuki as "illegal migrants" or "drug traffickers".
Migration has occurred from Myanmar, where a brutal civil war broke out more than two years, complicating the situation, because the refugees – mostly ethnic Chin who found refuge in neighbouring Mizoram – are ethnically similar to the Kuki. “For this reason, there have been tensions since 2021," Choudhury said.
The accusation that only the Kuki are involved in drug trafficking is incorrect. “There is certainly an intense cross-border movement, but all ethnic groups are involved in the drug trade; money has no community," he added.
"The main drug traffickers are concentrated in urban centres, while in the hills, mainly farmers and refugees do whatever to survive. In many cases, local politicians or the police are involved in trafficking."
Both Kuki and Naga communities who inhabit the hills are almost all Christians," but Meitei are largely Hindu. “The violence broke out over a community issue because it concerns the allocation of resources by the state," Choudhury said.
Although government support for disadvantaged tribes is similar to affirmative action “for Hispanic or African-American communities in the United States”, the proposal to include Meiteis in the list of such tribes was the last straw.
What is more, the central government – which is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu ultranationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the same party that rules the state – has done very little politically to stop the violence.
"It is hard to predict what might happen now. Manipur’s ethnic groups are present in other states and violence could spill over, involving other tribal groups, or a similar conflict could break out in other parts of India’s Northeast.”
At present, Indian security forces have been deployed but some are taking sides, while groups of women are disrupting their operations. Women are indeed very active.
Twice before, women in Manipur rose up in what came to be known as the “Women’s War” (Nupi Lan) during the colonial period, in 1904 against the conscription of men for compulsory labour, and in 1939, against large-scale export of rice resulting in famine-like conditions.
More recently, Meira Paibis (women torch bearers), a women-led, Meitei-based human rights organisation has emerged to fight human rights violations, alcohol and drug abuse and other social ills.
In the current crisis, the group is playing a leading role; according to some, they are inciting men to violence (including sexual) against ethnic Kuki, who are traditionally associated with guns; "for this reason, the Kuki have never been afraid of armed clashes"
What is certain is that the recent clashes that have shaken Manipur will make it hard and more complicated to re-establish peaceful intercommunal coexistence, which will require major political actions by political leaders.
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