Indian authorities are struggling to quell an ethnic conflict in the northeastern state of Manipur that activists say has killed more than 100 people and displaced more than 50,000 as analysts warned the unrest could destabilize the already unstable border region.
Violence erupted last month between the ethnic Meitei people who live in the valley around the capital Imphal, who make up more than half of Manipur’s population of about 3 million, and Kukis and Nagas, hill-dwelling tribal communities, over fears of demographic displacement and the protection of minority privileges.
Manipur, meaning “the land of gems” in Sanskrit, has long been torn by ethnic strife and was drawn into a wider uprising in the northeast for liberation that has been raging since India’s independence.
But unlike previous outbreaks that saw insurgents take on New Delhi, the current clashes mainly involve civilians, who have looted thousands of police weapons, including assault rifles and ammunition, local media reported, citing unnamed official sources. Last week, two women and a child were burned alive in an ambulance by a mob on the outskirts of Imphal, an atrocity that shocked Indians.
New Delhi set up a committee this weekend to encourage inter-community peace talks, but the process has failed to get off the ground. A local police official in the state said on Wednesday that at least nine people were killed in a shootout the previous day, Reuters reported. Security forces have been deployed to maintain order.
The violence has prompted hundreds of Manipur residents to seek refuge across the border in Myanmar’s Chin state, itself ravaged by conflict between rebel groups and the forces of General Min Aung Hlaing’s military junta. Journalists have faced restrictions on reporting from Manipur and there has been an internet outage for over a month.
The conflict in Manipur has a sectarian background: most Meiteis are Hindu, while Kukis are predominantly Christian. According to local religious and civil society groups, about 250 churches were destroyed in the fighting.
The state government’s campaign to eradicate poppy cultivation in protected forests and drug trafficking in the hilly border region have also fueled local grievances, as have tensions over immigration into the northeast from Bangladesh and Myanmar – an emotional issue that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has raised. strengthened on the national stage.
But analysts and local residents said the conflict primarily concerned land privileges and other rights reserved for tribal groups, which date back to the British colonial era.
The latest clashes erupted on May 3, after Kukis and Nagas organized a rally to protest a court order to speed up plans to extend “scheduled tribe” status to Meiteis. The designation would provide affirmative action benefits currently reserved for tribal groups and would entitle Meiteis, who live in low-lying lands, to live in hill regions.
Khuraijam Athouba, a Meiti and social activist, said the conflict was a “struggle to correct the demographic imbalance in the hills caused by illegal immigrants from across the border”.
Kukis have accused the state government, controlled by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, of siding with the Meiteis, but have encouraged the central government to step in to restore order.
“This is state-sponsored violence,” said George Guite, who heads a non-governmental organization advocating for Kukis’ rights, adding that peace can only be achieved if New Delhi sacks the local government and takes direct control of Manipur would take over.
“The Meiteis control everything, including the police commandos,” he said.
Ahead of next year’s national elections, the opposition Indian National Congress has used the conflict to attack Modi.
“It is now more than 40 days and the prime minister has not even mumbled a word,” said Pradip Phanjoubam, an ethnic Meiti and editor of the Imphal Review of Arts and Politics.
“There was a train accident and he rushed there and made all kinds of optics but nothing about Manipur,” he added, referring to a clash early this month that killed at least 275 people and injured hundreds more.
Amit Shah, India’s interior minister and a top Modi deputy, visited the state late last month and issued a call for peace. India has deployed about 40,000 security forces in Manipur and is trying to impose buffer zones between the plains and the mountains.
But Guite, the Kuki activist, downplayed the prospects for reconciliation. “We can’t just start living together as before, even if there is peace,” he said.