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State Complicity and Ethnic Cleansing in India

Evidence that the Manipur state government is stoking tribal and religious conflict in northeast India has accelerated separatist demands

Women participate in a candlelight vigil in Imphal to honour lives lost in ongoing ethnic clashes in Manipur, India. Photo: Ahanthem Bishworjit Meitei/Alamy

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Although continuing to receive minimal attention globally, the security situation in Manipur in the northeast fringe of India continues to disintegrate.  Activist documents received by the Byline Times depict a region that is beset by inter-tribal conflict.  Some political observers regard it as an act of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing led by Hindu tribal groups against minority Christian ones, implicity aided by the state government.  

In a speech in the Indian Parliament in August, Mahua Moitra – an MP from the region, stated that Manipur now exists “in an atmosphere of civil war, of ethnic violence that has rarely been seen in India in the past decades … this is a tacitly approved hate crime”. 

She also criticised the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who believes that the Manipur situation is not serious – for telling any dissenters to “raho chup” (keep quiet).  The current Chief Minister of Manipur is from Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Taking Sides

Fighting between tribal groups in the region began in early May, pitting Hindu Meitei tribals against predominantly Christian Kuki and other tribal groups, such as the Zo.  This violence was seen as having been initiated by the Meitei who are from the Valley districts and are attacking these other tribals who are in the Hill areas. 

Making the situation more serious, the Manipur Police Commandos have openly sided with the Meitei, precipitating confrontations with India’s Central security forces (such as the Assam Rifles).  Over 40,000 Central security forces have been deployed in Manipur since the violence began.

Within this mix, observers have noted the total collapse of law and order in the Valley districts with armed men from banned Meitei terrorist groups attacking civilians and ransacking homes and businesses.  Some of these groups – such as the separatist Universal Friendship Organisation (UFO), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Arambai Tenggol – have crossed into India from Myanmar via its porous and unfenced border.

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Other long dormant – and officially banned – groupings are also becoming more active.  Many of them use extortion, illicit taxation, drug smuggling and trafficking to finance their activities, including the purchase of guns, ammunition, mortars, explosives and rocket launchers.  The production of opium across Manipur is another source of their revenue.  The Meitei have also either looted or been given weapons by the Manipur Police Commandos and have been seen wearing police uniforms when attacking Zo tribal areas.  

Besides this apparent complicity with state power apparatuses, the orchestration of Meitei violence has led to allegations of ethnic cleansing against the Kuki and Zo.  Underpinning this are narratives from Meitei leaders and intellectuals that these tribes are “outsiders” who came to settle in Manipur.  Such claims – even though inaccurate – rationalise the current displacement of over 60,000 Zo (over 2% of Manipur’s population) into relief camps, where there is a scarcity of food, mass unemployment and a ban on internet access from May to late September.  Observers also note the risk of disease outbreaks such as measles, chicken pox, dengue and Japanese encephalitis.  

Violence from the Meitei has involved shootings, abductions, extortion, sexual attacks, and arson.  Houses, properties, schools and churches of other ethnic tribes have also been vandalised, ransacked, torched and illegally occupied.  By mid-September, over 350 churches, 4,550 houses and 257 settlements had been burned.  In some cases, tribal localities have been renamed with Meitei names.  Legal advocates representing Zo individuals have also been intimidated and forced to withdraw from judicial cases.  

Although mainly ethnic in nature, attacks on churches highlight an anti-Christian animosity within the current conflict, especially the predominantly Christian Kuki.  Notably, the Muslim Pangal population in Manipur, although adopting the Meitei language and socially integrating with the Meitei majority, have also been attacked.  This population were the target of the anti-Pangal riots in 1993 that left over 130 dead and were led by the Meitei.  These attacks by Hindu Meitei echo wider anti-Christian and anti-Muslim sentiments present within the BJP and underscore a blending of political views.

Further reinforcing divisions, and again pointing to state complicity, more than 2,000 government employees across government departments – both the Meitei and the Zo – have been forcibly transferred to other districts, formalising demographic splits.  Senior Zo police and military officers have also been replaced by those from the Meitei tribe.  The Editors Guild of India (EGI) has also noted the widespread biased reportage by Meitei news media, and the open proliferation of misinformation by Meitei propagandists.  


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Separatist Demands

In response to this situation, United Nations experts from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have raised concerns about serious human rights violations and abuses in Manipur.  The experts pointed to an “inadequate humanitarian response” to the conflict and highlighted crimes of sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, destruction of homes, forced displacement, torture and ill-treatment towards the Kuki.  

British MP Jim Shannon also stated in the House of Commons in late September that the Manipur violence was a “silent attack on Christians in India” that has received little attention from the UK government.  Such a response is common across Western powers which are preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, and now Israel, need India to balance against China and did not wish to publicly derail India’s Presidency Meeting of the G20 in September.  

Meanwhile, in an ever-worsening security situation in Manipur, the Kuki and Zo ethnic tribes are increasingly unified.  One sign of this has been calls from the Kuki National Assembly to establish a Separate Administration that pulls together the various Zo ethnic tribes (mainly the Zomi, Kuki, Mizo and Hmar).  Although some efforts have been made to recover weapons taken from police stations, the sense that Meitei violence is still being condoned by the Manipur state government has accelerated these separatist demands.  Such open schisms but also nascent political and ethnic unions could precipitate civil war.

Despite the establishment of a buffer zone between Zo and Meitei territory, the lack of concerted action by the Indian government further emboldens such a course.  Although India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, visited Manipur for three days in late May this had little meaningful impact on the situation.  In addition, the Union Home Ministry set up a Commission of Inquiry in early September, but it will be completed in six months.  

Such an inquiry is of little succour to those in Manipur affected by daily ethnic violence.  It may also signify a longer-term response by the Indian government that is unconcerned by violence propagated by majority Hindu groups against India’s minorities.  The deeper concern now is that New Delhi’s near silence and apparent inertia on Manipur may spark ethnic violence in other parts of India’s northeast where other tribal tensions are present.

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