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As India Votes, Modi Ignores the Violence in Manipur

Why is the Indian Government turning a blind eye to the ‘civil war’ raging in the northeastern state?

People from the Kuki-Zo Tribe community protesting against the violence in Manipur, New Delhi, November 2023. Photo: Zuma Press/Alamy

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While the world focuses on the spectacle of India carrying out its biggest national election – with 960 million Indian citizens eligible to vote out of a population of 1.4 billion – serious unrest continues to haunt the state of Manipur. 

For the last five months, Byline Times has continued to receive detailed weekly updates from frontline activists in the northeastern state.  These catalogue ongoing communal violence between different ethnic and religious groups that is subverting social and political life in the remote region.  Building on the conflict recounted in a previous Byline Times report, this unrest has now been taking place for a year.

The situation highlights a distinct disconnect between the apparent virtues of India as the world’s largest democracy and the ongoing restriction of human rights in the country.

December 2023 witnessed the suspension of 146 members of the Indian Parliament (100 from the Lower House and 46 from the Upper House).  The suspensions were denounced as the “murder of democracy”  by the main opposition party – the Indian National Congress (INC) – and as a way to pass draconian legislation across India.  One of the excluded members, Mahua Moitra, who represents Manipur, has vocally criticised the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) policies as generating a “civil war” in the state.

The size of the population and the accompanying security issues that this raises, mean that voting in the 2024 Indian general election takes place over seven phases from 19 April to 1 June, with counting and the overall result being announced on 4 June.  Voting in Manipur’s two constituencies is to take place in Phases 1 and 2 on 19 April and 26 April.

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Meitei Violence

Unrest and violence among different tribal groups started in May 2023, pitting Hindu Meitei tribals against mainly Christian tribal groups.  These non-Hindu tribal groups include the Kuki, Zomi, Mizo and Chin, which are more widely termed as the Zo people.  Activists maintain that, courtesy of their links to the ruling state ministers and sympathetic police groupings, the Meitei are being aided by official connivance in their carrying out of “ethnic pogroms”.  Zo leaders note their discrimination by state officials and processes of “selective justice”, whereby Zo are presented as “anti-nationals” and are much more likely to be prosecuted.  The Supreme Court’s assertion that Manipur has witnessed a “total breakdown of law and order”, even with 40,000 security personnel on the ground, compounds this favouritism.

Such accusations come in the midst of continuing violence perpetrated by Meitei tribals and well-armed militias, such as the Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun.  Such violence includes lynchings, beheadings, torture, abductions, gang rapes, bomb attacks, mob violence, booby traps, public executions, mutilations, house and bank robberies, vandalism, illegal tax collections, people being burned alive, and the looting and torching of houses and shops.  Villages have also faced attacks by Meitei militias using automatic weapons and mortars.  Often these incidents have been photographed and filmed, before being shared on social media platforms to incite violence and intimidate targeted tribals. 

This unrest has been intensive and systematic over the last 12 months and by October 2023 more than 70,000 people (including 12,000 children) had been displaced.  It has been heightened by periodic internet bans and the use of fake news by Meitei media groups, as well as utilising large protest mobs to demand the removal of non-Meitei public officials.  Meitei militias also continue to steal weapons from both police stations and other militias.  It was alleged in December 2023 that the Meitei had used a drone to drop a looted mortar bomb on a village, and that the Manipur Government had provided drone training.

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Activists also note that the “othering” of the Kuki-Zomi tribals and other groups by the Meitei has persisted.  This process has included being labelled as refugees, illegal immigrants or “narco-terrorists”, or having links with Myanmar or Bangladesh.  Related to these phenomena is the continued religious persecution of the Christian-majority Zo by the Hindu-majority Meitei, which has included the burning of 357 churches since May.  Evidence has also surfaced of Zo graves being desecrated.  Such claims come despite the existence of regional Meitei drug gangs and the increased interception by Indian security forces of armed Meitei militia members infiltrating India across the Myanmar border. 

This discrimination has raised fears that the communal violence aims to force non-Meitei tribals from their land, in order to monopolise oil, gas and mineral reserves (such as uranium and platinum).  The normalization of violence and population displacement accentuates such a threat.  State complicity also plays a role, with Meitei leaders having linkages to big mining corporations eager to exploit such valuable natural commodities.  In some areas, power supplies to non-Meitei villages have been sabotaged, leaving them without power or telecommunications for days.  Elsewhere, non-Meitei villages have been blockaded by militias, preventing the delivery of essential food and commodities. 

Signalling a further escalation, in January 2024, the central Manipur government conceded security control of Imphal to the Arambai Tenggol.  This gave the Meitei militia dominance over security arrangements in Manipur’s capital and – given the militia’s ongoing violence – is an ugly portent for the local non-Meitei population. 

Meitei legislators were reportedly forced to declare allegiance to the Arambai Tenggol.  In the months since the Arambai Tenggol took over, Imphal has seen a rise in armed intimidation, extortion, the illegal occupation of property, and even the use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. 

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A Hindu Majoritarian Program

In response to this mounting and persistent instability and violence, Zo activists have carried out total shutdowns in protest at their discrimination by state authorities.  Other groups are also recasting the anniversary of the day that Manipur joined the Indian Union on 21 September 1949 as now being a “Black Day” of protest.  Additional groups have protested calling for an end to gender-based violence and violence against students.

  Further collectives are demanding the setting up of an independent Zo administration in Manipur.  Coupled with these movements are increasing calls for the Zo areas of Manipur to merge with those in the neighbouring state of Mizoram, especially given the ongoing displacement of the Zo. 

Within this context, the response by the central government in New Delhi continues to be seen as lax and insufficient.  Although the troubles in Manipur are receiving greater national coverage, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has resisted calls to visit the region.  This comes despite the severe economic and social damage being wrought upon its people, as well as the slow Meitei domination of Manipur’s state bureaucracies. 

The 2024 general election may be a factor here, with the BJP seeking to hold the Inner Manipur constituency (that includes the regional capital Imphal) and possibly gain the Outer Manipur constituency, which it lost to the Naga People’s Front by 73,782 votes in 2019.

Moreover, such a blind eye can also potentially be explained by the BJP’s deeper aim to actively assimilate all India’s minorities towards its Hindu majoritarian outlook.  Escalating Meitei-instigated violence against Manipur’s tribal groups certainly – and usefully – fits with such a dynamic and appears to be increasingly successful.  It also strengthens narratives of India’s Hindu population being threatened by non-Hindus.  A BJP victory in the 2024 national elections will only hasten such a forced “harmonisation”, with negative consequences for other non-Hindu groups, regions, and states across India.

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