Manufacturing ethnic segregation and conflict: A report on the violence in Manipur

First published at CPI(ML) Liberation.

On May 3rd of this year, a violent conflict broke out between two ethnic communities, the Meiteis and the Kukis, in the north-eastern state of Manipur. Since then, the conflict has left over 175 persons dead, thousands injured, and over 60,000 persons displaced and residing in relief camps across the valley and hills of Manipur.

An early internet ban in the State, partisan media coverage and lack of accountability and information from the government meant that people outside the State were left with no credible sense of events unfolding on ground in Manipur. As violence raged in Manipur with no political solution in sight, CPI(ML) Liberation constituted a Team of 8 persons consisting of CPI(ML)Liberation leaders, representatives of All India Progressive Women's Association (AIPWA) and All India Lawyers Association for Justice (AILAJ), and an independent feminist activist, who visited Manipur from 10th to 14th August, 2023. The objective was twofold: to understand the prevailing socio-political situation in the State, and to meet and extend solidarity and goodwill to the impacted people in Manipur.

The Team visited various affected areas in the valley districts of Imphal and Bishnupur, and the hill districts of Kangpokpi and Churachandpur. The Team met persons from all walks of life in Manipur including victims of the violence residing in relief camps, representatives of civil society organisations, prominent political leaders, legal professionals, media professionals, retired bureaucrats, a senior police official and Smt. Anusuiya Uikey, the Governor of Manipur. The Team also visited Guwahati and met displaced Kukis who had fled from Manipur following the breakout of violence.

This Report is the Team's endeavour to present to the larger public, the grave situation persisting in Manipur, with the hope that they will join their voices to demand for justice in the conflict-ridden state.

1. The violence has taken a substantially higher toll on the Kuki population in the State, in terms of the deaths, injuries, displacement and loss of properties, which the Kukis believe, reflects their subjugated position in Manipur's polity. Kukis point out to decades of discrimination they have suffered at the hands of the Meitei-dominated State, and the under-development of the hill regions, which they and other Tribals primarily inhabit. They juxtapose their situation to that of the valley, where the Meiteis reside, which has seen massive development and growth in infrastructure in the last several years. The Kukis believe that they are being demonised by the State and the Meitei community for no reason other than to capture their traditional lands and rich natural resources in the hills. They claim that the three planks of this demonisation of the Kuki community rests on the false narrative pushed by the Biren Singh government of the Kukis being illegal immigrants, forest encroachers and poppy cultivators. The Kuki community strongly believe they have a natural claim over the hills by virtue of being its original inhabitants, confirmed by their status as heroes who fought the British. There is anger that despite having such a rich legacy, they have been short-changed since Indian independence. As far as the violence on 3rd May, and its aftermath is concerned, the Kukis say that while the all-Tribal rally in different hill areas against attempts to grant Scheduled Tribes (ST) status to Meiteis was peaceful, there was a conscious attempt to trigger violence by torching the Anglo-Kuki war memorial gate at the entrance of Churachandpur by Meitei chauvinist groups. Most Kukis believe that the attacks on them were pre-planned and orchestrated by the Arambai Tenggol and the Meitei Leepun with full support of the state government, and came at a time when the Union government was days away from declaring 6th Schedule status to the hill areas of Manipur. They believe that the pre-planned targeted manner in which barbaric violence of this scale that they faced, as also the loot and destruction of their properties and religious places, is nothing short of a state-sponsored ethnic cleansing.

2. On the other hand, Meiteis too have suffered deaths, displacement and destruction of properties and a dozen religious places. The State’s narrative, echoed by most Meiteis, is that while the immediate trigger for the conflict was the High Court order recommending that the State consider extending Scheduled Tribe status to Meiteis, the larger reason behind the conflict, is the  Kuki backlash to the State government’s clamp down on illegal infiltration of Kukis from Myanmar, the attempts to stop illegal forest encroachments by Kukis and the war waged on  drugs by the State government targeting Kuki poppy cultivators. Underlying this narrative of the conflict, is the strong belief that Meiteis are original inhabitants of Manipur, while the Kukis are late-comers. They believe that the violence was entirely orchestrated by the Kuki community and SoO militant organisations. They argue that the violence on 3rd May was started by the Kukis, who, in the name of the protest march against the High Court order and granting of ST status to Meiteis, attacked government offices at first, and then after staging the arson at the Anglo-Kuki War Centenary Gate at Leisang Village, went about vandalising, burning and attacking the homes of Meiteis in numerous villages in Bishnupur, Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, Moreh, etc. This enraged the Meitei community, which thirsting for revenge began to spontaneously retaliate against the Kukis in Meitei dominated areas. They also believe that the illegal infiltrator Chin-Kuki militants are at the forefront of the attack on the Meiteis, and that they are heavily armed, and that the Kukis are engaged in continued heinous killings of Meiteis, arson and destruction of Meitei homes and religious places compelling retaliatory violence from outraged Meitei mobs.

3. Analysing the stark geographical, economic, and ethnic differences between hill and valley regions is crucial to understand the ongoing conflict. The disparity in development between the hills and valley, is a serious socio-economic-political issue in Manipur. This has been accentuated by the lopsided and valley-centric policies of the BJP government. For instance while the state projects a war on drugs, there are reports of the state's complicity in promoting the drug cartel. In addition to these elements, are the underlying economic factors including control over land, and unlocking of precious mineral potential in the Hills which have animated the conflict.
4. The battle in Manipur is being fought not simply over competing ethnic claims to Manipur, but also over the production of historical “truth”. The recent spate of violence is nothing but a manifestation of struggles over claims to autochthony and belonging. It is apparent that the current BJP regime, by deploying its basic formula of divisiveness, has opportunistically taken advantage of historical differences to further its political ambitions and entrench its communal agenda in Manipur's society and polity.

5. The situation in Manipur today, is of complete ethnic segregation of the two communities, Kukis and Meiteis. There are no Kukis left in the Valley and similarly no Meiteis in the Hills. The Imphal valley and the Hills today stand divided by a "border". There are bunkers on either side of the "border" manned by armed squads from the two communities, while the state security forces are stationed in between to man the border. An undeclared blockade by Meitei organisations, has been enforced to prevent the movement of relief material, medical supplies and essential supp­lies to the hills by the Government agencies and armed forces. This blockade is adversely impacting thousands of conflict-displaced Kukis in the relief camps in the hill districts. Indeed, the Kukis living in the villages and towns in the Hills too are suffering the devastating impact of this blockade. The Kukis, on the other hand, have periodically blockaded the national highways that restrict supplies to the valley, and impact the mobility of Meiteis out of the Valley. The blocking of the highways leaves a flight out of Imphal as the only way to leave Manipur.  

6. The broader ethnic segregation witnessed in the region between the hill and valley also plays out in relief camps. The camps in the Hills were either run by local civil society organisations, NGOs, churches or on support from local politicians with little or no State support. Most have poor infrastructure, are overcrowded, have poor living conditions, lack proper sanitation, have limited access to medical supplies and personnel, and are unable to provide proper nutrition to displaced Kukis living in the camps. The relief camps in the valley are run by local clubs, CSOs and philanthropic organisations, with varying levels of state support and have their own share of problems including overcrowding, lack of infrastructure and livelihood insecurity. Access to medical services is also in a much better situation given the proximity to the vast medical infrastructure in the valley. However, attention has to be paid to the nutrition deficit in the diet in the relief camps and to the needs of children, senior citizens and the infirm. It is a matter of grave concern that the situation persists even three months after the outbreak of the violence.

7. It is noteworthy that the Government has facilitated the admission of Meitei displaced students into schools and colleges in the vicinity of the relief camps thereby ensuring continuing of their education. In stark contrast, the education of the Kuki students both in the relief camps and in the hills is under serious crisis and immediate steps need to be taken to ensure that their education is resumed.

8. Furthermore, the economic destitution caused by the violence and displacement has resulted in serious impoverishment and financial insecurity for the Kuki displaced persons. The displaced Meiteis in the relief camps in the Valley too are facing a livelihood crisis and are trying to find work around the camps. It is helpful that the local clubs and philanthropic organisations have started livelihood training programmes to Meitei displaced persons in some of the relief camps.

9. Across camps in both the hills and the valley, displaced persons residing at relief camps are overcome by overwhelming grief of having lost their homes and livelihoods. People shared with the Team poignant stories of fleeing from violence, hiding in the forests and the arduous journeys they undertook to reach the relief camps. Almost all conversations ended with people sharing their fear and uncertainty about what the future holds for them.

10. As far as a political solution is concerned, the Kukis have taken a clear stand that separate administration is the only way out. Their demand is for Union Territory (UT) status with an elected legislature to be given to the Kuki-dominated hill districts. On the other hand, the Meitei community demand the withdrawal of Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreement with the Kuki militant groups, protection of territorial integrity of Manipur and strict action against forest encroachments, Kuki militancy and poppy cultivation as a precondition for any dialogue.

11. Beyond the intense division and hatred that the present conflict has created between the two communities, is the unanimous view that the Government, be it the Centre or the State, stands to blame for this conflict.  Indeed, the BJP, with Modi at the Centre and Biren Singh in Manipur, have overseen the complete decimation of Manipur's social fabric resulting in entire communities being totally ethnically segregated into distinct parts of a State.

12. If the ongoing conflict is evidence enough that Chief Minister Biren Singh has proven thoroughly incompetent and reluctant to put an end to the violence, then the prioritisation of foreign visits over a visit to Manipur by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his conscious silence, reveals grave apathy towards the people's suffering in Manipur. The twin-BJP governments at the State and Centre, are squarely to blame for the current situation in Manipur and are trying to escape accountability for the situation, by fanning hatred between the two communities. Divide and rule is the clear policy; twin-BJP governments have orchestrated an ethnic divide, which they will communally exploit. The Chief Minister of Manipur himself has fanned the otherising narrative against Kukis by legitimising war-mongering terminologies such as ‘illegal infiltrator’. Rather than governing Manipur based on constitutional principles of unity of people, the BJP-led government did what it is best at, that is to widen existing fault lines in a society and feed a chauvinistic narrative.

13. The resolution of this crisis ought to be considered within the broader context of restoration of peace in the state, and fixation of accountability on the twin-BJP governments. Accountability must start from the top, and Chief Minister Biren Singh, who has not only overseen but has fed into the polarising narrative that culminated in such unprecedented violence and segregation must resign. This government has no legitimacy whatsoever to continue.

14. Peace is possible on the basis of justice and reconciliation. For any political solution to emerge, restoration of peace and normalcy is a must and the first step in this direction is the fixing of accountability on the BJP government in Manipur. Further, it is in the interests of all that further hostilities are ceased, to ensure that the suffering masses in the relief camps can be properly taken care of, and the dead lying in the mortuaries are given a dignified burial, as a gesture of moving forward from the conflict and towards a resolution to the present impasse.

Download a PDF of the report by clicking here.