India: How a year of ethnic violence changed Manipur


Manipur is rife with armed factions, and the ongoing violence is fueling further militarisation

MANIPUR: More than 220 people have been killed, scores are missing and approximately 60,000 have been displaced since communal and ethnic violence ripped through India’s northeastern state of Manipur between the majority Meitei and minority Kuki in 2023, according to government officials and civil society groups.

A year after the first violent clashes, tensions between the two communities appear undiminished. Military camps now dot the landscape in a stark reminder of instability and insecurity gripping the region.

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Ordinary people ‘dread’ armed militias

The religious divide is also apparent geographically — the mostly Hindu Meitei, who make up 53 per cent of Manipur’s population, tend to live in the valleys, while the predominantly Christian Kuki, with a 16 per ent population share, live largely in the surrounding hills.

In Manipur, valleys are richer and more prosperous.

“Things are far from normal in Manipur. One thing which was always starkly evident, and has not changed, is the absence of the authority of the state — both the provincial state of Manipur and the Indian state — in this conflict theater, leaving it up to people to fend for themselves,” Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Review of Arts and Politics web journal, told DW.

Phanjoubam has covered the deadly violence closely since the first clashes in May 2023. He is now concerned about the emergence of armed civil militias who pose as defenders of their respective communities.

“This is a grotesque but expected phenomenon which the ordinary people dread and detest, but nonetheless, cannot disown. This is another visage of the immense catastrophe Manipur is faced with today,” he said.

Other Manipur tribes pick up arms

Ethnic clashes continue intermittently in Manipur. Several NGOs and rights activists pointed out that the severe division between the valley and the hills has granted a degree of “respectability” and “popularity” to radical armed groups.

“Youth are armed across the state, not only warring groups, but also tribes that are not Kuki or Meitei groups also arm themselves. Militarisation is gearing up once again in Manipur,” Mary Beth Sanate, secretary of a womens’ rights organisation in Churachandpur, Manipur’s second-largest town and ground zero for the violence, told DW.

“The government has not done anything with regard to peace initiatives or negotiations. It is only engaging in controlling buffer zones and deputing armies,” she said. “There is no talk of peace as of now as lawlessness in the state continues. Worse, no justice has been delivered to victims of violence.”
Fading hope for return to normalcy

Political scientist Bidhan Laishram pointed out that armed factions are nothing new for the restive state.

Many forces have been active in the region, including various separatist groups and troops loyal to New Delhi operating with impunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) — a decades-old law granting the military special powers in “disturbed” areas.

“The recent conflict has added another level to this militarization. It has normalized it. It has become part of everyday consciousness as a necessity, and this is another layer added in the last year,” Laishram told DW.

This rapid militarisation of society, combined with the resurgence of previously dormant armed groups, has led to a complete breakdown of law and order, according to Sophia Rajkumari, the founder of the womens’ advocacy group Eta Northeast Foundation Trust.

“Consequently, this has stymied any hope of a return to normalcy, as development projects and investments that existed before have come to a grinding halt,” Rajkumari told DW.

Youth mobilising ‘to survive’

The Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), a collective of dominant Meitei groups, has been pressing the government for a resolution. Its leaders have grown frustrated with the extended delay in finding a way out of the conflict.

“Instead of fulfilling its responsibility to protect the lives and property of its citizens, the government is resorting to mercenaries to attack its own people. The people of Manipur are trapped in a cycle of hopelessness,” COCOMI spokesperson Khuraijam Athouba told DW.

“Despite this despair, the youth are mobilizing and arming themselves to survive, as the government’s proxy war continues to destroy Manipur’s future under the pretense of national and geopolitical interests,” added Athouba.

Kuki activist wants separate administrations

Janghaolun Haokip of the Kuki Inpi, the traditional governing body of the Kuki tribes, also maintains that the situation in Manipur is volatile.

More than 4,500 weapons were looted from police armories after ethnic violence erupted in the state. Only around 1,800 firearms have been recovered or surrendered since. Haokip would like to see more efforts to recover further weapons.

“The state government under Chief Minister Biren Singh is complicit in the violent and armed aggression against the Kuki, which results in continued hostilities between the two communities,” Haokip told DW.

According to him, the way to end the conflict is to separate the two groups.

“The government can only bring [about] a solution with determined efforts to realize the inevitability of establishing separate administrative units for the Kuki and the Meitei for lasting peace and stability in the region,” Haokip said.

Still no fix for deep ethnic divide

The prolonged conflict has also affected social and economic aspects of daily life.

Prices of essential commodities such as food, fuel, and medicine have fluctuated and increased due to supply-chain disruptions and prevailing uncertainty.

Many individuals have left the region, others have lost their livelihoods and assets. And the impact goes beyond money, as longstanding friendships and social bonds have dissipated in many areas, complicating everyday activities like farming or fishing on the fringes of valleys and hills.

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Rajkumari said the intensity of violence had gone down since the early phases of the conflict, despite sporadic outbursts.

“But no efforts have been made at any level to address the underlying issues,” she added.

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