Manipur state, located in the northeastern corner of India, has been embroiled in a conflict since May 2023, which has now escalated into a humanitarian crisis. In this background article we look at the causes of the violence and the economic and political factors that are driving it.
Anti-Kuki graffiti in Manipur. csi
The situation in Manipur, characterized by almost daily violent incidents primarily affecting the Kuki-Zo Christian community, represents a complex interplay of historical grievances, insurgencies, ethnic tensions and political dynamics. An overview of these elements of the conflict is crucial for anyone looking to form an informed opinion on it.
The scale of displacement and destruction is also staggering. Nearly 41,000 individuals have had to flee their homes. And over 7,000 Kuki-Zo homes and more than 350 churches have been razed. Compounding the horror are reports of the gang-rape of an unknown number of Kuki-Zo girls and women.
Additionally, in the district of Churachandpur alone, which is currently hosting about 21,000 displaced people, more than 80 displaced individuals have died due to a shortage of medicines and specialized doctors.
While most goods and medicines used to be transported from the Imphal Valley, only about 60 kilometers from Churachandpur. However, that road has been closed since the onset of the violence. The only remaining route is from Aizawl, the capital of the neighboring state of Mizoram, more than 330 kilometers away on hilly terrain. This has created a major shortage of goods and medicines, leading to an unprecedented level of inflation.
Manipur, which borders Myanmar and the Indian states of Mizoram, Nagaland and Assam, is home to three main ethnic groups. The largest group is the Meiteis, who are predominantly Hindu.
There are also two predominantly Christian communities, the Kuki-Zo and Naga peoples. The Meiteis inhabit the Imphal Valley, the state’s political and economic heartland. The Kuki-Zos and Nagas reside in the hill districts. The Nagas account for about 20-30 percent of the population, while the Kuki-Zos make up 15-25 percent.
The Kuki-Zo people of Manipur, the Mizo people of Mizoram, and the Chin people of Myanmar belong to a larger ethnolinguistic family. They are often collectively referred to as the Zo people. These linguistic similarities foster a sense of kinship and mutual understanding that transcends international state borders.
The majority of Kukis, Mizos, and Chins adhere to Christianity, a faith that plays a significant role in their cultural and community life. This shared religious identity further cements their bond, often manifesting in joint religious gatherings and cultural exchanges. Culturally, these communities have similar traditional practices, folklore, dances and attire.
This pan-Zo identity also plays a crucial role in their collective response to political and social issues affecting their communities, including the ongoing conflict in Manipur.
The Meiteis, who account for about 56 percent of Manipur’s population, mass converted from their indigenous traditions to Hinduism in the early 18th century. Like Kuki-Zo and Naga tribes, the Meiteis are also of Tibeto-Burman origin.
Despite some similarities, the Meiteis are distinct from the Kuki-Zo and Naga peoples in terms of cultural practices and traditions.
Importantly, the Meiteis do not hold an official tribal status in India. This status, typically designated for certain indigenous communities, is intended for affirmative action purposes, addressing social and economic disparities and preserving distinct cultural identities. Only peoples with tribal status are allowed to own land in Manipur’s hill country.
Manipur was once an independent kingdom, headed by Meitei kings and with Hinduism as the state religion. In this era, the valley-dwelling Meiteis and the hill-residing Kukis experienced periods of both conflict and cooperation.
The British colonial era brought significant changes, with administrative and land revenue systems which disrupted established land ownership patterns and social hierarchies.
In 1949, Manipur was incorporated into India, two years after India became independent from British rule. The merger was met with resistance, leading to the formation of Meitei insurgent groups. The Meiteis, driven by a sense of cultural distinctness, sought independence or greater autonomy from the Indian Union.
The Kuki-Zos, on the other hand, felt marginalized within the state of Manipur, as Meiteis dominated the state’s political and economic life. Kuki-Zo insurgent groups aspired for a separate state or administrative unit within the Indian Union, to safeguard their tribal identity and rights.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the Meitei insurgency reaching its peak. During these decades, the Indian government implemented strict security measures, including the deployment of the army and paramilitary forces, and the controversial application of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which grants security forces special powers in “disturbed areas.”
As a result of these security operations, many Meitei insurgent groups fled to Myanmar and established their bases there. The other Meitei insurgent groups gradually lost relevance in the eyes of the local populace. The Kuki-Zo and Naga insurgent groups signed “Suspension of Operation” pacts with the Union government, pending discussions on a political solution.
However, the spate of violence which started on May 3 revived the insurgency, and the banned Meitei insurgent groups returned from Myanmar. The Meitei civilian population was quick to lend their support to these armed groups, which they now saw as necessary in the conflict.
A critical yet often overlooked aspect of the conflict is the economic interests in the resource-rich Kuki-Zo areas. Their abundant natural resources include significant deposits of oil. This wealth has not gone unnoticed by successive state and national governments, which have shown a keen interest in these lands.
This interest notably intensified following the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power in Manipur in 2017. Subsequently, the government endeavored to revise forest land legislation and reportedly displaced several Kuki-Zo families from their ancestral homes.
There is a growing concern among the Kuki community that the government’s intentions extend beyond mere administrative control and veer towards economic exploitation. Major corporations, eyeing lucrative contracts for the extraction of these natural resources, are believed to be in close consultation with government officials.
While it is a battle for cultural preservation and political rights for the Kuki-Zo people, for the government, it is about gaining control over vital economic resources.
The ongoing violence in Manipur appears to be a targeted campaign rather than a mere clash of ethnicities. It was triggered by a Manipur High Court directive instructing the Meitei-dominated state government to consider extending special benefits and quotas to the Meiteis. This move, potentially enabling the majority community to buy land in Kuki-Zo territories, inflamed tensions.
A peaceful rally by the tribal community on May 3, 2023, to protest the court order led to a minor clash. That evening, unfounded accusations that some Meiteis had been murdered or raped by Kuki-Zos spread rapidly in the Meitei community. Meitei extremist groups, mostly the Arambai Tenggol and the Meitei Leepun, allegedly helped to spread this disinformation on social media and messaging apps, manufacturing grounds for the violence to come.
Many Meiteis already believed that all Kuki-Zo are illegal immigrants from Myanmar and blamed them for drug trafficking in the state, calling them “narco-terrorists.” While it may be true that poppy cultivation is prevalent in Kuki-Zo areas, it is also believed that Meitei drug dealers buy poppy from Kuki-Zo farmers.
Local media outlets have been accused of biased reporting, skewing facts to favor the Meitei perspective. Meanwhile, editors who have reported on the violence have faced legal action from the state government.
The state police, dominated by the Meiteis, have been accused of allowing, and even participating in, the violence against the Kuki-Zos. Three days after the violence began, the Indian government deployed military forces to the region, which have largely sought to quell violence professionally and impartially.
According to state government estimates, around 5,600 weapons and 650,000 rounds of ammunition were looted, mostly by the Meiteis, to attack the Kuki-Zo people. As of mid-January 2024, only 1,500 arms and 20,000 rounds of ammunition had been recovered.
Meiteis have also been killed in the conflict, but primarily as they ventured into Kuki-Zo villages bordering Meitei areas to launch attacks, allegedly with the support of Manipur police and other state forces.
These Meitei individuals met resistance from Kuki-Zo “village volunteers,” armed young people defending their communities in Churachandpur and other Kuki-Zo areas in Manipur.
The state government, led by the BJP Chief Minister Biren Singh, is predominantly Meitei. The Indian federal government, also led by the BJP, has been criticized for not exerting enough pressure on the state government to prevent the violence.
Initially, the Indian government seemed to overlook the state government’s complicity in the violence. However, it later appeared to exert pressure on the state authorities. Yet, it found its influence limited due to Singh’s substantial popularity and support among the Meiteis in Manipur.
The situation has potentially escalated beyond the Indian government’s control. Any action against Singh risks significant resistance from Meitei civilians. This leaves the Indian government with a stark choice: either maintain the status quo or intervene through a military operation, which could result in high civilian casualties.
However, just like the national government, Singh also appears to be losing control of the situation. Insurgent groups, cultural extremist groups and civilians have begun to view him as a “weak” chief minister unable to “teach a lesson” to the Kuki-Zo people.
Meanwhile, the violence has persisted for over eight months. Both the Kuki-Zo and Meitei communities anticipate that it could take around two years for the situation to normalize.
The situation requires a nuanced approach to conflict resolution, one that acknowledges the diverse perspectives and grievances of all communities involved.
As Manipur navigates this turbulent period, the role of the state and central governments, along with security forces, will be pivotal in steering the region towards peace and stability. If all the key players were to entirely lose control over the situation, this would lead to an unimaginable man-made catastrophe.