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Manipur Violence: Why Doesn't the Violence Stop Here?

Manipur Violence: It's been over three months since violence swept the border state of Manipur. Besides the display of perfunctoriness, the government has failed to prevent the virtual division of the state.

By Sanjay Kapoor
New Update

Manipur violence
An image of a car burning during violence | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement 

Manipur Violence: Now, there are merely a dozen odd Kukis that have remained in the capital city of Imphal, where more than 6 lakh people belonging to different ethnicities—Meitei, Kuki, Nagas, and others—lived happily together before May 3, 2023. This was just before trouble broke out on that fateful evening nearly 3 months ago and has continued ever since. No one really believes that the differences between the majority Meitei and Kuki would spin out of control after the local High Court recommended Scheduled Tribe status for the Meitei. 

Following the Manipur violence, the state and its capital, Imphal, witnessed a transfer of population to safer areas. The violent incidents also broke the hearts of many of those kindred souls who lived with their friends from other communities. Thousands of couples involved in mixed marriages suddenly didn't know where to turn. Many of them were relocated to relief camps after their homes and establishments were torched. Within a few days, the state was irreparably partitioned.

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About 180 people have been killed, and women, on both sides, violated. A particularly gruesome video of a large crowd of people parading two women naked surfaced many months after the incident had taken place, compelling even Prime Minister Modi — who hadn't uttered a word about the Manipur violence — to express his outrage. There are many egregious incidents that haven't come to light yet due to an internet ban, but the truth is that if there was no army, then the world might be staring at a genocide that would overshadow many other dark events.

However, Manipur is now a picture of division and hate. Checkpoints manned by soldiers with their weapons and armoured vehicles blocking roads have ring-fenced Imphal and other towns. Not far from these checkpoints are groups of women belonging to the Meitei community - Meira Paibi. Similarly, women's groups associated with the Kuki tribe also monitor those they consider hostile to their interests. The Kukis have reason to worry. Over the past few weeks, irate mobs have destroyed their homes, hearths, and farm implements. Similarly, Meitei homes were destroyed on the road to Churachandpur. The Meiteis want to retaliate more against the Kukis, but they have been restrained by the Assam Rifles (AR) that patrol the buffer zone and, by their mandate, protect the Kukis. Meira Paibi accuses them of supporting the Kukis, which leads to them being labelled with every conceivable pejorative description—"illegal immigrants," "narco-terrorists," and the like."

The interesting bit is that in this highly divided society, the only people who enjoy acceptance by both sides are the Muslims called Pangals. Expectedly, all the taxi drivers are Pangals, who display courage in these hard times to ferry journalists and other outsiders to both sides. That's a different matter that many of them, at times, are reluctant to speak in the Kuki part of the country, as they do not want the edgy vigilantes of the minority community to mistake their accents for those of a Meitei and lynch them. This is understandable as passions run high in Kuki strongholds like Churachandpur and Kangpokpi, where thousands of their women, on every alternate day, attired in black clothes, grieve over the mock coffins. Their deceased loved ones, still awaiting burial, lie in the mortuaries. The hatred for each other now runs so deep that they would kill if they encounter anyone from the other side. Perfectly rational people on the other side, too, have succumbed to this atmosphere of hate. Organised suffering now binds these communities. It's truly tragic, as history will bear witness that both communities never really fought against each other. On the contrary, they fought alongside each other during the Second World War against a common enemy. What really went wrong?

Read More: Manipur Horror: When Government’s Media Strategy Failed

Besides the series of incremental steps that the state administration has taken to appease the majority community, which is also Hindu, it has quietly built a narrative around the proselytising activities of the Church. The Meiteis accuse the Kukis of being involved with poppy peddlers who use the earnings from the drug trade to push for a separate Kuki land. Ever since the conflict intensified between the two sides, this demand for Kuki land has become more visible in the Meitei media—when it should be on other platforms. For the record, the total poppy business amounts to Rs. 50,000 crores, while the state budget of Manipur is just about Rs. 37,000 crores. Expectedly, there are allegations that a group of politicians are involved in a business where Kukis, Nagas, and Meiteis all cultivate poppy.

There is a backstory of how the differences between the two sides were accentuated by the Kukis' search for greatness from the pages of history that does not find corroboration with the Meitei or with the state government. From 2017-2019, the Kukis began to celebrate a hundred years of their resistance to British rule in India when their King had refused to allow the British army to recruit some 2,000 of their tribesmen for the First World War. The Kukis claimed valour and buttressed their martial credentials in this resistance against the British in the Anglo-Kuki war. The Meiteis vehemently dispute this version, and they managed to prevail upon the government of the day to stop the commemoration of the event by setting up monoliths outside Kuki villages. On May 3, during the Tribal Student Unity march, some "miscreants" came in a Bolero and tried to set fire to the monolith. Only those who know about the significance of this act can comprehend its implications. The Kukis were enraged, believing this was an attempt not just to take over their land but also to whitewash their history.

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Neither the state government nor the centre has covered itself in glory in handling the Manipur violence. The handling of this crisis appears deliberately shoddy, as those in power seem uncertain about how the situation will unfold. Local people—both Meitei and Kuki—claim that the crisis could have been resolved if the government was genuinely keen. The disturbing truth is that the differences were allowed to perpetuate and fester far longer than anyone would have anticipated. This has resulted in ambivalence in how the armed forces respond to the unfolding crisis.

And then there are dark rumours, not just of the opium lobby influencing politics but also of corporate houses showing interest in a state that shares its border and the taint of drugs with Myanmar. They seem to be preparing for the time when the Indo-China border trade would be normalised. Until now, the Manipur violence has remained confined to the state's borders, but considering the restive history of the region, things could spiral out of control in the rest of the seven sisters of the Northeast.


Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine. He is a Member of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and, until recently, served as the General Secretary of EGI.

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