Ethnic conflict is ongoing in Manipur in north-east India
mANIPUR IS A the state of fertile valleys and fertile green hills on the border with Myanmar in north-east India, and home to some 3m people. For the past two months it has also been the site of an unprecedented deadly flare-up in one of Asia’s longest-running ethnic conflicts. Although violence is currently decreasing, it seems that there is not much political will to resolve the underlying conflict, which could boil over again at any time.
The violence pits the state’s majority Hindu Meitei community against its hill tribes, especially Christian Kukis. The Meitei, who dominate the valley, including their capital, Imphal, have long claimed that Kukis have been unfairly honored by their tribal status. The Kukis are resisting requests from the Meitei to be included in the state’s list of “scheduled tribes”, which would increase their access to government jobs allocated by tribal quotas, and allow them to settle in tribal areas. Kukis fear that this would further strengthen Meitei’s economic dominance and endanger their own livelihoods.
More than 130 people have been killed and hundreds more injured in mob attacks and clashes with security forces since the violence escalated after a protest march on May 3, organized by a union of tribal students against include the Meitei in this list. Hundreds of homes and churches were burned and members of both communities living in mixed areas were forced to flee, with as many as 60,000 displaced. The process of ethnic cleansing is largely complete, say people living in the state.
This increase was preceded by months of simmering conflict where the state government has not been a neutral party. Its chief minister is Biren Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party nationally, which is Meitei. The government accuses Kukis of peddling drugs and harboring illegal immigrants. Under the guise of protecting forest land, he had been stopping evictions in tribal villages in recent months.
Recently the violence has decreased, both due to a heavier and better managed central government security presence and due to disruption from heavy monsoon rains. Residents both in the main town and on the hills report that they are calm and relaxed. The central government has deployed the army to protect a buffer zone between tribal areas and the valley; most of the state has been without internet service since early May.
The conflict remains unresolved. A peace committee that was convened by the central government earlier this month was still born when leaders from both sides declared that their members were not suitable and refused to engage with it. Kuki leaders have revived old demands for broad political autonomy before agreeing to talks, a position Mr Singh has rejected.
It seems that the prime minister himself is in an increasingly shaky ground. After briefing home minister Amit Shah in Delhi over the weekend, Mr Singh told reporters the situation was “very chaotic” and “We cannot say what is happening now. ” But he also seems to be trying to project a sense of anti-regularity. On Tuesday he ordered government workers to return to their posts or face a cut in their salaries, which largely depends on those who have been sacked. They are afraid to return to their homes, many of which have been destroyed anyway. “How can we go back if we can’t be sure that the government will protect us?” asking Benjamin Mate, Kuki and BJP politician, who fled from Imphal in May.
With state authorities seen as weak and vulnerable, leaders from both sides hope the central government can broker a deal. But despite a four-day visit to the state last month by Mr Shah, there are few signs of what such a political solution would look like, beyond a promise from the central government to maintain security in areas tribal Renewed violence remains a threat. Vigilante gangs still control thousands of weapons looted from the state police arsenal.
At the same time, displacement is turning into a humanitarian disaster. Relief camps across Manipur are filling up with people returning to the state after exhausting the patience of their relatives. One resident of Churachandpur, a tribal area in the south, says that around 16,000 people are currently in the local camps in terrible, unsanitary conditions made worse by heavy rains. Fever and diarrhea are widespread; markets are still closed and medicine and food are running low, as relief goods promised by the state government have not yet arrived in the area. If agreement remains elusive, displacement may be more lethal than violence. ■