IPRI Quarterly Forecasts I Triggers, Trends, and Trajectories

Photo Source: AFP
   NIAS Course on Global Politics
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS)
Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore
For any further information or to subscribe to GP alerts send an email to subachandran@nias.res.in

IPRI Quarterly Forecasts I Triggers, Trends, and Trajectories
Return of Violence in Manipur

  Bibhu Prasad Routray

Degeneration is often swift. It took only a few weeks for a somewhat militancy free and peaceful Manipur to lapse into anarchy. It started with a ruling by the Imphal High Court on 27 March asking the state government to favourably recommend to the Central government to accord Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the numerically dominant Meiteis. The Kuki-Zomi tribals, who were already discontent amid a series of steps by the State Government to end the ‘encroachment’ of tribals over reserved and protected forests, organized a Peace-cum-Protest Rally on 3 May in Churchandpur, one of the five hill districts of the state. Thousands attended the Churachandpur rally, which ended peacefully. However, by the evening of that day, acts of vandalism and rumour-mongering started a spate of violence that quickly spread to most of the ten districts of the state. Since then, vast expanses in the state have degenerated into war zones that have claimed 142 lives (till 4 July). Over 54,000 people have been displaced, hundreds have been injured, thousands of houses and hundreds of places of worship have been gutted, and villages have been vacated in a continuing mob-led violence that has no prospect of ending. The ever-present schism between the predominantly Hindu Meiteis and the Kuki-Zomi tribals has been widened so much that the possibility of peace returning to the state in the near term looks highly improbable.

Three prominent factors that triggered the violence can be identified, one of them is historical and the other two are of more recent occurrence.

(i) Manipur or even northeast India. In Manipur, the schism between the fertile and yet geographically miniature valley that is only one-tenth of the state’s territory, and the comparatively vast expanse of the hills that occupy almost 90 per cent has historically played out in various ways. The valley-based Meiteis are constricted by laws that do not allow them to purchase land and settle in the hills. On the other hand, the hill-based tribals feel alienated by the alleged lack of attention from the government that is essentially valley-based and Meitei-dominated. The High Court ruling that seemed to have heightened the insecurities among the tribals served as a spark, but the combustive pile of emotions had been stacked over decades.

(ii) Violence potential: Riots take place frequently all over the country and subside within a few days after the intervention by the authorities. Organised violence fueled by emotions cannot be sustained for long unless the perpetrators have a deep sown potential for indulgence in acts of armed violence. It is here that the prolonged history of insurgency in Manipur assumes relevance. Six decades of insurgency in the state have created and sustained a culture in which organised armed groups, both part of the ceasefire efforts of the state and outside of it, and the civilian vigilante groups not only perceive violence as a legitimate instrument to settle grievances but have inherent capacities to wreak havoc at short notice. The existence of a wide array of groups who kickstarted the mayhem substantiates this assertion.                   

(iii) State as a conflict initiator: Manipur’s Chief Minister’s over-zealous approach to rid the state of drugs and illegal Myanmarese settlers was neither consultative nor did it seek cooperation from various stakeholders, including the tribals and their representatives in the state Legislative Assembly. Much before the rally on 3 May, a number of anti-encroachment drives carried out in the Hills and a series of social media posts by the CM accusing the tribals of sheltering the Myanmarese nationals had resulted in an incident of vandalism in Churachandpur, in the last week of April. Not only did it appear to position the state government against the tribals, but it also aided the mobilization efforts among the tribal community-based organisations.    

In the last three months, the persisting conflict in Manipur has demonstrated three principal trends.

(i) Collapse of state capacity: The first two days of the violence in May claimed nearly 60 lives. The state machinery had been caught completely unaware of the level to which acrimony between the two communities could degenerate. However, violence subsided briefly providing an opportunity to undo the mistakes and launch peace-making initiatives. Very little was done in the intervening period, before violence started again in the last week of May, this time in a much more organized manner. The state administration kept on repeating its charges against the Kuki-Zomi tribals, the tribal insurgent groups and the Myanmarese migrants. The Chief Minister’s position became untenable after all the ten tribal members of the Legislative Assembly, including those belong to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), started demanding a separate administration for the Hills. The escalation of violence, which somewhat coincided with the Union Home Minister’s visit to the state towards the end of May, was visibly aided by the state Chief Minister’s incapacity to govern and take charge of the state of affairs. The reluctance of the Central government to intervene continues to create a curious situation in which a rather debilitated state administration is expected to be the harbinger of order and peace. 

(ii) Rise of Organised Violence: While the first few days of violence had an emotive foundation, the continuing violence since the end of May displays a very worrying trend of being organised. A part of it is to do with the prevailing insecurity in which armed Meitei and Kuki civilian defence committees have taken on the responsibility of protecting their villages. However, on a much broader scale, the violence is now being perpetrated by a mix of armed mobs and suspected insurgent groups of both communities who have attacked the other community with the purpose to kill. Over 4000 weapons were looted by the mobs from police stations and state armoury in the initial days of violence and only 1100 of them have either been recovered till the beginning of July. The rest, including sophisticated assault rifles, are still in the hands of the violent perpetrators. These tools of terror add to the scale of damage. In addition, these boost the potential of the users when pitted against the security force personnel.

(iii) Absence of sane voices: The Home Minister, during his visit to the state, announced the formation of a 51-member peace committee to initiate a process of dialogue. However, the initiative failed to take off after some of the members alleged that they had been included without their consent. On a broader plane, both Meitei and Kuki community-based groups and politicians have hardened their position, legitimizing the ongoing violence and giving credence to the division of the state into two fiercely protected ethnic zones. This is reflected in the women’s group, the Meira Paibis, forcing the Assam Rifles personnel to release 12 apprehended militants belonging to a Meitei insurgent group on 24 June in the Imphal East district. The Meitei groups have accused the AR of bias and demand their replacement. The Kuki organisations, on the other hand, demand the removal of the Chief Minister and the imposition of the President’s rule in the state. Progress towards peace has been stalled by a pervasive sense of impunity by bloodthirsty mobs who seem to be enjoying support from their communities.

In the last four months, with each violent incident, the divide between the Meiteis and the Kuki-Zomis has grown bigger. The focus of the conflict has expanded from the issue of ST status for the Meiteis to an all-out fratricidal war between the two communities.  In view of this, the basic nature of conflict has become more complex, making the possibility of their resolution even more difficult.        

(i) Lingering Conflict: According to official data, majority of the deaths have occurred in the Valley districts. Of the 142 deaths, the valley districts account for 101 fatalities. This data, however, hardly portrays the scale of insecurity that has pervaded the physical spaces of the common civilians. In spite of the ban on the internet and several steps taken to stop rumour-mongering, the state and the central administration have failed to bring the intermittent violence to a close. This has allowed the groups involved to devise more ways to make their strikes more lethal. For instance, commonly available Quadcopter drones are being used by both communities to track down their adversaries. Makeshift bullet-proof vests are being devised to protect the men fighting on the frontline. If not checked, there is every possibility of conflict and violence escalating further.

(ii) Peace abstains: Continuing organised violence precludes the possibility of peace-making in conflict theatres. In the case of Manipur, it appears that every requirement necessary for establishing order has remained absent in the past months. The Chief Minister’s credibility has sunk, which has allowed the security advisor to the governor and the Chief Minister of neighbouring Assam to assume more responsibilities in the security and political spheres. However, these improvisations have not helped either. The fact that the central government has decided to stay aloof, still trusting the capacities of the state administration, continues to push the prospects of peace further away.

Early Warnings:

  • Peace is unlikely to return to the state until the anarchy on the streets and remote locations is brought to a halt.
  • Continuing violence has brought new stakeholders of violence into play, which makes peace-making a far harder task, compared to the previous months.
  • Manipur needs a credible administrator to be in charge of establishing order. This task is less likely to be achieved under the present Chief Minister.     

About the author

Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of Mantraya, Goa. He was formerly a Deputy Director at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India.

Print Bookmark


November 2022 | CWA # 838

Rishma Banerjee

Tracing Europe's droughts