Special Commentary

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Special Commentary
India: Violence continues in Manipur

  Bibhu Prasad Routray

Manipur: A brief update

On 13 June, continuing violence in Manipur hit a new high when nine members of a raiding mob were killed by armed civilian village guards at late-night in Imphal East district's Khamenlok village. The death toll in the ethnic violence between the non-tribal Meiteis and the Kuki tribes since 3 May has reached at least 109. Additionally, scores have been injured, and over 50000 have been displaced. A day later, on the evening of 14 June, unidentified people torched the official residence of Nemcha Kipgen, the only female minister in the state cabinet in Imphal city. 

While Khamenlok, a Kuki village, has been the main battleground for the Kuki militants and the Meiteis, ethnic violence has engulfed at least 11 of the state's 16 districts, which continue to witness sporadic clashes, acts of arson, including the burning of houses, and firing. The long-existing schism between the two communities has widened every passing day and has reached a state where it appears completely unbridgeable. Several instances of this trend were visible in the past week. 

Efforts towards Peace

On 9 June, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) formed a 10-member special investigation team (SIT) under a DIG-rank officer to probe six cases related to the Manipur violence referred to it by the state government. On 10 June, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) constituted a 51-member Peace Committee. Headed by the state governor, the Committee is tasked with initiating a dialogue process with the two communities to bring peace to the state. 

However, by 12 June, both Meitei and Kuki civil society organizations, distanced themselves from the above initiative. Meitei organizations have objected to the 'narco terrorism' of the Kukis, whereas the Kuki organizations have opposed the inclusion of Chief Minister N Biren Singh in the Committee. Further, several members—Meiteis and Kukis—have withdrawn, alleging they have been included in the Committee without their consent. It is improbable that the peace committee will be able to deliver anything substantial. The constitution of the Peace Committee demonstrated the Union government's reluctance to play any significant role in bringing peace to the state, apart from providing relief and rushing in security force personnel. 

The MHA primarily wants the BJP-led state government to remain in charge. However, the Chief Minister has lost his credibility among the Kukis. The Kukis and other Meitei political parties consider him biased, making him unsuitable for any initiative to bring order to the state. 

The Kuki clamour for a separate administration continues to grow, inviting calls for retribution from the Meiteis. Nemcha Kipgen, the minister whose official residence was burnt on 14 June, belongs to the ruling BJP party but is among the 10 Kuki Members of the Manipur Legislative Assembly who have raised the demand for a separate administration. In the last few days, hoardings with slogans such as 'Separation is the Solution' and 'Justice precedes Peace' have been erected in the Churachandpur district. 

Three recent trends impinging on peace in Manipur

While the above demands have existed for decades in the state, three trends make the present scenario extremely precarious. First, the ethnic polarisation has placed a stark dividing line between the two communities, transforming them from somewhat reluctant and peaceful cohabitors to revenge-seeking adversaries. According to reports, the Imphal valley has been cleared off Kuki presence, and the Hills have become extremely dangerous places for the few Meiteis who still live there. 

Second, there has been an outright 'ethnicization of politics and civil society activities' in the state. Politicians and leaders of community-based organizations have transmuted into self-seeking torchbearers of their own communities' interests, shunning the language of peace and embracing violence and separatism as justifiable means and goals, respectively. Roadblocks set up by women groups to prevent the movement of security forces and tribal groups to stop the supply of essential items from reaching Imphal Valley are examples of this trend. This has further opened up a vast space for the 'local volunteers'—armed men claiming to be defending their communities—and the dormant militant organizations to step in and use violence to gain legitimacy. The expanded presence of security forces, therefore, has limited utility. 

Third, since 3 May, free-floating weapons and ammunition either looted from or given away by the state police have made the atmosphere, where violence is the norm, extremely dangerous. It is unimaginable anywhere in the country that close to 3000 official weapons with ammunition have continued to remain in the hands of the 'local volunteers' for a month and a half. Despite the appeal made by the Union Home Minister during his visit to the state between 29 May and 1 June and the launch of combing operations by the security forces since 4 June, only one-fourth of the 4000 missing weapons have either been surrendered or recovered.            

On 13 June, about ten Meitei political parties demanded a separate session of the legislative assembly for a detailed discussion on the ongoing turmoil. However, the fact remains that ethnic violence has to stop completely for any peace-making efforts to begin and succeed. At present, that remains an elusive goal. 

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.

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