Fahad Ali describes the mounting problems for BJP government
Manipur violence and Modi – The problems confronting Narendra Modi are mounting by the day just as Indian national elections are approaching. Modi is known for keeping his nerves during crises but the Armageddon-like situation that has developed in the eastern state of Manipur has the potential of rattling nerves of even the most strong-nerved. A long stretch of a highway in the foothills of Manipur has become a battleground of sectarian conflict claiming over 180 people since May and severely dented the strongman image of Modi. The bitter fighting between the Meitei community and the Kuki tribals has lasted for almost three months, a deep embarrassment for Modi as he prepares to host a summit of G20 leaders in September. The two communities have lived tensely in the past but violence erupted in early May after the state high court ordered the government to consider extending economic benefits reserved for the Kuki tribals to the Meiteis. The ethnic tensions in the small state are seen as a security and political failure by Modi’s government which will face a national election by May next year.
Many analysts lay the blame of this law and order breakdown at the doorsteps of Modi and consider it as his failure at a time of grave national crisis. They point out that Modi lives in a bubble of his own and does not like to be associated with bad news and somehow hopes he will ride it out. There is plenty of truth in these observations because Modi prefers himself to be portrayed as a harbinger of victory and progress and shies away when challenged as happened in case of the farmer’s crisis earlier. His attitude smacks that of a pied piper who only leads irrespective of what happens in wake of his self-serving forward march. Ironically, it was Modi’s tough image that won Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) more seats in the state enabling it to form government but now both the major communities have expressed disappointment about his handling of the crisis. India’s parliament has authorised a no-confidence vote against Narendra Modi’s government by an alliance of opposition parties, to force the prime minister to address in detail concerns about ethnic clashes in Manipur.
Manipur is one of seven states in India’s Northeast region, often referred to as the seven sisters which are connected to the rest of the country by a narrow strip of land that skirts Nepal and Bangladesh.The region, which consists of a mosaic of ethnicities, languages and cultures, many of them tribal, is home to some of India’s oldest separatist insurgencies. Many of these erupted soon after independence in 1947, partly as a result of the administrative chaos in 1947. The ongoing conflict has pitted the Meitei, who make up 53 per cent of the state’s 2.85 million population but occupy only 10 per cent of its land, against the Kuki and 33 other tribes, which constitute about 30 per cent of the population and are geographically more spread out in the poorer hill areas. The conflict stems from decades of contest over land and natural resources, fuelling deep-seated resentment among both the Meiteis and Kukis. Though the Kukis are mostly Christian and the Meitei mostly Hinduthe violence has occurred over ethnic rather than religious divides.
The Meiteis appear to have been the more aggressive side and as Manipur’s largest community, they enjoy immense social, political and economic advantages, not least dominating the state government and therefore its police force, which gives them an upper hand in the conflict. The Meitei also enjoy certain benefits on account of being recognised as a socially and economically backward classand a tiny segment of them as a Scheduled Caste. But they have been demanding the tribal status instead, arguing that it is necessary to preserve the community and save its heritage. The Kuki have long been recognised as a Scheduled Tribe under Indian law, an affirmative action measure that assures tribal community members access to state-run educational institutions, government jobs and safeguards such as the exclusive right to buy and own land in the state’s recognised tribal areas. The Kuki, however, argue that the more numerous Meitei are already privileged. The minority fears that if the Meitei get Scheduled Tribe status, they will not only corner the reserved government jobs but also start acquiring land in the hills, displacing Kukis and other tribal communities.
The court verdict resulted in street protests that spiralled into armed conflict and now rival gunmen have dug into bunkers and outposts along the highway and in other places in Manipur and regularly fire at each other with assault weapons, sniper rifles and pistols. The violence broke out in Churachandpur, a town just south of the state capital Imphal, on 3 May, following a Kuki-led tribal solidarity march in ten of the state’s sixteen districts. As the Meitei organised counter-protests and blockades, clashes spread across Manipur. Women were part of some of the mobs. In some cases, they blocked soldiers trying to intervene in order to shield Meitei men conducting attacks. Thousands have been injured and more than 60,000 displaced in the violence; more than 12,000 have fled to the neighbouring Mizoram state. Hundreds of houses, places of worship and vehicles have been vandalised, and thousands of weapons stolen from government armouries. Arson and other attacks continue unabated. Numerous serious cases of sexual violence by Meitei men, militias and militants against Kuki women have also been reported, and all available evidence points to the widespread use of sexual violence as part of the ethnic conflict. The Meitei-dominated state police are seen as partisan while army troops have been ordered to keep the peace but not to disarm fighters. There is no sign of any early resolution.
During the course of the conflict, the Kukis, who are a third of the Meitei population, have borne a disproportionate brunt of the violence and make up two-thirds of the victims. They have mostly fled to the hills, leaving the capital Imphal and the surrounding valley, areas dominated by the majority Meiteis. Much of the violence and killings have taken place in buffer zones near Manipur’s foothills where intense gun battles erupt regularly. Modi’s first comments on the violence in Manipur came over two months after the trouble started in early May. He promised tough action a day after videos that purported to show two Kuki women being paraded naked and assaulted by a crowd went viral and drew international condemnation. Modi’s BJP also heads the state government in Manipur. The opposition is likely to ask why he is persisting with support to Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh, a Meitei who heads the BJP state government. Keeping in view their growing isolation, the Kukisnow want a separate state within India.
International concern about the Manipur violence has been muted so far, though on 13 July the European Parliament passed a resolution asking the Indian government to take all necessary measures and make the utmost effort to promptly halt the ongoing ethnic and religious violence. The resolution also asked the government to end the internet shutdown and to grant unhindered access to journalists and international observers. The Weekender