Manipur violence deepens distrust between communities

Lawmakers in Manipur, a northeastern state in India, rocked in recent months by ethnic violence, gathered for a special session of the state legislature on Tuesday, DW reports.

The meeting lasted just an hour, as a war of words erupted between ruling party and opposition legislators over the tense and volatile situation in the state. Speaker Thokchom Satyabrata Singh adjourned the session indefinitely.

The brief session was slammed by the opposition Congress party. “This is a mockery. Let us save democracy, let us save the constitution,” said Ibobi Singh, party leader and former chief minister.

What’s the situation in the state?

Armed clashes between two of Manipur’s three major ethnic groups, the mostly Hindu Meiteis and largely Christian Kukis, first broke out in May.

The state has since fractured along ethnic lines, and at least 152 people have been killed in the violence and tens of thousands displaced. Rival militias have set up blockades in some areas to keep out members of the opposing community.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s federal government has deployed tens of thousands of additional soldiers from elsewhere to patrol towns and highways. Authorities have also imposed and a curfew and internet shutdown.

Rights groups have accused the state government, led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of not doing enough to stop the violence.

They also allege that the BJP’s policies promoting “Hindu majoritarianism” have contributed to the problem.

Kukis call for a separate administration

Some Kuki members, including lawmakers from the community, are now calling for the creation of a “separate administration” for the districts where they’re in a majority.

“The physical population of the Kukis has been transferred to the hill areas and we no longer have any connection with the [Imphal] valley people,” Ajang Khongsai, president of Kuki Inpi Manipur, the apex body of the Kuki people, told DW.

“Under such circumstances, what do you expect us to do but ask for a separate administration under the guidance of the central government?”

The 10 Kuki legislators in the 60-member assembly, including seven from the ruling BJP, refused to attend the assembly session on Tuesday. They had earlier announced their decision to skip the session, saying the “Imphal Valley has become a valley of death and destruction for the Kuki people.”

Imphal, the state capital, is dominated by the Meitei people.

“How can we attend the session in the prevailing situation? Who will ensure our security when we travel to Imphal?” a senior Kuki MLA from the BJP, who asked not to be named, told DW.

He cited the example of Vungzagin Valte, a BJP legislator and former tribal affairs minister who was brutally assaulted by a mob in Imphal in May.

“The government’s silence and inaction to bring about normalcy is a sign that the ongoing chaos is advantageous to the BJP,” he added.

India’s Manipur conflict fuels demands for separate state

Ginza Vualzong, spokesperson for Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum, a tribal organization in Manipur, shares a similar view about the security situation.

“Just a fortnight back, three Kuki villagers were gunned down by unidentified gunmen. What all this proves is the insincere government efforts to restore normalcy in the state,” he said.

What sparked the violence?

The fighting erupted due to disagreements over access to educational, employment and other economic benefits.

The Meitei community, which accounts for over 50% of the state’s 3.5 million residents, has demanded that it be recognized as a “scheduled tribe.”

The constitutionally defined status is a form of affirmative action intended to combat historical structural inequality and discrimination.

India reserves some government jobs, college places and elected seats for those categorized as “scheduled tribes.”

While the Meitei want the status, others like the Naga and the Kuki tribes have opposed this classification.

The latter two tribes account for around 40% of the state’s population, and currently enjoy the scheduled tribe status, which gives them land-owning rights in the hills and forests that cover around 75% of Manipur.

What’s driving the conflict in Manipur?

The state’s High Court asked the government to consider the Meitei’s demand and set a deadline of mid-May.

In response, the Naga and the Kuki tribes launched a protest against the possible extension of their benefits to the Meitei, who they believe are already the dominant community in the state.

They argue that granting the Meitei more privileges would be unfair.

Amid the sharp ethnic tensions, Paotinthang Lupheng, president of the All-Tribal Students Union Manipur, stressed the need for the government to come up with a comprehensive strategy to tackle the deepening distrust between the two communities.

“The violence will worsen if the government is unable to come up with a holistic policy framework that would engage all groups, and not just the Meitei majority.”

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