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What’s behind the violence that has displaced 60,000 in India’s Manipur?

‘I stood there helpless, as my own home, my relatives’ homes, and my church were being razed down to ashes.’

This is a picture taken from a low angle of two women who are holding candles and a paper that reads "India wants peace for Manipur". They are attending a candlelight protest over sexual assault case of two Kuki community women, during ongoing ethnic clashes between Meitei-Kuki community in Manipur, organised by Trinamool Mahila Congress, on July 28, 2023 in Guwahati, India. David Talukdar/NurPhoto
Activists held a candlelight protest in July in the Indian city of Guwahati calling for peace in the far northeastern state of Manipur after a viral video of two women being sexually assaulted drew attention to the ongoing conflict in the state.

A months-long conflict between two ethnic groups has roiled the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, leading to one of the most serious humanitarian crises the country has witnessed in recent decades.

The violence between the Kuki and Meitei communities has now killed more than 187 people and displaced some 60,000 people in Manipur, a state of 3.3 million.

A video that went viral in July – of two Kuki women being stripped naked, paraded, groped, and allegedly gang-raped by a mob of Meitei men – fuelled further unrest and spurred outrage across India and beyond. But academics and activists believe this was just one of many such incidents – including “revenge” rape attacks after false accounts of Kuki raping Meitei women – that have been going on for months.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had largely been silent on Manipur until the video surfaced. On 20 July, he condemned the incident. “What happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven,” he said. “[The] entire country has been shamed.”

The unrest erupted on 3 May after a High Court order directed the state government to grant “Scheduled Tribe” status to the Meitei, who make up about 53% of the population of Manipur. The status offers Indigenous communities who have suffered historical disadvantage – like the Kuki – affirmative action through opportunities in education, jobs, electoral posts, and land rights. 

Meiteis have been seeking this recognition for a decade because they believe they lost their Indigenous status at the end of British rule in 1947. Manipur land laws confer protected status to the hill areas – the majority of the state – making it illegal for Meiteis to buy land there.

“We are essentially demanding the restoration of our tribal status,’’ Keithellakpam Bhogendrajit, general secretary of the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur, set up in November 2022 to advocate for Meitei rights, told The Indian Express. 

“We occupy only 8% of Manipur’s land despite being the dominant community,” Bhogendrajit said. “Anybody from outside can come here, buy land, and settle down. But we can’t even go to the hills, which is a part of our state, and buy land there. We want equal status.” 

A region divided by geography, and religion

This is a map that shows India. New Delhi is marked with a locator dot. The state of Manipur is highlighted in pink.

The Kuki people, mostly Christians who comprise about 25% of Manipur’s population, reside in the hill areas and perceive the new tribal status for largely Hindu Meiteis as a threat to their survival. They fear that Meiteis, who have better political representation and higher incomes, will purchase land and settle in Kuki-dominated areas in the hills. 

But the conflict isn’t just about the tribal status issue. It stems from several other factors, such as the longer-term perception of Kukis as outsiders, the government’s anti-drug programme, as well as religious divides.

Kukis dispute claims they aren’t Indigenous to the area as they largely migrated from present-day Myanmar during the first half of the 19th century, saying Meiteis and others try to discredit their land rights and status in Manipur by saying they were “planted” there by the British.

The state shares a porous border with Myanmar and has been a hotspot of illegal drug trafficking. Since 2017, Modi’s BJP government, through its “war on drugs” has destroyed poppy fields in the hills, causing many Kukis to lose their livelihoods. 

The conflict also includes religiously motivated rather than ethnically motivated attacks, according to Archbishop Dominic Lumon of Imphal. In a 15 June report, Lumon cited 249 Meitei churches that were burnt down in the initial 36 hours of the unrest. But during the first three days, the Kukis were fleeing and could not have destroyed Meitei churches, the report said: “In the midst of this orchestrated propaganda, subtle attacks on Christianity seem to have found a clean and unsuspecting space.” 

New Delhi deployed 40,000 soldiers on 4 May, but the violence continued. The government also shut down internet access in Manipur, making reliable information inaccessible for people both inside and outside the state. 

Displaced people from both communities are taking shelter in about 350 relief camps, run mostly by civil society and community-based organisations.

Fleeing bullets and flames 

Residents watch on from above as their village of Bongbal Khollen burns. (Hengah Kipgen/TNH)

Hengah Kipgen, a Kuki farmer, has been living in one of the relief camps for the past three months. She remembers relatives calling on the night of 3 May, warning her that Kuki villages were being burnt down. 

By the following afternoon, Kamuching, only two kilometres from Kipgen’s village, was in flames.

“When we saw Kamuching burn, we knew our village was next,” Kipgen, 41, told The New Humanitarian. 

Within two days, a group of men entered her village, Bongbal Khollen, and opened fire with machine guns.

“The firing went on incessantly for 40 minutes,” Kipgen said. “We gave up and moved away because we did not have any weapons to defend ourselves.” 

When the firing ceased, Kipgen said men on motorbikes and in all-terrain vehicles carrying cans of petrol entered the village, stole any possessions of value, and then set their homes on fire.

“I stood there helpless, as my own home, my relatives’ homes, and my church were being razed down to ashes,” she said. “All I could do was cry.” 

About 95 homes in Bongbal Khollen were destroyed by groups she claims were supported by the state police. Homeless and fearing for their lives, all 300 residents of the village escaped into the nearby forests and spent the night in hiding.

“We had to be as quiet as possible; the slightest noise could get us killed. At night, when our dogs started barking, we had to kill them to ensure our survival,” Kipgen said in tears.

Escape through the mountains

Residents of Bongbal Khollen take to remote mountain paths to escape the violence. (Hengah Kipgen/TNH)

The people of Bongbal Khollen sought refuge in other villages hundreds of kilometres away. But since their own village was surrounded by Meitei villages, they couldn’t take the shortest and most obvious route out, for fear of attack.

“We decided to go through the mountains so that no one would spot us.” Kipgen told The New Humanitarian, saying 288 were in the group. After a two-day journey traversing 70 kilometres through dense forests and thorny, dangerous paths, the exhausted villagers reached a Naga village called Itham Tangkhul. The Nagas are another hill people native to northeastern India and northwestern Myanmar.

“We had not eaten for days. There were women carrying crying infants,” she said. “A woman even delivered a baby boy along the way. We named him Thanggalkai, ‘the man who wins the war’.”

A civil society organisation sent five trucks to transport the villagers to safety, and on the morning of 8 May, after a three-hour drive, they reached the Keithelmanbi government high school, which has been converted into a relief camp. More than 250 people have since taken shelter in the 10 classrooms, living in cramped and unhygienic conditions. 

“Fifty of us use one bathroom – you can imagine the situation,” Kipgen said. Emergency supplies are being provided by civil society organisations, and the villagers take turns cooking food for the camp. 

‘Every community is troubled’

Residents return to find their village of Bongbal Khollen reduced to ash and debris. (Hengah Kipgen/TNH)

Rehman, a middle-aged Muslim man who runs a computer science institute in the Imphal Valley, a predominantly Meitei area, told The New Humanitarian that the entire state has become like a war zone.

“Every community in Manipur is troubled,” said Rehman, who used a pseudonym for security reasons. He recalled how he had to stop classes on 3 August because “hundreds of armed men” were firing away nearby.

Due to the day-long curfews, he says he can barely run classes any more. The internet shutdown has made it difficult to communicate with the more than 500 students enrolled in the institute. 

“For over three months now, no Kuki student has come to class,” he said. “They have all run away to the hills because if they are seen anywhere in this vicinity, they will be killed.” 

While the violence has triggered a political storm, the government has been accused of being mostly absent from relief operations.

“It’s the community looking after itself in very very dire circumstances,” Harsh Mander, a peace activist who visited the Manipur relief camps, told The Wire, an Indian nonprofit news service, adding that the church was also playing a key role. 

The chief minister of the state, N. Biren Singh, a Meitei who belongs to the ruling BJP, has blamed the unrest on illegal migrants and drug smugglers. He has faced pressure to resign. 

After his July remarks on the video of the two Kuki women being paraded naked, Modi did not address the unrest in Manipur until 10 August when he faced a no-confidence motion in parliament.

“The entire nation stands with the people of Manipur,” Modi then said during an Independence Day event on 15 August at the Red Fort. “The people of Manipur have maintained peace in the past few days, and they should continue to foster that peace, as it is the path to resolution.” 

However, Modi’s rivals in the Congress Party note that the BJP runs the Manipur state government and say his nationalistic policies are to blame for the troubles.

"Manipur has been torn in half; the wounds inflicted will take years to heal,” Rahul Gandhi, a Congress MP and grandson of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, said in public remarks earlier this month. “For me, it is a lesson on what happens when you use politics of division, hatred, anger." 

Both the Kuki and Meitei communities have been sharing similar stories of pain and loss, but the violence has deepened their historical divisions. The trust needed for reconciliation – both in each other and the state – looks a long way from being restored.

“How can we coexist with people who are constantly attacking us and want us to be annihilated?” said Kipgen. “All we want from the government now is a separate administration.”

Edited by Ali M. Latifi and Tom Brady.

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