India: A Democracy on papers fails to Deliver in Manipur

The northeastern Indian state of Manipur is currently experiencing violent inter-ethnic clashes between the Meitei and Kuki communities. These clashes have resulted in numerous casualties, extensive destruction of buildings, and a significant displacement of people. The state government’s response to the crisis mirrors past strategies employed during periods of unrest in other parts of India, including military curfews, internet suspensions, and the deployment of a considerable number of troops and paramilitary forces with shoot-on-sight orders. These conflicts in Manipur are not isolated incidents but reflect a broader pattern observed in India’s Northeast. The identities of various ethnic communities have been exploited by a select few powerful individuals, resulting in tensions and divisions. The historical neglect of efforts to foster understanding between different communities has further exacerbated these issues. Manipur is home to 39 ethnic communities practicing diverse faiths, including Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and indigenous religions.

To maintain public order in “disturbed areas” like the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian government introduced the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 1958. However, this act has faced criticism from human rights groups and has deepened the trust deficit between Manipur’s state and central governments. The central government argues that the act is necessary to combat insurgency threats, often attributing them to alleged foreign support. The region is marked by conflicting claims to ethnic homelands, leading to the presence of multiple armed insurgent groups.

Manipur hosts several valley-based armed groups, Naga groups, and numerous Kuki armed insurgent organizations. The proliferation of armed groups, which once numbered around 60, has created a complex situation of a “war within a war” within the state. Political power dynamics in Manipur have worsened the situation, with rampant gun-running, narco- and human-trafficking, and armed groups influencing state elections. The 2022 elections witnessed open intimidation from militant groups, compromising the democratic process. The recent outbreak of violence in Manipur was triggered by the Manipur High Court’s consideration of granting Scheduled Tribe status to the Meitei community. While the Meitei community has long sought this status, concerns arose regarding the potential deepening of ethnic divisions, particularly with the Kuki and Naga Indigenous communities. Protests and retaliatory attacks escalated, exposing underlying tensions due to mishandling of Indigenous land rights issues, land imbalances, and an influx of refugees from Myanmar. Recent press conference by World Meitei Council (WMC) highlighted that Meitei people don’t have any second have that Manipur. Since eighteenth century, the Kuki people migrated to Manipur and the government of India has granted special status to these people. They asked for constitutional protection for the survival of their own home state. 

Reports and images from Manipur depict a state in the throes of ongoing conflict, characterized by armed militants, villagers arming themselves, and a breakdown of trust between citizens, governance, and security forces. Essential commodities have become scarce, and the local economy has been severely impacted. The response of the Indian state initially faced criticism for its silence, but Home Minister Amit Shah visited Manipur to assess the situation. He announced measures aimed at restoring normalcy, including a judicial probe into the violence, the establishment of a peace committee between communities, additional border fencing with Myanmar, and the recovery of looted weapons. However, the ongoing violence and activities of armed groups present significant challenges to the government’s efforts.

Reconciliation in Manipur requires addressing the deep-rooted legacies of violence, engaging in citizen-centric dialogues, involving civil society, and considering Indigenous peacemaking initiatives. The active participation of women in peacebuilding and the establishment of responsive governance structures will be pivotal in the long process of healing and reconciliation. Achieving lasting peace and reconciliation in Manipur will require concerted efforts from all stakeholders, including the government, civil society, and the communities themselves.

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