India: Is Manipur reaching a breaking point?

India: Is Manipur reaching a breaking point?
India: Is Manipur reaching a breaking point?

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - The Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (Cocomi), a collective of dominant Meitei groups which has been pressing the government for a resolution, is also irritated at its inordinate delay in finding a way out of the imbroglio. — DW

IMPHAL (Manipur), Oct 10 — Five months after ethnic violence broke out in Manipur, ongoing divisions have dragged the state into what many experts have described as a civil war. Clashes are continuing, despite the presence of the army.

Sectarian violence in Manipur, a northeastern state in India, has claimed over 175 lives and injured more than 1,000 since a conflict between the majority Meiteis and minority Kukis began in May. Thousands of others have been displaced.

The mostly Hindu Meiteis live in Manipur’s more prosperous Imphal Valley, while the largely Christian Kukis live mostly in the surrounding hills.

The initial clashes were triggered by the Meiteis’ demand to be granted “scheduled tribe” status, which would give them landowning rights, as well as access to educational and employment opportunities — benefits that are already enjoyed by the Kuki community.

New Delhi has rushed tens of thousands of additional security forces to Manipur but sporadic violence continues.

Fault lines grow deeper

Fighting between the ethnic groups has escalated since May, with civil society groups blaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for mismanaging the crisis.

“We are living on edge. Every day begins and ends with despair and there seems to be no solution in sight,” Lunpi Khongsai, a Kuki youth told DW.

Many Meiteis seem frustrated by the ongoing cycle of violence, criticizing the political regime for not standing up for its citizens.

“The chief minister Biren Singh should go. He is not able to bring peace and restore the dignity and pride of the people. People’s patience with Singh seems to be running thin,” Paonam Suresh, a Meitei youth leader told DW.

Meiteis infuriated by pictures of murdered students

Manipur police last month confirmed that two Meitei students who had gone missing in July were killed. Horrific images of the youths, 17-year-old Hijam Linthoingambi and 20-year-old Phijam Hemjit, were circulated online, triggering an outcry.

Their families and Meitei leaders accused Kuki militants of killing them, while criticizing authorities for not putting a halt to the violence. A federal inquiry into the killings is underway.

The country’s second-longest internet blackout — which had stretched for over 143 days — had been lifted last month, but was reimposed after Manipur was jolted by the horrific images of slain students.

Apar Gupta, founder director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, who has been monitoring the conflict, suggested that we have not seen the last of violent images from Manipur because they reflect a deep-seated social discord and a breakdown in public trust.

“Cycles do not stop by themselves. To end, they require political leadership, not the continued use of ‘limited internet shutdowns’ in Manipur,” Gupta told DW.

In an effort to ease tensions, buffer zones have been set up between the Meitei and Kuki communities.

And Manipur will remain under India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants special powers to troops in areas classified as “disturbed,” for a further six months — with the exception of areas that fall under the jurisdiction of 19 police stations across the Imphal Valley.

Can the government heal the divisions?

The home of the BJP state president, Shardi Devi, has been targeted several times since the beginning of the sectarian conflict.

“I have been working tirelessly since May 3, but in my 30 years of political experience, I have never seen this kind of aggression and hostility towards a party which is running the government,” Devi told reporters.

Some Kuki members, including lawmakers from the community who have been calling for the creation of a “separate administration” for the districts in which they are a majority, do not see any resolution to the conflict anytime soon.

This sentiment was echoed by Janghaolun Haokip, secretary of the Kuki Inpi, the apex body of the Kuki tribes.

“Five months into the violence, people are facing extreme difficulty now,” Haokip told DW.

“All cards are now with the central government. How long will the people suffer before the government can bring an end to this ethnic strife?”

Human Rights Watch accused the Manipur authorities of facilitating the conflict with “divisive policies that promote Hindu majoritarianism.” The organization said the government needed to be trusted by all sides to play an “impartial role as mediator” to heal the divisons.

The Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (Cocomi), a collective of dominant Meitei groups which has been pressing the government for a resolution, is also irritated at its inordinate delay in finding a way out of the imbroglio.

Cocomi spokesperson Khuraijam Athouba, who has highlighted the involvement of mercenaries and drug traffickers in the Manipur conflict, believes that New Delhi is not acting on its assurances.

“What is required at present to bring solution to the violence is a strong and spirited state government which put pressure on New Delhi more. We are getting confused signals and there is a need to bring an end to the violence,” Athouba told DW. — DW

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