‘Foreigners on Our Own Land’: Ethnic Clashes Threaten to Push India’s Manipur State Into Civil War

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As they saw the smoke rising up from torched houses nearby, Nancy Chingthianniang and her family knew they urgently needed to escape. It was early May and all around them, Manipur – a state in the north-east of India – had begun to burn, as members of the dominant Meitei ethnic group violently clashed with the minority Kukis in some of the region’s worst ethnic conflict in living memory.

As a minority Kuki living in the state capital of Imphal, where the Meitei tribe dominate in number and political power, 29-year-old Chingthianniang feared for her life; news had already reached them of relatives and neighbours being targeted by Meitei gangs. Late that night, five members of the family piled into a car and headed for a Kuki-controlled area of the state.

It’s a journey painfully imprinted on Chingthianniang’s memory. As they neared a camp where Kukis were taking refuge, a mob of about 100 people, all from the Meitei community, surrounded their car and began to smash it with wooden rods and iron bars.

Chingthianniang was pulled from the vehicle by her hair. Shuddering, she recalls how they were paraded by female members of the mob who shouted at the men in their group “Go rape them, we are allowing you these tribals – rape them!”

The mob began to brutally beat Chingthianniang’s husband, Sasang. “We tried to protect him, shield him as rods and sticks were hit on us,” she said. “But he was separated from us and lynched. I cannot forget how his lifeless body was being hit by iron rods, even once he was dead.”

Sasang’s mother, who had tried to save her son from the mob, was also killed. Pursued by the Meitei attackers, Chingthianniang ran to a nearby army camp and, rattling the gates, pleaded with soldiers to help her. Instead, they shooed her away, and as the enraged mob descended upon her, she was beaten until she fell unconscious.

She awoke a few days later in a hospital ICU, having undergone several surgeries on her head. It was only days later the news was broken that her husband and mother-in-law had not survived. Their bodies remain in the morgue in Imphal, with relatives too fearful to collect them.

Chingthianniang has since fled to her sister-in-law in New Delhi, where thousands from Manipur have sought refuge from the conflict that continues to rage. Unable to numb the traumas of that night, she relives it constantly in her mind. “I am wondering how I can survive all this,” she says, pale and shaken.

Since the attack on Chingthianniang and her family in May, the conflict between the Meiteis and the Kukis in Manipur has only escalated. About 130 people, predominantly Kukis, have died while more than 60,000 have been displaced and hundreds of relief camps have been established in a situation that has pushed the state to the brink of civil war.

A history of violence

Manipur is now carved up into two fiercely protected ethnic zones, with the lowlands and valleys controlled by the Meiteis, and the Kukis in control of the hills. Venturing into the territory of the opposing tribe is described as a “death sentence”.

While the state and central government – both controlled by prime minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) – have insisted that the situation is “slowly improving”, those on the ground tell another story. Curfews and restrictions remain in large parts of the state and the internet has repeatedly been shut down. Thousands of additional army and paramilitary personnel have been deployed, while both sides have formed their own vigilante armed groups. This week, eight more have died in clashes.

Analysts say government efforts to bring peace in the region have largely failed so far and the tensions could escalate further, risking destabilising other states in India’s volatile north-east region such as Mizoram, Nagaland and Assam. The BJP state government in Manipur is dominated by the majority Meiteis, leading to mass distrust among Kuki leaders, while Modi has remained publicly silent on the conflict. The only high profile BJP minister to visit the state has been the home minister, Amit Shah. His visit did little to ease the ethnic tensions.

The spark for the unrest was a state court ruling on 27 March which gave the dominant Meitei community “tribal status”, entitling them to the same economic benefits and quotas in government jobs and education as the minority Kuki community, as well as allowing Meiteis to purchase land in the hills, where the Kukis predominately live. The decision was later stayed by the supreme court, which called it “factually wrong”.

The case stirred up an already fractious situation in a state that has been no stranger to ethnic conflicts and insurgencies since independence. The 2021 military coup in the neighbouring country of Myanmar raised tensions again after thousands of refugees, who are more ethnically aligned with the Kukis, fled over the border into Mizoram state and then Manipur, leading to fears among the Meiteis that their community risked being displaced.

A protest on 3 May by Kuki students over the court ruling was met with violence, and within hours ethnic groups had begun to clash. Houses, shops, churches, temples and businesses were destroyed and about 60 people were killed in the first two days of violence.

Since then, clashes and the torching of villages have continued apace. More than 4,000 weapons have been looted from police armouries and officers say they are often unable to control the anarchy that descends on to the streets, described by India’s deputy foreign minister – whose house was among those recently attacked with petrol bombs – as “a complete breakdown of law and order”.

‘Foreigners on our own land’

Both sides have now bunkered down in an effort to protect their own territories. In Leimaran, a Meitei-controlled village surrounded by paddy fields, a group of “village defence volunteers” – made up of about 150 farmers, teachers and local businessmen – have all taken up arms in the conflict.

Their village of just 400 households is just a few kilometres from a Kuki stronghold, making it effectively a frontier in this ethnic fight. Villagers have put up seven bunkers on the western side of the village and armed men keep a vigil day and night.

The road between the two villages has been barricaded and exists now as an eerily silent buffer zone, lined with scorched, deserted homes and burned-out cars and trucks. Military personnel have been stationed every few metres.

“This is how every Meitei village is preparing,” says Aheibam Dinamani Singh, 42, a professor at a local government engineering college, who leads the defence group. “I am a teacher but right now my priority is to procure a gun and defend my community. The situation has reached a point where only guns can decide the future course.”

On the other side of the military checkpoint, just a few kilometres away, is the Kuki village of Maitain, where a border has been built with bunkers and sandbags, and where a similar group of Kuki locals keep watch for enemies who were once their neighbours. Like many Kukis, the sentries support calls for an independent Kuki state, arguing that they can no longer live alongside the Meiteis. “We are posted here day and night and will keep protecting our area till we achieve our goal,” says Hemkholien, 52.

“They call us foreigners on our own land. We are facing existential threat,” says Mawi, 48, who is an activist with Zomi council, an association of Kuki and other tribal groups. “We have faced systemic injustices over the years at the hands of the majority community. How can we live with them?”

But the Meitei tribe say that splitting the state would bring their entire identity into question and warn that they are ready to fight it at any cost.

Protesters, holding a torchlight vigil for return of peace, in Imphal, the capital of Manipur
Protesters, holding a torchlight vigil for return of peace, in Imphal, the capital of Manipur Photograph: Aakash Hassan/The Guardian

“The current border of Manipur is what our forefathers have fought for by shedding blood. We cannot let it be divided,” says Samaradra Meitei, 29, a Meitei activist holding his gun inside a bunker. “The separation of Manipur is not acceptable to us. We will fight for it and there will be lots of bloodshed.”

While some have sought to cast a communal light on the conflict – as the Meiteis are Hindus, the dominant religion in India, and the Kukis are Christians, who are in a tiny minority and have suffered persecution under the Hindu nationalist BJP government – those on the ground insist the unrest is not about religion.

The role of neighbouring Myanmar also threatens to further stir up the violence, with the country’s military junta backing the Meiteis and the rebel fighters of Myanmar supporting the Kukis. Activists from both sides acknowledge that the fighting is being fuelled by an inflow of weapons such as automatic rifles, grenades and rocket launchers from Myanmar into Manipur.

Police, army officials and leaders from both communities have confirmed that militants fighting in Myanmar have also crossed over the border and are launching attacks on opposing communities. The Guardian also witnessed the presence of these militants, with automatic rifles, among the village defence volunteers of both communities.

This week, the Manipur chief minister, N Biren Singh, said the army would begin clearing the bunkers and defence structures built by both sides in the hills and valleys, but Kuki leaders say they would oppose any such measures.

“People are building bunkers on both sides, they are positioning guns,” says Jang Kaopao Haokip, 55, a Kuki farmer whose house and entire village were burned down in the violence. “New Delhi should understand that this is preparation for war.”

Source: The Guardian