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Modi’s Far Right and Regional Crises Fuel Violence in Manipur, India

The conflict between the Kuki and Meitei ethnic groups in Manipur, India has led to displacements and deaths. Workers and struggling people from oppressed nationalities must unite against the warmongering bourgeois Indian state.


July 27, 2023
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Since May, the northeastern Indian state of Manipur has been experiencing an intense wave of violence and ethnic strife. The conflict between the Kuki and Meitei ethnic groups has displaced over 50,000 people, claimed over 100 lives, and injured scores of people belonging to both communities. The two ethnic groups have been engaged in gun battles despite the State deploying 40,000 security personnel, including from the Army, Border Security Force, and Central Reserve Police Force. 

District magistrates were authorized by the Manipur government to issue shoot-on-sight orders. The violence began on May 3, after the All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) held a solidarity march in all districts opposing the recent Manipur High Court order. 

The immediate triggers for the violence are of little importance when compared to the broader historical context. The liberal peace-lovers seeking an end to the violence through dialogues between the two ethnic groups tend to ignore the gross imbalance of social and political power between the Kukis and Meiteis, the latter playing a greater role in decision-making and setting the terms of public discourse.

While the Indian media ignore the crisis, praise Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the fascist BJP, and spread rumors about the Muslim minority, it has failed to examine how both Meitei civil society and the Manjipur state government of Chief Minister N. Biren Singh (BJP) have stereotyped the Kukis, who have lived in Manipur for many centuries. In fact, the government has been dismissing serious Kuki grievances for years, allowing their discontent to reach a boiling point.

“There is a certain view amongst mainstream commentators that the Manipur violence was triggered by a single event — the Manipur High Court’s April 19 order to grant Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the majority Meitei community. This is not entirely the case,” says Angshuman Choudhury in a report for Frontline magazine. “In the months leading up to the order, a series of brash policy decisions and divisive political iterations had already soured the atmosphere and frayed the delicate contract of Manipur.”

On March 10, the Kuki civil society, led by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF), organized a peaceful rally in several hill districts, including Churachandpur, Tengnoupal, Kangpokpi, Ukhrul, and Jiriban. The rally was a statewide, nonviolent action against the Biren Singh government’s policy of arbitrarily evicting Kuki villages under the pretext of expanding reserved forests — a move that violated the Indian Forest Act, 1927, and the Forest Rights Act, 2006. They were particularly protesting the forced eviction of some 16 Kuki families from the tiny village of K. Songjang, located in Churachandpur District, on February 20. One such rally in Kangpokpi turned violent when the local police used force on the protesters, reportedly injuring 20.[4]

Economic conditions in Manipur are dismal. Almost 52.2 percent of the population works in farming. The rest work primarily in handicrafts, food processing, and the bamboo industry.  For unemployed youth, the state offices offer the only suitable employment options. The government’s limited welfare schemes function only in the state capital, Imphal, in the central valley region. The peripheral regions remain unconnected to the power grid and the urban water system.

Constant State-Sponsored Attacks on the Kuki Community

The government reacted by imposing prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in the hill districts. Then, in the late hours of March 10, it withdrew the Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreement with two Kuki armed groups — the Kuki National Army (KNA) and the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA). The chief minister even went to a news channel from the Northeast and blamed “illegal immigrants from Myanmar” who are “doing poppy plantations and drug business” for the protests. Over the last few years, especially since it returned to power in 2002, the Biren Singh (BJP) government has pushed Manipur’s delicate ethnopolitical consensus to the cliff’s edge. This is unsurprising, given how crucial are Manipur’s geographical location and demography, which provide suitable grounds for guerrilla warfare. In accord with U.S. imperialism, the Indian government appears to be preparing for war against China, whose border abuts India’s northeastern states. And by breaking the unity of these regions’ peoples, the bourgeois government can provide new spaces for investment in extracting raw materials and make way for the easy flow of capital to and from countries to the east, like Thailand.

In recent years, there has been an influx of Chin-Kuki asylum seekers fleeing brutal attacks by the junta in Myanmar. The government, along with the extra-parliamentary fascist RSS, has used this influx to reanimate Meitei nationalism. It did so by using a classic ethno-majoritarian tactic: amplifying a preexisting fear among the Meiteis, a fear that they would soon be overrun by Kuki “illegals” from Myanmar. For instance, in April, Chief Minister Singh told the Organiser — a mouthpiece for the RSS (the main fascist party of India, whose parliamentary wing is the BJP) — that “foreign Kuki immigrants have taken control of the social, political and economic affairs of the native tribal people of the State.” This, he added, has reduced the “indigenous people of the State to second-class citizens” — an assertion that has no factual basis.

The Singh government has created a sense of having taken action by expressing its willingness to introduce a National Register of Citizens (NRC), as was done in the state of Assam, to sieve out “illegal immigrants” from Manipur’s population. In 2005, the Supreme Court of India sanctioned Assam’s NRC, which had been an important part of the Indian state’s oppressive machinery, one modeled on the example of the United States’ border apparatus. In Assam, the NRC disproportionately targeted Bengal-origin Muslims by questioning their Indian-ness; a similar exercise in Manipur would likely put the Kukis, many of whom have intergenerational links with Myanmar and lack formal documentation (like birth certificates and deeds). Using the NRC and the complementary Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the Indian government has been snatching the democratic rights and securities of many Indian citizens. This has taken place mostly in the peripheral states, where people have become cheap laborers in the detention camps (which are still operated, despite peaceful agitation against them in different parts of the country).Earlier this year, the state government launched “verification drives” in the Kuki-dominated hill districts to identify “illegal immigrants” by collecting individuals’ biometric details, violating the privacy of Kuki families. It has already detained at least 100 asylum seekers from Myanmar since January. In February, Singh announced that his government would set up 34 new police posts along the Indo-Myanmar border to “check cross-border infiltration.” Meanwhile, the central government, with Imphal’s cooperation, has been erecting barbed-wire fences along the border. 

Land Grabs and Otherization: How the Ethnic Strife Helps the Big Corporations

The Manipur government has sponsored land surveys to expand the limits of reserve forests across the hills, arbitrarily bulldozing Kuki settlements and displacing villages. In doing so, it has generated a feeling of rootlessness and alienation in the Kuki psyche. The community’s leaders argue that many of the evicted villages have existed for more than half a century, and they see the government’s expansion into their ancestral land as “encroachment.” On the other hand, the government, as usual, is trying to portray the Kuki people as the ones who are encroaching on protected forest land. On March 10, as Kukis took to the streets, Singh said in an interview, “They are encroaching everywhere.”  This follows from what Singh said two years ago in Kangpokpi District’s Mangjal village, during, ironically, a van mahotsav (forest festival): “All lands belong to the State.”[5]

As a part of the majoritarian propaganda, it is being repeatedly stated ,that the Kukis, Nagas, and other ST groups who live in the hill districts occupy 90 percent of state lands,  while Meiteis, who make up 53 percent of the population, live in the valley districts. The MLR&LR Act passed by the Parliament in 1960, after Manipur joined India in 1949 and before Manipur became a state in 1972. It is applicable to the whole of Manipur, except the hill areas. It states, “No transfer of land by a person who is a member of the Scheduled Tribes shall be valid unless — (a) the transfer is to another member of the Scheduled Tribes; or (b) where the transfer is to a person who is not a member of any such tribe, it is made with the previous permission in writing of the deputy; or (c) the transfer is by way of mortgage to a co-operative society.” This is a reasonable democratic right to reservation for the minority; it was granted by the newly formed state of India after it gained independence from the British. This right was enshrined thanks to the internal pressure of the workers’ movement and the external pressure of the degenerated workers’ state of the Soviet Union. The Meitei groups increasingly clamored for ST status, which were not independent of RSS influences. This has led Kukis to believe that their land rights, formally protected by Article 371C and the MLR&LR Act, could be taken away.

Dr. T. S. Haokip, chair of the Kuki Zo Intellectual Forum, denied that Kukis were encroaching on reserved forests or protected areas and setting up villages. He said, “In Kuki villages, land belongs to the chiefs, and there is no individual ownership of land. Chiefs, according to tradition, establish new villages. This has been our tradition since the pre-British period. During 1993, 360 Kuki villages were uprooted during Kuki-Naga clashes from Naga majority areas in Tamenglong, Senapati, and Ukhrul districts. All the villagers resettled in Kuki dominated areas.” He said Kuki people have been made anxious by the attempt to extend the MLR&LR Act to the hill areas and by Meiteis’ demands for ST status. Haokip also pointed out that the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015, pushed by the Manipur Assembly, proposed an amendment to the MLR&LR Act seeking to dilute the provision relating to ST rights. [6]

The Assembly passed two other bills, the Protection of Manipur People’s Bills, 2015, and the Manipur Shops and Business Establishment (Second Amendment), both of which sparked protests in the hill areas. During the protests, the police killed nine people in Churachandpur District. The protesters refused to bury the dead.

Here it is important to note as Wilson L. Hangshing, the General Secretary of Kuki People’s Alliance, an ally of BJP in Manipur said in an interview, to The Wire, “90 per cent of that 90 per cent (the reserved hill areas) are inaccessible terrains, mountains and ravines. The carrying capacity is literally zero of that area. There is equal land pressure in the hills as much as in the valleys.” History shows that the Meiteis have been a settled agricultural community for over 2,000 years. Thus, the apprehensions of the Kukis facing eviction are very much justified. In the British period, the Meiteis willingly gave up their ST status. It isn’t a coincidence that suddenly now, after 75 years of independence, they want to be included on the ST list and that the High Court quickly approved the measure. The BJP and RSS have been organizing the Indigenous and ethnic communities throughout India to further their fascist agenda.

The perceived loss of political agency among the hill-dwelling Kukis is not new. In fact, it is not even limited to the Kukis. In 2021, the Hill Areas Committee (HAC), a body of 18 Naga, Kuki, and other tribal legislators from the hill districts of Manipur, proposed the Autonomous District Councils (ADC) Amendment Bill 2021. The Singh government, however, stalled it and ultimately introduced two alternatives that, according to the hill tribal leaders, diluted the original bill. Agitations and blockades followed, but no conclusion was reached.

Several factors point to the apprehended encroachment. These include the introduction of a Forest Bill in Parliament in March and a number of proposed development programs, such as the push for palm oil plantations in biodiversity hot spots and monoculture cash crops in traditional shifting (jhum) cultivation lands. The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, introduced in the Lok Sabha on March 29 to amend the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, (FCA), was forwarded by a Joint Committee of Parliament, which is exclusively made up of BJP MPs, while bypassing a Parliamentary Standing Committee. The bill seeks to open protected forest lands to private corporations, which will use the land to undertake large-scale industrial development.

Meanwhile, a massive push is underway to promote palm oil plantations in the biodiversity hot spots. Backed by unprecedented government subsidies, distribution of free saplings, promises of infrastructure development, and access to markets, several northeastern states have signed MOUs with corporate groups, such as Patanjali and Godrej Agrovet, and are converting agricultural and forest lands into monoculture, cash crop plantations.

Mizoram had adopted monoculture palm oil plantations in 2004 and has since faced disastrous consequences after threatening food security. Water is acutely scarce, and these plantations are water guzzlers, besides needing chemical inputs. Farmers report loss of soil fertility, destruction of biodiversity, and zero profits. Many economically important minerals, such as nickel, copper, and platinum, are present in the soil of Manipur, particularly under the reserved forests of the hilly areas. Now, for generations the Indigenous communities have protected the forests, thereby safeguarding India’s water sources, food biodiversity, medicinal plants, and wildlife. They have acted as a crucial buffer against the impact of climate change, particularly the new cyclones, floods, and droughts. But the greed for profit does not take into account the destruction of the environment.[7]

The Response of the Oppressed Ethnicity

In relief camps, families displaced by the violent clashes remain uncertain and fearful. The nights have become long as they are haunted by the trauma of their houses being set ablaze and family members and neighbors being gunned down by attackers. Despite an internet shutdown for more than a month and a half, unverified photos and video clips of houses set ablaze and attacks with sophisticated weapons are circulating among volunteers and inmates at relief camps via Bluetooth.

According to Haokip, 19 Kuki villages were burned down on June 4 in the Sugnu area in Chandel District. The villages, he said, were inhabited by “old Kukis like Lamkag, Muyon, and Monshang and new Kukis like Thadou, Mate, and Zou.” He said that there were eight major groups of Kuki-Chin — Kuki, Chin, Mizo, Zomi, Hmar, Komren, Khurmi, and Manmasi (Manasseh). “Our political identity is Kuki. We are spread over India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Israel.”

Since the outbreak of violence, some 4,000 arms and over five lakh pieces of ammunition and mortar have reportedly been looted from state armories . Chungjalen Haokip, a member of Kuki Zo International Forum, said attackers from Meitei villages in Tuibong areas used these weapons, and “that is why some of our boys ransacked the police station and took some arms to defend.” Reacting to allegations by Meitei organizations of “poppy cultivation in Kuki areas in the hills at the behest of narcoterrorist,” Haokip said, “Of course some villagers are cultivating poppy, but [they are] fully financed by Meitei capitalists and drug kingpins.”

The clamor for a “separate administration for Kukis” has been growing after ten Manipur legislators — seven of them from the ruling BJP, including two ministers in the N. Biren Singh government — submitted a memorandum to the central government. The Zomi Students’ Federation (ZSF), Lamka, and Kuki Students’ Organisation (KSO) have published a booklet titled “The Inevitable Split: Documents on State-Sponsored Ethnic Cleansing In Manipur, 2023,” in which they have argued that since there already exists a vertical split between the hills and the valley dwellers, separate administrations were “inevitable.” In the valley, the slogan “One Manipur, One Administration,” to oppose the demand for a separate administration for the Kukis, is growing louder.

The Manipur Tribal Forum exposed the falsity of the Centre’s claim of restoring peace in the State. In an interlocutory application filed before the apex court, the forum lamented: “The assurances of the authorities are not useful anymore and made in a non-serious fashion and are not even intended to be implemented. The reason why this honorable court ought not to rely anymore on the empty assurances given by Union of India (UOI) is because both the UOI and the Chief Minister of the State have embarked jointly on a communal agenda for the ethnic cleansing of the Kukis.” 

The Oppressed People of Manipur Must Unite

In the present scenario, the worst of the violence against the Kukis has been perpetuated by armed Meitei majoritarian groups like Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun, accompanied by genocidal hate speech and supremacist displays of impunity. Of these, the first is a revivalist group encouraging Meiteis to “return” to Sanamahi traditions, while the latter clearly has a Hindu supremacist orientation. Chief Minister Biren Singh is closely associated with both these groups. These are evidently RSS affiliated fascist organizations. Both groups vilify the Kuki community as “illegal outsiders” and “narco-terrorists.” The Chief of Meitei Leepun did not hesitate in an interview to the press to state publicly that Kukis in areas disputed by Meiteis would be “wiped out.” Earlier, the chief minister himself had termed a Kuki human rights activist “Myanmarese” — a nod to the propaganda that the Meitei community faces a demographic threat from refugees fleeing unrest in Myanmar.

Reports suggest that the overwhelming majority of those killed in the ongoing violence are from the Kuki community. Reportedly over 200 Kuki churches have been burned, along with schools, granaries, and homes. Tragically, the age-old strategy of using rumors to instigate conflicts within communities continues to make women the most vulnerable. False claims by the majoritarian Meitei groups of the rape of Meitei women by Kukis became the pretext for the alleged lynching and rapes of Kuki-Zo women. Only recently did the video of two young Kuki women stripped naked being paraded by a Meitei mob of men sexually assaulting and groping them got viral. Police were reportedly standing nearby but did nothing to save them. One of the Kuki women got gang raped by the mob after the incident. The brother of the woman who tried to save her was murdered. The chief minister commented that plenty of such incidents have taken place and that this is why they have restricted internet access.

The military crackdown and network blockades imposed by the Centre have only escalated the violence and made the Kuki villages more vulnerable for Meitei attacks. It is important to note how in 2004 a movement developed, led by the people of Manipur as a whole against the military occupation of India in the peripheral states and against the draconian laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a parliamentary act that grants special powers to the Indian Armed Forces and the state and paramilitary forces in areas classified as “disturbed areas.” This was triggered by the horrible incident of rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, a Meitei woman. Naked women protesters gathered in front of Kangla Fort with a banner saying “Indian Army Rape Us.”

The whole operation of initiating violence has been in accordance with the interests of the Indian ruling class. Capitalism is facing a global crisis, yet the bourgeoisie’s greed is ever expanding. Since the 1990s, the Indian government has pursued its neoliberal plan centering the “look east” policy. This is the reason, from Assam to Manipur, that the Indigenous communities are now being targeted. The working class of the mainland must intervene with their support for the Kuki and Naga peoples’ autonomy and their rights to self determination as well as separation. The demand for separation are on the rise among the Kukis. The Meitei working people must choose their enemy and unite with the oppressed Kukis in the struggle against capital. 

We, as communists, must also raise the demand for the end of military occupation in the Northeast and organize the workers to rally on such demands. All attempts by the bourgeoisie to illegalize immigration and close the borders of the state must be opposed with a countrywide organized working class movement. Only then, with the unity of the workers and struggling people from the oppressed nationalities against the war mongering bourgeois Indian state, can we ensure peace in Manipur.

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Aatish is a writer and activist with Naya Disha, a Trotskyist journal in India.

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