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Manipur continues to burn and there is no end in sight to the violence

More than two months have passed since the first day of ethnic violence, but the situation in Manipur is worsening despite the deployment of armed forces in huge numbers.

Manipur Violence
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Manipur, one of the seven sister states of the Northeast India, has been gripped by ethnic clashes and severe bloodshed since May 3 this year. More than 115 people have been killed and over 40,000 have been rendered homeless, with many of them escaping to neighbouring states, creating problems there too. The trouble started when the Manipur High Court asked the State Government to consider Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for the Meitei community, which would allow the Meiteis extended access to benefits, including reserved seats in Government. This made other communities feel offended and furious since the Meitei community had already been enjoying Scheduled Caste (SC) status and Other Backward Classes (OBC) status benefits.  

In a protest rally held on May 3 in the Churachandpur district of the state by All Tribal Students Union of Manipur, the protesters suddenly clashed with a group of people. The extent of this sudden violence was so high that the State Government had to issue 'shoot-at-sight' orders in 'extreme cases' and deployed fifty-five columns of the Army and Assam Rifles immediately. The civilians looted over 4,000 weapons from police armouries during the violence. This raised suspicion on the role of police present in police stations at the time of loot.  

Union Home Minister Amit Shah visited Manipur and took some crucial decisions to resolve the matter and bring peace to the state. Internet ban in Manipur was extended till July 10, though on July 8, the Manipur HC ordered the government to ‘partially’ lift the ban. But all the measures by parties involved in the attempts for peace and normalcy restoration in the state have come to no effect in Manipur, where there is still no end to the bloodshed. Now, even security persons are also being targeted. Union minister Rajkumar Ranjan Singh's official residence in Imphal was also burnt down by a huge group of civilians. Assam CM and North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma also visited Manipur to assess the situation. 

However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not spoken a single word regarding the matter, set aside visiting the burning state which is part of India. Instead, the Prime Minister departed for the United States and Egypt tour on June 20. 

Manipur shares international border with Myanmar and is the connecting point between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia to Southeast Asia, East Asia, Siberia, regions in the Arctic, Micronesia, and Polynesia, resulting in the migration of people, cultures and religions. Geographically, at the centre of Manipur is a valley surrounded by mountain ranges. The capital of Manipur, Imphal, is located in this valley. There are three major ethnic groups in Manipur - the Meiteis in the valley, the Nagas and the Kukis in the hills. Of the total population, around 53% consists of the Meitei people, 24% consists of various Naga tribes and 16% consists of various Kuki tribes. Chief Minster N Biren Singh and around 67% of MLAs of the state belong to the Meitei Community. Since this dominant community follows Hindu religion, and BJP is clearly inclined to Hinduism, therefore, keeping Meiteis satisfied is supposed to be beneficial for the ruling party. This political calculation could be the reason behind the alleged inaction of the BJP government at both the Centre and the state. 

But this story is not that straightforward. Many other more dangerous hidden factors are acting behind this rage, like land dispute, illegal immigration from Myanmar and the narcotics business. Meiteis are majority in population, property and power but minority in land acquisition. Instead, the minority tribes living in the hills have the maximum land at their disposal. But on receiving ST status, the Meiteis will also be able to buy lands in the hills, and the Kuki and Naga communities strongly oppose this. There is also the issue of illegal immigration in huge number from Myanmar across the international border in the mountain areas and establishment of villages in the hills of Manipur. A majority of these people carry on illegal poppy cultivation. The Manipur Government's ‘war against drugs’ campaign has badly affected the poppy cultivation and narcotics business run by Myanmarese in Manipur. As a result, they are fueling the recent violence in Manipur. 

Again, the indigenous tribal people of the hills complain that the State Government hardly recognises their rights over their land and forest and amends forest laws in a manner that are harmful to their rights. The sudden show-cause notices for announcement of protected areas, reserved forest, national parks and the urgent threats to them with forced displacement, land separation and resulting impact on their culture and identity are hampering them. 

Regarding illegal poppy cultivation in the hills and narcotics transport in and through Manipur from Myanmar to other parts of India, it can be said that a very huge amount of poppy cultivation has been destroyed by the Government since 2017 that has badly affected the people involved. So, they were looking for an opportunity to stop the drive against drugs. The poppies are taken to Myanmar through the porous Indo-Myanmar border, where the same is processed to produce heroin before being smuggled to other South-East Asian markets. There are reports of involvement of drug mafias from China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal etc in this trade. 

More than two months have passed since the first day of ethnic violence, but the situation is worsening despite deploying huge number of armed forces in the state. Incidents of extreme violence, killings, burning of houses and properties, attack on civilians are continuing, and not even the security forces are being able to control the situation completely. At this time, more than 40,000 central security personnel, besides the Manipur Police, are deployed in the state. The situation there is as an ongoing ‘civil war’, with heavily armed militants aiming the securing personnel to attack, villagers arming themselves, and a sharp deterioration in trust between citizens, governance and security. After-effects of a 'war-like situation' are also showing up, like shortages of food and medicine; closed shops, schools and offices; affected people taking shelter at unsanitary refugee camps; chances of fear, hatred and insecurity among some of the Meitei and Kuki students studying at places in other parts of India and an attitude of non-cooperation and compromise from all the parties involved or affected, even after such extreme violence. 

In the absence of the PM, Union Home Minister Amit Shah organised an all party meeting on June 24 to discuss the situation in Manipur, after 52 days of the first violent outburst. Congress critised the Government saying that the PM's absence from such a serious meeting shows his 'cowardice' and 'unwillingness' to confront his failures. They also said that the meeting should have been chaired by the PM and it should have been held in Imphal, not in Delhi. They also demanded immediate removal of the present Manipur CM and suggested imposition of ‘President’s rule’. 

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi visited Manipur and the people in relief camps. Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma criticised Rahul Gandhi’s Manipur visit as mere ‘media hype’ whereas Manipur’s BJP state president Sharda Devi appreciated Rahul Gandhi's visit to the strife-torn state. Himanta Biswa Sarma’s stand and over-interference in other states’ internal matters has been criticised by many civilians and many parties, pointing out that many burning issues in Assam still warrant his attention. 

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Indian Army deployed in Manipur has released videos showing how women are interfering in conduct of operations, blocking the security forces’ routes, hence hindering timely responses by security forces during critical situations. Also, a huge group of people led by women forcefully took away 12 Meitei militants belonging to Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) from the custody of the Indian Army. Added to all these are attack from the militant groups on the security forces. 

Amidst all this, a high-level drama was witnessed on June 30, regarding the resignation of the Manipur CM N Biren Singh. His resignation letter draft was torn by local women and then he ‘changed his mind’ and dropped the decision of resignation.

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At this stage, it is not clear when will the situaton in Manipur return to normal. And till then, we will have more questions than answers.

Dr Chandana Kashyap is an independent journalist based in Guwahati, Assam. She occasionally writes for local newspapers in the northeastern state. Views expressed here are personal.

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