The state of Manipur in north-eastern India has been plunged into an unofficial civil war, as ethnic and religious violence has ravaged the state since early May.
The violence, lasting over three months, has resulted in a staggering toll of over 150 people dead and over 500 wounded. Over 60,000 people are estimated to have been internally displaced as the army, paramilitary forces, and police strive to quell the escalating violence. Over 400 Churches have been destroyed in the attacks, along with over 5000 houses and countless families torn apart.
What has happened and why?
The clashes between the powerful Hindu majority Meitei community and the Tribal Christian Kuki minority are over issues of land and influence. The Meitei community, who are about 53 percent of the population, only own a small portion of the land in the state, but they dominate politically, socially, and economically.
The Meiteis hold a significant advantage by controlling 40 out of the 60 seats in the state legislature. The Chief Minister, N Biren Singh, is a Meitei and belongs to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is also the party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Singh has been accused of pushing an ‘anti-tribal agenda,’ and his comments on social media regarding the Kuki tribe have come under much criticism.
The Christian minority Kuki community, totaling 28 percent of the population, lives in mostly protected forest areas. Politically, the Kuki community has little representation and influence. For years, they have felt the effects of social, economic, and political imbalance. However, the Kuki are an official “Scheduled Tribe” in India, entitling them to some affirmative action and protective rights from the government.
In recent years, the Meitei community has demanded this ‘Scheduled Tribe’ status, which has worried the Kukis and other tribal groups. They argue that this move would further strengthen the Meitei’s influence, potentially enabling them to acquire tribal land or settle in their areas.
However, the conflict’s roots run deeper. The Kukis have also expressed concerns about a supposed war on drugs by the Biren Singh-led state government, which they view as a disguise to uproot their communities. Furthermore, illegal migration from Myanmar has increased population pressure on the disputed lands.
The trigger for violence
In mid-April, the Manipur High Court directed the state government to review the Meitei community’s demand for the Scheduled Tribe status within four weeks. In response to the court, a march was organized on May 3, with protests in ten districts opposing the inclusion of Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribe category. Some of these protests in Meitei areas were attacked, inciting violence and leading to targeted attacks on Christian neighborhoods and churches across several districts. Many Churches and tribal houses were burnt in the capital Imphal.
During the first week of violence, a Reuters report reveals a stark disparity in casualties, with 77 Kukis losing their lives compared to 10 Meiteis.
Viral video shocks the nation
The violence has taken a disturbing turn. A pattern has emerged, revealing the use of sexual assault as a weapon. Recently, a shocking video emerged, showing Kuki women being sexually abused and humiliated by Meitei men after their village was destroyed. The video showed the women being forced to walk naked through the streets. It was reported by media outlets that this cycle of sexual attacks was triggered by fake reports of a Meitei woman being raped by Kuki men.
The heart-wrenching video of the assault, despite limited internet access and media censorship, sparked nationwide outrage. Even though a police complaint was lodged in this case on May 18, the first arrest was only made after the video went viral. Chief Minister Singh faced strong criticism after his statement on the incident, remarking, “We don’t want to listen to allegations. Hundreds of similar cases have taken place; that is why we have banned the internet.”
After the video surfaced, religious and women’s organization leaders addressed a massive crowd of around 15,000 protesters in Manipur, demanding the immediate arrest of the culprits and the resignation of Chief Minister Singh. Protests against this horrifying incident were also reported from different parts of the country as well as outside India.
Following the viral video, many came forward to share other incidents of ethnically-based violence against women, some even leading to death.
Indian Prime Minister criticized for his silence
Despite the escalating violence, the central Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, remained largely silent until the video surfaced. Following public outrage, Modi addressed the situation after nearly 80 days, promising that “no guilty will be spared” and condemning the horrifying incident. His response has been heavily scrutinized, and his silence on the situation has drawn criticism from the Opposition, who accuse him of displaying “brazen indifference” towards the violence in Manipur.
Opposition parties have tabled a vote of no-confidence against the Modi government. However, given his party’s comfortable majority, the possibility remains unlikely. The opposition hopes to compel Modi to publicly account for his lack of action in response to the crisis in Manipur.
Kuki tribal leaders have called for the state to be under President’s rule, but their demands have been resisted so far by the Modi government. In India, President’s rule is a last resort measure, used when the state’s constitution fails, or law and order breaks down. The elected state government is suspended, and the President assumes control through the State Governor until normalcy is restored and fresh elections are held.
The Indian government has deployed a force of 40,000 soldiers, paramilitary troops, and police to contain the ongoing violence.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Sudhakar Bisen
Global Christian Relief (GCR) is America’s leading watchdog organization focused on the plight of persecuted Christians worldwide. In addition to equipping the Western church to advocate and pray for the persecuted, GCR works in the most restrictive countries to protect and encourage Christians threatened by faith-based discrimination and violence.