The BJP is failing to stop ethnic riots in northeast India
For nearly a month now, Manipur, a state in northeastern India that borders Myanmar, has been in turmoil. Violent clashes have left over 70 people dead and hundreds injured and displaced at least 26,000 people from their homes.
The conflict is rooted in ethnic and tribal tensions. But there is also an element of the religious division for which India, under the nearly decade-long leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has become increasingly known worldwide. In India’s last population census, administered in 2011, Christians made up over 41% of Manipur residents. About half of the state’s residents are Hindus. Groups of mostly Hindu Meitei people from the valley clashed on May 3 with Christian tribal groups who live in the hills around Manipur. The Christians were holding a demonstration in defense of their tribal status, which they believed the more privileged Meteis were trying to usurp for themselves.
During the riots, public property and people’s homes and vehicles were set on fire in arson attacks reported across the state. According to church groups, about 120 churches were set on fire or otherwise destroyed.
The 2022 edition of the annual U.S. State Department report on religious freedom, released on May 15, noted that the Indian government is among those that “freely target faith community members within their borders.” The State Department quoted the spokesman of a Christian NGO who described the situation facing all minorities as “unprecedentedly grave.” The Indian authorities have dismissed the report as “based on misinformation and flawed understanding.”
But Rahul Gandhi, the leader of India’s opposition Congress party, said that “what is happening in Manipur is the result of the politics of hate.” He was speaking at a rally in the southern state of Karnataka just before state elections on May 10, 2023. “Manipur is on fire,” Gandhi said, “people are dying and the prime minister doesn’t seem to be concerned.”
Modi has continued to remain silent throughout the weeks of violence in Manipur, even as the army has been deployed to quell unrest and an internet ban and curfew have been imposed.
In Manipur, the largely Hindu Meitei people inhabit the valley area where Imphal, the capital city, is located. The mostly Christian tribes, like the Kukis and the Nagas, live in the hills. The people of the mainly Christian hill tribes say they can no longer live with the mainly Hindu Meitei people.
Historically, Hindu Meiteis have dominated positions in politics and the state administration. Meitei is one of 22 official languages recognized by the Indian Constitution and the sole official language of Manipur. Two-thirds of the members of the Manipur state assembly, including the state’s chief minister, are Meitei. And the Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi’s party, which promotes an aggressively Hindu nationalist agenda, holds power at both state and federal levels. The BJP government in Manipur, led by chief minister Biren Singh, has been accused of favoring the Hindu Meitei majority and enacting anti-tribal policies such as converting tribal land into protected state properties. According to Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, the national affairs editor at the Indian news website The Wire, “the chief minister appears to be behaving like a spokesman of the majority Meitei community.”
While the BJP government of Manipur has been accused of favoring the Meiteis over hill-dwelling tribals, the Meiteis have also been lobbying for tribal status. Last month, an order by the Manipur High Court gave the state government just four weeks to grant the Meiteis special tribal status. This status is necessary to access certain government-run affirmative action programs, including quotas for government jobs. Christian tribes, particularly the Kukis, have argued that the Meiteis already enjoy privileges in Manipur and that any extra privileges might hurt the tribes for whom affirmative action is necessary.
The Meitei people have been demanding special tribal status because, they say, the hill tribes are able to buy land in the valley, while they are unable to buy land in the hills. The tribes, though, point to the greater wealth of the Meiteis, gained from living in the valley and in Imphal, Manipur’s capital. Were Meitei residents able to buy land in the hills, the tribes argue, the Kukis and the Nagas, among others, would find themselves priced out of their own lands.
In response to the court order, a tribal students’ union organized a “solidarity march” on May 3, which sparked violence, including an arson attack on a Kuki war memorial.
Hesang, a Kuki activist, told me that the memorial was an “important part of the community’s history.” He said that while the protest was peaceful, the burning down of the memorial was a “provocation that was seen as a challenge to Kuki history.” Manipur has barely been able to pause for breath since.
On May 22, after relative calm appeared to have returned, army units had to quell violence that was reportedly directed at Meitei shopkeepers. Houses were set ablaze in the capital, Imphal, and the state was placed under curfew from 2 p.m. until 6 a.m., with the already existing ban on mobile internet services extended until May 26.
The violence in Manipur, despite all the deaths and damage, has received scant attention on India’s numerous mainstream cable news channels. But there has been plenty of debate about the situation in Manipur on social media. Inevitably, some of the online content has been misinformation, hate speech and conspiracy theories, which is why the Manipur government says it has banned mobile internet access. Despite the spread of fake news, a Meitei person who requested anonymity told me that “in a situation like this, when you are cut off from genuine sources of information, the imagination gives oxygen to rumors.”
Some of these rumors have been spread by the BJP government itself. Though the recent violence began after protests against the High Court’s order to grant the Meitei people special tribal status, the government claimed it began because of its crackdown on illegal immigrants from Myanmar. These illegal immigrants, the government says, grow poppies in the hills to use in the drug trade.
The people the BJP government refers to as “illegal immigrants” are actually refugees who fled Myanmar after the 2021 military coup. These refugees share the same ethnic background as the Kukis. Angshuman Choudhury, a fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, told me that “there is a feeling amongst Kukis that their roots in Manipur are being questioned by both the state government and dominant civil society.”
In March 2023, six Meitei student associations released a joint statement in which they accused “outsiders coming from the other side of Indian boundaries, especially Myanmar” of “encroaching on land which is owned by the state in the hills of Manipur.” These outsiders, the statement went on to conclude, represented a “never-ending threat to the indigenous people of Manipur.” A Metei activist, who wished to remain anonymous because they didn’t agree with some of the xenophobic rhetoric of the state government, told me that illegal immigration from Myanmar meant there had been an “unusual rise in the population of Kukis, and other communities in Manipur feel this is expansionism.”
Kukis, the Meiteis say, fear that the BJP government will publish a National Register of Citizens in Manipur, just as it did in the bordering state of Assam in 2019. The much-criticized National Register is apparently intended to root out illegal residents from India. In Assam, though, it effectively stripped two million people of their citizenship, often on questionable grounds.
Choudhury, of the Center for Policy Research, told me that in both Assam and Manipur, BJP governments had introduced “a powerful regime of ethno-political protectionism based on a narrow and chauvinistic imagining of society.” He said there was a “subterranean attempt to reimagine and homogenize certain pluralistic ethnic identities, like Assamese and Meitei, as strictly Hindu.”
A member of the Indian Parliament from Manipur wrote to Modi, asking him to employ a “strong hand” to stop the threat of “Balkanization on ethnic lines” in Manipur. But it is arguably in the nature of BJP policies to exacerbate ethnic and religious divisions. Earlier this month, the writer Arundhati Roy told an audience at a literature festival in the southern state of Kerala that the BJP asking for votes was “like a lit match asking the firewood to ‘give us a chance.’”
For three weeks, the BJP has been unable to douse the flames in Manipur. When will the prime minister take notice?
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