Manipur’s struggle for peace amidst ethnic tensions

Dipak Kurmi
As the new year dawned in the serene North Eastern State of Manipur, a distinct shift marked the latest wave of violence, setting it apart from the previous chaotic mob clashes that had gripped the ‘Jewel of the East’ in May of the preceding year.
The initial phase of turmoil in Manipur, charac- terized by ethnic tensions, has evolved into a scenario reminiscent of the Wild West, with armed groups from the Meiteis and Kuki-Zo tribes engaging in gunfights.
In the initial months of unrest, unseen ethnic boun-daries emerged, prompting the Kukis and other members of the broader Zo community to depart from the Imphal valley, traditionally dominated by the Meiteis. Simultaneously, the Meiteis sought refuge in the valley, leaving behind the tribal-administered hill districts. This unfolding dynamic echoed events reminiscent of the 1947 ethnic cleansing on religious lines in Punjab.
The often-criticized Assam Rifles and deployed army regiments in Manipur established buffer zones, strategically separating Meitei territories from those inhabited by Kukis, along with other tribal communities like the Paites. This delicate peace was occasionally disrupted by either community’s sporadic attempts to expand their sphere of influence.
The extensive web of Kangleipak rebel factions, once a persistent menace in the Imphal valley, has experienced a resurgence. Over the past two decades, these factions had been relatively contained, but recent developments indicate a revival, with some even acquiring weaponry allegedly “looted” from the State police force.
A portion of the faction-riddled Kuki militants in Manipur, who had previously surrendered and resided in camps under the vigilant supervision of the Assam Rifles, might have eluded surveillance. There are indications that they could have potentially joined armed village vigilantes in the hill district.
As the divisions along communal lines solidified in the State, factions on either side of the ethnic rift united into two overarching “armies” representing Kukis and Meiteis. Surprisingly, despite their differences, they found a common adversary in each other.
It appears as though a “war within a war” has erupted in the State, with factions not only engaging in direct confrontations but also exploiting the overall breakdown of law and order. Simultaneously, they capitalize on the chaos to partake in activities such as extortion, gun trafficking, and narcotics trade—historically familiar ventures that now further threaten and manipulate the general public.
Despite efforts to reconcile race relations through the establishment of peace committees, the reality persists that the formidable presence of heavily armed militants and vigilantes on both sides has significantly eroded trust between communities. This, in turn, has undermined the State’s ability to maintain peace and foster trust-building initiatives effectively.
The ongoing violence, coupled with the shortcomings of the State machinery in addressing the crisis, has tragically led to the loss of at least 180 lives. Additionally, the aftermath has seen the destruction of 1,700 structures and the displacement of nearly 40,000 individuals, with some seeking refuge in neighboring States.
The arrival of Kukis from Myanmar, seeking refuge from the conflict in the neighboring Nation, has further heightened the feeling of insecurity among the Meiteis.
While the Kuki National Organisation and the Kuki National Army (Burma) have consistently emphasized their exclusive focus on the conflict with the Myanmar State, and not engaging in any skirmishes in Manipur, the possibility of some of their members acting independently and participating in the training of village vigilantes cannot be dismissed.
Several analysts express dissatisfaction with the State Government’s decision to reinforce the presence of State police commandos, primarily consisting of Meiteis, in the Kuki hill areas. Incidents of clashes between these commandos and Kukis have been reported in Moreh, along with accusations of high-handed behavior by State policemen towards tribal communities.
Compounding the situation, the recent surge in violence has been accompanied by the arrest of two local newspaper Editors on charges of purportedly violating sections of the Indian Penal Code and, in one instance, the Officials Secrets Act. In a State already grappling with restricted reporting due to frequent internet bans and other obstacles, these recent arrests paint a concerning picture for the freedom of the press.
Throughout its history, Manipur has witnessed a complex interplay of conflict and camaraderie among its diverse communities. In the era of monarchs reigning over the Imphal valley, their influence in the hills, home to Nagas, Kukis, and other tribal groups, was rather precarious.
(To be contd)