CPIML Team’s Visit to Manipur: BJP's Divisive Politics and Criminal Governance Deepens Manipur's Ethnic Divide
Criminal Governance Deepens Manipur's Ethnic Divide

An eight member team consisting of CPIML leaders, AIPWA, AILAJ activists and an independent feminist activist visited the violence ridden Manipur from 10th to 14th August. The team consisted of Clifton D’ Rozario (CPIML State Secretary, Karnataka), Sucheta De (CPIML Central Committee Member, Delhi), Bibek Das (CPIML State Secretary, Assam), Pratima Engheepi (CPIML Central Committee Member and AIPWA leader, Karbi Anglong), Saraswathi D. (Dalit rights activist and prominent cultural activist, Karnataka), Avani Choksi (AILAJ, Karnataka and CPIML activist), Madhulika T (AILAJ, Karnataka). The team visited different parts of the affected territories in Manipur including Imphal Valley, Bishnupur district, Kangpokpi and Churachandpur.

The entire nation has been watching in dismay as Manipur lays engulfed in violence since conflict between two ethnic groups, the Meiteis and the Kukis, broke out on May 3rd of this year. According to an official report submitted by the Manipur government to the Supreme Court, the number of deaths since the conflict broke out in the State stands at 142, and the number of people displaced at 54,488. From the time these figures were presented to Court on 10th of July, more instances of violence have broken out, increasing the count of dead and displaced people from the conflict.  The events at Manipur is nothing short of a disaster, whose inception began in the form of ethnic conflict between the Meitei and Kuki community. Against the backdrop of such a crisis, the team felt compelled to visit the state, express our message of concern over the lives lost and devastated and expose to people the  reality behind the violence.

The team met several representatives from different sections of Manipuri society, including civil society organisations, prominent leaders, legal professionals, IPS officers  and people at relief camps from both the Kuki and Meitei Community.

Brief Observation of the Present Situation

Violence first broke out in the State on 3rd May 2023, and has since been continuing in different forms. Several people from both the Meitei and Kuki community believe however that the trigger for violence began much before the May 3rd violence, though their reasons for the same vary. For the Meiteis it was the rising tensions around the order of the Manipur High Court on the claim for ST status to Meiteis, and the subsequent incidents of arson reported on 27th and 28th April. For the Kukis it is traced back to the State-orchestrated demonisation of the Kuki community as a whole in the name of war on drugs and forest encroachments, which created a situation where a conflict was inevitable.

Now after three months of violence and arson, the state lays effectively fractured on ethnic divisions – there is complete ethnic segregation of Kukis and Meiteis into the Hills and Valley respectively. On the one hand, Meiteis living in the hill districts alongside Kukis have been forced to leave their houses and take shelter in relief camps, and on the other hand, Kukis living and working in the valley area, mainly Imphal East and Imphal West, have been driven out and have sought shelter in the relief camps in Kuki majority areas such as Kangpokpi and Churachandpur. Thousands of others, mostly Kuki, have taken shelter at relief camps in Mizoram. The Team also met displaced Kukis in Guwahati and learnt that there are about 500 Kuki and Meitei families who fled to Guwahati following the violence. Hundreds of other families have fled to other parts of the country. Just a couple of days ago, the Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh informed about the return of 212 citizens belonging to the Meitei community from Myanmar to where they had fled around 3 months back after the start of conflict.

As per media persons at Imphal, there are about 130 relief camps in the valley out of which they are 7 relief camps in Imphal city. Persons from the Meitei community displaced from Kuki dominated areas like Churachandpur, Moreh and Kangpokpi are staying in these relief camps. A spokesperson from the Kuki Student Organisation (KSO) reported to us that the district of Kangpokpi has 55 relief camps in which over 12,000 displaced people are seeking refuge. As per a spokesperson of KSO from Churachandpur, the district has 106 relief camps, and about 41,000 displaced people from the Kuki community. There are additionally Kuki camps in other hill districts as well. According to an independent journalist, covering the impact of the conflict, the number of displaced persons from the Kuki community number about 60,000, while those displaced from Meitei community are about 15,000.

These figures presented to us by representatives on ground cross the numbers presented by State government in July by a mile, and presents an idea of the magnitude of devastation that occurred in Manipur. A brief description of the situation at the relief camps is presented later in this report.

Throughout our visit both at Imphal valley districts and the hill districts, we saw houses and property incinerated to the ground. Houses and property belonging to Kuki community in Imphal have been burnt. In a similar manner, houses, and property of Meiteis in Kuki majority areas in the hills and foothills have also been burnt.

There has also been large-scale destruction of places of religious worship as a part of the conflict. Church sources inform that about 350 churches have been burnt down  across the state including Churches attended by Christians from Meitei community According to a Meitei politician we met several temples have also been burnt. While the violence in Manipur may not primarily have been based on religious differences, and the burning down of places of worship an outcome of the ethnic clash, as long as a party like BJP holds power at the state and centre, a flaring up of religious enmity in the near future cannot  be ruled out. It is also of importance to mention that we saw an untouched temple in the town of  Churachandpur, which is patronized by Nepalis and Marwari community.

In our interactions with people from both the communities, one cannot miss the deep sense of animosity and mistrust towards people from the other community. Every narrative of the violence  lays blame on the other community. The mistrust runs so deep that one displaced Kuki person we met at a shelter in Guwahati told us that after their house was attacked in Imphal of May 3rd and they were rescued by CRPF, some Meiteis came to offer them food, but they did not take it thinking the food might be poisoned.

The frontier or the foothills region between the valley and the hills, has turned into a buffer zone heavily guarded by the armed forces and women’s groups on both sides. While the Meitei women’s group Meira Paibis guard the border on the valley side, groups of Kuki women guard the hill side of the frontier.

In the valley, there are hoardings, banners and graffiti’s demanding revocation of Suspension of Operation agreement with Kuki underground groups, affirming Manipur’s territorial integrity and calling for action against “narco-terrorists”. In Kuki dominated areas we saw banners stating “Separation is the only solution” and “No Meitei Product allowed” and the renaming of places to traditional Kuki names like Churachandpur which is now Lamka.

Vehicle drivers from either the Meitei or the Kuki community cannot travel from the valley to the hill and vice versa. It is only the Pangals (Meitei Muslims) and Nagas who are able to cross over. There is a strict surveillance of identities of people travelling across the border by not only the armed forces but also by Meitei and Kuki groups guarding the frontier.

Manipur has been completely segregated  between the Meitei and the Kuki community. The wounds and trauma experienced collectively by Manipuri society will require serious efforts from both communities and well-wishers to heal.

Precursor to the Violence

A fact that cannot be ignored in this entire episode of violence and ethnic segregation is that the violence was overseen by a two-term BJP Government both at the state and the centre. N. Biren Singh, the Chief Minister of Manipur since 2017 was sworn in shortly after joining BJP in 2016. It is under his Chief Ministership that the state has witnessed such an unprecedented scale of violence and ethnic segregation.

As mentioned earlier, our team spoke to several people from both the communities to understand the trigger and reasons behind the conflict. The narrative from the Meitei side hinges on 2 main issues:  firstly, that “lakhs and lakhs of Kuki infiltrators” are entering Manipur from Myanmar and setting up thousands of new villages and secondly, expanding poppy cultivation in Kuki areas. This narrative has found it vocal proponent in the Chief Minister who has publicly endorsed this narrative, particularly on social media platforms by releasing press statements about ‘War of Drugs’, ‘Infiltration’ etc., which have caused a demonisation of the Kuki community.

For years, Manipur, due to its geographical location as a border state and its history of assertion against the Indian military has been viewed through the prism of national security. The lives and livelihood of people in Manipur have always taken a backseat for the ruling powers of India from Delhi. Today with the BJP - a party that champions the discourse of otherisation -  in power both at the state and the centre,  the situation at Manipur has worsened . If a country is to prioritise the lives and livelihood of its people, ‘national security’ cannot be used  as a narrative to fuel public opinion about any community. However, this is precisely what the Chief Minister of Manipur is doing.

Members of Kuki Civil Society Organisations informed us that since the second term of the Biren Singh government, there has been a concerted effort to target the people living in the hills. There has been several instances of eviction notices being served on people living in hill areas in the name of forest conservation. The Bulldozer governance of the BJP regime has been unleashed in the hills. Several houses in the hill have been demolished in the name of evacuating people from ‘Protected Forests’. It is important to remember that it is the same BJP that recently passed  dangerous amendments to The Forest Conservation Act from Lok Sabha at the cost of livelihood of forest dwelling people, and same party that is selling out national resources to private and global corporates.

As per several members we met from the Kuki community, the discourse of infiltration and poppy cultivation used to target them has made them feel a deep sense of insecurity and alienation in the state.

While poppy cultivation and its impact on Manipur society needs unbiased and serious investigation, the selective targeting of only the Kuki community needs demystification. According to Thounaojam Brinda, former ASP of Manipur and a prominent political personality in Manipur,  the Chief Minister himself is associated with drug cartels. She has said that while serving as a police officer she busted several drug cartels and found many BJP leaders associated with these cartels. She was also pressurized by senior BJP leaders not to file cases against the Autonomous District Council (ADC) Chairperson of Chandel, a BJP member despite finding high-value drugs at his residence in a drug raid led by her.  She has said that the Vice President of the BJP of the state, the DGP and SP of Manipur police all were sent to her by the Chief Minister himself to drop the charges against people involved in the drug cartels.

Members from the Kuki community maintain that poppy cultivation is a problem which requires serious intervention; however they vehemently disagree with the manner in which the war on drugs is being carried out. Poppy is mostly cultivated by poor farmers, who have no other means of income according to several people from both Kuki and Meitei community that the team met during the visit. It is a shame that the head of a state, despite two terms in power,  has failed to provide substantive livelihood and welfare to poor farmers to wean them from away from poppy cultivation and has rather focused on creating inflammatory narratives and  generating animosity between different communities.

Another issue that needs attention is the role of Meitei organisations like Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun in flaring up the polarisation in the State. As per several people the team met, these groups have played active role in blowing up the narrative of infiltration against Kuki community. They have also exaggerated the CM’s hyped up campaign of War on Drugs.

Situation at the Relief Camps

The living conditions at the relief camps the team visited both in the valley and the hills are abysmal.  We visited two camps in Imphal, three camps in Churachandpur, one camp in Moirang and one camp in Kangpokpi.

In Imphal city, we visited Shyamasakhi relief camp , sheltering 83 displaced Meiteis, which is being run by seven local clubs. The government is only providing 80 rupees per day for food for the residents, which as per people in the camp is extremely difficult to get by.

Another camp in Imphal city, Akampat Relief Camp,  is presently providing shelter to about 800 Meitei people displaced from Moreh and Churachandpur. We saw residents living in cramped rooms and food being cooked near garbage pits. As per inmates, the government has promised 1000 rupees compensation per head, and that they have received only Rs 500 to date.

At ITI relief camp in Kangpokpi, we were told that lack of nutritious food has severely impacted people living at the camp. People have been surviving merely on rice, dal and potato for almost three months.  We were also informed at the camp that almost no relief came from the State, and that the camp was completely dependent on money from CSO’s to run. At the relief camps at Churachandpur, we were told that infectious diseases including  measles, chicken pox and viral fever have begun to spread rapidly due to the how congested the living situation  at the camps are. Sanitation is also a huge problem with most camps only having two washrooms  for over 200 hundred people.

Aftermath of the Violence and Ethnic Segregation:

While the violence and the ethnic segregation will have long term impacts on the Manipuri society and politics, the segregation and blockade of roads the past three months in the frontier of the valley and hills have had profound impacts on both communities.

Access to health is a major concern for people living in the hills. At the District hospital at Kangpokpi, we observed an acute shortage of medical supplies and medical professionals.  We were informed that the hospital is unable to send samples  for HIV/Hepatitis testing to Imphal and that several people have gone untreated for HIV/Hepatitis in the area as a result. An activist also narrated to us a tragic story of a dialysis patient dying after the sole technician providing dialysis in the area fled after the conflict began.

High inflation has also impacted the communities in the hill areas acutely. We were told that prices of essential commodities including food items in the hills have increased manifold since the blockade started.

Schools and colleges are shut in the Kuki dominated areas. In Imphal as well, several colleges have been transformed into relief camps. Kuki students who studied at the colleges in Imphal city have been forced to discontinue their studies as it is unlikely that they will be able to return to the city anytime soon.

What ahead?

This unprecedented ethnic segregation of the Meitei and Kuki communities into the valley and hills of Manipur, is BJPs gift on the 75th anniversary of India's independence. Never before in the history of India has a government overseen such a complete decimation of society's social fabric that has resulted in entire communities within a state being ethnically segregated into different parts of a State. The BJP government has manufactured this segregation in a state, which despite previous conflicts, was able to reconcile and live together.

It goes without saying that this ethnic segregation and violence that has been raging for more than 3 months now, is the consequence of the actions of the BJP government. Even as the Chief Minister Biren Singh proved thoroughly incompetent and reluctant to put an end to the violence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi prioritised his visits to France and the US over Manipur.

It is an almost unanimous opinion that the State was the biggest actor in this entire situation, and it consciously allowed the situation to worsen. It has allowed Manipur to burn, and to segregated ethnically.

Further decisions and steps need to be taken against the broader context of restoration of peace in the state and fixation of accountability of the government. For any feasible political solution to emerge, the first step is for Mr. Biren Singh to resign as the Chief Minister. We appeal to the affected communities to cease all hostilities to ensure that the displaced persons at the relief camps can receive proper aid. This will serve as an important gesture to move forward from the conflict towards any future resolution.