The Crisis in Manipur

Skye Arundhati Thomas

‘Please drop your snatched weapons here,’ says the sign on a public drop box in Imphal, the capital of Manipur. It’s illustrated with full-size images of assault rifles. In early May, sectarian violence escalated in the north-eastern Indian state. Groups of civilians seized more than four thousand weapons from police and paramilitary warehouses across Manipur. In one of the earliest reported incidents, on 4 May, over a thousand people entered a police training centre in Pangei, Imphal East, in the late afternoon. Carrying metal cutters, they headed straight to the armoury. They took everything, including the dummy guns used for training. In Iribung, a group of two thousand – ‘including women’ – entered a police station where the guards ‘willingly handed over the keys to the mob’, according to the police report. In some places people flashed their national ID cards before raiding the weapons stores, promising to return the arms once ‘the fight was over’.

Manipur is one of the eight states that wing out of the northern tip of West Bengal to form the Indian north-east. Relations between the states are fraught. Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh were carved out of Assam, in some cases after armed struggle against the Indian state. Broadly speaking, the history of the north-east is of reluctant or compromised accession to the Indian Union by several princely states in the 1950s, followed by insurgencies and separatist movements.

Manipur shares a 385-kilometre border with Burma. Two-thirds of the population of 3.5 million live in rural areas. People speak a mix of Sino-Tibetan languages. There are more than thirty so-called insurgency groups (although many are simply extortion enterprises), which have been met by a heavy military deployment from the Indian state. Curfews and lockdowns are common.

In March, the Manipur High Court recommended that the Meitei people, most of whom live in the Imphal valley, be put on the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list, giving them access to affirmative action policies in line with the Indian constitution. The Meiteis, who make up just over half the state’s population, have been fighting for ST status for more than two decades. It means they will have reserved seats in government jobs and colleges, and also be able to buy land in the hills. The Naga and Kuki communities are furious: the Meitei, they say, are already more educated and affluent, with more political connections and state-level representation.

After the High Court recommendation was made public, in late April, a gym was burned down in Churachandpur ahead of a visit from the chief minister of Manipur, a BJP official. It was also a protest against the state-driven eviction of people from forest land and the demolition of hundreds of churches. Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (which bans the assembly of four or more people, classifying it as ‘unlawful rioting’) was imposed, and all internet and broadband services shut down.

On 3 May, the All Tribal Students’ Union held a protest in Churachandpur to which more than sixty thousand people showed up. It turned violent: at least two people died of bullet wounds; eleven were injured. As their homes burned, people had to be relocated to emergency relief shelters. Additional federal and national troops were deployed, including the Rapid Action Force and the Central Reserve Police Force.

On 4 May, the governor gave a shoot-on-sight order to enforce the curfew. The Assam Rifles, a paramilitary unit that patrols the border with Burma, was beefed up, and began conducting more frequent aerial surveillance. Three days later, the Indian Supreme Court admonished the Manipur High Court for its ruling on the Meitei ST status. Yet the Meitei leadership persisted, and ten days later asked to be given back ‘ancestral lands’ from the hill regions. At a press conference in New Delhi, the World Meitei Council asked for the xenophobic and anti-Muslim National Population Register to be rolled out in Manipur, claiming that Nagas and Meiteis were the state’s only Indigenous people.

The communications blackout makes it difficult for news to travel out of Manipur. The government maintains that the purpose of the shutdown is to ‘stop the spread of misinformation’ but it has, instead, resulted in an uncontainable spread of rumours. According to reports that have got out, there are casualties on all sides, ambulances and healthcare workers are being attacked, village water sources are being purposefully polluted, grazing and agricultural lands are being razed and livestock killed.

Events in the Indian north-east barely feature in national newsfeeds. Part of the problem is that the history is so complicated. But the press and the Modi machine are also confused by the fact that the Meiteis, though Hindu, are exhibiting public anti-BJP sentiment. (On 18 June, a group of protesters were filmed burning effigies of Modi and other ministers.) The rhetoric of ‘Hindus v. others’ that the regime has used so effectively elsewhere in the country does not work in Manipur. And the opposition can’t simply blame Modi, because the crisis long predates his rise to power. After more than two months, the communications blackout is yet to be lifted. Modi has not made a single public comment about the situation.

Manipur was declared a ‘disturbed territory’ in the 1950s. The army was given impunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 (AFSPA), a revised version of the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance introduced by the British in 1942.

Under the AFSPA, for the purpose of maintaining ‘public order’, ‘any commissioned officer, warrant officer, or any other persons of equivalent rank’ has the power to ‘fire upon or otherwise use force’ against any suspects ‘even to the cause of death’. Officers can enter structures or shelters without a warrant, seizing what they find. They may arrest people without warrant, using ‘such force as may be necessary to effect the arrest’.

In 2012 a group called the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association submitted a memorandum to the United Nations Special Rapporteur with allegations of 1528 cases of extrajudicial killing. The Supreme Court of India noted that the majority of them had ‘been carried out in cold blood while the victims were in custody’.

In 2006, a hand grenade was launched into a temple in Imphal on Lord Krishna’s birthday. Around twenty thousand people were there. Four died and forty were injured, including two Americans and two Swiss nationals. A special emissary from the American consulate in Kolkata, Henry Jardine, was dispatched to Manipur. His classified report was published by Wikileaks in 2011.

Corruption, Jardine found, went all the way to the top: the then chief minister was known as ‘Mr Ten Percent’. An officer from Jardine’s paramilitary convoy explained that even to secure a government job people had to pay bribes of hundreds of thousands of rupees to state ministers. At a dinner party, the chief secretary let slip that ‘many politicians have links with or receive support from the insurgent groups.’

In Jardine’s ‘many interactions’, the leaked cable concludes, ‘a reoccurring comment was that Manipur was less a state and more a colony of India … The overwhelming presence of military, paramilitary and police officers contributed to the impression that Imphal was under military occupation.’ Jardine also received complaints from Indian forces who found that ‘efforts to effectively control the insurgencies’ were ‘hamstrung by local politicians either in league with or at least through corruption helping to finance the insurgents’.

On 21 June, Modi arrived in the United States for a state visit. He is one of few world leaders to have addressed both Houses of Congress. A state banquet was held for him even though he had been banned from entering the US for nearly a decade because of ‘severe violations of religious freedom’. More important, Biden and Modi ‘hailed the landmark signing of an MoU between General Electric and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for the manufacture of GE F-414 jet engines in India’, ‘welcomed India’s emergence as a hub for maintenance and repair for forward deployed US Navy assets’ and ‘welcomed India’s plans to procure General Atomics MQ-9B HALE UAVs’. The drones alone are said to be worth more than $2 billion.

On the North Lawn of the UN headquarters in New York, Modi led two thousand people in yoga practice.