It’s nearly 90 days since violent clashes first broke out in India’s northeastern Manipur state.
More than 130 people have been killed so far and thousands displaced. Almost 10,000 armed forces troops have been deployed to enforce order, but sporadic clashes have continued well into July.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is facing a no-confidence vote in the parliament over this, with the opposition blaming it for a half-hearted response to the crisis.
‘Not a Kuki-Meitei clash’
The immediate trigger of the ethnically-motivated clashes is said to be a reservation quota that gives special privileges to the State’s majority Meitei population against the Kuki and other tribal groups.
But many experts differ.
“The Kuki and the Meitei tribal groups have never fought in the history of Manipur before,” said Binalakshmi Nepram, the founder-director of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, which has helped more than 20,000 female survivors of the decades-old armed conflict. “They are very similar and have been living together for centuries.” “They are very similar and have been living together for centuries,” she said, in a webinar on Manipur violence, hosted recently by The Diplomat.
Nepram has been studying and researching the conflict for the last 20 years.
“There are more than 270 ethnic tribal groups and 60 armed insurgent groups in Manipur,” she said. Many have political influence and deal in drugs and guns. The ongoing crisis is very much an “engineered violence” and “there is fear among the Manipuri people, led by the Meitei, that it will lead to the balkanization” of the State, she added.
The China angle
The ongoing crisis has brought China back into focus.
China is historically well known to have armed and trained the earliest insurgent groups in the region, especially the Nagas and the Mizos.
This was at a time when China was following its Third Front policy, a government campaign aimed at defence industrialization across the country’s remote regions. Part of this allegedly reflected into Manipur, later Myanmar, say experts.
According to a 2020-21 report by the Ministry of Home Affairs, India’s northeast has nearly 400 km of porous international borders with China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Bhutan, resulting in a “fragile security situation”.
Nepram said there is a “very real China angle” to the current crisis that should not be ignored, especially as Manipur is close to China’s Belt and Road route.
Former Army Chief, retired Gen MM Navrane has also made a statement to the media recently, stressing that “the involvement of foreign agencies is definitely there” and that Chinese aid to the insurgents has been continuing for many years.
No solution in sight?
Experts believe that there is too much complexity and a built-up narrative around the Manipur crisis for decades, which must be cleared before any solution can be discussed.
It goes right back to how the State became a part of the Union of India in 1949. However, Nepram also criticised the national and global media for painting a wrong picture of the conflict over decades as a mostly religious conflict or a case of the warring clans. It is a structured clash between the various militias with a strong political nexus over the years, she said.
“Successive governments in the last 20 years” have failed to make the right policy decisions, despite holding 17 peace talks with the insurgent groups, she said.
According to Delhi-based researcher Tuisem Ngakang who hails from the region, the historical wrongs must be set right. “The history of Manipur’s co-existence of a plurality of ethnic groups, languages, and religions is not a happy existence,” he wrote in an article for the northeastern Indian publication, Mokochung Times. Moreover, the economic development has been lopsided with more progress happening in the valley areas, where the Meitei reside, Ngakang claimed, and that must be corrected.
Diplomacy and dialogue between the groups who are engineering the current violence is the only way to resolve the immediate crisis, Nepram suggested.
But according to Ngakang, a “long-lasting solution even at the cost of physical restructuring” of the State is the need of the hour, to avert another ethnic conflict in the future.
For now, the deadlock continues between the government and the opposition political parties to resolve the violence in Manipur.
The no-confidence vote moved by the opposition over this crisis, will be discussed in the parliament in the coming days. According to rules, if the government is unable to prove its majority in the parliament, it will have to resign.
But PM Modi’s government won’t lose the vote as his party and its allies have a clear majority.
“We are well aware that the numbers are not in our favour,” said Manoj K Jha, an opposition lawmaker. But the idea is for the prime minister to speak up on the issue.
The BJP is ready to have a discussion, said a ruling party lawmaker Jagannath Sarkar. “Why do they (opposition) want Prime Minister Modi to speak first? PM has already spoken outside the Parliament. He will speak inside when it is necessary,” he said.