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Commentary : Manipur: A State of Siege

By Shashi Tharoor Email By Shashi Tharoor
September 2023
Commentary : Manipur: A State of Siege

The conflict between the Meitei and the Kuki that has gripped Manipur in recent months has complex roots, linked to land, identity, autonomy, and the drug trade. But it has been aggravated by the ineptitude of the northeastern state’s chief minister and his party’s lack of political will to seek a resolution.

India is no stranger to periodic outbursts of violence. But the slow-burning horror in its northeastern state of Manipur has shaken the country and paralyzed its parliament. And there is no resolution in sight.

A small state bordering Myanmar, Manipur has been rocked since early May by a fierce conflict between the Meitei and Kuki communities over land, tribal status, the drug trade, and migration. The fighting has left a trail of humiliation, injury, and death. Women have been publicly stripped, their dignity robbed by rival factions; in some particularly horrific cases, they have been raped and murdered. Countless lives have been uprooted, with the ruins of people’s property serving as grim reminders of the insecurity they face. And, so far, the central government and opposition parties have made negligible progress in ending the horror and restoring peace.

The conflict in Manipur didn’t erupt overnight. A complex web of factors has contributed to the current situation, above all important demographic imbalances. The Meiteis complain that they own just 10% of the state’s land, despite comprising 53% of its population. Although the Kukis account for just 16% of the population, together with the Nagas (24% of the population), they control 90% of the state’s land. Kukis maintain that 90% of their land is barren, rocky, and hilly, whereas Meitei lands are fertile and richly cultivated.

The conflict is compounded by the fact that Kukis and Nagas, who are mostly Christian, enjoy tribal status under India’s complex system of entitlements, meaning that non-tribals cannot purchase or settle in their lands. The Meiteis, who are mainly Hindu (though also sometimes Christian), enjoy no such protections.

In March, the Manipur High Court threw a lit match into the tinderbox. The court directed the state government to pursue a ten-year-old recommendation to grant Scheduled Tribe status—and the political and economic benefits that come with it—to the majority Meiteis. This triggered protest marches in Kuki areas, in turn sparking violent assaults from some Meitei groups.


The situation quickly spiraled out of control. As of early July, an estimated 120 people have died, and 70,000 have been displaced to poorly provisioned camps. Thousands of homes have been attacked and burned, and hundreds of churches have been desecrated, damaged, or demolished. The result has been total separation between the communities, with Kukis fearing for their lives if they so much as venture into Meitei territory—including the state capital, Imphal—and Meiteis similarly unable to set foot on Kuki lands.

Kuki groups blame two radical Meitei organizations, Meitei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol, for instigating and perpetuating the violence. Both groups are accused of spreading hate speech, rumors, and misinformation about the Kukis and other tribal communities, thereby provoking more attacks.

The web gets more tangled. The flow of illegal immigrants from Myanmar—mostly Burmese Chins, who are kin to the Kukis—has allegedly increased the pressure on land and other resources and heightened insecurity among non-Kuki communities.

Moreover, the Meitei-led government is waging a “war on drugs” that the Kukis allege is merely a pretext to uproot their communities and destroy their livelihoods. The shadow of corruption has emerged as well: a prominent Manipuri police officer resigned from the force and denounced the Meitei Chief Minister of Manipur, N. Biren Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and his government for interfering in drug investigations and sheltering certain drug lords.

Yet another piece of the puzzle is the thriving revivalist movement aiming to restore Sanamahism, the indigenous religion of the Meiteis, along with the group’s original culture and identity more broadly. Meiteis were largely converted to Hinduism in the eighteenth century by King Pamheiba under the influence of Bengali Brahmins. Some, under the influence of missionaries, adopted Christianity more recently.

The Sanamahi movement wants Meiteis to abandon both of these “new” faiths, and some of its members have been implicated in attacks on the property of both Hindu and Christian communities. Some Sanamahis see their religion as a way of asserting their distinct identity and resisting external domination.

According to the 2011 Indian census, just 8% of Manipur’s population is Sanamahi. But some sources put that figure much higher, noting that many are not officially registered or have carelessly been classified as Hindu. In any case, the Sanamahi movement has been gaining adherents in recent years.

The long-running conflict between the Meitei and the Kuki over land, identity, autonomy, and resources has been aggravated by the ineptitude of the BJP chief minister and his party’s lack of political will to pursue a resolution. Singh orchestrated a public drama outside his home by declaring that he would resign, and then letting his supporters tear up his resignation letter. What he has not done is promote dialogue, even with Kuki representatives of his own party.

In fact, when opposition leader Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress traveled to Manipur, his efforts to meet both sides were impeded by the authorities. When a combined delegation of opposition parties in the I.N.D.I.A. alliance managed to visit, it produced a harrowing report on the crisis and urged President Droupadi Murmu to intervene. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has remained silent on the tragedy.

Each day the conflict continues brings fresh reports of violence and killing. Beyond the human tragedy, the Manipur crisis casts doubt on Modi’s claims of good governance and undermines the image of a decisive leader that he has been attempting to cultivate abroad. The only way forward is prompt action to end the fighting.

Shashi Tharoor, a former United Nations under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is an MP for the Indian National Congress. He is the author, most recently, of Ambedkar: A Life (Aleph Book Company, 2022). Reprinted from Project Syndicate with the permission of Dr. Tharoor.

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