Ethnic crisis in Manipur

The current episodes of ethnic violence in Manipur, although not completely unprecedented, are the result of decades-long mistrust among the communities, the indifference of successive governments towards people’s genuine grievances, the uneven distribution of resources, asymmetric political representation, and a massive governance deficit.

BySanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Updated 22 Jun 2024, 9:39 pm

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Ethnic conflict, a form of conflict in which the objectives of at least one party are defined in ethnic terms, and the conflict, its antecedents, and possible solutions are perceived along ethnic lines. The conflict is usually not about ethnic differences themselves but over political, economic, social, cultural, or territorial matters.

The destabilization of provinces, states, and, in some cases, even whole regions is a common consequence of ethnic violence. Ethnic conflicts are often accompanied by gross human rights violations, such as genocide and crimes against humanity, and by economic decline, state failure, environmental problems, and refugee flows. Violent ethnic conflict leads to tremendous human suffering.

Beginning in May 2023, the outbreak of violence between the Meiteis and the Kukis in India’s Northeastern state of Manipur has once again brought the decades-long ethnic conflicts to the limelight. As peace in Manipur seems like a distant dream, there are competing narratives around the genesis of the current eruption.

Most media reports point to the May 3 incident in the Kuki-majority district of Churachandpur, while others say it was the Meitei groups’ act of blocking the roads in the Imphal East district. Absent a consensus about the beginnings of this current episode, today the reality is that the Kukis have been forced to flee the Meitei-dominated areas, and the Meiteis have also moved out from the Kuki-dominated areas; there is little chance that the situation will be reversed soon. The extent and scale of violence has been massive, if not completely unprecedented in Manipur.

Officially, as stated by the Inspector General of Police, IK Muivah, as of September 14, 2023, 175 people have been killed across the state, and 5,000 cases of arson including the torching of more than 4,700 houses have been reported. Moreover, 386 religious structures (254 churches, mostly belonging to the Kukis, and 132 temples) have been vandalised. Other sources report different figures. According to the Kuki Student Organisation, for example, the Kukis have suffered 146 deaths; 7,000 houses and 360 churches have been burnt down in their areas.

Amid the continuing strife, the state government, led by Chief Minister N Biren Singh, has faced harsh criticism, both from the opposition and allies, for giving patronage to the Meitei groups and being “prejudiced against the Kukis.” Opposition parties, calling the state government to account, are demanding the imposition of ‘President’s rule’ in Manipur. The Union Government has rejected demands to remove the chief minister from office and declared confidence in how his government has worked to control the situation.


The current episodes of ethnic violence, although not completely unprecedented, are the result of decades-long mistrust among the communities, the indifference of successive governments towards people’s genuine grievances, the uneven distribution of resources, asymmetric political representation, and a massive governance deficit. Against this backdrop, this brief analyses the socio-political issues at the root of the ethnic conflicts in Manipur—in particular, that between the Kukis and the Meiteis.

The brief argues that the violent clashes are extreme manifestations of decades-long conflicts between the Kukis and the Meiteis, in turn induced by social mistrust, manufactured apprehension and anxiety, the state government’s lack of political will to address the grievances, and the rigid positions of the competing ethnic groups against each other. Further, the brief posits that looking for a legal solution to the conflict between the Meiteis and the Kukis would give limited results unless both communities open themselves to genuine dialogue. It outlines a set of policy recommendations to minimise the risks of ethnic conflict between the Meiteis and the Kukis. 

The contestation over indigeneity has manifested itself in the decades-long clash between the fight for Manipur’s ‘territorial integrity’, as asserted by the Meiteis, and the demands for separate homeland by the Kukis and the Nagas. The NSCN-IM-led militancy, for one, demands the creation of Nagalim-Greater Nagaland that covers a substantial portion of the Naga-majority areas in Manipur. In June 2001, the Government of India and the NSCN-IM signed the Bangkok Agreement that extended the three-year ceasefire including in the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur; the agreement was not accepted by the Meitei groups, and violent clashes killed 13 people in one day alone.

Similarly, the Kukis’ demand for a Kukiland-Zale’n-gam also causes apprehensions to the Meiteis. The Hill-Valley divide in Manipur—seen in issues such as the demand of the Meiteis for ST status and the opposition to it—is deeply rooted. Among the multiple factors that have historically wedged this divide is asymmetric development and political representation. Economic development and political power has been valley-centric, leaving the Kukis and the Nagas bereft of the benefits.

The issues of asymmetric political representation and development are worsened by a persisting governance deficit. Insurgency movements belonging to each of the ethnic communities have established governance mechanisms parallel to the formal governance structures in Manipur. In the absence of a perceived or real governance, the informal governance structures play important roles. Arguably, the governance deficit can be directly attributed to the faulty and ineffective decentralisation of power in Manipur, where the populations in the hill districts are often unable to obtain justice for their grievances. As scholars have argued, the linkages between identity and discrimination in governance have driven ethnic polarisation in Manipur.

Issues emanating from certain neighbouring countries of India also contribute to the ethnic conflicts in Manipur. These include the dumping of goods from China; the illegal migration (both real and the perceived) of the Chins from Myanmar; and increasing cultivation of poppies and consequently the rising drug trade in Manipur. While the dumping of goods from China is often seen through the prism of state security, the illegal immigration from Myanmar, and the rise of poppy cultivation and the drug trade are often linked to the Kukis of Manipur.

The majority of Meiteis (and to some extent the Nagas, too) are of the view that the illegal migration of the Chins from Myanmar, following the takeover of the junta in 2021, threatens the ‘demographic balance’ of Manipur. Moreover, the Meiteis believe that with the illegal immigration of Chins from Myanmar, there has been a spike in poppy cultivation in and around the Kuki majority areas, leading to the rise of the drug trade in the state. Such claims, however, are rejected by the Kukis.


For the Meiteis, the Kukis are “shifting the demography” of Manipur; for the Kukis, the Meiteis are pushing their “majoritarian agenda”. While the competing narratives fuel the ethnic conflict, Kukis view certain policies of the Manipur state government as being targeted against them. These include the ‘war on drugs’, the conduct of surveys through the Manipur State Population Commission (MSPC) supposedly to identify ‘illegal immigrants’; and the eviction and demolition drives in various parts of Manipur. Along with the government’s measures to crack down on poppy cultivation and drug trade, the surveys conducted through the MSPC to identify the illegal immigrants induced by the demands from the Meiteis for the implementation of the NRC in Manipur has created fear and anxiety among the Kukis.

Moreover, the implementation drives to protect the forests, since October 2022, is perceived to be biased against the Kukis. The eviction of villages, mostly belonging to the Kuki-Z-Chin communities, the demolition of Kuki churches and of the tribal colonies in Imphal Valley, have all fuelled perceptions among the Kukis that they were being persecuted.

Tt is around these claims by the Kukis being targeted, and the counterclaims by the Meiteis that the Kukis are shifting the demography by providing a safe haven to the illegal Chin migrants from Myanmar and engaging in poppy cultivation—that the ethnic conflict has worsened since erupting in early May. The ongoing violence has caused heavy losses in lives and property, to both the communities. The failure of the government in containing violence puts into question its political will in minimising the risks of ethnic conflicts in Manipur through an effective policy framework.

There is an urgent need for meaningful dialogue among the conflicting communities that could precede confidence-building measures among the ethnic groups. In turn, the only way that such a confidence-building measure could be initiated is to bring an end to the violence. The political will of the state government would be key.

Infusing a sense of fraternity among the ethnic groups to defeat the existing anarchy of ethnic majoritarianism needs to be prioritised. In doing so, the political will of the state mechanism and the consensus at the social level need to converge. Entertaining the demands for a separate homeland or the assertions of a community as the sole guardian of the territorial integrity of a state defeats the democratic ethos of India. The power elites, across the ethnic communities, should understand that there would hardly be any end to such group-based demands. Lastly, in an ethnically fragile state such as Manipur, policymaking should rise above the electoral interests of incumbent regimes. Policies around short-term electoral interests have had negative implications on the nation-building endeavour.

(The views expressed are personal)


First published:


manipurjiribammeiteiskukismanipur crisis

Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Assistant Professor, JCRE Global College, Babupara, Imphal. The writer can be reached at sjugeshwor7@gmail.com


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