Manipur in boiling pot

While the state and central government – both controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) – have insisted that the situation is “slowly improving”, those on the ground tell another story.

BySanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Updated 14 Aug 2023, 2:42 pm

(Photo: IFP)
(Photo: IFP)

Ethnic violence has plunged the small Indian state of Manipur into what many have dubbed a state of civil war as the two largest groups, the majority Meitei and minority Kuki, battle over land and influence.

The hilly Northeast Indian state sits east of Bangladesh and borders Myanmar. It is home to an estimated 3.3 million people. More than half are Meiteis, while around 43 per cent are Kukis and Nagas, the predominant minority tribes.

At least 130 people have been killed and 400 wounded in violence that began on May 3 and has been established in a situation that has pushed the state to the brink of civil war.

More than 60,000 have been forced from their homes as the army, paramilitary forces, and police struggle to quell violence. Police armouries have been looted, hundreds of churches and more than a dozen temples ruined, and villages destroyed.

Tensions boiled over when Kukis began protesting against demands from the Meiteis to be given an official tribal status, which the Kukis argued would strengthen their already strong influence on government and society, allowing them to buy land or settle in predominantly Kuki areas. But there are myriad underlying reasons.

The Kukis say a war on drugs waged by the Meitei-led government is a screen to uproot their communities. illegal migration from Myanmar has heightened tensions. There is pressure on land use from a growing population and unemployment has pushed the youth towards the various militias.

Meitei, Kuki and Naga militias have for decades fought one another over conflicting homeland demands and religious differences, and all sides have clashed with India's security forces.

The latest flare-up, however, is almost entirely between the Meitei and the Kuki.

"This time, the conflict is strictly rooted in ethnicity, not religion." 

The Meitei have roots in Manipur, Myanmar and surrounding areas. The vast majority are Hindu although some follow the Sanamahi religion. The Kukis, mostly Christians, have spread across the Northeast of India, and many of those in Manipur can trace their roots back to Myanmar too. Meiteis mostly lives in the Imphal valley area, while the Kukis live in the surrounding hills and beyond.

The Indian government has deployed 60,000 soldiers, paramilitary troops and police to the region in an attempt to stem the latest round of violence.


So far, it has resisted calls from tribal leaders to impose direct rule. But the violence continues to spread and force more villagers from their homes more. Mr. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, which governs India, also runs the state government in Manipur, led by N Biren Singh, a Meitei.

The Meitei also control 40 of the regional Assembly’s 60 seats despite totalling 53 per cent of the population. The Kukis say that Singh's recent war on the cultivation of poppy for the heroin trade targeted Kuki areas.

Singh's government accused Kuki insurgent groups of inciting the community, as they saw the smoke rising up from torched houses nearby. 

Manipur is now carved up into two fiercely protected ethnic zones, with the lowlands and valleys controlled by the Meiteis, and the Kukis in control of the hills of Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal and Chandel. Venturing into the territory of the opposing tribe is described as a “death sentence”.

While the state and central government – both controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) – have insisted that the situation is “slowly improving”, those on the ground tell another story.

Curfews and restrictions remain in large parts of the state and the internet has repeatedly been shut down. Thousands of additional army and paramilitary personnel have been deployed, while both sides have formed their own vigilante armed groups.

Analysts say government efforts to bring peace in the region have largely failed so far and the tensions could escalate further, risking destabilising other states in India’s volatile north-east region such as Mizoram, Nagaland and Assam.

The BJP state government in Manipur is dominated by the majority Meitei community, leading to mass distrust among Kuki leaders, while Modi has remained publicly silent on the conflict. The only high profile BJP minister to visit the state has been the home minister, Amit Shah. His visit did little to ease the ethnic tension.

The spark for the unrest was a state court ruling on 27 March which gave the dominant Meitei community “tribal status”, entitling them to the same economic benefits and quotas in government jobs and education as the minority Kuki community, as well as allowing Meiteis to purchase land in the hills, where the Kukis predominately live. The decision was later stayed by the Supreme Court, which called it “factually wrong”.

The case stirred up an already fractious situation in a state that has been no stranger to ethnic conflicts and insurgencies since independence.

The 2021 military coup in the neighbouring country of Myanmar raised tensions again after thousands of refugees, who are more ethnically aligned with the Kukis, fled over the border into Mizoram state and then Manipur, leading to fears among the Meiteis that their community risked being displaced.

A protest on May 3 by Kuki students over the court ruling was met with violence, and within hours ethnic groups had begun to clash. Houses, shops, churches, temples and businesses were destroyed and about 60 people were killed in the first two days of violence. Since then, clashes and the torching of villages have continued apace.


More than 4,000 weapons have been looted from police armories and officials say they are often unable to control the anarchy that descends on to the streets, described by India’s deputy foreign minister – whose house was among those recently attacked with petrol bombs – as “a complete breakdown of law and order”.

Both sides have now bunkered down in an effort to protect their own territories. In Leimaram, a Meitei-controlled village surrounded by paddy fields, a group of “village defence volunteers” – made up of about 150 farmers, teachers and local businessmen – have all taken up arms in the conflict.

Their village of just 400 households is just a few km from a Kuki stronghold, making it effectively a frontier in this ethnic fight.

Villagers have put up seven bunkers on the western side of the village and armed men keep a vigil day and night. The road between the two villages has been barricaded and exists now as an eerily silent buffer zone, lined with scorched, deserted homes and burnt-out cars and trucks.

Military personnel have been stationed every few meters. “The situation has reached a point where only guns can decide the future course.” The Meitei tribe says that splitting the state would bring their entire identity into question and warn that they are ready to fight it at any cost.

“The current border of Manipur is what our forefathers have fought for by shedding blood. We cannot let it be divided,” says a Meitei activist holding his gun inside a bunker. “The separation of Manipur is not acceptable to us. We will fight for it and there will be lots of bloodshed.

“Police, army officials and leaders from both communities have confirmed that militants fighting in Myanmar have also crossed over the border and are launching attacks on opposing communities. The Guardian also witnessed the presence of these militants, with automatic rifles, among the village defense volunteers of both communities.

Series of gunfights, protests by Meira paibis all over the valley against the biased nature of Assam rifles, protest of missing persons families are the order of the day. Unabated gun shots by the Kuki militants in the foothills of Imphal West and Imphal East districts in the adjoining areas of these districts with Kangpokpi as well as in the Bishnupur district at places adjacent to Churachandpur district seems to be a routine nature, disturbing agricultural activities in these areas, which may cause a great famine in next year.

However, the Government of India and Manipur government have not shown any positive steps to restore peace and normalcy so far. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, has not spoken anything about the violence in Manipur except for the viral video of two women paraded in naked.

Internet shutdown though partially lifted but general public are still inaccessible to it. Academic activities of schools, colleges and universities are badly disturbed, which is one of the most unfortunate parts. Prices of essential commodities have rocketed sky high, and daily wage earners are suffering. Therefore, the voice of the people is, when will this violence end?

(The views expressed are personal) 


First published:


meiteiskukismanipur violencemanipur burning

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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