Manipur’s Year of Agony

But everything changed in the month of May, as the state’s ethnic fault lines cracked open and long-simmering tensions came to the boil.

Manipur’s Year of Agony

Roiled by turmoil and bloodshed, the state of Manipur saw some of its darkest moments in 2023. The ethnic violence that erupted in the month of May plunged the state into a bitter conflict that, eight months down the line, shows no sign of coming to an end. With close to 200 lives lost, hundreds of homes burned down and thousands of people displaced, the cost has been heavy; the conflict has also left the state fractured on ethnic lines, communities traumatised, families shattered, and the economy in tatters. As the year ended, thousands of the displaced continued to languish in scattered relief camps, facing an uncertain future.

For many in Manipur, the year had begun on a hopeful note. Covid was on the wane, insurgency was dormant, there was hope of economic activity picking up. The capital Imphal, in a coup of sorts for this remote state, hosted the finale of the Femina Miss India 2023 contest. Chief minister Nongthombam Biren Singh was firmly entrenched and about to complete the first year of his second term.

But everything changed in the month of May, as the state’s ethnic fault lines cracked open and long-simmering tensions came to the boil.


The immediate trigger was an order of the Manipur High Court that asked the state government to consider the demand by sections of the Meitei community for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe list and to make a recommendation accordingly to the Central government. But the seeds of the conflict were already there, stemming from long-running tussles over issues relating to land and other resources, discord over political representation, the incompatible aspirations of various ethnic communities, and actions by the state government over the previous few months that had created anger and a sense of insecurity amongst some communities.

The Biren Singh government had begun a crackdown on illegal poppy cultivation in the hill districts from the beginning of the year, razing poppy crops and arresting cultivators and village chieftains, which caused resentment amongst the Kuki and Zomi communities who were the most affected and who contended they were being unfairly targeted. Linked to this were steps taken by the government to conduct a survey of reserved forests and evict encroaching villages, which had already provoked violent protests, particularly in the Kuki-Zomi-dominated Churachandpur district. The Manipur government had at the time accused Kuki-Zomi militant groups of instigating the protests.

On the other side of the coin, with a military crackdown in neighbouring Myanmar after the 2021 coup sending refugees streaming into India’s border states, many civil society groups were raising the demand for identification of “illegal immigrants” and the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state. It was feared that these refugees, many of whom have ethnic ties to the Kuki-Zomi communities in Manipur, were being absorbed in these communities and settled in the hill areas, thus effecting drastic and unacceptable demographic changes.

The Manipur High Court’s order, on a petition filed by the Meitei (Meetei) Tribe Union, was issued on 27 March, and made public in the middle of April. It immediately provoked protests from tribal bodies, who feared that the more numerous Meiteis would hog the opportunities and benefits meant for Scheduled Tribes.

On 3 May, a Peace Solidarity Rally was organised by the All Tribal Student Union, Manipur in the districts of Churachandpur, Tamenglong, Tengnoupal, Senapati, Kangpokpi, Chandel and Ukhrul against the High Court directive. The rally was peaceful in most places, except in Churachandpur, where clashes broke out and protesters, backed by armed militants, attacked Meitei houses and properties in the district and on the border with Bishnupur district, burning homes and sending their residents fleeing. Meitei homes and businesses were similarly attacked that night in the border town of Moreh, in Tamenglong district.

Spurred by rumours and visuals of the violence that flooded social media, retaliation by Meiteis began in the valley areas late on 3 May night and into the next day. Kuki-Zomi properties and individuals in the capital Imphal and other areas, were attacked. BJP MLA Vunzjagin Valte was among those caught up in the violence; he was critically injured and his driver killed after they were set upon in the streets of Imphal. Mobs looted thousands of sophisticated weapons from state police armouries.

The scale of the violence, and the speed with which it spread, not to mention the looting of weapons, were clear indictments of the failure of the state’s law and order establishment and the spinelessness of its political leadership, which stood paralysed at a time when a firm hand might have stopped the mayhem in its tracks. Caught napping, it took the authorities, who imposed an internet ban, round-the-clock curfew, and airlifted thousands of Army and Central paramilitary personnel into the state, until 6 May to bring the violence under control, by which time the official death toll was 54, later to be revised to 73.

Thousands from both communities, meanwhile, fled to safer places, some taking shelter at security forces’ camps, others fleeing to neighbouring Mizoram and other states. The total number of people displaced, who were eventually accommodated in various relief camps, stands now at around 60,000, including over 22,000 children. Some 12,000 people from Manipur are also said to be taking shelter in Mizoram.

On 12 May, ten MLAs belonging to the Kuki-Zomi communities, including seven belonging to the ruling BJP, issued a Press statement urging the Union government to carve out a “separate administration” under the Indian Constitution and let people from their community “live peacefully as neighbours with the state of Manipur”. They levelled the charge that the violence was “supported by [the] existing government of Manipur”.

The demand, while broadly backed by Kuki-Zomi civil society, could not have been better calculated to put the Meitei community’s back up, feeding as it did into suspicions that the long-term aim of sections of the Kuki-Zomi communities was to carve out a “homeland” from Manipur’s territory, with their numbers augmented by an influx of fellow tribespeople from Myanmar, and funded by drug money. The conflict, for Meitei civil society, became about Manipur’s integrity, a far more emotive issue than the demand for Scheduled Tribe status, which had never had more than lukewarm support from the community. Stances hardened as the general public came to be mobilised in a conflict that was portrayed, by both sides, as an existential crisis.

Union home minister Amit Shah reached the strife-hit state on 29 May, and stayed for four days, during which he held discussions with state government authorities as well as civil society organisations of the warring communities. He asked for “15 days of peace” to bring normalcy and find solutions. Mr Shah also made several promises, including the constitution of a judicial commission headed by a retired Chief Justice of a High Court to probe the origins of the conflict, various relief and rehabilitation measures, as well as investigation by the CBI into some specific cases of violence. He also stated that there is no question of disturbing the unity, integrity and territorial boundary of Manipur.

But Mr Shah’s visit made little difference to the situation, coinciding, in fact, with a fresh spurt in violence and arson in the mixed-population area of Serou-Sugnu, in Kakching district, where a truce brokered by Kuki and Meitei MLAs broke down after holding for around 20 days.

In the weeks and months that followed, many parts of the state, particularly the areas forming the borders between the valley and the hills, came to resemble a war zone, complete with fortified bunkers and trenches, and armed civilians facing off across so-called ‘buffer zones’. The involvement of heavily-armed militant groups, some of which had signed Suspension of Operations agreement with the state and Central governments, became increasingly open. Farming became a hazardous activity, with gunmen firing at valley villages and farmers from the hill ridges. There were intense gunbattles, ambushes and raids and counter-raids; occasional atrocities took place that created further bitterness.

The conflict was also fought out with appalling ferocity in social media spaces, as relations between the two communities hit rock bottom.

In the charged atmosphere, voices for peace found no space. A peace committee set up by the Central government with the state Governor at its head never took off, as civil society bodies on both sides refused to participate.
Distrust of the security forces, particularly of the Manipur police and the Assam Rifles, accused by the two warring communities of being partisan, further complicated efforts to bring the situation under control.

The state’s economy also took a beating, with agriculture and business activity both badly impacted. The violence and continuing disturbances caused the frequent closure of shops, businesses, schools and other institutions. Disrupted transport and communication networks caused shortages of many commodities and prices shot up. And in a state suddenly awash with deadly weapons, extortion and violent crimes spiked amidst a climate of general lawlessness worse than anything the state had seen even during the days when insurgency was at its height.
There was considerable speculation early on that chief minister N Biren Singh, widely seen as having badly mishandled the situation, might be replaced, but he managed to hang on. At one point in June, as public anger over the continuing deaths from the conflict mounted, he allowed himself to be persuaded by his supporters not to resign from his post amidst high drama on the streets of Imphal.

In July, just ahead of the Monsoon Session of Parliament, a video of two women being paraded naked and molested by a mob in Kangpokpi district during the initial days of the violence surfaced, sparking nationwide outrage. It also caused Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break his silence on the Manipur violence. “My heart is filled with pain and anger over the incident in Manipur. The whole nation has been dishonoured,” Mr Modi said, promising that those responsible would not be spared.

The Manipur issue also rocked Parliament, with the Opposition parties demanding an elaborate debate and discussion on the issue. In the end, the Congress moved a no-confidence motion against the government. It was defeated, but the Opposition party said it was necessary to force the Prime Minister to make a statement on the issue. It was another matter that the PM, in his 100-minute speech, touched on Manipur for barely 10 minutes, during which he vowed to bring peace to the state at the earliest.

The Supreme Court, too, intervened. After the video of the women being paraded emerged, along with reports of other incidents of sexual violence, a Bench of the court led by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud observed that it was “deeply disturbed”. The court pulled up the state government for sitting for months on the police complaints lodged in connection with the incident, and warned that it will take “necessary steps” if the government does not. The CJI was later to remark that there had been a “complete breakdown of constitutional machinery and of law and order” in Manipur. The Supreme Court later set up a team of retired women High Court judges – Justices Geeta Mittal, Shalini P Joshi and Asha Menon – to consider diverse matters, including measures for relief, rehabilitation, rebuilding homes and places of worship in the state.

An attempt to bury the bodies of some of the victims of the violence on the border between Churachandpur and Bishnupur districts triggered fresh tension in early August. The burial was postponed after the Union Home ministry intervened.

A farcical session of the Manipur Legislative Assembly took place on 29 August, lasting all of 48 minutes, including a 30-minute adjournment in between, at which the 10 Kuki-Zomi MLAs were no-shows and where a resolution calling for peace “through dialogue and Constitutional means” was declared as passed by the House.
Towards the end of September, student-led protests erupted in Imphal after photographs emerged that indicated that two Meitei students, a boy and a girl, missing since early July, had been killed. Security forces came in for heavy criticism for using excessive force against protesters, including the use of pellet guns, that left dozens seriously injured.

In the middle of December, at the prodding of the Supreme Court, the bodies of 64 victims of the May riots lying in different hospital morgues for the previous seven months were finally handed over to their kin.

Incidents of violence continued into the new year, and the question has to be asked how long Manipur’s agony must continue. Getting a peace process started is by no means impossible, but it is going to need enormous political will on the part of all stakeholders. Overcoming the mutual distrust and suspicion between communities will be a mammoth task, maybe even one that would take generations, but a start has to be made by getting people to talk to each other; disarming combatants and ending the killings is key here, and the onus for that lies squarely on the state and Central administrations. There will also have to some kind of political and legal accountability for what happened and punishment for specific crimes if reconciliation and healing are to happen. Most important of all, both sides must come to the realisation that there will be no winners in this conflict.