Backgrounder: Manipur is in conflict.

The Meitei community, which primarily resides in the Imphal Valley, and the hill tribes, primarily the Kukis and Nagas, were at odds for a long time in Manipur, a northeastern state in India. This conflict is at the root of the current ethnic tensions in Manipur. A tribal solidarity march against the Meitei community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, which could significantly alter the state’s political power distribution, sparked the violence.

The ethnic strife and violence in Manipur put Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration’s ability to navigate intricate historical and ethnic dynamics while upholding the integrity of the nation to the test. Compounding this contention is a conjunction of remarkable geology, endemic public savagery, and transnational worries that will probably influence India‘s relationship with adjoining Myanmar.

Historical and religious context of violence in Manipur

Violence in Manipur is firmly rooted in the historical, cultural, and religious context of the region, which includes the region’s religion. Manipur is a center of many cultures with a wide range of ethnic groups who are all dedicated to protecting their rights, land, and cultural heritage. Meiteis are primarily Hindu, whereas Kukis and Nagas are Christians. This religious divide frequently reflects the ethnic divide, thereby intensifying rivalry between communities. The sectarian nature of this conflict is brought to light by recent attacks on religious institutions.

Violence in Manipur dates back to the colonial era, when the British divided the population into “Hills” and “Valleys,” each with their own set of laws. The Meiteis, who mostly lived in the valley, and the tribal communities in the hills, like the Nagas and Kukis, were more clearly distinguished by this classification. This distinction was reflected in India‘s political structure after independence, which gave hill tribes Scheduled Tribe (ST) status but not the Meiteis.

Benefits associated with this status include reservations for government jobs and educational establishments—a significant source of contention between the groups.

The Meiteis’ demand for ST status runs the risk of disrupting the economic advantages enjoyed by the other groups and altering the political landscape. Due to the sheer size of their community, which accounts for more than half of Manipur’s population, ST status has the potential to shift political power and influence in Manipur’s favor.

The Kukis and Nagas could be denied voting rights as a result of this redistribution of power, escalating ethnic tensions further.

In contrast, other instances in India, such as the Patidar agitation in Gujarat and the Maratha protests in Maharashtra, where dominant groups demanded inclusion in reservation policies, mirror this contentious affirmative action. However, due to its ethnically diverse population and the potential for communal violence to escalate into a prolonged armed conflict, Manipur’s situation is unique.

Political implications for New Delhi

Implications for New Delhi’s politics The BJP is currently in charge of the state government in Manipur. Nevertheless, the strategy adopted by the central government may have significant political repercussions, particularly in light of the upcoming national elections.

The double-edged nature of government interventions, such as the potential enactment of Article 356 of the Indian Constitution, which would permit the central government to remove Manipur’s government and assert federal control over the state, is demonstrated by previous instances of ethnic violence in the region.

There are significant political risks associated with the decision to use Article 356. For one thing, if it’s seen as going too far, it can make people more angry at the central government and make the conflict even worse. Furthermore, the BJP is wary of inflaming sentiments that could hurt its political prospects in the Northeast because of its strong electoral interests there.

Consequently, Modi’s response is likely to be measured and calculated, with the goal of gradually easing tensions rather than being overly forceful. This will most likely entail brokering talks between the two opposing ethnic groups, bolstering security measures to preserve law and order, and employing political ploys to appease both the Meiteis and the Kukis without giving the impression that one group is superior to the other.

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The dual threats of insurgency and narcotic trafficking

The conflict in Manipur has significant repercussions for neighboring states and beyond due to the dual threats posed by narcotics trafficking and insurgency. It runs the risk of reactivating long-standing tensions in other parts of Northeast India, a region with numerous ethnic groups that frequently have competing claims to resources. Manipur is also closely associated with national boundaries-crossing ethnic tensions. Manipur’s Kuki people are related to communities in Myanmar, a neighboring nation engulfed by a tangled civil war.

Myanmar’s army has intensified its counter-insurgency operations, including the use of airstrikes, in the northwest of the country following the military coup in 2021. As a result, refugees fleeing Myanmar’s violence are flooding into India’s northeastern states. The Meitei community opposes housing Myanmar refugees, the majority of whom share cultural ties with the Kuki and Naga communities, which is another source of contention in Manipur.

The frequent and widespread role of narcotics trafficking adds to the uncertainty in India’s Northeast. Manipur is one of four Indian states that border Myanmar and are important transit hubs for human trafficking. In March, the Chief Minister of Manipur intensified an aggressive anti-drug campaign that included, among other strategies, the destruction of poppy fields planted in hill regions primarily inhabited by Kuki communities.

As a result of their dependence on criminal activity, many of India’s northeastern separatist groups blur the distinction between incidents linked to criminal gangs and violence motivated by communal tensions. In this context, Manipur’s connection to the drug trade in Myanmar is analogous to the influence that the production of heroin in Afghanistan has had on the actions of India’s northwestern separatist groups in Punjab and Kashmir.

Manipur’s unchecked violence is likely to spread across the border, escalating the unstable situation in Myanmar and vice versa. India faces a complex geopolitical risk as a result of this situation: In addition to attempting to end communal violence within its borders, it must control the potential spillover effects of rising ethnic tensions in Myanmar.

In addition, northern India’s security situation is concerning due to the escalating conflict and military deployments in the Northeast. India is effectively in a position to address both external and internal threats simultaneously due to the ongoing territorial disputes along the Sino-Indian border and the long-running conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. It puts a strain on India’s security forces and raises questions about whether the country is prepared to deal with other security issues at the same time.

(Picture Ctredit: AI Jazeera)

The road to resolution

The path to resolution Reorienting India’s counterinsurgency strategy in this setting necessitates a multifaceted, nuanced strategy. The root causes of these conflicts, such as historical grievances, socioeconomic inequality, and political marginalization, must be addressed. Negotiations and peacebuilding efforts that go beyond kinetic security operations would be required for this. Additionally, robust regional diplomacy is likely to be considered as part of the counter-insurgency strategy to manage the potential cross-border effects of the conflict because the situation emphasizes the need for cooperation with neighboring nations.

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